As a farmer you don't get a lot of shots at making a profit in a growing season. You have to be very thoughtful about what you choose to grow. It is after all your livelihood. Edible beans ( fabaceae) can help diversify your farm income and make your farm more sustainable. They can be interplanted with other crops such as maize, and also grown as cover crops. They are a wide variety of beans to choose from making it likely for you to find a type that is best suited for your farm.
Let's get started...
Before we get into the actionable growing stuff it is important to understand why to grow beans. Here are some reasons:
1. Quick growing
Beans are a short season crop (+/- 70 days), relatively easy to grow, and can produce high yields in a small space. They are also adaptable to different cropping systems.
2. Improve soil health
They are nitrogen fixing and can improve your overall soil health. Building good soils can help you grow healthier, more resilient crops and improve your crop yields. Beans such as cowpeas use less water to grow (they are water-efficient) making them drought tolerant.
3. Increased consumer demand
Consumer demand for low cost staple foods is making beans more important than ever. Beans can help reduce household food costs, which is very important in these difficult economic times. While Zimbabwean consumers have not traditionally enjoyed eating most beans (they are slow to cook, cause flatulence, and are often cooked badly in boarding schools etc) rising meat prices are making beans an important meat substitute.
They are also a versatile source of protein that is an important source of nutrition. The United Nations declared 2016 The International Year of Pulses to celebrate the growing importance of beans.
The price of beans on the local market has been trending upwards while production is still relatively low compared to other countries. Current production levels are much lower than countries such as Tanzania and Malawi. Most local beans are still being imported into the country from those higher producing countries.
The margins for growing beans (e.g. cowpeas, and sugar beans) is larger than that of growing most other food crops such as maize. The key to getting profitable with bean farming is choosing a bean variety that does not have high input costs such as costly seed, crop protection and high labour costs. Shop around for good input prices to help reduce your overall production costs.
There are a number of factors to consider when choosing which bean variety to grow. (we are not covering soybeans in this guide!) You should consider the following: space, growing habit, days to maturity, market, costs, available capital and yields.
All these factors are important for determining your profitability. Seed is a big part of your costs, so buy it carefully!
Space: climber beans because they are staked (supported) do not need a lot of space. You can pick to grow climber or bush beans based on your available space.
Growing habits: Beans can be determinate or indeterminate. Determinate (bush or dwarf bean varieties such as Kidney, Lima or snap beans) require less maintenance and are self-supporting. Indeterminate (climbing / pole varieties) grow taller and need staking (support).
Growing season (days to maturity): short (85-94 days), medium (95 to 104 days) and long (105 to 115 days)
Market: consider the preferred bean variety for your target market. Are you supplying a canner, open-market or exporting? Different beans are good for different markets.
Costs: if you have limited capital look at growing beans that don't require much labour for staking (bush varieties), grow on a smaller scale and don't require much inputs e.g cowpeas.
Yield potential: read the seed details on the yield potential of the seed variety. You can ask around for seed that does well in your area and soil type.
Cowpeas (Black-eyed peas)
They are also known as black-eyed peas. They have the shape of a kidney bean, white flesh and a small black eye. They cook quickly and do not require soaking overnight.
This fast-growing bean making it a great cover crop. It is the best bean for fixing nitrogen and reducing soil erosion and compaction. It does well in a variety of soils including poor soils and is largely drought-tolerant. It has a vining habit.
Good choices: Seed Co's IT 18 ; CB2; CB3 ( potential yields for 2500 - 4000 kg/ ha)
Also know as the common bean. This is a nutritious bean. It has green pods. It's crop residues are good for livestock. It however has high input costs (seed, fertiliser and pesticides).
Good choices of sugar beans: include high-yielding varieties such as Speckled Ice, Bonus, Cardinal, SC Bounty , GLORIA, NUA 45.
They are commonly known as the white pea beans. They are small, white oval beans. These white pea beans are primarily used by processors to make baked beans.
Navy beans can be bush type or vining, indeterminate plant type depending on the cultivar. Used in soups and stews and for baked beans.
Come in red or white known locally as Canadian Wonder. These are large, kidney shaped beans that are reddish-brown in colour. They are high in iron. Easy to grow.
Also known as Bambara nuts, groundnuts and groundnuts.
