Madaline Dunn talked to Orion Roy-Wright, trade manager, and Jason Burns, general manager at ADM Edible Beans, to get their insight into the evolution of the pulse industry, how it's coping with recent trade challenges, and what's ahead for the company
ADM Edible Beans is a strategic partner of Global Pulses Confederation and a key sponsorship partner for the upcoming Pulses 22 convention in Dubai on May 10-12. Haven’t registered yet? You can do so here.
To start, tell me a bit about yourselves and your experience in the pulse industry.
Orion: I started in the grain industry around seven years ago, working as a grain buyer. Then, I moved into a trading role in Winnipeg and dealt with pulses as well as soybeans, barley, flax, and canola. From there, I became a trade manager for pulses. After three years, I transferred to a tech company called Farmers Business Network - I built their export trade book and then I came back to work for ADM at their global trade headquarters as their edible bean trade manager.
I trade European peas, fava beans, North American red lentils, and South American beans. I deal with everything outside the Americas: Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
What about you, Jason?
Jason: I'm the general manager of edible beans, and I've been here for 11 years in various roles. My recent experience at the company has been focused on the commercial side of things but, in the last few months, I've started on a new venture taking on both seed and commercial for edible beans.
How have you seen the industry change over the years?
Orion: It's a very interesting time in the pulse industry right now. When I came in, it was still rather frothy - there was some margin in the game and it was all focused on India. India was buying everything it could but then we saw a drastic shift in the political winds and it brought in substantial trade barriers that halted that flow. The industry was left scrambling for a few years after that but we've seen a great deal of consolidation in terms of who's participating since then.
I'd say edible beans are a microcosm of the same thing. In the US, we've seen a move towards professionalism and a more steady and secure pipeline. The industry has moved into a situation where the end-user wants to see where their product is coming from and ADM, which manages the entire supply chain, is in a good position to meet this demand.
Tell me a bit about ADM's edible bean business. How has it evolved over time, how far does its footprint span and what are your product offerings?
Jason: Our edible bean business was secured through acquisition back in the 1990s and now we've got locations spread across the major growing regions, including Michigan, North Dakota, Minnesota, Idaho, and Wyoming. Our main products are standard, triple-cleaned dry edible beans and the major classes we handle include navy beans, pinto beans, black beans, and small reds. We do some kidney beans, pink beans, and great northerns, too.
We also own and operate ADM Seedwest, which is a business that operates in the seed production region in Idaho. We market its products, which are our commercially certified seeds that go to growers and have a vertically integrated supply chain right down to the end-user.
The pulse industry is currently seeing a lot of flux regarding supply, prices and exports. What changes, challenges and trends are you noticing?
Jason: Right now we’re seeing a lot of uncertainty. Prices of products have gone up on both ends of the spectrum, so our suppliers for the commercial business, which is theoretically the growers, are dealing with a challenging cost environment. They've got rising input prices, and we've got a commodity complex that's at an all-time high in terms of being competitive for trying to gain acreage. Alongside that, on the end-user side, domestically, we're entering a phase where people are trying to determine what the new normal will look like in terms of demand outlook. Covid created a large demand spike and, while some businesses have seen things come back down to pre-covid levels, others haven't. So, it isn't easy to decipher what the new normal will be, and it will also vary depending on what segment of the industry you're talking about, e.g. canning, packaging, food service, or retail. This unpredictability is making it difficult for both our customers and ourselves to manage. Overall, there's a good bean supply right now in terms of availability but there’s lots of uncertainty around prices and the movement of products, too.
At the same time, the drought in North Dakota made for lower yields and meant the balance sheet was tighter than expected. I don't think we're in a critical situation like we were a couple of years ago but, with all the other uncertainties and the factors driving the market today, I think some would like to see the balance sheet a little bit more secure than it is.
For our 2022 crop, there's a lot of pressure to make our acre base adequate but it's difficult to do that when commodity crops are so competitive. Long-term demand from the end-user side is still pretty uncertain, too and it's hard to make decisions when prices are so high.
Ultimately, it's difficult to grasp just how much demand there is right now and that's being caused by several factors, including the trailing Covid demand hangover. Other challenges for our business and our customers' businesses include labor shortages, transport, and ingredient and supply issues, whether that's related to packaging, materials or trucking - that's something we're seeing from our European customer base especially.
Yes, Orion, can you give me more insight into what you're seeing on the European side?
