Nebraska leads the way in great northern dry bean production

Robert M. Harveson, Extension plant pathologist
and Carlos A. Urrea, dry bean breeder
University of Nebraska, Panhandle REC, Scottsbluff

Nebraska is a major producer of dry edible beans, with growers planting anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 acres annually. Of the 17 states that grow beans in the U.S., Nebraska ranks third in total production.

In 2016, Nebraska growers produced almost 3 million hundredweight on approximately 122,000 acres (138,000 planted), with a total value of more than $77 million. Dry beans are also estimated to have a total economic impact of $150 million to the state.

In terms of market class, Nebraska produces more great northern beans than any other state in the nation, is second in pinto and light red kidney and fourth in black bean production.

The majority of the production is concentrated in western Nebraska, centered in Scotts Bluff, Box Butte and Morrill counties of the Panhandle. Scotts Bluff County is the seventh-largest bean-producing county in the U.S.

This area’s semi-arid climate, with warm days and cool nights, provides excellent growing conditions for dry edible beans. For these same reasons, the bulk of the sugar beet production in the state is focused in the Panhandle.

Nebraska has grown great northern beans for almost 100 years. Their initial cultivation can be traced back to a Morrill farmer named Chester Brown. After a visit to Idaho in 1923, he purchased and brought back great northern beans to the North Platte Valley.

Brown planted 10 acres on his farm, thinking that with a similar climate, elevation and other growing conditions, producing dry beans in western Nebraska could be as successful as in Idaho. His success in this endeavor then encouraged others in the area to try them as well — and the dry-edible-bean industry was born in Nebraska.

These modest beginnings served as a catalyst specifically for great northern production in Nebraska, and the cultivation and marketing of this market class expanded continually throughout the 20th century, with the state becoming the world leader in great northern production.

Many long-time residents of western Nebraska are likely familiar with this story about Chester Brown and the introduction of great northern beans into Nebraska. However, the provenance of this market class is probably not as well known.

According to Leland W. Hudson (Regional Plant Introduction Station, Washington State University), the 52nd annual seed catalog in 1935 of the Oscar W. Will and Company in Bismarck, N.D., reported that the seed of the great northern bean was originally obtained by Oscar H. Will in 1887 from Son of Star, a Hidatsa Native American whose tribe had grown it for many years prior to that time.

The next time you buy any great northern beans at the grocery, whether canned or dry, this is an interesting fact to ponder: A very strong possibility exists that they were grown locally somewhere in western Nebraska, but also were derived from a North Dakota Native American tribe. ❖