Also known as broad, English Windsor or cattle beans are the oldest cultivated ban. They have a fresh, distinctive flavour. Grow well in a variety of soils, as long as they are not too wet or dry. They have a green pod, light green to whitish flesh. Firm bean with thick, slightly leathery skin. They are a hardy bean.
Known as fine beans or snap beans. Can either be dwarf ( bush) or climbing bean varieties. Pod colours vary. Seeds may be black, white, red, brown or a combination of colours. They are a fast growing, cash crop usually grown for export.They are planted 5 cm deep, 5-7 cm apart, with 45 cm between rows. Self-pollinating, high yielding beans.
Medium sized, oval-shaped bean with beige and brown skin.
It is important to buy blemish free, clean seed from a good and certified seed breeder to get high yields. Calculate your seed needs as accurately as possible before buying them. Some recommended seed suppliers: National Tested Seeds, Prime Seeds, Pioneer, Pannar and Seed Co.
You can also save your harvested seed to replant. When you using saved seed especially if its old (over 1 year old), do a germination test with some of the seed before you plant all of it.
Site selection & soil: Bean plants require an open, sunny site that is protected from wind. Choose a site that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight. Beans like fertile to moderately fertile, well-drained soils. Beans do not tolerate acidic soils well. They prefer a soil pH of about 5.8 to 6.
You can check your soil pH by doing a soil test using your own soil test kit or by sending a sample of your soil to a lab. The soil test will tell you the pH value of your soil and give you an idea of any deficiencies in your soil. You can increase your soil pH by liming your soil with dolomitic lime. Follow the liming directions carefully.
Beans need soil temperature of about 16 degrees C. They do not like cold weather or frost and need warm temperatures to germinate. If your soil is too cold you can cover your beds with row covers or wait until your soil warms up. The best temperatures for beans is between 20 - 25 degrees C. The best time to plant your beans is usually from October to December.
Crop rotation: don't grow your beans in the same site year after year. Rotate your beans (legumes) with other crops such as maize.
Companion planting: You can intercrop or companion plant your beans with maize but be careful because beans don't grow well when they are shaded. To reduce the shading effect you can grow multiple rows of beans after two rows of maize. Don't plant beans with alliums (onions).
Windbreaks: Beans need protection from strong winds. You can plant a hedgerow or use an artificial windbreaker to protect your beans from strong winds.
Clear the site of any weeds. We outlined land preparation in our growing maize guide, check it out for more details. Well prepared land helps with good germination and reduce weed competition.
If you choosing to till, don't plough too deeply and follow ploughing with harrowing your fields. Incorporate organic matter such as compost into your fields to improve your soil structure. If you don't produce your own compost on-farm you can buy compost from commercial compost producers such as Zimbabwe Earthworm Farms.
Sowing and Planting
Start with good quality seed. If you plant beans where they have not grown before dust them with an inoculant for the specific bean type e.g Thiram (a seed protectant fungicide) for sugar beans or a relevant rhizobium for the specific bean. You can buy inoculants from a farm supply store.
Succession planting: You may want to practice succession planting your beans. Succession planting means to plant once, then plant again ( e.g. two weeks later). This helps with getting a continuous bean harvest and with averting crop failure.
Seeders: You can use a hand bean precision seeder or tractor seeder to direct seed your beans for faster planting (seeding). Some farmers use seeders just for beans. You calibrate your seeder for proper spacing. Beans do not transplant well, so better to plant them directly into your fields.
If you don't have a seeder you can use string and stick to make holes and place seed, it's slower but still works just fine. Cover the planting holes with soil using a rake.
Plant your beans in rows to make it easier for correct density, weeding and harvesting. Plant when soil is moist. The spacing and density for your beans varies by the bean type:
Plant 20 to 50 cm centimeters inter-row spacing. You need about 80- 100 kg/ ha of seed. Refer to your seed pack for specific spacing for your seed type. Plant 1 seed per station at depth of about 5 cm deep.
Refer to the information provided by the seed supplier for information on spacing and density.
Uniform germination depends on soil moisture and temperature. Always keep your soil moist up until the seeds emerge.
Wait for the soil has warmed up before planting. Beans need warm soils. Bush beans typically germinate in about 7 days, while pole beans germinate in about 14 days. Fill in gaps after seeds emergence (one or two weeks after planting.).
