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Published January 23 2010

Well-kept secret: Co-op processes pinto beans

BUXTON, N.D. - Gary Fuglesten sometimes has a hard time explaining to the public what he does.

“People usually have heard of soybeans. Not pintos,” he said.

But the general manager of Central Valley Bean Cooperative here, about 50 miles north of Fargo, knows that the people who matter most – farmers and customers – understand the value of pinto beans, which his cooperative processes.

“We have a quality product, and people in our industry realize that,” Fuglesten said.

Though pinto beans’ importance may not be recognized widely, the crop quietly has become a star in the farm economy of eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

North Dakota dominates U.S. pinto production, accounting for about two-thirds of the nationwide crop. Minnesota ranks sixth.

The Buxton cooperative is a leader, too, processing about 6 percent of the U.S. pinto crop.

Central Valley Bean Cooperative sends its beans to canners, grocery stores and restaurants

Pinto beans, notable for their mottled color, are sold in bags and cans.

They’re widely used for refried beans and also are popular in soups and three-bean salads, among other foods.

Think of it this way:

Every time you eat a burrito – or any other food containing pinto beans – there’s a fair chance the beans were processed in Buxton.

Don’t confuse pinto beans with soybeans. The latter, grown widely in this area, typically are fed to livestock or used in a wide variety of products including crayons, cooking oils and pharmaceuticals.

The soil and climate of eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota are well-suited to pinto beans, said Kevin Sondreal, a Reynolds, N.D., farmer and president of the Buxton cooperative board of directors.

Pintos also slot nicely into the harvest schedule of some farmers – beans are harvested after crops such as wheat and before crops such as corn, he said.

For some producers, pinto beans “are just a real good fit,” Sondreal said.

Pintos and other dry edible beans, including navy, kidney and black, began catching on with farmers in this region in the early 1980s.

That led to the establishment of the grower-owned Central Valley Bean Cooperative in 1982.

One big plus for the Buxton plant:

Its products are moved by rail, and the plant is on the main line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

“Being on the main line provides a lot of security to our customers,” Fuglesten said.

The cooperative, which has 300 grower-members and 10 full-time employees, has grown as pinto beans’ popularity with farmers has grown.

It now has 10 receiving stations, or locations at other area grain elevators, where pinto beans are collected and sent to the Buxton plant.

The Buxton operation, in turn, is a navy bean receiving station for Thompsons dry bean processing plant in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Pinto bean buyers want high quality, Fuglesten said.

So the Buxton plant uses a number of machines that sort through the beans and remove stones, dirt balls and damaged beans.

This past spring, the cooperative added a special “electronic eye” – a machine that does an even better of removing unwanted material.

“Purity is very important to our customers,” he said.

Pintos aren’t the only dry edible bean grown in this area.

North Dakota leads the nation in overall dry bean production, with Minnesota ranking fourth.

Given that, Fuglesten said his cooperative someday could add another dry bean – perhaps black beans – to its line.

For now, though, the Buxton crop is sticking solely with pintos.

“They’ve been good for us, and we think that’s going to continue,” Fuglesten said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530