Common dry beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) have been in cultivation for around 8,000 years, beginning in the regions of Mexico and Peru. The people who cultivated these beans were largely vegetarian, with beans, corns, squash, and peppers making up the bulk of their diet. Beans were therefore an important source of protein for these people, and continue to be for billions of people around the world that consume beans in some form. Beans are mostly self-pollinated, although bees can distribute bean pollen to other varieties and cause some genetic contamination. Being self-pollinated has meant that the development of distinct bean varieties around the world, well-adapted to specific soil and climatic conditions, has produced a tremendous diversity of dry beans. Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, Iowa maintains over 2,500 varieties of dry beans alone. Dry bean seeds also last a long time, which is how many of the older heirloom varieties have remained in existence to this day.
Dry beans have been cultivated by all the agricultural tribes of this nation and were quickly adopted by European colonists and spread to other regions of the world. Dry bean cultivation has remained largely small-scale, due to its labor-intensive nature during harvest (with exception of easier machine-harvested soy beans, which are a different species).
Even with 15 years of dry bean cultivation under his belt, Vermont farmer Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm still struggles with his bean harvest. From the errant nature of weather to the lack of good harvesting equipment, getting a good bean crop in is not easy. I have particularly vivid memories of Jack’s beans- my family and I spent several uncomfortably hot summer days last year hand weeding a patch of five different heirloom beans that were nearly lost to weed pressure on the Lazor farm.
I felt like I was inside a muggy sauna but instead of relaxing, I was bent over all day long, sweating through several changes of clothes each day. At that point, I wasn’t sure that dry beans made much sense in organic systems with all the weed pressure they can succumb too (they can’t use herbicides that conventional growers rely on). Upon further reflection with Jack, he too has mostly come to the same conclusion that producing high yields of quality organic dry beans might be an enterprise unto itself, and something he doesn’t really have the time for when he’s so busy running Butterworks Farm- the northeast’s oldest certified organic dairy farm and farmstead producer of cultured dairy products. If he can’t do it well, he doesn’t want to do it much at all.
After scaling up to fifteen acres of dry beans and six different varieties, Jack is cutting back down to only a few acres a year of mostly Black Turtle Beans. It seems to have the most consistent yields of all the varieties he has experimented with, plus his regular soybean harvesting equipment seems to do the best with this particular bean. Other beans he has tried need to be hand pulled, loaded up into a wagon, and ran through a stationary, antique bean combine that rejects as many beans as it collects. Labor is hard to come by in this very rural part of Vermont- often Jack’s beans get hand pulled by local school groups and volunteer college students who want to learn more about agriculture.
The Lazor Farm produces a variety of legumes- soybeans, field peas, and several varieties of dry beans. They do this in rotation with their cereal and hay crops, all essential components of not only their cows diet but also the health of their soil. Although there is a long history of bean farming in the Northeast, particularly in Maine and some parts of New York, the high windy plateau where the Lazors farm has erratic weather that can make dry bean cultivation extremely challenging. A week of cold, wet weather in June after the beans have been planted can finish off the crop before it even germinates. The beans will actually sprout in the opposite direction, sending their shoots back into the earth rather than up towards the sky. It’s like they know how nasty it is outside and would rather stay in their nice warm soil home.
Another weather challenge often presents itself in September during the bean harvest. Ideally you have a couple week stretch of dry weather when you are harvesting the beans so they dry down nicely and the fields are dry enough to enter with all your equipment. However, September can also commence the first cold fall rains, which equally spells disaster for dry beans. I knew an immigrant farmer in coastal California that lost his whole crop during early fall rains and the thick fog that socks in the coastline. All the beans molded before they were even pulled from the field.
The Lazors feed their soybeans and field peas to the cows in a homemade ration that they mill on the farm. The dry beans go to feed people- primarily to the extended Lazor family and their employees, and whatever remains is sold off to food co-ops and health food stores. Although the consumer demand for Butterworks beans far outstrips the supply, that doesn’t mean the Lazors are going to devote more attention to their dry bean crop. They are dairy farmers first and foremost and the lack of proper equipment has surely put a damper on their dry bean dreams. Dry beans have to be pulled up out of the soil, moved into windrows for field drying, then moved and sorted, which is often done in the field with a bean combine that separates out the beans from their hulls and dumps them into a bin.
Their Bob Model 44 bean combine is around 50 years old and quality, affordable pullers for lower-growing heirloom beans just don’t really exist. The option of going out and buying a modern $150,000 dry bean combine is not really there for a farm that grows dry beans as a small part of their diversification strategy. However, with retail prices hovering around $5/lb. for heirloom dry beans, growing them and hand-harvesting just might be a viable enterprise for a farmer who sells direct to consumers. And they certainly make sense for the backyard gardener- beans are versatile foods which can be eaten fresh or dry, require less water than most crops, are easy to save seeds, and they can add nitrogen to your garden provided you incorporate most of the plant back into the soil.
Dry bean cultivation is certainly an important component of relocalizing our food system and their diversity means that they can be grown almost anywhere. Finding farmers willing to invest in the costly equipment or make due with labor intensive methods will probably be challenging. However, anyone can grow a few bushes or vines in their backyards and marvel at their beautiful flowers, gorgeous coloring, and flavorful tastes once they are cooked.
The simplest way to taste the terroir of a dry bean is to cook them as follows (thanks to Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo for this advice): Rinse and sort the beans first, pulling out any rocks or deformed beans. Then put them in a pot with a couple inches of water covering them. Dice up half an onion, a couple cloves of garlic, and add a dash of olive oil to the pot. Bring to a boil for 10 minutes, which helps leach out much of the phytic acid and gassy compounds in the beans. Turn down to simmer for a while until almost tender (fresher dry beans will cook much quicker). Add salt and oregano the last 10 minutes of the simmer. Spoon into a bowl and enjoy the savory beans and their pot liquor together as a hardy side dish or easy dinner.
Rebecca Thistlethwaite is the author of the new book Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business. She runs a farm and food business consulting firm called Sustain Consulting and is starting a small homestead in Washington with her family. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Sustainable Food Trade Association and writes her own blog Honest Meat. Her other recent pursuits include training oxen, trail running, and learning how to make fermented foods.