By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- Idaho dry bean industry leaders expect to make a decision soon on whether to create an endowment to help fund a bean breeding program at the University of Idaho.
The endowment would be about $1 million and would likely result in an increase in the assessment fee growers and dealers pay to fund the Idaho Bean Commission's research and promotion efforts.
IBC Commissioner Don Tolmie said the eight-member board expects to make a decision by early summer, though it could decide as early as the commission's April 23 meeting.
The commission has been mulling the idea of funding a bean breeder position with the goal of developing a commercial pinto cultivar that performs better in Idaho's climate and soil conditions.
Idaho is the nation's top bean seed producer because of a unique statewide quality control program that certifies Idaho dry bean seed is disease-free. But the state is less competitive with some other states when it comes to commercial beans because of higher production costs associated with irrigation.
The only way Idaho growers can overcome that competitive disadvantage they face against dryland growers is through yield increases.
"If Idaho is going to stay a leader in the bean industry, the big question is, can we do that without having a bean breeder here in Idaho and our own breeding program?" said IBC Administrator Lacey Menasco.
While pinto varieties currently yield about 30-35 hundredweight per acre in Idaho, the goal is to develop a variety that could yield 50-60 hundredweight, Tolmie said.
"That would be wonderful ... if we could develop varieties that are specific to Idaho growing conditions," said IBC commissioner Dana Rasmussen, who grows 330 acres of commercial and seed beans in Paul.
Idaho's dry bean assessment, which is 8 cents per cwt. for growers and 4 cents per hundredweight for dealers, hasn't been raised since 1961.
A recent grower survey that asked producers whether they would be willing to pay a higher assessment to support an Idaho-specific breeding and research program received mixed results. While 94 people who responded somewhat agreed with doing that and 15 strongly agreed, another 51 somewhat disagreed and 28 strongly disagreed.
"We kind of got a mixed message there," said IBC Commissioner Bill Bitzenburg, who grows dry beans near Twin Falls. "It's really hard to read those results. It wasn't overwhelming one way or another."
But Tolmie said 109 people total agreed with the question compared to 79 who disagreed and he believes the support would be stronger if growers were presented a specific proposal.
The endowment proposal is one of several options the commission is looking at. Others include partnerships with private researchers or other universities or just funding a single research technician position.
Creating a partnership with UI is the preferred choice "but we also have a fiduciary responsibility to growers and warehouses who pay the assessment to make sure they get the most bang for their buck," Tolmie said.