Strong prices saw more hectares seeded to beans this year, but a dry spell quashed all hopes of repeating last year’s high yields.
Heading into the planting season, arid conditions in November and December set the stage for an expansion of Argentina’s dry bean area. The lack of moisture coupled with an increase in soybean export withholdings from 30 to 33% dissuaded growers from seeding a large soy crop at the end of 2019. That left farmland available to plant more dry beans in early 2020. Good rains in January into early February provided even more encouragement and enticed growers to start seeding their beans early.
Oscar Vizgarra, coordinator of the dry legume project at the Obispo Agro-industrial Experimental Station, reports that in the provinces of Tucuman, Santiago del Estero and southern Salta, where beans are seeded first, planting started as early as January 22nd. The weather conditions remained favorable as planting progressed northward.
But then, from February 17 to March 15, a dry spell set in, bringing planting progress to a halt as growers awaited additional moisture. In some areas, they had to wait as late as March 23rd.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Vizgarra of the prolonged dry weather. Because of it, he adds, “We have beans that emerged in late January, others in mid-February and some coming up now. That’s very late for our region.”
In Jujuy Province, José Liácono of Porosem, a bean seed company, reports that some bean crops succumbed to the prolonged dry conditions combined with high temperatures.
“In some cases, bean crops had to be reseeded,” he says. “But in the end, growers managed to get it all in the ground, though not all of it on time.”
Sergio Rafaelli, president of CLERA, Argentina’s national pulse association, estimates that 80 to 85% of the crop was planted by March 5th.
“The rest was seeded with a little bit of rain here and there,” he says.
By late March, planting was nearly wrapped up, with the bulk of the crop seeded within the regular planting window, he reports.
Compared to last year, CLERA estimates that all dry bean classes saw increased seeding, except for black beans. The expansion in the bean area, Rafaelli explains, is largely due to strong prices combined with changes to the government’s export withholding scheme. Withholdings on dry beans were reduced from 9 to 5% while withholdings on soybeans, which dry beans compete against for hectares, increased from 30 to 33%. Uncertainty about soybean futures at the time of seeding also helped push up the bean area, as did the success of the 2019/20 campaign, which cleared out dry bean inventories.
Alubia beans saw the most significant increase in area. Last campaign, Argentina had an excellent alubia bean crop, with above average yields of 1,300 kg/ha. and a good number of large-caliber beans. CLERA estimates 165,000 hectares were seeded to alubia beans this year, up 20,000 hectares from 2019.
At Porosem, Liácono reports that in addition to strong alubia bean seed sales, his company saw solid sales for cranberry, dark red kidney and light red kidney bean seed. CLERA reports more modest area increases for those bean classes, as well.
On black beans, CLERA estimates the seeded area at 140 – 150,000 hectares. Liácono says there wasn’t much interest in black beans this year, but because dry conditions in November and December discouraged farmers from seeding soybeans, they ended up seeding more black beans when conditions improved in January. The dry spell that hit in February, however, caused crop losses and consequently Rafaelli is of the opinion that the black bean area is on the low-end of CLERA’s estimated range.
In fact, the dry spell is likely to have left its mark across all bean classes.
“We have more alubia bean hectares this year, but we aren’t going to get the yields that we did last year,” laments Rafaelli. In 2019, yields along the Route 5 corridor east of Pichanal in Salta averaged 2,000 kg/ha, pushing up the average for the exportable supply to 1,300 kg/ha. “Even if we get rain moving forward, we won’t see yields like that. Because of the lack of adequate moisture at the start, the plants are not as tall. We also expect the caliber-size distribution won’t be as good. It will be more like it was in 2018, when we ended up with more medium-sized calibers than large-sized calibers.”
In Jujuy, Liácono says that if the weather cooperates, average yields are probable. But he also points out that it is premature to discuss productivity. Late-planted crops tend to yield less, he notes, and are at risk of frost damage.
Additionally, Vizgarra indicates that the presence of white fly, empoasca and several harmful fungi (fusarium and macrophomina) has been detected across the dry bean growing area.
CLERA lists the historic average yield for alubia beans at 1,100 – 1,200 kg./ha., for black beans at 1,200 – 1,300 kg/ha. and for colored beans (cranberry, dark red and light red kidney beans) at 1,150 – 1,250 kg./ha.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had worldwide economic and social consequences, with entire countries under lockdown and various industries shutdown. As the shipping industry struggles to cope with blank sailings and crew rotations, the pulse industries of several countries have run into difficulty finding empty containers for their exports. In Europe and North America especially, panicked consumers have raided supermarket and grocery store shelves for food essentials. In various countries, this has resulted in a spike in retail prices for dry beans and other pulses.
In Argentina, the government declared a national lockdown on March 20th, sealing off its borders and requiring people to remain in their homes. Certain sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, were exempted and allowed to carry on their regular activities. Consequently, the pandemic has only had nagging consequences for Argentina’s pulse industry thus far.
“On the production side, activity has continued in accordance with new government protocols,” says Rafaelli. “There have been some inconveniences. For instance, some towns have closed off roadways, and so some growers have to take the long way around to get to a field.”
In Jujuy, Liácono has had to deal with provincial border controls that have complicated access to agrochemicals and other inputs from neighboring Salta Province.
“You need authorization to cross over from one province to another, but its been a minor disruption,” he says.
“Trucks are still being loaded and product is moving,” reports Rafaelli. “Precautions are being taken and there are fewer personnel, so movement is slower than normal, but you can still operate.”
On the consumption side, Argentina remains a country dominated by meat-eaters. Domestic pulse demand has been gradually increasing, but remains negligible, with per capita consumption at a mere 800g per year.
“What we are seeing is unusual demand from certain destinations that are not normally in the market at this time of year,” says Rafaelli. “Usually, unless Algeria is in the market, March is a slow month for us. But this year, we are seeing movement on alubia beans as if Algeria were in the market.”
The demand is coming from a number of markets, including Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Holland, the Philippines, the UAE, Qatar and Israel.
“These are markets that we do export to sometimes, but they aren’t regular buyers,” says Rafaelli.
He is quick to add, however, that he doesn’t think the unusual activity in March is a result of the pandemic.
“Argentina’s pulse sector has been diversifying markets for the past few years,” he explains. “If you take the case of alubia beans, it used to be that we shipped to six or seven markets. Today we supply 50 markets. In 2019, Argentina exported 200,000 MT of alubia beans, well above our historic average, and I think that has a lot to do with the sector’s success in diversifying markets.”
Rafaelli also believes Argentina’s booming pulse exports reflect the world’s growing appetite for pulses as consumers become increasingly aware of their health, nutritional and environmental benefits, and the food industry launches more and more innovative plant-based products to satisfy this appetite.
As for the COVID-19 pandemic, he foresees long-lasting consequences.
“I suspect part of the reason people are buying canned and jarred foods is because it gives them a sense of food safety during a pandemic like this one,” says Rafaelli. “They are also spending more time at home, so they have more time to cook. Because of these two factors and the consumer demand for healthy and natural foods, I think we are going to see a before and after COVID-19. This experience will change the world once things return to normal. I have no doubt it will lead to changes in habits and in food consumption.”
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