An Alberta seed grower explains the research that goes into choosing to grow a new crop on her farm
Some people have a natural proclivity to soak up and process new information. For me, however, an onslaught of new information is more like a heavy Alberta rain on a dry ground — a lot more runs off than is absorbed.
This was the case when I heard Bentley-area producer Harvey Brink talk about growing fababeans at my local Alberta Pulse Growers’ meeting last November. Brink gave a detailed report on the agronomics and marketing of the crop, but I mostly heard “long season” and “developing market. “ I left the meeting not much more inclined to grow fababeans than when I had arrived.
A few weeks later a seed customer asked me if we had any fababean seed. As a seed grower, I take note when farmers ask about crops or varieties that we don’t grow on our farm near Three Hills, Alta.
Just before Christmas I called a fellow seed grower looking for stock seed of a new barley variety and the conversation drifted to the topic of fababeans. Now he had my attention.
I filled a page with notes about seeding date and depth, variety options, chemical treatments, harvestability, and marketing potential. I learned that there are high-tannin varieties which are favoured for their taste and green colour by international buyers who import fababeans for human consumption, but cannot be consumed by animals because the tannins inhibit digestion. Low or no-tannin varieties can be digested by animals and with their high-protein content make a great additive to feed rations, but they command a lower price in the market.
My next call was to Chris Chivilo, CEO of Parkland Alberta Commodities (PAC). He buys and processes fababeans in central Alberta, selling them into both the feed and human consumption market.
“We’ve shipped about 12 to 15 cars to Egypt the last three years. Next year if grades come off normal we expect to ship around 50 cars,” Chivilo told me. So far all his human-grade fababeans have been sold to one buyer in Egypt, but he now has three buyers in that country looking for steady supply. The last three years PAC also sold about 1,000 tonne of fabas into the feed market and he expect this number to increase as well. Chivilo encouraged me to grow Snowbird, an early season, low-tannin variety of fabas. He sells this variety into the human market as well as the feed market, even though Middle Eastern consumers typically prefer the high-tannin variety.
“Our fababeans are not as good of quality as Australia, but there’s been a shortage in the market so we’ve been able to capitalize on that,” explained Chivilo. PAC cleans and colour sorts the fababeans, sending the top-grading ones overseas and any that are discoloured by lygus bug bites or have other downgrading factors into the feed market.
As seed growers, my dad and I do not plan to sell our production into the commodity market, but we have to think about our customers’ potential to market their crop and our own potential to sell the screenings when we clean the seed. Most of the time we realize some value from the screenings by selling them as feed, but high-tannin fababean screenings would seem to have little worth in the current market.
After talking to our agronomist and doing some more research online, my dad and I decided to book 55 acres worth of registered Snowbird fababean seed.
Four reasons to think about fababeans
If we harvest an average yield of 50 bushels per acre we will have enough certified seed to cover a section. Will we be able to convince four customers to grow a quarter section or six or seven to put in 100 acres each? I don’t have an answer to that question, but there are a few good reasons for our neighbours to think about it.
1. The nitrogen advantage. Fababeans, like other legumes, fix their own nitrogen and leave residual nitrogen in the soil. This means savings both when you plant the crop and when you plant next year’s crop. Other fababean growers have suggested that fababeans leave 30 to 50 per cent more nitrogen in the soil than field peas.
The small field where we will grow our fababeans has been treated as part of an adjoining 110 acres for several growing season. We are putting peas on the larger part this spring, so I am looking forward to seeing some soil testing results after harvest 2013 to see how much more nitrogen is available to next year’s crop. In 2014 we will likely go back to treating the two fields as one, so we will be able to measure any yield difference between the two pieces.
2. Harvestability. Many of our neighbours grow peas, and lots of them are frustrated with scraping them off the ground at harvest time and putting rocks through their feeder house. Fababeans have a thicker stalk as opposed to a vine and the pods start several inches off the ground. Even though fababeans are a long-season crop (130 days to maturity), experienced fababean growers tell me they will stay standing even if we get an early snow. Hopefully this encourages farmers who have stayed away from peas and instead pushed their canola and cereal rotations to try a pulse crop for a change.
