Dry Beans

Working magic with beans and other crops is not a fairy tale

He's a jack-of-all-trades. And a little like the Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk. And when beans are involved, he's a bona fide bean counter.

Calvin Pearson is a blend of these characters, although he doesn't work in a fairytale land far, far away. His kingdom of sorts is most of western Colorado, where he sometimes works magic with beans, along with many other crops.

But his work isn't at all full of beans. Pearson is a soil and crop science professor at the Western Colorado Research Center at Fruita, where he works with farmers and ranchers to find new, profitable crops and to breathe new life into old crops. Those crops range from the staples of beans, alfalfa, corn, wheat, and barley and extend to more exotic crops such as poplar trees and kenaf.

"I work to meet the many and varied interests of farmers in a large area of Colorado," says Pearson. "Yesterday, I helped a minister down the road find something to grow on his two acres that would compete against weeds. I also work with farmers in northwest Colorado to help make their farm operations more profitable."

Although Pearson's projects are numerous and broad, one of his largest and most successful is the Foundation Dry Bean Seed Project. The project produces high-quality seeds for bean growers in Colorado. The dry bean business is a multimillion dollar industry, so Pearson is always looking for new varieties and techniques to help farmers take advantage of that market.

Low humidity and a lack of violent storms are some of the conditions at Fruita that make it a perfect place to grow seed stock for new varieties of crops. Pearson and others at the research center can take a small amount of seed and, from them, after a year or two, produce enough seeds to grow acres of the crop. They've produced premium seed beans for the Foundation Dry Bean Seed Project for years, along with seeds for other crops. In addition to researching and developing exceptional seeds, Pearson also investigates other areas of crop production including fertilizer, tillage, and crop rotation approaches.

He also works with others to create markets for the crops he researches. For example, he's worked with Coors and barley farmers in western Colorado and is working with other companies, encouraging them to come to the area to produce new and alternative crops in western Colorado.

He investigates all components of these crops' profitability, from the best seeds to grow, to finding a market for them, and to getting the commodity sold to companies who will turn them into a product.

"We have our misses," he said. "Some things we've tried didn't work. But other things do – like the snap beans we are bringing into Colorado to meet a market demand and the premium alfalfa seed we're producing. Just one aspect can kill an industry, even if 100 other things are perfect. For example, we did a great job of growing soybeans on the Western Slope, but because of low market prices and high transportation costs, it was cheaper for food companies to ship soybeans from Kansas to the West Coast via the railroad than it was for them to ship them from western Colorado. We are careful with every endeavor; we go in with our eyes wide open and expect curve balls along the way."

"Farmers all over the United States are struggling, they're scrambling to find profitable crops," said Pearson. "I try to find commercial commodities and give producers tools to grow high-quality, specialty products, because if you give consumers a higher-quality product, they're often willing to pay more for it."

And that, to many farmers, is worth more than just beans.