Organic Beans and Peas: Nutritious and Gluten-free Local Foods

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $199,217.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Craig Sheaffer
University of Minnesota

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: beans, peas (culinary)


  • Crop Production: crop rotation, cover crops
  • Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, community-supported agriculture, marketing management, farm-to-institution, agricultural finance, market study
  • Pest Management: cultural control, mulches - killed, physical control
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, new business opportunities


    We studied production practices and analyzed markets to promote diversification of organic cropping systems with grain legumes. Our research indicates that black, pinto, and navy cultivars will be most successful for regional organic producers. Either alfalfa or corn prior to dry beans is acceptable in rotations with adequate fertility. Field beans and peas provide little N or rotation benefits to subsequent wheat crops. Field beans can be productive after a winter rye cover crop provided it is terminated in early May. Our market analysis found that there is room for more local production and sales of organic dry beans.


    Context, Background, Rationale, and Need

    Farm profitability. Crop diversification is the most powerful tool that farmers can use to reduce economic risk, disrupt pest cycles, and sustain soil quality. Soybean is the predominant grain legume in this region, but its excessive production offers little flexibility in terms of marketing. There is a critical need for more information on organic production practices for alternative grain legumes that have potential to fit our cropping systems. However, alternative crop production must go together with market development. The development of local markets would reduce risks for producers and greatly increase price stability. Currently, the market for organic edible beans is often supplied by imports from other regions, despite the fact that Minnesota and North Dakota are leading edible bean producing areas in the United States. This signals a market opportunity for locally grown organic legumes in the upper Midwest. Creating availability of organic, locally-grown edible legumes would be a welcome addition to many “locavore’s” diets and would provide environmental benefits by creating meat substitutes.

    Environmental benefits. Diversification of landscapes with crops with different planting and harvest dates, cultural practices, and rooting characteristics will improve soil health and provide significant ecosystem services. Grain legumes conduct biological N fixation and can provide N for subsequent crops, thereby reducing use of synthetic N fertilizers. Alternative grain legume crops can diversify the timing of field operations in cropping systems and reduce selection for weed populations normally associated with soybean and corn production.

    Quality of life issues. More financial stability through cropping system diversification will improve farm family and community vitality. Since agriculture contributes significantly to the GDP in our region, our whole society will benefit. Likewise, the local foods movement includes strong elements of community connections between farmers and consumers. Many farmers are interested in providing local foods, through direct marketing (CSAs, farmers markets, on-farm sales) and institutional outlets (Farm to School, hospitals) and retail (grocery stores, co-ops). The building of relationships supports the farm community and individual farmer’s quality of life. Another element of the local foods movement is building community food security. Legumes are extremely nutritious, affordable, and available year-round in our northern climate. There is growing interest in capacity building to include more grain staples into regional systems. One applicable example is the Appalachian Staples Food Collaborative (2008 SARE project).

    Appropriateness: This research and education proposal impacts farm economics, environmental quality, and food systems. Alternative grain legumes can provide economic diversity for producers and can contribute directly to the sustainability of local food programs. The U of M Farm to School website ( promotes edible beans as one of the foodstuffs tested in Minnesota Farm to School programs. There are, however, only a few farms producing organic edible dry bean or peas. Because there has been little agronomic or marketing attention given to organic legumes, we believe this project would provide important first steps in that direction for our region.

    Our grant team will work with the SARE Farm to School effort (SARE project ENC08-104) to provide access to organic legumes for this program. Prior to our project, SARE had not invested in studying the organic production of grain legumes and their marketing for local foods use in our region. Our goal is to bring more agronomic and marketing resources to organic edible legumes that stimulate both the production and consumption of these legumes and increase agricultural sustainability. As a team we are intentional about creating both the production potential and the marketing outlets that are needed to create a robust organic, edible legume economy in our region.

    Literature Review

    Grain legume overview. Grain legumes, such as beans and peas, are gluten-free, high in fiber and protein, low in fat, and nutritionally a good complement to grain-based diets. Recent research suggests that the quality of the American diet could be improved by increasing grain legume consumption (Mitchell et al, 2009). Protein content varies among varieties and species, but is generally in the 22% or higher range (USDA, 2009). In other parts of the world, grain legumes provide the majority of protein for people’s diets. Dry edible beans contain a trypsin inhibitor and thus require heat to denature the inhibitor prior to consumption (by humans or livestock), but peas do not (Hardman et al, 1990; Oelke et al, 1991). All of these legumes can be used as feed for livestock and certain types of field peas are already commonly grown in organic agriculture in the Upper Midwest for this use.

    There are several market classes for grain legumes. For dry bean, market classes consist of Black Turtle, Cranberry, Great Northern, Kidney, Navy, Pink, Pinto, Small Red, and Small White (Hardman et al, 1990). All market classes have a number of varieties with maturity classes, seed origin, vining/growth type, and some resistance/susceptible disease classification. The top four dry beans in terms of production in the U.S. are pinto, navy, black, and great northern (USDA, 2009). Dry field peas (also called split peas) used for human consumption are of the smooth, green- or yellow-seeded varieties (Oelke et al, 1991). North Dakota and Minnesota are among the top-producing state for dry beans and North Dakota is the top producer for dry edible peas (USDA, 2009).

