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Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit

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In the spring of the year a wealthy Chinese nobleman called a lowly peasant to his door. As the peasant groveled before him, the nobleman said, "Peasant, I want you to grow me some beans for the winter." And so saying he gave the peasant a gold coin. Groveling the while and muttering mellifluous obsequies, the peasant took the coin and left.
     The months of summer went by. As the days grew shorter and the leaves began to yellow on the trees, the peasant reappeared on the doorstep of the wealthy' lord.
     "i've come to return your coin," he said and proffered the gold token.
     "But what of the beans?" the lord asked, surprised.
     "Well, Sir, the beans had no need of coaxing or bribery to reproduce. They grew quite well on their own."
     "But if you have no beans for me what shall I eat this long winter?"
     "Why, Sir, you can feast on your coin," said the peasant. Then, producing another gold coin from his pocket, he said, "Here, my lord. Take this one too, for I have no need of it. I'll be eating beans!"

     Here at the Homestead we know, like the nobleman, that if we are to secure our winter's food, we must start on that project well before September. Like the peasant, we will be eating beans this winter. Lots of beans. When we first acquired the 68 acres that we now call the Homestead it was primarily hardwood forest. The forested parts remain pretty much as they were (we've harvested trees for building and firewood at a rate of about 2/acre). A few acres near the road however were overgrown pasture. Some of it was thick with quaking and big tooth aspen and ash with an understory of witch hazel, beech and red maple. Other parts were taken over by white pine around which grew thickets of wild blackberry, meadow sweet and pasture brake. We cut down a few white pines leaving the stumps and de-sodded a 30' x 40' area. This was our first garden at the Homestead.
     The soil was sandy, extremely well drained and largely depleted. Few things showed much enthusiasm for growing in that soil. We had no access to water at first and even short-term dry spells were frequently devastating to the plants. We worked hard to cover crop and add organic matter in the form of leaves and compost.
     Since we were doing everything by hand we knew the value of permanent pathways in the garden. When, in the early 90s we met Steve Gillman and worked at Ruckytucks Farm in Stillwater, we became enthusiastic about Steve's "bio-strip" method of farming. Steve was growing everything in long, narrow beds separated by permanent sod pathways. The paths were spaced to match Steve's tractor's wheels and of a width to allow mowing with a single pass of a hand-pushed power mower. Planting, weeding and harvesting were done by hand from the paths, the beds being of a width that allowed one to easily reach the center from either side. (There are 2 publications by Steve available from NOFA-NY, Organic Weed Management and Organic Soil Management. These draw heavily on his experiences at Ruckytucks and are highly recommended reading.)
     By this time we, had acquired an old 8 hp Troy-Bilt tiller which for us was a premier sod-busting machine. We had cut down a few more white pines as well as some aspen and ash. After some experimentation we settled on a system of beds about 52" inches wide with sod paths about 32 inches wide, the module (bed and path) being, 7 feet. The beds vary in length from 60 feet to 110 feet, depending on the terrain. I should note that there are no "flat" areas here on, the mountainside in Meco. There are only steep slopes and gentle slopes. On the...gentle slopes of the old pasture we found that tilling with the Troy-Bilt quickly produced a natural terraced effect with the sod paths forming solid embankments to contain the cultivated areas of the beds. As the Homestead evolves we try to add one or two new beds to our growing area each year. Presently we have 19 beds of the above description under cultivation.
     One of our earliest successful crops at the Homestead; was dry beans. Mom trained me early on that beans were a dietary staple. In the early 70s I traveled extensively throughout Central America where rice and beans were served with every meal. Often they were the meal, although sometimes there would be a piece of chicken or seasoned, boiled beef called “carne guisada.” Other times boiled plantain (the infamous bitter "'green banana") rounded out the menu. There I acquired a “bean habit” which I never lost. In her book, Good Cheap Food, Miriam Ungerer introduces her rice and beans recipe this way: "People who are raised on this basic food develop a craving for it that persists, no matter to what dizzying heights they rise in business and commerce. All the way from South America to the Mason-Dixon Line variations of rice and beans are a way of life." Such is the case with me even from the dizzying heights of homestead life, so imagine my delight when Laurie informed me that we could grow dry beans ourselves. "As long as they mature in under 100 days we'll have no problem," she said.
     We bought a small packet of' Jacob's Cattle (a.k.a.,Anasazi), a 90 day bean,; from Johnny's These are beautiful beans shaped like a kidney with white skin amply splashed with burgundy paint. There is always burgundy around the "eye" and in rare cases there will be no sign of white at all. From that first small packet of 50 or 60 seeds we harvested over a pint of beans. If someone had come up to me at that time and said, “listen, Kid, give me 50 bucks and in 90 days I'll come back with $500,” I would have laughed in his face. I am no sucker, yet there it was. In a short 3 months 50 beans had become over 700. A heretofore-secret meaning of the Jack and the Beanstalk story was revealed to us. At that point, Laurie (who, ever since I met her has been a constant source of revelation for me) said, "Divide your pile of beans in half. Half we can eat. The other half we'll save for next year's planting." I was amazed. We could just save our seed and never have to buy them again. With those 350 or so beans we planted 25 feet of bed with 4 rows. From that planting we harvested nearly 6 pounds of dry beans.
     By 1998 we were planting 5 varieties of dry beans. More importantly, by then we had acquired an EarthWay Precision Garden Seeder, a two wheeled, hand-pushed device with inter-changeable seed plates. It digs a furrow, drops a seed, covers the seed and tamps the soil over it all in one smooth operation. And it does it as fast as you can run. In 2000 we planted the following varieties:

