Hard to grow, hard to harvest but sweet price when you can get it
BRECHIN — Cash cropper Don MacDonald says he grossed more than $240,000 from only 99 acres of adzuki beans in 2003. As the combine meter rolled, the whopping dollar signs went up quickly as each bushel of the specialty crop came off MacDonald’s Eastern Ontario farm.
“I had about double the crop I would have normally gotten,” MacDonald told Farmers Forum, reporting a yield of 2,740 pounds of adzukis per acre. They also fetched the highest price he’s ever managed to get for the crop, at 90 cents per pound.
“I’ve never had anything like it,” he exclaimed. “Everybody I’ve talked to is flabbergasted.”
The red-coloured bean is produced mostly for the Asian confectionery market. 2023 was a golden year for those Ontario growers, like MacDonald, who managed to pull off a bumper adzuki crop amid record high prices. On a per acre basis, no other field crop was as valuable.
Ontario farmers planted a record 23,000 acres of the niche crop last year, up from just over 19,000 acres in 2022. Those numbers obviously pale in comparison to the almost three-million acres of soybeans grown in Ontario last year.
Despite the potential higher returns, adzuki beans require more management — and investment — than the usual commodity crops. That makes them a bigger risk. A farmer should expect to put $679 per acre into an edible bean crop like adzukis, according to the latest published estimates by OMAFRA edible beans specialist Meghan Moran. While regular soybeans cost $409 per acre to produce, the potential profit per acre on that crop maxes out lower, at $417 per acre, which assumes a $14/bushel sale price and a 59 bu/ac yield. By contrast, the OMAFRA figures suggest a maximum adzuki profit per acre of $729 — and that’s based on a yield (2,200 lb/ac) and a price (64 cents/lb) that MacDonald exceeded by a country mile in 2023.
MacDonald sprayed his adzukis seven times through the season — including once at planting, twice for white mould, and a number of times for volunteer corn. The soil was tilled four-inches deep with a sunflower disc, then speed-tilled again before the beans were planted and simultaneously rolled. He also applied root stimulant plus 700 gallons of 28% fertilizer at time of planting, noting, “you’ve got to feed the ground.”
During harvest, the combine drove carefully and slowly at only 3 km/h through his adzuki field to get every last bean in the best possible condition. The combine, owned and operated by MacDonald’s neighbour, also featured an air reel to get an extra one or two bushels per acre.
The field was also tile-drained, which he credits as a big factor in this year’s success.
Adam Ireland, a director with the Ontario Bean Growers, acknowledged hearing of “some really big numbers” for adzuki yields in 2023. He personally averaged a little less than 2,000 pounds per acre on the 200 adzuki acres grown at his Teeswater-area farm.
Yields can vary greatly between regions, he explained, though he wasn’t aware of any “major train wrecks” in 2023. Keep in mind that adzukis come with the potential for “great heartache,” Ireland pointed out. “I’ve had a field run only 450 pounds to the acres before,” he chuckled.
“Edible beans are a princess crop, and adzukis are … very finicky. That’s where new growers can have some frustrating times. If you want to take a vacation in July, you shouldn’t grow adzukis.”
Market conditions have also changed for the upcoming 2024 adzuki crop, and Ireland expects planted adzuki acres to be down this spring as a result. That’s not because of any decline in price but because of fewer contracts offered by the handful of adzuki buyers in the province. Edible beans can’t be sold without a contract. “It’s day and night from last year as far as what the market’s looking for,” he said.
Mark Burnham, of Cobourg, said he received notice that Hensall Coop will cap its 2024 adzuki intake to the amount contracted by the farm in 2023. “They’re not taking on any new growers,” he said.
Burnham grew 640 acres of adzukis on suboptimal ground in 2023 and was “very happy” with an average yield just shy of 1,900 lb. per acre. That works out to nearly $1 million for his adzukis that he said were contracted at 90 cents per pound.
“I wouldn’t say just anyone can grow adzukis,” he said. “You’ve got to have a lot of factors working for you.” Beyond good soil and good weather, he also emphasized the need for more intensive — and expensive — management. He crossed his fields 6 or 7 times during the growing season, he said, and confirmed that harvesting takes longer due to slow combine speeds. He also recommended investing in an air reel to maximize yield at harvest.
“If you plant it and walk away, then you’re not going to get a whole heck of a lot.”