Climbing beans can grow as tall as 4 m tall, so therefore need support to lift them off the ground. Staking your pole and runner beans helps produce a clean, high-yielding crop in a small space. You can use a single, string and stake trellis, tripod stake or rope stake to support your beans.
For more on staking plants check out our post "How to Grow Tomatoes outdoors."
Beans are light feeders that produce nitrogen so do not need much fertiliser. Incorporate a lot of organic matter (well-rotted manure and compost) in your soil to improve your soil fertility.
While beans may not need a lot of fertiliser they may need some depending on your soil condition. You can apply some phosphorous (P) at planting. Use SSP or Compound L for phosphorus. You will need about 150 kg/ ha of compound L. Your soil test results can better determine the right fertilization needed for your specific field.
Remove annuals and perennial weeds prior to planting by ploughing and cleaning your fields. Weeds compete with your beans for nutrients, sunlight and space. You can weed using mechanical or chemical means. Limit use of chemicals (herbicides) to remove weeds, and only use them in extreme cases. You can apply mulch (straw, cut grasses or compost) around your beans to suppress weeds.
Chemical Weeding: You can apply chemical weeding depending on type of weeds in extreme cases. Chemical (herbicides) are divided into pre-emergence or post-emergence herbicides. Pre-emergence herbicides: Dual Magnum, Sencor, Lasso. Post-emergence herbicides: Fusilade Super, and Classic.
Herbicides are available from places like Windmill and ZFC.
Watering and Irrigation
Most of your water will come from rainwater. But you may need to set up irrigation (drip, sprinkler etc) or harvest rainwater for times of prolonged dry spells. This is the best way of keeping your plants healthy. Companies such as Driptech provide irrigation services.
To conserve water, you should water early in the morning or evening so water doesn't immediately evaporate. Your plants need consistent soil moisture of about 1 inch of water per week from rain or by watering.
Beans have shallow roots and can easily dry out. If your soil dries out you will reduce your overall yield potential. Make sure to water your beans deeply and evenly every week. You can use a rain gauge and soil sensors to monitor how much water your plants are getting.
Do not leave the soil around your plants bare, cover it with mulch. Mulches help conserve water and prevent weeds! Mulch is a twofer (two for one!).
You can learn more about accessing water for your farm in a post we published titled "How to Run a Water Wise Farm."
Pests and Disease
They is a long list of common pests and diseases that can affect beans. They best method of preventing disease is by practicing good agronomic practices ( planting at right time, proper spacing, watering, removing diseased plants etc). It is important to keep your bean plants healthy so they don't succumb to pests and disease.
Practice regularly checking your plants for pests so that you discover them early to prevent them from destroying your entire crop.
Cutworm: can completely sever the stems of your seedlings. They are larvae that curl up when undisturbed.
Aphids: sap-sucking pests, that are rarely cause serious problems. Signs of aphids are plants that are curled, yellow and stunted. You can control them using lady bugs, insecticidal soap or by blasting them with water.
Red Spider Mites: are tiny red or yellow creatures that generally live on the undersides of leaves; their feeding causes yellow stippling on leaf surfaces.
Semi-Loopers: common pest especially during the flowing and pod filling stage. Eat leaves and pods.
Stem maggots: causes wilted bean stems. They can be prevented by choosing a resistant seed variety. You can control them using neem, applying mulch and planting at the onset of rains when populations are low.
Other common pests are root knot nematodes, and CMR beetle (blister beetle). Not all pests are harmful, and can be easily removed.
Anthracnose: a fungal disease that causes back, egg-shaped, sunken cankers on pods, stems, and seeds and black marks on leaf veins. You can avoid it by not working wet fields which causes disease to spread. You can use fungicides to control it.
Angular Leaf Spot: a bacterial disease usually visible at the flowering stage. Signs of leafspots are lesions on leaves. Caused by late planting and extended wet periods.
Rhizoctonia root: signs appear on stems or roots as reddish lines or circular lesions. Can cause stem rot, seedling death and wilting.
Powdery Mildew: a fungal disease that affects beans when there is warm, wet and overcast weather. Signs are small, round whitish spots on upper part of leaves. Can be controlled using a fungicide with sulphur and aerating your soil before planting.
Common Bacterial Blight: bacterial disease spread by warm wet weathers. Signs are large, brown blotches on the leaves; the foliage may fall off the and the plant will die. Remove and destroy diseased plants.
