Alternative Nitrogen Sources for Organic Snap Bean Production

Final Report for FNC98-217

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1998: $3,617.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
John Ellis
Libby Creek Farms
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Project Information


Snap beans can be a profitable product to direct market such as farmer’s market and CSA customers. Starting in 1994, Libby Creek, a 70 acre certified organic farm in York, NE started direct marketing to the Lincoln, NE farmer’s market as a season vendor of vegetables, grains, fruits, herbs, flowers, and processed products. By 1995 Suzie and Annie (wife and daughter) and I realized the competition and weather vulnerability of marketing to a farmers market only and began early season sales to customers interested in mid week deliveries through a CSA in addition to farmer’s markets. Sales were in 3 communities of York, Lincoln, and Aurora. We averaged 40 CSA customer families per season in 8 years from 1995 through 2002 at a value averaging $400 per family. During that time surveys to those customers were asking for more legumes such as green beans, peas, etc.

Cropping practices I use on the farm have been to minimum till, ridge till, cover crop, crop rotation, reduce off farm inputs, and work with friends and neighbors to access older equipment for a wider range of direct marketable crops. Winter small grains, alfalfa, and vegetables in rotation have helped to control weeds and insects. Crop diversification increased farm management but over time produced results I hadn’t seen in a conventional corn soybean rotation. We found there to be less costly crop input expenses with increased and earlier season cash sales. Reducing expenses and increasing income was just what we needed. An increase in interest in our personal farm was also good experience in building a business and a customer database.

With the SARE grant approval, in late summer and fall of 1998 with a plan to increase snap bean production through better soil nitrogen management, 5 replicated plots were marked in the field to represent snap bean test plots for the spring of 1999. Soil tests were taken in each of the 5 plots which averaged 15 lbs of residual nitrogen. Phosphorous and potassium were adequate as tested by the University of Nebraska soil testing lab. The 5 plots were to be prepared for fall and spring applied chopped alfalfa, fall and spring applied blood meal, and fall planted clover and oats as cover crop. The oats were to help serve as a carrier for the clover see through the seed drill and provide some winter protection after late fall oats winter kill. Alfalfa had been established in 1997 and would be chopped by renting a neighbor’s field chopper. Chopped alfalfa was applied using a manure spreader at a rate of 2000 lbs per acre with 3% nitrogen ‘dry weight’ basis. 75% nitrogen available in the alfalfa would supply 45 lbs nitrogen when added to the 15 lbs residual would make the optimum 60 lbs nitrogen needed for snap beans. 1000 lbs of blood meal was available and was purchased through a Monfort beef packing plant in Grand Island, 50 miles away. Application was through a drop spreader at 350 lbs. per acre at 13% N. At that rate 45 lbs. of N would be adequate to add to 15 lbs of residual N for a total target of 60 lbs N.

Clover and oats were purchased through Miller Seed and Supply of York and drilled into the soil plots.

In the spring of 1999, spring applied chopped alfalfa, applied blood meal, and a growing cover crop of clover turned under in the spring would make for snap bean plots ready to plant. Snap beans were planted in mid May on all plots. The bean corps emerged ok but by June 9, a late spring thunderstorm with hail destroyed the snap bean plants. Wet weather persisted through the most of June and made for delays in replanting and the bean plots were expected to be altered from fair comparison. A Summer Solstice farm tour showed about 70 area consumers the disappointing hail results. A local food picnic followed the tour and the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society’s (NSAS) summer board meeting. Local sponsors to the Libby Creek Summer Solstice Farm Tour have been NSAS executive director’s Cris Carusi and Paul Rohrbaugh, the Great Plains RC&D board and Natural Resource and Conservation Services’ Scott Willet, York Co. Extension Gary Zoubek, UNL Horticulture Specialist Laurie Hodges, UNL Sustainable Ag Dept Charles Francis, NE State Senator Ernie Stuhr from Bradshaw, the York State Bank, the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center’s Jo Lowe, Organic Crop Improvement Association farmer member Dave Vetter, Liz Sarno, Jerry Meyer, Mike Ostry, and others. Fun was had by all at the Summer Solstice picnic and it was agreed that it was worth another try at snap bean production. A grant extension to year 2000 was requested from SARE for new snap bean plots.