At a production meeting in Lethbridge this February, I learned from Greg Stamp of Stamp’s Select Seed that swathing or combining the fababeans when the plant is a bit tough (from rain, dew or irrigation) is not only possible, but actually a good idea, as it helps prevent shelling. Harvey Brink also touched on this topic in his November presentation, explaining that as long as the beans are dry (16 per cent moisture is dry for fabas), they will harvest just fine even if the stalks and pods are a little chewy.
3. They can handle the moisture. Stamps grow fababeans under irrigation at Enchant, Alta., and Brinks have the added moisture that comes from farming west of Highway 2. At Three Hills we have neither, but we do have a heavy gumbo soil, and it seems that when we have periods of excess moisture our peas suffer. They turn yellow and do not recover even after the wet spots have dried out. These weakened vines contribute to some of the harvest issues growers face. It seems that fababeans will handle the short-term flooding that sometimes occurs. While a dryer year could mean disappointing yields for some fababean growers in our area, the trade-off may be worth it.
4. Spread out the work load. This may be a strength or a weakness of fababeans, depending on the year. Fababeans are not a brand new crop to Alberta. I’ve talked to other farmers who tried growing them 15 or 20 years ago, but stopped because — among other reasons — they took too long to mature. New genetics have produced varieties like Snowbird with an early maturity rating, which should fit with the growing season in most of the Prairies.
Fababeans should be the first thing farmers plant. They can go into cold ground — anywhere between the beginning of April and the beginning of May depending on where you farm — so make sure they are treated to prevent seed and seedling disease. They’ll probably be the last crop harvested, but as mentioned above, you don’t have to worry about them falling over while harvesting your other crops.
We still have a few fababean production questions to answer on our farm.
1. How will the seed flow through our drill? Fababeans are bigger than peas. The low-tannin varieties are about 270 grams per thousand kernels; the largest high-tannin varieties are up to 680 grams per thousand kernels (yellow peas average 210 grams per thousand kernels).
Most drills should be able to handle the smaller varieties, but we have a paired row opener which is narrower than most openers.
We have a freezer bag worth of seed to experiment with. We’ll see if they can pass through without plugging.
2. Will there be a market for us and our customers? While PAC and SaskCan Pulses are both eager to move fababeans, this is still a new market. Some buyers — China, for example — won’t be interested in buying unless there is a steady supply availabe. Some risk-taking farmers will have to get started, to help transform the chicken and egg paradox.
3. Will they work on our farm? In my research I’ve talked to successful fababean producers from Enchant to Westlock, Alta., and places in between, but it still remains to be seen if they can grow well in our particular microclimate.
4. What chemistry will we use? While most of the seed treatments, herbicides and fungicides that we use on peas are also registered for fababeans, we still need to decide which inoculant to put with our seed. There are peat-based products registered specifically for fababeans, but I’ve also talked to growers who use the same granular product as they put down with their peas.
Will we need to use a desiccant at the end of the growing season to produce uniform maturity in a timely fashion? Southern Alberta farmers don’t usually apply one, but the grower I talked to in Westlock says desiccant is a must for fababeans. Since we’re somewhere in the middle geographically, it will probably depend on the type of growing season we have.
It’s exciting and challenging to learn about all the aspects of producing a new crop. For other growers considering fababeans, I encourage you to do some research and speak with some of the people mentioned in this article. Our fellow farmers are a great resource, as are local agronomists. If you’re in the Three Hills area this summer you will see our fababean field along Highway 21. I am looking forward to riding this learning curve and updating Grainews as we go.
Editor’s note: Sarah has agreed to update us on her fababean experiment during the growing season, and then again after harvest. Good luck, Sarah! †