Nov 14, 2007
Michigan Green Bean Broker a Vegetable Industry Leader

You’ve heard about people who don’t know beans. Vic Shank is not one of those.

Not only is he the president of the Michigan Vegetable Council, a leadership position in which knowing about vegetable industry issues and concerns is important, he runs a business that is all about green beans.

Each year, Central Produce Sales, the Dowagiac, Mich., company he owns and operates with his father, Bill, arranges for the production and delivery of 8,000 to 11,000 acres of green beans to processors who can or freeze them. They’ve been doing that in Michigan since 1983, ever since they moved their activities from Arkansas. Bill, now 71 and still active in the business, brokered green beans there long before his son joined the business.

“I’ve been wading in green bean fields since I was knee high,” Vic said.

With about two weeks left in the green bean season, Vic was busy, as he had been since the soil warmed up in May and the beans started to go into the ground. They harvested their first Michigan green beans July 2. Of course, his work started earlier – a year earlier, in fact – because setting the stage is the big part of the role he plays in the process.

The Shanks own a farm as well, devoting about 130 acres to apples and 160 to asparagus – and some years, they grow green beans themselves. This year, they produced 800 acres. But for the most part, they are brokers, not growers, of green beans. A manager operates the home farm.

For the Shanks, brokering green beans includes planning to meet the needs of the half dozen or so processors regularly supplied by Central Produce Sales, plus some the Shanks work with to provide a few loads during a part of the season or on a spot basis, and lining up about 60 growers who provide the land and grow the crop.

Green beans are best grown in a three-year rotation on irrigated land, Vic said, so the growers he works with are usually not specialists in green beans, or even in vegetable production. Many are grain farmers or growers of seed corn or potatoes – other crops that need rotation if they are to remain free of diseases and other pests.

These growers are, however, used to contract production and understand the need to follow contract specifications – planting the right varieties, applying timely irrigation, using the right fertility and pest control programs and, especially, harvesting at the right time. For planning purposes, Vic looks for 4 tons of beans per acre, but yields can range widely, depending on weather.

Green beans are top quality for about three days, Vic said, so they have to be harvested within a narrow window. When the temperature gets too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, windows open and shut or shift around, and it’s Vic’s job to respond to those conditions. For him, the cell phone was a marvelous invention.

Vic works with – and directs – other independent contractors who all play their parts, from the growers who plant the crop to a schedule to the crews that harvest and haul the beans.

“We work with a custom harvester who does it for us, exclusively, and has for 25 years,” he said.

The harvester owns the quarter-million-dollar machines that strip the leaves and beans from the plants, fan away the trash and dump the beans into the bin for transfer to trucks. All the trucking is contracted for, as well.

Southwest Michigan has a healthy vegetable processing industry, and the Shanks work mostly in six counties there, but they provide beans to processors in several Midwest states and Ontario. They also contract with a few growers in southern Indiana, which allows them to get an early start on the season.

“We’re more than just brokers,” he said. “We provide crop production inputs, supply the seed and specify the varieties. We oversee the process and guide growers through production of the crop.

“We provide a service to the processors and, at the same time, a market for growers. We need to satisfy both. Growers need quality and yield to make money, and we help them get that.”

Green beans take about 60 days from planting to harvest, which means some growers can plant two crops end to end on the same field. Shank contracts for some green beans 150 miles north of his home base, where the season is too short for two crops. Some growers plant green beans as a second crop after wheat, which comes off in early July.

The recent doubling of prices for corn, wheat and soybeans – prices pushed higher in part by rising demand for ethanol and other biofuels – has raised the rent on farmland in general and has affected the availability of land for vegetable crops, Vic said. While most crops benefit from crop rotation, a corn-soybean or corn-soybean-wheat rotation is easy, works fine and may entail less production risk. In the past, net values from processing vegetable production have been much higher than cash grain crops, high enough to lure cash crop producers to seek vegetable contracts. The economics of that are changing.

To take some of the risk out of the business, Vic has developed an insurance pool among the growers to pay some of the costs if they lose a crop to bad weather or, in some extreme cases, to having their fields bypassed when weather brings on too many beans to harvest during the proper window. There’s no profit in the pool; any extra money is returned at the end of the season.

On the day The Vegetable Growers News visited and took pictures, Vic was in a 120-acre field owned by farmer Glen Miller near Three Rivers. Four harvesting machines were working in the field, which was uneven in plant growth because of torrential rains a month earlier. The 25 inches of rain had drowned some of the beans.

The harvesters were four- and five-row Oxbo machines owned by Paul Chase, who was harvesting for Chase Farms, located nearly 200 miles to the north. It took eight hours to drive the machines to the field – 23 miles per hour over state highways.

It was a Paul Chase family operation. Laura Murphy, Paul’s sister-in-law, was driving one of the harvesters, describing what it takes to harvest clean, non-damaged beans. The fully lighted harvester can – and sometimes does – run all day and night. Satellite radio and air conditioning only partially offset the burden.

She’d been on the job since July 2, and a few frost-nipped leaves on the beans signaled that the season was almost over. But for six weeks, she’d been guiding the machine, gobbling up five rows at a time, going 1.7 miles per hour. She watches out for stones, monitors the height and speed of the header (which looks a lot like a street sweeper) and makes sure she doesn’t run down any deer or woodchucks.

A semi truck hauls about 24 tons of green beans, and it takes 2.5 dumper boxes to fill one truck. It takes Laura three dumps from her combine’s bin to fill a dumper box. One goal is to get the beans from the field to the processor in five hours or less, Vic said.

Over the years, the Shanks have been involved in contracting production of other processing vegetable crops – sweet corn, beets, carrots, celery – and still, on occasion, arrange a load of something for somebody.

“I know the vegetable industry guys,” he said.

All those linkages that need to be made between growers and processors make it natural that either will turn to the Shanks when they want vegetables to buy or grow. It’s also how he got involved in the Michigan Vegetable Council.

Kent Karnemaat, the Fremont vegetable grower who is past president of the MVC, and Chris Falek, who works at Gerber in much the same fieldman capacity as Shank does for bean processors, were among those who twisted his arm and got him on MVC about four years ago, he said.

Then they lured him into accepting the presidency.

The council’s board members meet three or four times a year, and sometimes have conference calls. Once, its major mission was to put on the Great Lakes Vegetable Growers Convention, but that task has been reduced in size by the creation of the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO, which spread the work of planning and organizing across several organizations.

“We are now trying to keep on top of legislative issues and regulations,” Vic said. “Our goal is to represent all those who are too busy to do it themselves.”

The last year or so, vegetable growers have shared a common issue: farm labor and the immigration reform that goes with it.

“Vegetable production includes a lot of labor-intensive crops,” he said. “We need a workable guest-worker program if we are to keep vegetable production in this country.”

There are other broad issues that affect vegetable producers besides migrant labor. These include water rights, right-to-farm issues and Extension funding cuts.

Over the years, MVC has formed a strong umbrella for vegetable producers that are fragmented into a host of minor crops. Sometimes, a minor crop with a small voice needs help making its case for research funding for a special disease or the need for a special-use permit for a pesticide to handle a specific problem.

For Vic and his business, the big concern now is soybean aphids. While they don’t like green beans enough to settle down and colonize at field, they sip, suck and sample as they move through green bean fields, leaving behind a host of viruses that cause disease. Spraying is not a workable defense, and he and growers have turned to Michigan State University to look for defenses that do work.

MVC has an executive secretary, Dave Smith, who does the day-to-day work.

“He does the work and we get the credit,” Vic said.

Because of that, Vic can spend more of his time knowing beans about beans – and that suits him perfectly.

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