Robert Cornelis – like a lot of Ontario, Canada farmers – is hooked on growing food-grade soybeans. In fact, he’s been growing specialty beans for more than 15 years from his Ailsacraig, Ontario operation. That location parallels the same latitude as southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

“For me, I like to contribute to the food industry with food-grade more than just with commodity beans,” he says. “A friend of mine traveled to India and showed me pictures of canned beans that originated from our local farmers and elevator, and I felt a certain amount of pride.”

When he started with food-grade, it didn’t have anything to do with getting a premium, he admits. It was about planting a shorter-day soybean so he could grow his primary crop, wheat. But now on 600 acres, he’s getting anywhere from $2.50 to $4.50/bu. premiums with food-grade beans. “Today, at $13 beans, I’d probably be better off financially with high-yield commodity soybeans,” he says. He also grows 400 acres of edible beans, 1,000 acres of wheat and 1,000 acres of corn rotated with soybeans.

One of the downfalls with food-grade, he points out, is that they don’t yield as well as commodity beans. “Usually, the higher the premium the lower the yield index,” he says. Generally, his beans yield 45-60 bu./acre.

“For me, picking the right bean for the right field is my biggest decision,” says Cornelis. This year he went with three different varieties, ranging from 2,800 to 3,100 heat units.

One reason food-grade works so well is his affiliation with the Hensall District Cooperative, where he’s the farmer-president.

Farmer-owned Hensall Co-op specializes in marketing identity-preserved pulse crops. Last year, its 4,000 members sold 90,000 metric tons (MT) of edible beans and 85,000 MT of food-grade soybeans through its eight elevators spread across Ontario. Almost 90% of those are non-biotech varieties.

“Most of those are shipped via 20-ft. containers to Japan (since 1994) and United Kingdom (UK) markets,” says Earl Wagner, CEO at Hensall, who adds that they sell to about 40 countries worldwide. A 20-ft. container holds 21 MT of beans.

By using the convenient ports on Lake Huron, he says they shipped 15,000 containers last year. On average, it takes two weeks for ships to reach the UK and three weeks to arrive in Japan.

All beans are packaged first, then Hensall packs them into containers at the rate of about 25-30 containers a day; during harvest that jumps to 45-50 a day. International demand for its edible beans and food-grade soybeans is so high that it can’t originate enough soybeans within the Canadian border, so they’re cooperating with North Dakota and Minnesota to keep the pipeline full.

“We have groups of Japanese here all the time touring the plant, looking at fields and talking to farmers,” says Wim Karelse, manager of processing and packaging.

“In the food-bean area, we’re really envious of the Canadians,” says Seth Naeve, University of Minnesota Extension soybean specialist. “They have a lot of things going for them that helps them be really competitive.”

Naeve points out that since the Ontario region is small, compared to the U.S., “they can go to foreign buyers and talk about their quality and really promote their food-grade soybeans. The Canadian government is also more active than the U.S. in promoting its exports.

“Here, the trend is negative for growing more specialty beans,” Naeve says. “Every year the premiums change so farmers are getting paid just enough to make it worthwhile. Distributors are looking for niche farmers that have grown conventional beans and have the bins to store, isolate and segregate them.”