Eastern Montana pinto beans go from farm to local Wal-Mart (slideshow)
By Jason Stuart
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
Those pinto beans you just had for dinner that you bought at the Wal-Mart in Miles City may well have ended their journey right where it began.
“If you’re ever in Wal-Mart and you see Casserole brand beans, chances are they were raised right here,” said Bill Ziebarth, manager of the Yellowstone Bean Company in Terry.
The irrigated farmland along the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers is prime real estate for pinto bean production, according to Ziebarth, as the beans are especially well-suited to the region’s arid climate.
“We’re a drier climate, and they seem to do better in drier climates,” he said. “The beans stay whiter longer in a drier environment.”
For the farmers who plant them, pinto beans are also a great way to rejuvenate weary soils.
“They’re really good for rotation purposes, because they are legumes and they put nitrogen back in the soil,” Ziebarth said.
Ziebarth speaks from experience, as he is a pinto bean grower himself, producing the legumes on his farm near Kinsey in Custer County. He first grew pinto beans back in the 1970s, but back then, he had to haul his beans all the way to Billings.
He stopped growing beans for a while, but started growing them again after the Terry facility opened in 1996. Ziebarth has worked there since 2006.
Yellowstone Bean Company has contracts with about 40 producers this year, with a total of 2,800 acres in production. The facility takes in beans from farms between Kinsey and Glendive and from the Poplar area on the Missouri River.
The average yield is 25 hundredweights per acre, according to Ziebarth, meaning the facility can expect to take in about 70,000 cwt of beans this year.
The Terry facility has the capacity to handle up to 4,000 acres of bean production, and has had up to 6,400 acres in production in the past, but Ziebarth said they’ve been made to cut back production contracts in recent years.
This year, the producers under contract are being paid at the rate of $33 per hundredweight, which will equal approximately $2.3 million in payouts to area bean farmers. Contracts are renewed annually, as prices fluctuate from year to year.
After harvest, beans are received at the Terry facility, where Ziebarth grades each load as they come in to ensure they meet premium quality standards.
From Terry, the beans make their way by rail all the way down to Lubbock, Texas, where they are cleaned and processed in a facility owned by Russell E. Womack, Inc. for sale under the Casserole brand name.
According to Ziebarth, “a lot of them” are used to make refried beans. Casserole also sells bags of uncooked pinto beans.
Though Casserole beans are available for purchase in area Wal-Mart stores, Ziebarth said most of the locally-grown beans are eaten by consumers elsewhere.
“Most of the beans are consumed either in Mexico or down South,” he said. “A lot of them go to California.”
The reason more locals aren’t tasting the locally-grown beans is that they’re simply not a big part of local cuisine, which Ziebarth thinks is a shame.
“According to percentages, we don’t eat many (pinto beans) up this way,” he said. “And we should, because they’re one of the healthiest things you can eat.”
What’s more, according to Ziebarth, is those Montana-grown pinto beans are tasty.
“I think they’re excellently flavored,” he said.
Reach Jason Stuart at firstname.lastname@example.org.