The dry bean industry in Michigan has been growing strong for years. The combination of rich, well-drained soil, a moderate climate, a plentiful supply of water and a strategic location have made the state the perfect place to grow a consistent supply of high-quality beans. That has made Michigan a leader in bean production, both at home and abroad.

In fact, nearly half of the state’s dry beans are exported, and industry leaders are looking to expand those markets to help grow their businesses.

“Exports in the dry bean industry are critical,” says Jamie Zmitko-Somers, international marketing manager with the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD). “They really help to keep that industry going. The industry produces more dry beans than are consumed domestically, and exports provide a wonderful opportunity for them to be able to continue to expand.”

Their largest market is Mexico, she says, but they have a number of other markets that are equally as important to them. “For the growers and shippers, those markets provide a lot of opportunity for them to be able to continue to grow and expand their production,” she adds.

Ag Exporter of the Year

Sebewaing-based Bayside Best Beans, a dry bean production and distribution company, was named Ag Exporter of the Year by MDARD. The award recognizes agri-businesses for their export growth, innovation and pursuit of new export markets. In 2015, Bayside shipped 54 percent of its crop out of the country.

“Michigan has been well known to produce some of the best dry beans in the world,” says Brad Witek, general manager of Bayside Best Beans. “Our quality in this area has been what most buyers are looking for. Mexico and others like our product because it also cooks faster because we usually have higher moisture content. Less cook time means cheaper food.”

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Exporting has given the company a much better way of sourcing out its product beyond domestic sales. “If you just deal in the states, you can soon run out of buyers to sell to; everyone can only buy what they need,” Witek says. “Bayside wishes to sell all of our beans every year, and there are some years when certain beans cannot be sold without looking out beyond our domestic buyers.”

Michigan Agriculture 2017 [INFOGRAPHIC]

Market Growth

Joe Cramer, executive director of the Michigan Bean Commission, says the dry bean industry is much more engaged in the supply chain today, carefully managing the supply demand ratio. The industry has also pursued new markets to keep the industry growing.

“Mexico is our biggest export trading partner, but we also sell a lot of navy beans to England,” he says. “We do a lot of exporting of navy beans, kidney beans, some black beans, into the Caribbean. This year, we’ve seen a very non-traditional quantity of black beans that have moved into Brazil.”

Cramer notes beans have historically been consumed just as is, cooked. “Today, we’re looking at grinding that bean into a flour product or a powder,” he says. “You have a gluten-free, non-GMO, very nutrient-dense flour product that you could use for everything from breading chicken tenders to making Jell-O. In Taiwan, they’re making a drink product from Michigan navy beans.”

Helping Hands

Zmitko-Somers says because exports are so critical to the dry bean industry, MDARD diligently works with agri-businesses to help reach new markets and navigate the international trade landscape. MDARD sponsors trade missions and trade shows and hosts buyers’ missions connecting international buyers with Michigan growers and producers.

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“We offer export assistance, making sure companies know how to export, how to price products for export and the appropriate way to meet with foreign buyers,” Zmitko-Somers says. “And we really make sure they make a good first impression and a good connection with them.”

For advanced exporters, MDARD offers additional training and courses in subjects, such as foreign currency exchange and international finance.

“We also provide technical assistance to companies,” Zmitko-Somers says, “and that can be everything from helping them with the logistics to move their product, to helping them with a bank that does international finance work or lawyers who can assist them with things that they would need to know in working in a foreign market.”