Hill of beans grows into prosperous business

In 1990 Steve Rounds, of RR#3 Lakeside, didn't get his beans off until the middle of November. "The Farmers in Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan- they all had their beans off by then," recalls Rounds. Processors had all they needed, and area dealers were having a hard time selling the late Ontario beans.

Rounds, like many farmers, had dealer contracts for about half his beans, but had planned to find buyers himself for the other half, in hopes of making more money than the dealer offered.

What he ended up with was 200 tons of dark red kidney beans and no place to sell them. Rounds' solution to the problem has since turned into a successful enterprise, which has been featured on Global TV Network's "Town and Country Ontario" a show about agriculture.

"Put'em in a pot"

"There's people going hungry in the world. There's no reason you can't sell food," Rounds remembers thinking. "Beans are an edible food. Put'em in a pot and cook'em."

In the fall of 1990, Rounds did just that. He took his chili pot to a farmers' market in London, offered free samples of chili, some recipes, and tried to sell his surplus dark red kidneys.

"The first couple of weeks, I didn't sell any and I really wondered if I was off my rocker," he said in a recent interview.

Eventually, he sold 500 pounds, a small fraction of the beans he had left over. The rest he was finally able to find buyers for late in 1991.

Developed business

Rounds didn't stop going to the markets when he finally got rid of the initial surplus. Now, he attends four London-area markets himself, and wholesales to vendors at nine others.

Rounds and his wife Dianne operate "Farm-Fresh Beans".  Rounds calls himself "the Bean Man" and their biggest seller is a mixture of 21 varieties of beans, peas, and lentils called "Hillbilly Beans."  Along with the Hillbilly soup mix, Rounds sells over 40 varieties of beans, peas, lentils and barley, in separate packages and in various soup mixes.  He also sells bean flour and recipe books.

He only grows seven varieties himself, and buys the rest wholesale.  Rounds says he insists on good quality beans.

"People can get turned off by dried beans because sometimes they sit for so long," he says.  Beans may sit for as long as two years, first in the farmer's bin and later in the bulk food store's container.  Older beans take longer to soak, they don't cook up as even. A fresh bean can soak up to a full size in half an hour.  Rounds says, "Old beans have to be cooked more, so they are mushy instead of firm and flavourful."  As for canned beans, he says people regularly try his beans and decide never to go back to the can.  One of the biggest challenges is making people realize what can be done with beans.  He says rural people tend to know how to cook and eat them but urban people don't have any idea.

At the markets he offers free samples of cooked beans as well as recipes.  The trend towards healthier eating has helped a lot, as people look for more "natural", less-processed foods.

Small Portion of Operation

"The Bean Man" draws a lot of satisfaction out of the success of his enterprise, but he doesn't draw a lot of profit.

Out of the 900,000 pounds of beans Rounds grows annually, only 20,000 pounds are sold this way.  The rest of the beans and other cash crops go the conventional way, through dealers.

The satisfaction comes when he sees the differences in the prices he brings in.

"I fight with dealers over two cents/pound and each pound is 30-32 cents/pound, when the average price I retail is $1.40/pound.  I'll be overwhelmed if I get to the point that I sell 100,000 pounds," says Rounds.

That article was published by the Journal-Argus of St Marys in 1993 written by Reporter Stew Slater.

Since then Rounds has developed other mixes such as Cowboy beans and Bermuda Salad bean mix.  "We try to come up with a new product every Christmas," he said.  "This year I am looking at baked beans with maple syrup."

The beans are now packaged by hand in a shed at the family farm to ensure quality and a clean mixture, Rounds said.

Despite the success of the bean business, Rounds said he still considers it a hobby and isn't ready to give up farming to run the bean sales operation full-time.  "I love farming," Rounds said. "And right now we enjoy the business.  But if the phone keeps ringing, then we'll have to rethink things."