One component of Alan Townsend's diversified farm literally amounts to a hill of beans, and that's fine with him.
The sixth generation farmer from northwest of Goodland, Kan., grows corn, wheat and sunflowers, grazes cover crops and co-owns a feedlot. But dried bean production is also an important part of his portfolio.
Townsend is vice president of 21st Century Bean, the only bean processor in Kansas. The farmer-owned cooperative is responsible for 70 percent of all the dried beans distributed by the federal government to food pantries around the country.
Now, 21st Century Bean is getting ready to celebrate its 21st year in business.
"We don't have a lot of acres, but we do have a lot of dedicated owners," Townsend said during a recent tour.
The co-op is comprised of 27 stockholders, mostly from Colorado and Kansas as well as a few from Nebraska, and accepts additional production from other farmers in the area. Townsend estimates somewhere around 10,000 acres of beans are being grown in the area.
When the co-op first started out, it had around 80 investors. The ones who stuck with it have seen their commitment pay off. Today, the co-op's 200 ownership shares — originally estimated to be worth $1,500 a piece — are valued at around $20,000, Townsend said.
From the beginning, local growers felt they had little choice but to take control of their destiny. The processor was charging them $10 a pound for sorting, cleaning, polishing and bagging their beans. After the farmers bought the facility, they reduced the rate to $4 a pound.
"Now we're able to capture the additional value the processor was getting," Townsend said. "That was a huge selling point for doing this deal."
Around six different types of beans are grown in the area, including pinto beans, black beans, chickpeas, Great Northern beans and yellow mayocoba beans, which have a thicker, creamier consistency and are the preferred bean in Mexico.
Some of the production is sold in small, consumer-ready bags under their own Pappy's Pantry brand or milled into black bean or garbanzo flour (which carries the marketing advantage of being gluten-free.) But the bulk of it is placed in larger bags or totes and sold to brokers and major wholesalers, retailers and distributors.
Beans that break during processing are sold off separately as splits and often used by other processors to make refried beans.
Dried edible beans are a small-margin, high-volume business. The main plant in Sharon Springs, Kan., ships 11 semi-loads a week to a single grocery store in Texas. One wholesale customer alone bought 8 million pounds from them last year.
Even at that scale, however, the co-op is considered relatively small.
"We can adapt to the market and change rapidly if we need to because of our size," Townsend said.
Last summer, the plant underwent a $1 million renovation that increased its capacity six-fold.
"We're ready to grow," he said.
Townsen expects bean acreage to increase across the High Plains for one main reason: beans require roughly half as much water to grow as corn.
Townsend, who has been growing pinto beans for the past 45 years, said they need on average 11.8 inches of water annually. As a member of a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, he and other farmers in his irrigation district are required to keep their water use to 16.5 inches a year averaged over several years.
"I think these water-saving efforts will enhance the number of planted acres we see in the future," he said.
The Sharon Springs plant, which has been in operation since the 1970s, handles 30 million pounds of beans at fall harvest. The co-op also operates a second plant at Ruleton, Kan., with a unique story of its own.
That plant, located along Interstate 70 near the Kansas-Colorado border, is capable of processing 20,000 pounds of beans an hour. The resulting two-pound bags are sent to food pantries and food assistance programs around the world.
The Ruleton plant ships out 45 million pounds, or 1,000 semi-loads, a year. Those shipments go coast-to-coast and sometimes further. One recent shipment ended up as food aid in Yemen within seven days of leaving the plant.
All of the shipping and logistics at that location are done with just six full-time employees.
"Seventy percent of all the dry beans that are shipped to a food bank come out of Ruleton," Townsend said.
Not all of those beans are grown locally, and many of them are of lower quality. Townsend said the only difference between No. 1 grade and No. 2 is often just a slight variation in the color, but the beans remain a great source of protein and fiber.
Two decades ago, the bean co-op was part of a big push in western Kansas to create new cooperatives to help farmers add value to their products. No less than 14 different ventures were launched, including vertically integrated wheat, beef and dairy operations.
While most of those enterprises are no longer in business, 21st Century Bean managed to survive and prosper, along with another successful spin-off from that initial effort, U.S. Premium Beef.
Accounting for that success appears to come down to perseverance, flexibility and being in the right place at the right time.
Per capita consumption of dried beans has been on a long-term steady rise, and Townsend is optimistic about the co-op's future prospects. He showed off a colorful 50-pound bag that makes a point of touting its farmer ownership.
To order products on-line or learn more about the company, go to 21stCenturyBean.com.