January 09, 2004
Bird Island Bean looks for new cull bean markets
Pellet fuel looks most promising; navies burn as hot as corn
Bird Island Bean Company partners (from left to right) Larry Serbus, Curt Meyer; Daune Hultgren and Nate Hultgren bought a closed ag processing plant and started Bird Island Bean Company.
Bird Island Bean Company is scouring the country for new navy bean markets -- especially for low-value culls.
Culls make up about 5% of the Bird Island, Minn., plant's annual production. The firm usually sells culls as livestock feed for $40 to $60 per ton.
"Culls were the first area we looked at to bring in more revenue," says Duane Hultgren, a Bird Island-area farmer who bought the mothballed plant in 2000. His partners include his son, Nate; farmer Curt Meyer, Renville, Minn.; and plant manager Larry Serbus.
Al Doering, technical service specialist at Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), helped Bird Island Bean investigate new industrial uses for culls.
"We looked at all kinds of things, from adhesives and absorbents to pellet fuels for home heating stoves," Doering says.
Pellet fuel appears to be one of the most promising new uses. Beans produce a lot of heat with relatively low amounts of ash, according to a 2002 AURI study, which calculated the heat values of dozens of ag-based fuels.
"Dry edible beans looked very good" as a biomass fuel, Doering says, "comparable to corn."
Demand for pellet fuels has more than doubled in the last five years, to approximately 680,000 tons a year, according to the Pellet Fuels Institute. Most pellet fuels are made from waste wood or sawdust, but there is growing interest in using other renewable fuel sources, too. AURI is now working with a half-dozen Minnesota companies to commercialize pellet fuels made from the state's ample supplies of beet pulp, distillers dried grain and other low-cost ag coproducts.
Snacks and baby food
At Bird Island Bean's urging, AURI also conducted a preliminary investigation into potential new food uses for navy beans.
Navy beans could someday find their way into high-protein extruded snacks or breakfast foods, says Charan Wadhawan, AURI cereal scientist. They could also be separated into components to make protein and starch concentrates for processed products such as baby food and bread.
But Wadhawan says dry beans present two big challenges for food makers: a distinct "bean-y" flavor or smell and a tendency to produce flatulence.
Though a new bean food product is probably years away, Bird Island Bean is developing relationships now with research and product development companies.
"We're not limiting our thinking," Nate says.
Larry Serbus and Nate Hultgren, of Bird Island Bean Company are searching for new markets for navy beans.
- E.M. Morrison is a Minnesota freelance writer who wrote the story first for AURI Ag Innovation News. Excerpts reprinted by permission.