Letters to the Editor

Beans are her business

When Connie Bradford tells friends and neighbors how she makes her living, they tend to give her a look that is equal parts puzzled and amused.

It’s not everyday, after all, that you meet someone whose official title is compliance director for the National Dried Bean Council.

But that is, indeed, what Bradford does, tallying up expense accounts and making sure federal money is properly spent in an effort to promote this country’s dried bean industry.

“My mother just marvels,” Bradford admits. “I used to cry my way into a D in math.”

These days, Bradford, 51, is responsible for helping oversee a $1 million promotion budget.

With the exception of a few national and international trips each year, she does all her work from the comfort of her Oak Harbor condominium. Some days she doesn’t bother to get out of her Tweety bird pajamas and slippers. She sorts through files, sends faxes and trolls through e-mails from a computer set up in the den.

What’s the best part about working from home?

“The view,” Bradford said with a laugh.

Her front living room looks out on sparkling Oak Harbor Bay and the Oak Harbor Marina. She can see it all from her work desk, even as she listens to country music twanging in the background and her pet Dachshund, Skittles, dozes on a nearby couch.

“You don’t have to be 9-to-5,” said Bradford of her relaxed office space.

Bean connection started in Idaho

She and her husband, Randy, who manages Coachman Inn, used to call Moscow, Idaho home.

It was there, in the self-described dried pea and lentil capital, that Bradford began her work on behalf of the unassuming commodities that line grocery store shelves.

She started out as a secretary at the Dried Pea and Lentil Council in 1980.

The Palouse region, with its hot, dry days and winter snow pack, is a perfect setting for peas and lentils.

The snow pack soaks the ground in winter giving the legumes needed moisture. When they are ready to be harvested, the summer sun has already dried them.

After a few years as secretary, Bradford worked her way up to compliance director for dried peas and lentils, traveling the world to meet with representatives whose job it is to put a positive spin on plain Jane commodities.

Such behind-the-scenes work might appear a bit frivolous, at first glance. There’s something amusing about people who make a living pushing dried peas, or dried beans for that matter.

But the reality is far different.

Farmers depend on world markets to make a living. The battles over subsidies, tariffs, and individual tastes, all contribute to the success, or failure, of American agriculture.

Unfortunately, too much marketing success occasionally led to illegal competition, such as in India where U.S. grown dried peas became “the prestigious pea to buy” in the early 1980s.

By the early 1990s some dried pea sellers were counterfeiting U.S. bags.

“They were copying our bags,” Bradford said, and using a lesser grade pea.

Meanwhile, American commodity representatives were known to squabble amongst themselves. For a time, the dried bean people were at war with the dried pea and lentil people, Bradford said, over market share in various foreign countries.

The battle was deadly serious, but it did leave itself open to plenty of chuckles, such as when one Japanese pea-and-lentil representative said, succinctly, “Bean. Enemy.”

These days, the two lobbies have found a common ground and work together to crack open new markets for their products.

Bradford, for her part, is now on the bean end of things.

Still, when asked whether she had any dried beans on hand, a quick search of her cupboards turned up nary a pinto let alone a navy, in this Navy town.

Most beans

now exported

In fact, few Americans buy dried beans, lentils or peas these days. They tend to be the wallflowers of the supermarket aisle, passed over by consumers brought up on ready-made soups and other processed foods.

Still, with consumers growing more health conscious, lentils, split peas and beans are making a comeback in the U.S. market.

As it stands, at least three-quarters of the market lies outside the U.S., where people rely on such basics for their diets.

That means promoting U.S. dried beans, peas and lentils is big business in places such as India, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as Japan. Europeans also rely on such staples, particularly those who live in Spain, Greece, Italy and France.

The U.S. government, working with such programs as Catholic Relief and World Food Program, also subsidizes commodity shipments to Third World countries in Africa and Asia.

Bradford is only now learning all the nuances of the dried bean market, after working with dried peas and lentils for 19 years.

In 1999, Bradford moved with her husband to Oak Harbor. She helped with some typing and Internet work for her husband’s employer and still serves as the bookkeeper for her condo association.

Then, in 2003, her former boss called her. He was now working on behalf of the Dried Bean Council and asked if she wanted to serve as compliance director.

She accepted and has been busy ever since.

Her neighbors sometimes wonder what exactly Bradford does for a living.

But even if they don’t know all that she does, they are plenty impressed.

“Connie has such an intriguing job,” said neighbor, Alesa Lightbourne, a corporate writer. “She’s able to support national and international endeavors right from her home in little old Oak Harbor. She’s a true example of what Internet technology permits --- flexibility, creativity and a truly fulfilling career.”

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