NEWARK, Del. (AP) — Love them, hate them or indifferent to them, lima beans are big business in Delaware and somewhat of a "Small Wonder" of their own.
For starters, Delaware's Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee, who happens to love them, has known this for a long time. When it came time to write his master's thesis in 1975 at the University of Delaware, it didn't take long before he picked the little lima bean and it's not hard to see why.
Above sweet corn, lima beans dominate Delaware farmland as the No. 1 vegetable crop, sprawling over as many as 20,000 acres, worth as much as $5 million each year to First State farmers. Plus, there's room to grow the lima as Delaware is second only, yet not far behind, California in production.
Enough room that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the first time has awarded $1.5 million to advance the state's lima bean cause, and $75,000 came from the state Department of Agriculture to the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The funds have been matched, mostly by in-kind services, by growers and processors.
The cause: stimulate lima bean research and development in Delaware. In California, production is going down, but in the First State it's on the rise.
Increased research will pave the way for stronger crop yields, according to UD's Nicole Donofrio, associate professor of plant molecular pathology in the Plant and Soil Sciences Department.
"One of the biggest challenges in lima beans over the years has been various plant diseases and fungus that attack the plant," Kee said pointing to three specific examples; downy mildew, pod blight and white mold. "All of these diseases can really hurt yields, and they can be chronic, but they can also be acute. In some years it's not as big a deal but in others it can cause severe economic loss."
The primary objectives of the research are to battle fungus and disease, develop risk management strategies, determine genetic resistance to disease within the plants, attempt to invent a drought-resistant bean and molecularly characterize 250 different lines of lima beans at the DNA level to breed new varieties, which would be a first.
"Lima beans are the anchor in the processing industry in Delaware," said Thomas Evans, professor of plant pathology at UD. "Lima beans have become a very critical part to keeping the processing industry in the state."
Much of the country's corn crops withered in the scorching summer drought, but the more resilient lima bean has come out virtually unscathed. Initially, lima bean plant flowers fell to the harvest floor from oppressive temperatures and lack of rainfall, but unlike corn, they stood a second chance.
"The plant then re-flowers and puts out more flowers and those flowers stuck and the plants were pollinated, so it's a nice crop this year," Kee said.
It's tough to get federal funds these days, Evans added, but thankfully somebody finally listened to the merits of the UD work. In the past, UD has not received federal funding and in fact was denied three consecutive years.
"All the lima bean work has been done on a shoestring for 40 years," said Kee, whose earliest memory of the veggie dates to 1955, sitting on the family porch in Lewes shelling beans with his mother and two younger sisters.
"We would find four thousand here or get seed donated from there, or one thing or another," he recalled. "It's important we have great scientists to work on these issues."
Disease prevention will be a primary focus for UD researchers because unlike California's crop friendly climate, the humidity in Delaware invites fungus.
With funding in hand since early October, increased studies are under way as university scientists dive into uncharted waters, pioneering a path to more abundant and more lucrative yields.
"I think it's easier to grow lima beans as (UD scientists) translate the research here into usable things for the growers," Donofrio said. "We're also going to conduct an economic analysis of how our practices developed through this grant will provide an economic benefit to growers and processors."
That very benefit might come sooner rather than later.
According to Evans, a 27-year UD professor who spent 15 of those years knee-deep in lima bean research, the university plans to hire eight graduate students, doubling the size of the existing research team.
"This is a very large step forward in person-power to carry out the objectives of research on lima bean health," Evans said. "It's a major step."
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com