Otto Friesen explains how a farming cooperative from a Mennonite community in Belize became one of the world’s top exporters of black-eyed peas and red kidney beans.

By Dario Bard

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As the 20th century came to a close, the bean growers of Belize’s Mennonite community of Spanish Lookout were regularly ending up with surplus production. Their red kidney bean supplies were especially abundant, well beyond the country’s domestic demand. As a result, they began contemplating overseas sales. As a first step, in order to meet international quality standards, they pooled together their resources and purchased a processing plant from Peru.

“That plant was set up here in the year 2000. The farmers installed it themselves and also bought out a private plant that was already here, and that’s how we got our start,” says Otto Friesen, CEO of Bel-Car Export & Import Company Limited, a cooperative formed by 200 bean farmers from a community with a population of less than 2000 individuals.

Within a decade, Bel-Car was shipping 8 million pounds of black-eyed peas throughout the Caribbean and to markets as far away as the Middle East, making Belize the world’s fourth largest exporter of the pulse product.

The volume has since dropped off a bit, but Bel-Car continues to export about 6.5 million pounds of black-eyed peas and 5 million pounds of red kidney beans every year.

Asked what he attributes Bel-Car’s rapid success to, Friesen mentions two fundamental guiding principles: collaboration and trust. These are principles rooted in the community’s history.

The Mennonites arrived in Belize in 1958, most coming from Mexico, where the government there was attempting to impose a social welfare system on them; this would have required their children to attend public schools instead of Mennonite schools, and also would have made male adults subject to a military draft.

“Our beliefs based on the Bible say it is not right to kill,” notes Friesen, summing up the Mennonite’s pacifist stance.

In Belize, which was then called British Honduras, they found a welcoming host. The colonial government at the time was then ruled by the Peoples United Party, which was pushing for independence; as such, it was interested in building an agricultural sector to feed the future sovereign nation. The Mennonites agreed to take on that task in exchange for religious freedom, exemption from military service and the right to educate their children as they saw fit. Belize achieved independence in 1981.

“Belize was very welcoming, but financially the first years were rough,” says Friesen. “The first Mennonites moved into the jungle with very little and started chopping. Quite a few people gave up early on and moved back to Mexico and Canada. But working together, they managed to change things significantly.”

And Bel-Car’s position as a leading bean exporter in the Caribbean region and beyond is a testament to that legacy.

IFT: What bean varieties do you produce?

Otto Friesen: Black-eyed peas are what we produce most. Then come light red kidney beans. We can also produce black beans and light speckled kidney beans if there is an interested buyer.

We plant the red kidney beans in November and early December, and then harvest them in February and March. Black-eyed peas tend to be planted a little bit later because they are very sensitive to rain when they are drying out; rain discolors them. The dry season begins around February, so farmers like to plant them so that the harvest takes place during the dry season, when there is less chance of rain.

Beans are our winter crop, so after they are harvested, corn, our summer crop, is planted in the same fields. So we have a rotation of corn and beans over the course of the year.

IFT: Black-eyed pea exports peaked in 2009 at 8 million pounds. Now Bel-Car is exporting about 6.5 million pounds. What do you attribute this decrease to?

Otto Friesen:Part of it is that farmers have been facing serious problems with fungus out in the fields. Additionally, for the past year and a half, worldwide black-eyed pea prices are dropping. Farmers grow the commodities that they believe will give them the best return, so with fungus in the fields and the price being what it is, they are slowly changing over to other commodities like soybeans, corn and sorghum.

IFT: Are you seeing a trend away from beans, then?

Otto Friesen:I don’t expect we’ll stop producing beans in the short term. It depends on prices. Right now, farmers are putting quite a bit of effort into soybeans and rice. Rice has expanded quite a bit in the Spanish Lookout area and soybeans are really coming out now. That is a totally different market that we as a company are not even into as yet. We are having discussions with farmers, though.

But besides beans, two and a half years ago, we put up a cornmeal plant that went off really well. We are supplying the Caribbean with cornmeal. And we do quite a bit of bulk corn for fed; we are supplying big farms and small feed mills in the CARICOM region with corn. It is actually growing faster than the bean side right now.

