Where Are All The Beans? What The Run On This Staple Teaches Us About The Supply Chain

Kidney beans sold at a fruit and vegetable market (Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images)

Unless you rushed out to buy a huge bag of beans before the panic buying started, it's a bit tough to get your hands on them right now. Supermarket shelves are empty. Online stores are sold out. The once humble legume is now a prized product.

So I went on a hunt to find them, and understand the supply chain. I thought maybe I'd get to solve a grand bean mystery, or maybe I'd find out that one of you scooped up, bit down and swallowed The Final Bean, and now we're all without.

Good news! It's much less dramatic than that and we're all going to be OK.

IT STARTS WITH BABY BEANS

It sounds obvious, but it's not like we have decades worth of dried beans stored up that get distributed to the public via supermarkets every year. The lives of the beans you're hoarding probably began last May, all across the U.S. and Canada, the world's big bean growers.

Under blue skies, U.S. farmers like Bob Dombeck of Toad River Farms in Perham, Minnesota, planted nearly two million acres of different types of beans. His family was responsible for more than 700 of those acres. Specifically, light and dark red kidneys.

"I can't taste any difference between the two," Dombeck told me.

Kidney beans need to dry to 15-20 percent moisture before they're harvested, so that they don't go bad when they're stored. (Courtesy of Bob Dombeck)

As the year progressed, green plants popped up from the ground and the beans inside grew plumper and plumper, until they were ready to harvest in September. Farmers know when they're ready because they dry out enough to reach 15-20% moisture. More moist than that and they'll rot in storage.

"You can go chew on 'em and tell where the moisture's at just by chewin' on them," Dombeck explaines. (Full disclosure: He uses a moisture meter too).

Kidney beans are harvested at Toad River Farms in Perham, Minnesota. (Courtesy of Bob Dombeck)

Last year's growing season was tough. There was dry weather when the beans needed rain, and wet weather when they needed to be drying out. That meant some beans suffered. Because of that Dombeck and others saw significantly lower yields, which put some stress on the bean market. Although the general public likely wouldn't have known if we hadn't, in a panic, bought a zillion of them, leading to journalists like me writing bean supply stories.

Still, there were plenty of baby beans that grew up nice and strong, that were shipped off to processing facilities.

THEY'RE SITTING IN GIANT BINS

Beans like Bob's are cleaned, sorted (bad beans get a puff of air and are pushed off the processing line) and scanned for any sort of metals.

Then off they go to other companies for canning, or packaging into smaller bags, or to be worked into foods, like bean snacks (just hopefully not chocolate hummus).

Those that aren't used right away make their way into giant bins, where they're stored until they're needed.

Canners and other places that package the beans for local markets usually don't have the space to store them.

"We have a warehouse plum full and our bins are still half full. So, we're good to go. And there are two other bean plants in this town and they're full to the max," said Dave Hartmann, manager of the Kelley Bean processing plant in Perham, where Bob Dombeck farms.

SO WHERE'S THE HOLD UP?

"Panic buying has created a four- to five-fold increase in demands for product. That's not something easily adapted from one day to the next," said Joe Perez, Senior Vice President at Goya Foods.

Consider everything it takes to get beans to market.

They've got to be pulled from the big bean bins and shipped to a packager or canner.

Once there, people work around the clock to package them for supermarket shelves. That means more supplies have to be brought in. Everything all of the way down to those small plastic bean bags with logos of your local purveyor on them.

Then the beans have to be transported, again, via trucks to supermarkets. Those are already in short supply across the U.S.

"You can't just walk in one day and say, 'My God there's this pandemic and now ... I need to find 200 additional drivers in 24 hours'. And have equipment that can carry the product. And have a factory that can turn on a dime and go from one shift to three shifts in 24 hours," said Perez.

When the beans finally turn up at grocery stores — which have their own problems — workers have to scramble to get them back onto the shelves and into customers' hands, who then panic buy them all up.

SO, WHEN WILL THEY BE BACK ON THE SHELVES?

Empty shelves at a Vons supermarket in Burbank on March 14, 2020. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Kraig Kelley, sales representative for Kelley Bean, says they've been caught off guard by the demand. his company processes and packs dry beans at 30 locations nationwide,

"I mean nobody was ready for it. Who thought you wouldn't be able to find a roll of toilet paper?" he said. "Normally dried bean sales...level off around this time."

"We're still processing everyday and shipping everyday. So beans are coming back through the supply chain. They will be back on store shelves. Right now the demand is so heavy, we're probably a couple of months ahead of schedule from where we normally would be," he said.

Panic buying hasn't peaked yet, according to Perez. But it will at some point. And then, they'll catch up.

"I believe it'll calm down sufficiently that walking into the supermarket will not look like you're in Venezuela or Cuba," he said. "In the next month or so."

That's the supply side. As for the demand side — well, there are only so many huge sacks of beans a single family can go through. When they hit a saturation point (or just get sick of eating beans for dinner), the likelihood is that the run on beans will slow down.

And if we DID manage to go through all of the beans — which not one bean person I spoke to said they expected we would — then we've just got to wait until September when harvests start again.

MAYBE YOU BOUGHT TOO MANY BEANS

Maybe you've now realized you have too many beans. In that case, consider donating them.

But if you want to use them and you're getting tired of your usual bean recipes, Kraig Kelley recommended baking brownies:

"I mean if you want to be lazy, you just buy a box of Betty Crocker brownie mix. You take one can of beans. Or you cook them from dry state. And you just mix it in. That's all you do. And you cook it. But it just makes them a lot moist-er," he said. "You get your protein and your sugar all in one shot."

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