In tiny bean, India’s dirt-poor farmers strike gas-drilling gold

Sohan Singh's shoeless children have spent most of their lives hungry, dirty and hot. A farmer in a desert land, Singh could not afford anything better than a mud hut and a barely adequate diet for his family.

But it just so happens that when the hard little bean that Singh grows is ground up, it becomes an essential ingredient for mining oil and natural gas in a process called hydraulic fracturing. Halfway around the world, earnings are down for an oil services giant, Halliburton, because prices have risen for guar, the bean that Singh and his fellow farmers raise.

Halliburton's loss was, in a rather significant way, Singh's gain — a rare victory for the littlest of the little guys in global trade. The increase in guar prices is helping to transform this part of the state of Rajasthan, one of the world's poorest places. Tractor sales are soaring, land prices are increasing and weddings have grown even more colorful.

"Now we have enough food, and we have a house made of stone," Singh said proudly while his rail-thin children stared in awe.

Guar, a modest bean so hard that it can crack teeth, has become an unlikely global player, and dirt-poor farmers like Singh have suddenly become a crucial link in the energy production of the US.

For centuries, farmers here used guar to feed their families and their cattle. There are better sources of nutrition, but few that grow in the Rajasthani desert, a land rich in culture but poor in rain. Broader commercial interest in guar first developed when food companies found that it absorbs water like a souped-up cornstarch, and a powdered form of the bean is now widely used to thicken ice cream and keep pastries crisp. But much more important to farmers here was the recent discovery that guar could stiffen water so much that a mixture is able to carry sand sideways into wells drilled by horizontal fracturing, also known as fracking.

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