Panhandle Perspectives - January 31, 2017

Did you know? Nebraska’s dry bean industry actually began in the 1890s

Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist, Panhandle R&E Center

It is thought that the first allotment of dry beans sold for commercial retail in the United States occurred in New York State in the 1830s.

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Bob Harveson

In 1836 Stephen Coe obtained a single pint of small white beans (also known as “pea” or “navy” beans), presumably from a Native American tribe in eastern New York, and planted them on his 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 modestly, around 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. No mention was made of the type of beans used, so we are unsure of the market class, or where Stroud obtained the seeds.

R.A. Emerson

At the same time (late 1890s), on the other end of the state, a University of Nebraska horticultural professor named Rollings A. Emerson began a distinguished career of research in plant breeding and genetics. His work first focused on the common bean, thereby 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. He also published a number of papers later pertaining to the inheritance of seed color, seed size and other character traits of the common bean. 

In 1914 he 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 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 (this story and examples of his students will be presented in another article coming soon).

Chester B. Brown

Although Emerson’s work with beans in the early 20th century paved the way for beginning this industry in Nebraska, the one person likely most responsible for introducing bean production into the North Platte Valley was Chester B. Brown. His family established a homestead near Morrill in 1893 and began farming. Sugar beets and potatoes became the most important crops grown in western Nebraska when the sugar beet factory was constructed in Scottsbluff in 1910.

After the disappointment of producing a crop of more than 11,000 bushels of potatoes that could not be sold, Chester Brown began to consider the possibility of another crop for improving profitability on his farm.

He purchased great northern seeds and brought them back to Nebraska after a trip to Idaho in 1923, surmising 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 sufficiently demonstrated to neighbors the promise of 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.

Research Drives Further Production

After the establishment of dry bean cultivation in the 1920s, interest and acreage expansion continued as research on this crop also progressed further into the 20th century.  These efforts to improve the crop consistently focused on breeding new and better bean cultivars, particularly with resistance to several prominent diseases.

Next: Production continues to improve with increased research