But with our bean/corn rotation, that isn’t taking anything out of bean production. I see our business continuing with black-eyed peas and red kidney beans. I don’t see a strong downward trend, but I also don’t see a strong upward trend.

IFT: Tell me a bit about how the cooperative works.

Otto Friesen:The basic principles are trust and collaboration. Both helped our ancestors establish this community and have kept us around since then. This is a farmer-owned cooperative, and we don’t have a lot of bylaws and written rules. The farmers that own it confide their grains in us and we export the product for them; the trust is there that we will sell it for the best available price. That prevents farmers from competing against each other and causing prices to drop.

We try to operate things so everyone benefits in the end. Different commodities are treated slightly differently, but to give you an idea, with black-eyed peas for instance, 95% of what we produce is exported. The farmers, right after harvest, put the crop into their storage bins. The farmers are responsible for storage; we don’t have black-eyed storage on facility. So after they have stored it in their bins, they come to us and fill out a form letting us know how much they have in their bins. And now with traceability requirements, they also have to inform us of the date of planting and harvest, what chemicals were used, and what lot the production is from. Once the form is filled out, we give the farmer a down payment of up to 15 Belize dollars (about US$ 7.50) for every 100 pounds right on the spot. Then we know how much we have to export for the year, and we start exporting, making a payment to the producers every month. Usually about 5 dollars a month. We also pay a little bit of their storage costs on a monthly basis. When we start exporting, we randomly pick farmers and call on them to deliver their product, and we pay a part of that farmer’s storage costs up to the time he delivers. So whoever stores longer, gets more storage costs covered. That way we don’t have farmers pressuring us to empty their tank first.

After we sell the entire crop, we calculate the total revenue we got out of that crop, we deduct our interest expenses incurred from borrowing upfront from the bank to make the down payment before selling, and the storage expense, and also take a profit for our factory to remain viable. And the rest of it goes to the farmers. That way, if the market price fluctuates over the course of the year, even if by a lot, the farmers all get the same price. It is not that the one who sells at the right time gets a lot more than the others.

IFT: What are your primary export markets?

Otto Friesen:We export black-eyed peas all over the world, especially to the Middle East, the U.S., Canada and Europe, but our priority market still remains the CARICOM region.

CARICOM is also practically the exclusive market for our red kidney beans. With red kidney beans, it is more difficult for us to compete with U.S. subsidized farming. We might be able to with black-eyed peas, but not with red kidneys. In the CARICOM region, we have the benefits of the CET (Common External Tariff), under which there are tariffs on imports from outside the region if that same product is available from a country inside the region. This allows us to sell red kidney beans to other CARICOM countries at a slightly higher price than the U.S. would, or Argentina or whoever else has them. If it wasn’t for the CET, it would be hard for us to survive.

IFT: What are your busiest trading months?

Otto Friesen:CARICOM is our priority market and we usually get a slightly better price there than into other markets. Over the years, we’ve gained the experience to know how much CARICOM consumes throughout the year, and we aim to keep a stock on hand to supply them accordingly. Anything more than that amount we like to sell as soon as we can, so the post-harvest months of April and May tend to be the busiest.

IFT: What are your stocks like presently?

Otto Friesen:Right now, we aren’t exporting red kidney beans; what we have in stock is for domestic consumption.

In terms of black-eyed peas, we had a large carryover from last campaign. What happened there is that we had a large contract with a Middle East client, but then there were problems with our bag supplier. The client wanted all the bags pre-printed with their company’s name, the expiration and packing date, and so forth. The buyer wanted the black-eyed peas for Ramadan. But it took three weeks longer than agreed upon to get the bags printed and that meant the beans wouldn’t have arrived on time. So we have a large stock of black-eyed peas right now. We’ve had discussions with U.S. importers that have expressed interest in buying quite a bit in November. The U.S. crop is being harvested now and I don’t know how big it will be. We’ve heard it won’t be that big. We’ll just have to see what happens in November.