Bean Common Mosaic Virus: signs include yellow leaves, stunted growth and lower yields. It is spread by aphids.
Bean Rust: fungal disease that attacks beans causing reddish brown spots on leaves, stems, and pods. To avoid rust, don't work wet plants. Apply a sulphur spray every 7 to 10 days until the disease is under control.
Fusarium Wilt: fungal disease that cause yellowing of the lower leaves.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
- Check your crops regularly. Use insect traps to monitor pests
- Use beneficial insects such as ladybugs, lacewings and hoverflies
- Use clean, certified seed
- Use disease-resistant varieties
- Practice crop rotation every one or two year to avoid disease build up in the soil
- Space your beans far enough apart to provide air flow
- Use clean surface to process your harvested beans
- Use biopesticides e.g pyrethium
- Remove weeds before planting and weed regularly
- Don't harvest beans when foliage is wet
Chemical pesticides: if all else fails you may need to apply chemical pesticides. Use recommended insecticides with caution.
The insectides for beans are Malathion (aphids, spider mites, cucumber beetles, leaf miner), Dursban (diamondback moth, cutworms, bollworms) , Diazinon ( bean flies, bean caterpillar) and decis (red spider mite.
Harvesting, Post-Harvesting & Processing
Harvest when your bean plants are mature and ready to pick.
Pick green beans when the pods are as wide as a pencil, tender, bright green and before the seeds inside form bumps on the pod. Pick them every 2 to 4 days or grow too big, lose flavour and tenderness. The more you pick, the more they produce. Don't wash freshly harvested beans can form mold. Place in a cooler, not freezer to preserve flavour.
Bush varieties are ready to harvest about 2 to 3 weeks after they bloom. Pods will be long, slender and velvety. Pole beans mature slowly can be harvested right through the season.
To dry beans harvest the beans when they have turned yellow-brown. You can also check that the seeds rattle in the pod. Seeds should be very hard
If its forecast to rain and pods are yellow pull them down and hang them upside down off the ground in a shed to dry. It important to protect your harvest from the rain.
Pull up the whole (entire) plant by hand. Beans produce the majority of their crop during a two to three week period. Place the beans on clean tarp for sorting and grading. Remove any damaged beans and separate beans by variety.
Fresh beans should be marketed quickly before they lose their sweetness. The alternative is to dry your beans.You can dry your beans in the sun or using a heated-air dryer. Process using a thresher
You can treat beans with Actellic Super before storing.Store the shelled beans in a dry, clean, well-ventilated storage room. Place in clean bags (wash used bags). Make sure bags do not have any holes and are airtight. Good, airtight, hermitically sealed bags such as Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) bags.Beans can store for up to a year if they are kept cool.
Beans are cost competitive and can be sold on the local or export market depending on available quantities and the varieties. Make sure though that you do some research to see if a market exists for your selected bean variety in your target market.
Informal markets: You can sell your beans by the bucket at local informal markets such as Mbare Musika or Sakubva. The prices vary depending on supply and demand.
Processors: White pea beans and sugar beans can be sold for canning to a processing companies such as Cairns Foods and Harvest Fresh. Cairns has been working on increasing is production of baked beans. Sugar beans can also canned so they are quick and ready to cook and eat (convenience foods) such as these KOO Canned Speckled Beans.
Contract farming: You can sign a contract to supply beans such as sugar beans and white pea beans with processors. Read your contract carefully and make sure it has a clause for challenges like pests and climate risks that might affect your crop. Review the payment terms and price before deciding on a buyer. Avoid side-selling if you are not happy with a contract, choose instead to agree on terms before hand.
The Grain Marketing Board (GMB) is a buyer of dried sugar beans. Other bean contractors and buyers are companies like Sidella Trading (cowpeas) and Reapers.
Other Markets: explore other high value local markets such as schools, hospitals and supermarkets to supply your fresh or dried beans. Just make sure they are making payments!
Record Keeping and Budget
Keep track of what seeds you used, the supplier, number of seeds, dates planted, your soil type, the weather, yield etc. Keeping good records can help explain a challenges that happened in the field and help with better future decision making. Try to make decisions based on real numbers not on guessing.
* Fertiliser (SSP and Compound L)
* Land Preparation
Have you grown beans? Are you planning on growing beans? We would love to hear your take in the comments.