In the modern era, Wisconsin agriculture is looking to reinvent itself as international in scope, forward thinking in its aspirations and unapologetic in its pursuit of perfection.
“We see that across the board in Wisconsin. No matter where you go in any part of the industry, competing in quality in a consistent theme and that’s a good place to be,” said Randy Romanski, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “There are always those who will undersell, but when you have a reputation for quality — which the state of Wisconsin clearly does with so many products — then it doesn’t matter. You’ll establish a place in the market.”
Romanski stopped Thursday by Chippewa Valley Bean near Menomonie to commemorate National Bean Day. The company was a fitting host in more ways than one. Not only is Chippewa Valley Bean the largest processor of dark red kidney beans in the world, but it’s an international juggernaut with a proven track record in foreign markets since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Today, roughly 70% of the company’s revenue comes from exports.
As the state makes a concerted effort to aggressively expand Wisconsin exports, Romanski said companies like Chippewa Valley Bean can serve as a model for agriculturists to reverence as they look to establish market share for themselves in places as diverse as Italy, China and Brazil.
“The one thing that comes out of this is that kidney beans are a specialty crop and it becomes very specialized because of the quality demands,” said Bob Wachsmuth, a co-owner and vice president. “We started this in ‘73 and we’ve always tried to have a high quality, low skin kidney bean. It’s about quality, safe quality, that’s always been our motto. I think it’s really king.”
Of course, what defines quality has shifted and evolved over the decades. As Chippewa Valley Bean enters the 2020s, their model is predicated on collaborative relationship with shippers, business partners and consumers, so they keep lockstep with changing preferences.
“Quality is number one, but there’s so many things we look at and we build ourselves in these markets. Our customers worldwide and domestically are asking these questions,” said Charles Wachsmuth, vice president of marketing. “What our steps to get there? What’s our sustainability plan? What are we doing — not just protecting the soil, but improving the soil? Are we looking at ways to adjust our energy consumption? People care about this. Companies are interested in this, and it’s coming through.”
Chippewa Valley Bean’s history is one of aggressive expansion from its relatively humble beginnings as a multi-family cooperative in the early ‘70s. Back then, its primary customers were Bush Brothers and Co., alongside a few smaller operations scattered across Wisconsin.
The company is largely operated by the same families fifty years later, but the subsequent decades have seen Chippewa Valley Bean make an aggressive foray into foreign markets. There’s been some challenges. China emerged as a formidable opponent in the early 2000s and tariff wars have proven tricky to work around, to say nothing of COVID-19, but today the company enjoys a robust presence in the international stage. This includes China itself.
President Cindy Brown said it proved easier to establish an exports model than it was to sell a can of soup stateside, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact it can be daunting for agricultural operations looking to dip their toes across the borders and overseas. Sometimes, it’s hard to pin down when and where a company should stake its claim in a foreign market.
A quality product is vital, but Chippewa Valley Bean’s model is one of aggressive marketing and collaboration, whether that’s working with state agencies, joining international trade federations, consulting with university programs or the like. And then, it’s often a matter of old-fashioned relationship building, as the company actively works to maintain connections with its foreign partners.
While Chippewa Valley Bean depends on exports, that isn’t to say it’s lost touch with its domestic roots. In fact, it’s not enough for the company to maintain a distinctive Midwestern flavor, but it’s executives openly promote a Wisconsin-centric vision. They’ve been fostering connections with local farmers, working with them to establish a rotational crop system that can support a viable kidney bean harvest every year.
“We ask ourselves, ‘Why aren’t we growing more beans in Wisconsin?’ As an organization, we said we want rural Wisconsin,” Charles Wachsmuth said. “We’re looking to establish a network of kidney bean farms, from north of us in Baldwin, all the way down to Hastings. Wisconsin’s the largest processor and exporter of kidney beans. Let’s make Wisconsin the largest grower community in the nation.”
And therein lies a path forward for Wisconsin agriculture, Romanski said, a $114.8 billion industry that’s looking to establish a recognizable brand overseas.
“It’s so important,” Romanski said. “Wisconsin should never have to apologize for competing in the high end, because we do.”