The US Dry Bean Industry Begins in New York
In 1836 Stephen Coe obtained a single pint of small white beans (also known as “pea”, “navy”, or “yankee” beans) from eastern New York and planted them on his farm near Yates in Orleans County in the western part of the state. After three successive crops he had produced enough beans to sell. His son, Tunis H. Coe, sold a load of 33 bushels to H. V. Prentiss from Albion, N.Y. who was apparently the only man in Orleans County who could be convinced to buy that many. This is thought to be the first consignment of beans commercially sold in the U.S. Obviously there were other instances where beans were produced (the Native American Indians had been growing and consuming beans for centuries prior to this), but until that point, no organized industry for the commercial retail of the crop had existed.
The further production of beans was limited to this area of western New York for a number of years, but gradually expanded to other counties and eventually outside New York state westward into Ontario, Canada, and Michigan. This initial sale of 33 bushels in 1839 grew to more than 500,000 bushels of beans from New York by the late 1890s. Initially, New England was the sole purchaser and consumer of these beans, but by the turn of the century, new markets (both domestic and foreign) and demand had grown substantially. Many factors were instrumental in increasing the interest and demand for bean consumption in the U.S., including the decline of other crops such as wheat, economics, politics, several environmental disasters, and perhaps most significantly, the Civil War.
The arrival of the wheat weevil and its effect on the wheat crops forced growers to diversify their programs to include other crops, including dry beans. Beans became more attractive by the 1860s due to increased prices as the government bought beans for the military during the Civil War. After the war ended, production continued to expand as retuning soldiers passed their new fondness for beans on to others. Production continued to increase in states such as North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, California, Idaho, and Nebraska in the 20th century with the growth of new plant breeding programs.
Since its humble beginnings in New York state, the dry bean industry has grown substantially with the U. S. now a major global producer.
Watch for an upcoming article on the history of dry bean production in Nebraska.
Bowen, S. C. 1897. History of the bean industry. Trans. NY State Agric. Soc. for 1897, pp 323-329.
Sauer, J. D. 1994. Historical geography of crop plants, a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 309 pp.
Stone, J. L. 1903. Commercial bean growing in New York. Bulletin 210, Cornell University College of Agriculture and Agricultural Experiment Station.