In the fall of 1999 a new set of bean plots 0.8 acres in size were soil tested and prepared for planting in spring 2000. Chopped alfalfa was again applied; more blood meal purchased and applied and clover cover crops planted. Spring applications of blood meal and chopped alfalfa were again applied and cover crops tilled under before planting. The snap beans emerged and were good through cultivation. By late in the life cycle of the snap beans, pods set on and appeared to be good. At that time dry weather set in as well as an infestation of bean leaf beetles. Neem is reported to control bean leaf beetles. My supply of Neem was depleted and damage due to heat and a fast onset of beetle populations made saving the snap beans a futile attempt. A late spraying to try salvaging the bean crop was applied as a combination of hot pepper spray and BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) was unable to control the beetles. A decision had to be made to not harvest for marketable edible snap beans due to the damaged bean pods. We decided to let the snap beans mature and harvest at seed maturity and save our seeds. The plot beans were harvested with a one row Pixall bean harvester and weighed at maturity and recorded for yield comparison from the 5 plots. Yields were as follows:

Fall bloodmeal -189.7 bu/acre
Clover and oats – 164.3 bu/acre
Fall chopped alfalfa – 164.7 bu/acre
Spring bloodmeal – 167.5 bu/acre
Spring chopped alfalfa – 146.5 bu/acre

The fall and spring bloodmeal yielded best but was also not as favorable a product to work with. Dusting off of the powdery dry product was a problem while being moved and put in the spreader. The distance to buy the bloodmeal and cost of off farm sourced product seemed less controllable and less sustainable in the long run. Buying from the Monfort beef packing plant was interesting but not a desirable place to be for a small family farm sourced product. I believe the animal by product should at least be well heat composted or not used at all. At the time of these plot tests, the OCIA certifier rated bloodmeal as restricted and by 2000-2001, prohibited. The need for progression to more sustainable, on farm or locally sourced inputs was becoming clear. $398 (bloodmeal), 2 years = $796.

The fall chopped alfalfa gave up some yield advantage but was sourced at the farm. The alfalfa was also a good rotational farm crop with advantages to soil improvements and potential to sales of extra hay bales. I was able to rent the use of a neighbors (John Walbrecht) field chopper for chopping alfalfa and could sell him some of the hay as feed for his animals.

Alfalfa seed: 7lbs/acre @ $2.60/lb = $18.20/acre x 10 acres = $182

Green manure & Cover Crops
Clover 151 lb/acre @ $2.75/lb = $41
Oats 10 lb/acre @ $.50/lb = $5.00
Totals = $46
Tractor fuel = $51
$97 x 2 years = $194

A field day and farm tour was held on the Summer Solstice, June 21 of 1999. Field conditions were shown and hail damage was evident. As a result of the 1999 hail storm all farm building roofs had to be replaced and all early season crops were damaged. Rye and oats made grain but with less than half yield. Raising vegetables for direct market allowed us to replant many crops for late summer and not have totally devastating results for the year. Being a vegetable grower in Nebraska can be a challenge but also has its rewards. To be a good grower takes persistence and requires many trials to achieve success. The 2000 snap bean plots had better success but was still not as successful as other plantings. Successive plantings of snap beans are needed with a variety of markets available. The farmer’s market, CSA, and also sales to bulk warehouses is possible as we have found out. We were able to sell quality snap bean crops to a Nash Finch warehouse in Grand Island and direct to grocery in York and Lincoln.

There were other successes in using the Pixall bean harvester that in the beginning was not apparent. We found that type of harvester able to successfully pick sugar snap peas for direct market, snow peas, green edible soybeans and Edamame vegetable beans. Fine tuning the harvester may be needed to avoid excessive damage and extend marketable shelf life. Three times during a five year span the Pixall harvester was loaned or rented to other farmers for green edible soybean or Edamame bean harvest trials. There are very few harvesters of this type in Nebraska with potential for several value added crops that could be developed. Retail pricing of green beans can run from $2.69/lb in grocery stores, $2-$2.50/lb in farmers markets. Sugar snap peas and snow peas can sell for $4/lb in grocery and direct markets. Edamame vegetable beans can bring $1 to $2-$2.50 in health and organic food stores, oriental, ethnic, and specialty markets. Edamame beans are a particularly good source of protein (30% to 40%) and are of good interest to vegetarians and health conscious consumers.

The used Pixall snap bean harvester was purchased for $17,000 and could sell for $25,000 new. There may be other used machines available for lesser amounts such as $10,000. In my case having owned conventional corn/soybean combines valued much greater, the trade to specialized bean/pea crops harvests at $2 to $4 per pound of fresh marketable product looked like an opportunity for smaller acreage production in high value consumer interested products.

2001 proved to be a cool wet spring with 2000 lbs of sugar snap peas per acre. Snow peas also did well. Both crops sold well in late May at $4/lb at the farmers markets and also went into CSA bags. This proved the peas to be worth $8,000/acre gross potential. Green beans can produce as much as 150 bu/acre at 30 pounds per bushel at $2/lb in the fresh markets. 4,500 pounds @ $2/lb can gross $9,000/acre. It takes a holistic look at markets and sustainable farm production to put together this interesting production/market possibility, but it can be done.

A field day was to be held in August 1999 in cooperation with York County Cooperation Extension and the UNL Center for Sustainable Ag, the UNL Horticulture Department, Nebraska OCIA chapter #3 (specialty crops), the Nebraska Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, and the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. Notification of the field day will be through these cooperators and will include our customers and neighbors. News media will be invited. Also, photographs will be taken at various stages in the process so that these can be shown to participants in the field day and in a display for grower meetings in the winter.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.