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A Pocket of Pintos
September 18, 2006

Highway 1804 is the most scenic route from Bismarck up to Washburn in North Dakota, not only because it runs alongside the Missouri River, but because mid-summer, youre bound to see dry bean fields flowering along the way.

This roadway is so named because it was the route that Lewis and Clark navigated through
North Dakota in the fall of 1804, paddling their two canoes and a keelboat up the Missouri River. In 1806, they also journeyed back down the Missouri along this same route (hence, Highway 1806 on the south side of the river).

As a matter of fact,
Clark mentions beans in one of his journals.  As it was written:

Those people gave us to eate bread made of Corn & Beens, also Corn & Beans boild. a large Been [of] which they rob the mice of the Prarie which is rich & verry nurrishing also [s]quashes &c.   Clark, 11 October 1804

Mary Gunderson, author of The Food Journal of Lewis and Clark: Recipes for an Expedition, writes that Clarks entry probably describes the industrious bean mouse or vole, which stockpiled the hogpeanut (used by many tribes on the plains as a food source) and that the expedition traded provisions for goods raised by the nearby Mandan and Hidatsa.  Gundersons book blends excerpts from Lewis and
Clarks journals with brief history lessons and more than 80 authentic recipes (including Corn with Sunflower and Black Beans  more information can be found online at

Bob Landgren of Wilton, N.D. no-tills pinto beans into wheat stubble.  The no-till helped preserve some soil moisture (and trips across the field) althought Landgren figures a string of 100-degree plus days will corch yield potential no matter the tillage system.

While one can find a few edible bean fields here and there west of the river, the area between Bismarck and Washburn along Highway 1804 has been a bean production pocket, mostly pintos, for over 20 years.

Some of it might be the
Mandan silt loam soil and the bottomland location next to the river that may be more conducive to growing beans than in other West River locations.  Maybe other guys have to fight more rocks than we do, says Bob Landgren, who farms close to the Missouri near Wilton.  But more of it I think is monkey see, monkey do.

Meaning that a crop can catch on within the neighborhood after a few growers try it and establish production experience.  That seems to be the case along this stretch of Hwy 1804.

Landgren, who earlier this year became district 6 representative on the North Dakota Dry Bean Council (replacing Paul Schulz of Washburn), recalls experimenting with dry beans on 20 acres back in 1966.  He has nothing but swear words to describe that first try.  We cut em and they blew all over hell.  We didnt know what we were doing and I swore I wouldnt raise em again.

Al Carvell and Ray Sheldon of Washburn, both retired from farming now, were two of the early pioneers in growing beans successfully in the area, in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Others in the neighborhood began raising pintos successfully in the mid-1980s. The market potential prompted Landgren to try them again.  And theyve been my major profit maker ever since.

He recalls the bean companies warning growers here early on not to grow any more pinto beans than you can afford to lose.  But the more production experience, the more successful at growing the crop.  Pretty soon it was 300 acres, then 600 acres, now I dont think anything of raising em.

Another reason why this stretch along Hwy 1804 is a pinto pocket: established production history makes for better crop insurance.  And after a year like this, its good to have a proven history for crop insurance.

A Tough Year for Growing Beans

There is no irrigation here, the beans produced along the Hwy 1804 corridor are all dryland  in every sense of the word this year.

Some fields will be zeroed out through crop insurance.  Others will be harvested, but few fields here are expected to yield over 500 lbs/ac.  Landgren has a spring wheat  pinto bean rotation, no-tilling beans into the wheat stubble.  The no-till helped preserve some soil moisture, although he figures a string of 100-degree plus days will scorch yield potential no matter the tillage system.  No-tilling offers the additional advantage of reducing trips across the field, thus saving on input costs.

Don Streifel of Washburn, N.D. checking for blossoms on his pintos in July.  Note the dry blossoms on the ground, aborted because of the hot, dry conditions.

The uneven maturity as harvest approached was a particular frustration this year, complicating desiccation decisions.  Its as if there were three or four crops at once out there, says Landgren.  Some hardened off and ready to go, some striped, and some green yet and still blossoming.  So which do you take and when do you take it?

This year marks the 25th bean crop for
Don Streifel of Washburn, who started growing beans back in 1981.  He now farms with son-in-law Jeff Kulzer, growing wheat, pintos, corn, and some soybeans.  Streifel represents district 6 on the board of the Northarvest Bean Growers Association.  He also serves on the board of the Red Trail Energy ethanol plant near Richardton, which plans a Nov. 15 startup to produce about 50 million gallons of ethanol annually.

Streifel believes the drought this year was as bad or worse in his area than the drought of 1988-89.  Except our farming practices today are so much better.  Most everybody tills less these days, theres even some no-till pinto beans.  Otherwise, there wouldnt be anything.

In Streifels opinion, however, it was this summers sustained triple digit heat that was most damaging to the beans.  If the heat would have stayed away, we could have had a crop of sorts.  It probably wouldnt have been normal, but better than what were looking at now.

Streifel and Kulzers pintos tried to blossom four or five times.  The heat would make the plants abort the blossoms, and theyd have to start over, Streifel says.  Hes not expecting a pinto bean harvest much beyond 200 to 300 lbs this year.  Most of ours will end up being harvested, but it will still be crop insurance material.

This seasons weather shut down the yield potential of Streifels crops, but not his optimism.  He says pintos have treated him well over the years, and 18 years between major droughts has been a good run.  This is the best better luck next year business in the whole world, says Streifel, about farming.  If you lose that outlook, you might as well get out of it. 


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