Meet Our Growers – Q & A with Two Northarvest Bean Growers

In this month’s Q &A we chatted with two bean growers in Northarvest country to learn about their farms, why they love BEAN a farmer, and how they grow the simply delicious, naturally nutritious beans we all love.

Mark Dombeck is a farmer/rancher in west central Minnesota, where the majority of kidney beans are grown in the United States. He raises kidney beans, corn, alfalfa and dairy cows along with his two sons and son-in-law. Mark has been farming for 40 years.

Leann Shafer is a farmer/rancher in central North Dakota. She grew up on a farm/ranch in western North Dakota, and is currently farming alongside her husband, sons and father-in-law. They are a fifth-generation farm/ranch and raise pinto beans, corn, soybeans, and oats. They also have a commercial Angus cow-calf operation and feedlot.

 BB: Why did you become a farmer?

MARK: Like many people who farm, I was raised on a farm and it is what I’ve been doing my whole life. But I decided to become a farmer because I like caring for crops and watching things grow. I also really enjoy caring for animals. Some people have gardens and pets; I just have a really big garden and lots of pets!  Also, we know the world’s population is growing and we are going to need more food to feed the world. I like to know I’m doing my part.

LEANN: I became a farmer because it is what I grew up doing. I was raised on a fourth generation family farm/ranch in western North Dakota. After I married my husband we moved back to his family farm in central North Dakota and have been farming and ranching there ever since. We have three children, two of which are currently farming with us [see photo], along with my father-in-law.

BB: What’s the day-to-day life of being a farmer?

MARK: The day-to-day life of farming is pretty much sun up to sun down.  The clock doesn’t mean much and the day of the week doesn’t mean anything. The biggest indicator of what you’re going to do is weather related. You have to be willing to change your plans at the last minute. And even though we’re not “actively farming” in the winter, we’re still busy planning, budgeting and getting ready for next season.

LEANN: Since our operation has both crops and cattle, we find something to do all seasons of the year. Spring is the hopeful season. We look forward to putting seed in the ground and calving. Summer is the tending season. We’re busy spraying for weeds, making hay, checking pastures, and watching the crops grow. Fall is harvest season. Depending on the spring, harvest can start in July with oats, August for pinto beans, September for soybeans and October for corn. We wean calves in August/September and put them in the feedlot and put the cows back out on pasture until corn harvest is complete, then bring them home to graze the corn fields before winter sets in. During the winter we feed cows, work in the shop, plan for spring and get ready to do it again next year.

BB: For people who know nothing about growing beans, can you tell me a little about growing and harvesting? How do you know when beans are ready to harvest?

MARK: Growing kidney beans is a lot like growing any other garden vegetable. They don’t tolerate much cold weather so we usually plant around Memorial Day and harvest around Labor Day. We harvest in the dry form so that they can be processed and shipped all over the world. Because they are harvested like this, they don’t need any further refrigeration or processing.

LEANN: We grow pinto beans, which are a legume crop. They are sensitive to frost, so they can’t be planted too early. They don’t like “wet feet” so we put them on fields with good drainage or lighter soil type. We know the beans are ready for harvest when the pods get dry and brittle and the beans harden. You can shell out the beans and take a moisture test. Less than 16% moisture is considered dry and ready for the processing plant.

BB: Many consumers are interested in growing healthy food for a healthy planet. What practices do you use on your farm to grow food in a sustainable way that protects the environment and promotes soil health?

MARK: Like many other industries, the digital world is definitely shaping our business. We use a technique called grid soil sampling where we take a soil sample from small sections of our land. Based on the lab analysis of this sample, we know exactly what the soil needs. That way, when we plant seeds and apply fertilizer, we apply the proper amount and not extra. After the plants are growing we do a leaf tissue analysis. This allows us to see if the plant has the right amount of nutrients or if it needs anything. That way if we need to add or change something, we can. Our animals’ diets are also lab-test and science based. Everything we do is science based, whether it’s food for our plants or food for our animals.

LEANN: Farmers are constantly looking to become more efficient and productive, which in turn means healthier soils. Edible beans are legumes, which fix nitrogen into the soil. By planting edible beans in our crop rotation, we are able to reduce the amount of fertilizer needed for next year’s crop. We also use minimal till farming which reduces wind and water erosion and promotes a healthy soil biomass.

BB: As a farmer, what do you wish people knew more about what you do?

mark-dombeckMARK: I wish more people understood what a family farm is, and that we are a family farm. We really understand and care about every single thing that happens on our farm. Everything we do we do in a sustainable manner because we want to make sure it will be here for future generations. I am leaving the soil and animals in better condition for the next generation because if you don’t do it that way, it just won’t work.

LEANN: I think farming is one of the most important jobs a person can do. We are very fortunate to have such a safe, abundant, affordable food supply in this country. Our philosophy is that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. We work hard to do a good job and be productive, and we’re also looking to the future when the land will be passed on to the next generation of farmers. The food we raise is the food we feed our own families, so it is safe. We are faced with many challenges throughout the year and each day is different. Mother Nature plays a huge role in our success each year, as well as the markets.  You have no control over either one. Sometimes you work all year long and don’t get a paycheck. But we love the land and the lifestyle so we always try again next year.

BB: Finally, the most important question, what’s your favorite bean? And what’s your favorite bean dish?

MARK: I’m a little prejudice because I grow kidney beans, so I have to say kidney beans are my favorite. And my favorite dish would be chili, with an extra amount of kidney beans in it. I also like my kidney beans in soups and salads.

LEANN: I like all types of beans, but black beans have become my favorite. They’re so versatile – you can add them to salads, entrees and soups. My favorite bean dish is Calico Beans. It’s a baked bean dish with navy, pinto, kidney, and lima beans, ground beef and bacon.