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Michigan bean group celebrates 40 years
By SHELLY STRAUTZ-SPRINGBORN
Michigan Correspondent

ST. JOHNS, Mich. — The Michigan Bean Commission is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

The organization, based in St. Johns, has been a longtime voice for bean producers. Representing more than 2,500 growers, Executive Director Bob Green said the group has always tried to be proactive in its work and has done its best to respond to the needs of the state’s dry bean growers.

For example, when a natural disaster occurs, such as the flood of 1986, the commission springs into action, working to help its members weather the storm.

Although Green worked in the industry as a marketer but was not with the Michigan Bean Commission at the time, he said the flood of 1986 was one of the most significant events that the organization has responded to.

“In 1986 we ended up with 11 inches of rain on Sept. 10. A week later it was 80 degrees,” he said, which caused a tremendous decline in the quality of beans that were awaiting harvest.

“It was a bad year for growers,” Green said.

“One of the good things that came out of it was the commission really went to work and ended up getting several disaster packages, both state and federal,” he said.

A similar scenario in 2001, when a combination of wet and hot weather produced low yields and low quality beans, was again disastrous for growers.

“It was the worst of the disasters,” said Green, who became the commission’s executive director in 1997. “This actually gave us the lowest production in our history.”

Green said the commission “really worked hard to educate our congressional delegation” on the devastation to growers. “After much work and an extreme amount of help from Sen. Debbie Stabenow, we ended up getting a federal disaster package as well.” Another accomplishment, Green said, includes the shipping of black beans to Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) accord.

“We’re in the 14th year and it (NAFTA) has given us a pretty consistent export of black beans and pinto beans to Mexico … Michigan has lead the way in black beans.”

Michigan is one of the nation’s top producers of black beans, navy beans, light red kidneys and cranberry beans. But Green said that bean markets also are changing.

“In the late 1970s we produced 80-90 percent of navy beans. Now we produce 15-20 percent,” Green said. “As for black beans, we used to grow 10,000-15,000 acres. Now we’re growing 60,000-80,000 acres.”

Green credits increases in domestic consumption for fueling the black bean boom.

“Black beans have seen an increase in the United States from 100,000 or 150,000 bags per year to 1.5 million bags a year,” he said.

Fran Arbogast-Carlson of Howard City, a grower and packager of dry beans and registered dietician who also serves as a director and treasurer for the Michigan Bean Commission, has been instrumental in promoting domestic bean consumption.

Before becoming a member of the board, Arbogast-Carlson worked two years as a dietician for the organization. She said one of her first goals when she became a board member nine years ago was to get people in the United States to eat dry beans.

“I was trying to get them to promote beans domestically,” she said. “Before I first started everything was internationally.

“My goal was to see significant increases in domestic dry bean consumption within 10 years,” she said. “Now, international is important but domestic is really important.”

Carlson and Green worked with Michigan State University and the University of Michigan to get research under way on the dietary benefits of eating dry beans. Carlson even traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify for a $3 million research grant.

“We worked hard on all of this information as far as the health claims. Now all of the states are working together,” she said. “It’s been exciting to be part of this.”

All of their hard work has paid off.

Dry edible beans recently gained status on the food pyramid, being recognized in two areas – as a meat substitute as well as a vegetable.

“It’s pretty profound to be able to say that diets including beans may reduce your risk of heart disease and certain cancers,” Green said, adding that new research findings have provided such information, which is being used to expand marketing efforts for the state’s dry bean industry.

A recent antioxidant study ranked small red beans No. 1 for antioxidants while kidney beans came in No. 3, pinto beans No. 4 and cranberry beans ranked No. 6.

“If we can keep promoting beans on the health side, people in the United States will hopefully recognize them as a healthy food, and they want to eat healthy,” Green said. “Hopefully we will add to the consumption of beans in the U.S. and hopefully that will come back to growers with a need to produce more.”

The newest project on the horizon, Green said, is the new Farm Bill and whether dry beans will be added to it.

“He doesn’t want to brag about it, but Bob (Green) has been a really big influence in the bean industry,” she said.

The Michigan Bean Commission initially began under the direction of Maynard Brownlee, who served until 1979, when Jim Byrum, now president of the Michigan Agri Business Assoc., took the helm. He was succeeded by Dale Kuenzli, who served from 1993 until 1997, when Green took over direction of the organization, which is governed by an eight-member board of directors.

This farm news was published in the April 19, 2006 issue of Farm World.

4/19/2006