    Grain legume management in organic production. Growing edible grain legumes in organic production has special consequences for organic farmers. Organic producers are limited in terms of options for weed control, disease control, and fertilization. Also, grain legumes can be slow to establish, are poor weed competitors, can be highly susceptible to a broad range of diseases, and may require a long growing season. Unfortunately, there is a lack of research studying varieties suitable for organic production and management of organic edible legumes.  

    One recent study by Singh et al (2009) in Idaho compared seven production systems, including organic, and 16 varieties and landraces of dry beans. Overall mean yields were slightly higher in conventional systems than in an organic system in this study, but several varieties performed as well in organic production systems compared to the conventional systems, suggesting that some varieties may be better suited than others to organic production. Presently, almost all variety trial information for dry bean and field pea in the Midwest is performed under conventional conditions. Research on varieties that will excel in organic systems would be a worthy and attainable objective.

    Inoculants benefit dry beans and field peas by increasing nodulation and N fixation (Hardman et al, 1990; Oelke et al, 1991). However, these legumes may need supplemental N, especially if soils are low in organic matter or if nodulation is poor (Hardman et al, 1990; Oelke et al, 1991). Conventionally grown edible beans are typically fertilized with 90 kg/ha of N because of the inadequacy of the symbiosis with rhizobium. However, in organic systems this N can only realistically be applied from limited sources (e.g., manure and green manures). Responses to phosphorus and potassium additions are sometimes seen for these species when these nutrients are at low to moderate levels in the soil (Hardman et al, 1990; Oelke et al, 1991). Again, these nutrient requirements must be supplied through rotation/green manures or amendments.

    Weed management is challenging for these grain legumes, as they tend to be poor competitors. Perennial weeds are especially problematic for dry beans (Hardman et al, 1990). For corn and soybean, there is evidence that some varieties are more tolerant to weeds and presumably more adapted to organic systems (Seidel and Hepperly, 2005). Differences such as these may also be found in edible legumes, leading to better recommendations for varieties in organic production.

    Of the grain legumes, dry beans can be the most problematic when it comes to diseases and negative yield effects (Hardman et al, 1990). A large number of diseases are found in edible dry beans and are a yield-limiting issue in ND and MN. Disease examples include common blight, white mold, rust, halo blight, Rhizoctonia, Pseudomonas brown spot, Fusarium, Pythium, Alternaria leaf spot, and Anthracnose (Meronuck et al, 1993). Field pea can be susceptible to seed and root rots under certain circumstances (Oelke et al, 1991). As synthetic pesticides are prohibited in organic agriculture, cultural practices to control diseases in organic dry legumes will need to be determined for the Upper Midwest. Research in New York (Abawi and Ludwig, 2002) found that green manures, animal manures, and crop rotations reduced root rot severity and increased dry bean yield.

    Please see References for the references in this section.

    Project objectives:

    Objective 1. Determine the performance of edible bean and pea varieties. We evaluated the performance of edible bean and pea varieties. We conducted research at six sites that included on-farm locations and field research stations in Minnesota and North Dakota. We did not conduct pea variety trials to evaluate pea varieties because of the unavailability of seed of multiple organic entries. Instead we increased the number of dry bean market class trials. We did use an available pea variety in a pea rotation trial.  

    Objective 2. Compare the agroecological value of edible beans and peas grown in rotation with corn, alfalfa, and wheat. A replicated 3-year rotational experiment was conducted at the Elwell Ecological Station at Lamberton, MN, Rosemount Research and Outreach Center in Rosemount, MN, the Sand Plains Research Farm in Becker, MN, and on-farm at Madison, MN. We evaluated the rotational value of peas grown alone and in mixture for barley followed by winter wheat.

    Objective 3. Determine the effect of winter cover crops on yield and weed control in field beans. A replicated experiment was conducted at the Elwell Ecological Farm at Lamberton in which edible beans were grown following a winter rye cover crop. We evaluated different methods and times for termination of the winter rye cover crop. Winter rye was selected because of its ability to overwinter and regrow in the spring.

    Objective 4: Develop crop enterprise budgets for organic edible beans. We used data generated from the field research objectives to develop enterprise budgets. These budgets explore the price and yield conditions under which edible beans could compete with soybean. Crop enterprise budgets organize yield, price, production, and cost information to compare profitability and help producers make decisions such as which crop to grow.

    Objective 5. Identify local markets and describe the various marketing channels available to producers. Preliminary research demonstrated that there is an unmet demand for organic grain legumes. Therefore, we measured the size and scope of marketing channels for the organic dry edible bean market in Minnesota to identify the opportunities for producers. We estimated the general size of the organic edible bean market, current sources for those edible legumes, and examined a mix of channels open to producers and growers looking to market edible legumes.

    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.