Nebraska is a major producer of dry beans, with growers planting anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 acres of beans annually, ranking third in the U.S. in total production. The majority of the production is concentrated in western Nebraska, centered in Scotts Bluff, Box Butte, and Morrill Counties of the Panhandle with Scotts Bluff County being the 7th largest bean-producing county in the U.S. Furthermore, Nebraska is the number one producer of great northern beans in terms of market class.
Nebraska has grown the great northern bean for almost 100 years. Its history can be traced back to Chester Brown a Morrill, NE farmer in the early 1920s. Thinking it would be successful due a similar climate, elevation, and other growing conditions, he brought back great northern beans into the North Platte Valley after a visit to Idaho. The dry bean industry was then born as others saw his successes, encouraging them to adopt this crop and insert into their farming operations as well. These modest beginnings additionally served as a catalyst for the cultivation and marketing of this market class which continued to spread throughout the 20th century with Nebraska becoming the world leader the production of the great northern bean.
Many long-time residents of western Nebraska have likely heard about this story of Chester Brown and the introduction of great northern beans into Nebraska. However, the origin of this market class is probably not as well known. According to Leland W. Hudson, (Regional Plant Introduction Station, Washington State University), the 52nd annual seed catalog from 1935 of the Oscar W. Will and Company in Bismarck, ND, reported that the seed of the great northern bean was originally obtained by his father, Oscar H. Will, in 1887 a Hidatsa Native American known as Son of Star, whose tribe had grown the white bean for years.
Think about this the next time you are grocery shopping and purchase great northern beans, whether canned or dry. There is strong possibility that they were grown locally somewhere in the western Nebraska Panhandle, but also remember that they probably were also originally derived from a small sample received from a North Dakota Native American tribe more than 130 years ago.