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James Kelly, 2020 Tech Transfer Achievement

By Tracy Henion

James Kelly knows beans.

He’s spent 40 years developing roughly 50 varieties of dry beans at Michigan State, built to help bean growers and bean seed producers, boosting the Michigan bean industry.

Kelly’s work translates into increased yield, enhanced plant architecture, improved processing quality and better drought tolerance and disease resistance for an essential crop segment.

“They’re not all stars,” Kelly said of his dozens of bean varieties. “Like everything else, you need to put them in the marketplace and see what they do. Some varieties have done well and are widely grown in Michigan and across North America. Others have literally bombed out.”

But if you don’t release them into the marketplace, he said, you never know how they’ll perform.

It’s one thing to develop a new variety of bean and name it, Kelly said. But the most important piece is to see the variety move through the process and get into the hands of farmers and growers and, ultimately, consumers. 

“MSU Technologies has played a key role in the commercialization of the varieties I’ve developed over the years,” he said. “They work on the licensing agreements with nonprofit seed growers associations and with private-sector companies.”

Beans have risen in prominence in recent years, thanks to the recognition of their benefit as a high-protein food. Migration has elevated their status as well, Kelly said, with more immigrants looking for black and pinto beans.

“I used to call black beans ‘yuppie food,’ you’d see them in upscale restaurants in soup in the 1980s,” Kelly said. “About five or 10 years ago, they’ve replaced navy beans as the second-largest commodity in the U.S.”

Kelly’s work doesn’t stop with the development of a new bean seed. His team looks at the entire cycle of the bean, from crop to can.

“When we produce beans, or when farmers grow them, they’re often sold to large canning companies which alter the flavor of the product with their own ingredients and process,” he said. “A baked bean may have lots of sugar and salt to market to a certain sector. So, even though I don’t work specifically on flavors of beans – because I have no way of measuring that – we do can all our new varieties to ensure they meet standards for canning qualities.”

Certain varieties Kelly and his team have developed don’t process well. “Some would literally explode in the can,” he said.

Have you ever opened a can of black beans and rinsed them off, only to watch their color run down the drain? Kelly’s work aims to correct that.

“We’ve developed some black beans that have a superior appearance,” he said. “One of the last ones we released holds its color in canning. The zenith variety stays jet black in the can; it’s something certain companies have requested.”

Connecting with those companies is essential to move his technology to market, and working with the MSU Innovation Center and MSU Technologies makes that commercialization possible.

“I’m a plant breeder,” Kelly said. “I’m not in the business of growing beans for seed and marketing it. MSU has licensed our technology to organizations that can do that successfully.”