Orion: It's been an odd year. I think everybody assumed a certain amount of pent-up demand would come rushing into the market - so that's been somewhat disappointing. There's a fair amount of stock at port here but that's getting chewed through. I think the end-user realizes they're being squeezed by all their input costs and the refusal of supermarket chains to increase their prices but I think it's starting to dawn on them that it isn't going to translate into cheaper beans - there's no way that that's going to be the part that gives in this equation. I think that's going to have to be pushed onto the consumer; more people are realizing that now and we're seeing a bit of uptake.
I think something that will help is that when we look at next year's crop and the values - it's becoming evident that it's going to be priced as a premium to the current crop. There's a higher price trading at new crop value than current, which is not a particularly normal situation and it should push demand into the front. That's coalesced into a situation where demand is starting to pick up in Europe. It's been slower than was anticipated, but we're starting to see some traction.
Regarding UK tariffs, we've had some positive meetings in the UK with trade representatives and it sounds like the situation will be resolved by the next growing year. So, we're seeing more participation from the European market. China's still very active, too, which is a new development considering they were an exporter until two or three years ago. Seeing them come in and actively participate in the navy bean market has changed the dynamic. Now, with Asia opening up, everybody knows when China starts buying they don't necessarily quit - so I think we will see more demand in the near future.
Jason: With regards to what Orion said about end-users, we're essentially seeing the same thing in the US domestic market. There are end users that will most likely have needs between now and the new crop to bridge the gap but, when prices are so high, if you don't have to buy, you're likely to stretch your inventory as far as you can before you pay that high price. The trajectory is that the prices might even be higher three months from now but many don't want to buy something today at a higher price if they don't need it now - so that's making it difficult for us to position the business in terms of a production standpoint. With all the other logistical challenges we’re seeing today, there's not a lot of activity but, at some point, it's going to break loose when people are forced to make decisions.
Orion: We're also seeing a switch from a market that has fundamentally been driven by supply and demand to one that has a bit of food inflation built into it. The 7% inflation rate you see in the US and the even higher rate in Europe translates directly into food products.
How is the company navigating the Russia-Ukraine war?
Orion: On the edible bean front, we are removing Ukrainian and Russian supply and adding demand into Ukraine through food aid, because edible beans are a typical food for them to consume. On the pulse side, ADM is no longer trading Russian products - so that requires a change in our position, but I think it's the right thing to do with trying times globally and everybody has to do their part to support Ukraine
Right now, most companies are trying to figure out what Russia and Ukraine have left. For edible beans, I think that means more from the US. For pulses, there will probably be a reshuffle with China stepping in to alleviate Russian. Trade flow is changing in ways that we didn't anticipate - apart from yellow peas for feed in Europe -, it could go all kinds of different ways.
Currently, we're trying to figure out what it all means. There's mass confusion. Overall, the fact is we now have fewer white beans than we did before and there's really no way to replace them apart from, in my opinion, North America.
What is ADM Edible Beans working on right now? What areas of focus are you pursuing?
Jason: We're in an exciting time right now within the industry for edible beans, and it's starting to feel like the market is consolidating. ADM will be looking to take a part of that as we expand the business. We're spending a lot of time focusing on food safety, too.
We've also got some good things in the pipeline regarding sustainability and traceability. We're seeing continued interest from the consumer about where the product comes from and how it is produced. ADM is in a perfect position in the supply chain to take a role in that. Likewise, as the industry continues to wrap its head around sustainability and what that means, ADM intends to lead by example and establish a good framework for the industry to work from.
Orion: ADM's been involved with pulses for a while and we've launched our global office to consolidate that. The idea is to consolidate all the different portions into a global pulse position. Over the last two years, we've seen our global strategies really take off, especially this year, increasing our volumes to double and triple. We have seen a rapid consolidation with the container issue and the transition into bulk shipments, which I think ADM is in a great position to benefit from. We're here to grow and capitalize on the new opportunities that the less container-focused pulse game has given us.
As a sponsor of Pulses 2022, what are you most looking forward to about the conference?
Orion: I'm looking forward to seeing everybody again and having a catch-up - it's a great industry, with great people. It's always important to make new contacts, too.
We've seen a pretty rapid change in ownership structure, especially in North America and Asia, so I'm excited to see the new faces of these new entities we'll be dealing with.
Jason: Yes, it's definitely time to get back in touch with our customers, and I think that's something that's been a challenge, but we've created new ways of doing business, which has been good. That said, we need to get back to face-to-face business because that's what creates more consistency and better structure within the industry - so I think it's good we're heading that way again.