Panhandle Perspectives: A brief history of dry bean production in Nebraska

by Dave Osdiek | Nebraska Extension

dry bean
The first ration of dry beans sold for commercial retail in the United States is thought to have occurred in New York State in the 1830s.
September 9, 2021

Lincoln, Neb. — The first ration of dry beans sold for commercial retail in the UNited States is thought to have occurred in New York State in the 1830s/ In 1836 Stephen Coe obtained a single pint of small white beans (also known as pea or navy beans), presumably from and Native American tribe in eastern New York, and planted them on this farm near Yates, Orleans County in the western part of the state. 

After three successive crops, he produced enough beans to sell. A load of 33 bushels was then sold to H. V. Prentiss from Albion, N.Y. By 1890, production in the U.S. exceeded 500,000 bushels.

Dry bean production in Nebraska also started humbly about 1895. According to Leon A. Moomaw’s book of western Nebraska history, “Pioneering in the Shadow of Chimney Rock”, the first reference to anyone growing dry beans in western Nebraska was Charles Stroud of Bayard. He planted 1.5 acres and that crop yielded only 17 bushels total after harvesting plants by hand and beating them with a pitchfork as a thresher. The market class he used for this is uncertain because no mention was made of the type of beans used, nor where the seeds were acquired.

R. A. Emerson

At the same time (late 1890s), on the eastern end of the state, a University of Nebraska horticultural professor named Rollings A. Emerson began a distinguished research career of in plant breeding and genetics. He chose the common bean as his first research model, becoming one of the early (if not the first) dry bean researchers in the United States.

His first experiments resulted in a paper published in 1902 entitled “Preliminary Account of Variation in Bean Hybrids,” with a second paper on bean hybrids appearing in 1904. Later he also published several papers pertaining to the inheritance of seed color, seed size and other character traits of the common bean. 

In 1914 Emerson moved to Cornell University, where he headed the Department of Plant Breeding. Although he became a world-renowned geneticist with corn (maize), he is little known in his home state and should be recognized as a major catalyst for beginning the dry bean industry in Nebraska. He greatly influenced the field of corn genetics, mentoring many brilliant young scientists who later became accomplished geneticists in their own right, including the Nebraska native and Nobel laureate, George Beadle. 

Chester B. Brown

Although Emerson’s work with beans at the turn of the 20th century paved the way for beginning this industry in Nebraska, the one person probably most responsible for championing and introducing bean production into the North Platte Valley was Chester B. Brown. His family established a homestead near Morrill in 1893 and began farming.

Sugarbeets and potatoes became the most important crops grown in western Nebraska after the sugarbeet factory was constructed in Scottsbluff in 1910. However, after suffering the disappointment of harvesting a crop of more than 11,000 bushels of potatoes that could not be sold, Brown began investigating cultivating another crop for improving profitability on his farm. On a trip to Idaho in 1923, he purchased great northern bean seeds and brought them back to Nebraska, thinking that they could be produced successfully due to similar climate, elevation, and other similar growing conditions. He planted and harvested 10 acres of beans on his farm with very good results before encouraging others in the area to try them as well. 

By 1926, he had sufficiently demonstrated to neighbors the potential for bean production, enabling them to collaboratively purchase a small cleaner, mounting it on a truck and moving around from field to field, cleaning and sacking harvested beans. This formally began the industry in Nebraska. Brown began handling dry beans commercially in 1927 after renting a portion of a potato warehouse in Morrill.

At this time most of the beans grown were concentrated in and around Morrill; however, this practice continued to expand in the 1930s throughout the North Platte River Valley and beyond. 

Dry bean statistics and great northern bean origin

Today production is concentrated in Nebraska’s Panhandle, with growers planting anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 acres annually. Of the 17 states that grow beans in the United States, Nebraska is third in total production of dry beans. In terms of market class, Nebraska grows more great northern beans than any other state and is second in pintos and light red kidney beans. In fact, Scotts Bluff County is the seventh-largest bean-producing county in the United States.

The origin of the great northern bean may also be of interest. According to Leland W. Hudson (Regional Plant Introduction Station, Washington State University), in 1935 the 52nd annual seed catalog of the Oscar W. Will and Co. in Bismarck, N.D., claimed that the seed of the great northern bean was originally obtained by his father, Oscar H. Will, in 1887 from a Hidatsa Native American known as Son of Star, whose tribe had grown the white bean for years.

Think about this the next time you are grocery shopping and purchasing great northern beans (canned or dry). There is strong possibility that they were grown locally somewhere in the western Nebraska Panhandle, but also remember that they were also originally derived from a small sample of beans given by a North Dakota Native American tribe more than 130 years ago.

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