  • Jacobs Cattle - our original old stalwart.
  • Jacobs Gold - gold splashes replace the burgundy on this bean which tends to be slightly smaller than Jacobs Cattle. It is an excellent baked bean and refried bean.
  • Mrociumir - These beans look like pieces of violet-shaded granite. We were told that they originated in Kenya. We extracted our original seeds from a package of Diana MacKentley's Beautiful Beans. A consistent heavy producer with a slightly longer season than our other beans, they cook up quickly but can withstand long cooking times without turning to mush.
  • King of the Earlies - True to its name, it is the first bean ready for harvest. The dominant color of the coat is that of fresh blood mottled over a background of antique ivory.
  • Bumble Bees - a large white bean with a burgundy "stinger." We use these beans as a substitute for the Limas we can't grow. They're so big we have to plant them by hand.
  • Monos Negros - We had searched for a short season black bean that would substitute for the black turtle beans we like so much. We finally found it in this bean which, according to the Fedco catalogue, comes from El Salvador by way of Will Bonsall. I suspect that the name originally was Moros Negros given that moro is a popular nickname for bean in the Spanish Caribbean and Central America. In Cuba, beans and rice are called Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians). In any case they are a black bean lover's bean and a worthy replace¬ment for black turtle beans.
  • Black Coco - this large spherical black bean was our first attempt at a black turtle replacement. They never grew well for us and 2000 was the last year we grew them.True Red Cranberry - this was the first pole bean we planted. We purchased a packet of 52 seeds from High Mow¬ing of Vermont while at the winter NOFA-NY conference in Troy. Even though the poles I used were too fat and the plants sprawled on the ground instead of climbing, they produced nearly 2 pounds from that first planting. This year we used string for some and poles for others. Conclusion: Strings to 6 feet above ground with 2 plants per string gives best yields. We also planted some with corn. The yield was great but they tended to pull the corn plants over.

     From these 8 varieties we harvested 57 pounds. We saved about 10 pounds for seed leaving us 47 pounds of dry beans for eating. We had achieved “dry bean independence.” This year (2001) we produced well over 60 pounds of beans (as of this writing in December we've shelled 53 pounds with 2 varieties left to shell). We grew the same varieties as in 2000 except for Black Cocos. We also did some experiments.
     Inevitably, when you grow several varieties of beans in a fairly limited area, crosses will occur. For seed saving in general we follow the recommendations in two books: Saving Seeds by Marc Rogers and Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Because beans self-pollinate for the most part little care is necessary beyond physical separation and only caging or covering of the plants would prevent the occasional bumble bee or other flying pollinator from visiting Any crosses that do occur are undetectable in the seed. The new hybrid characteristics appear only if seed containing the cross is grown out in the subsequent year. Thus a favorite pastime while shelling beans is to watch for exotic new varieties. Last year while shelling Black Cocos we found an abundance of beans which appeared to be a cross between Black Cocos and King of the Earlies. (The abundance was relative. The Black Coco crop failed due to rust. The hybrids however were rust resistant and so accounted for the bulk of the seed.) The beans were monled like King of the Earlies but black where King of the Earlies are red. The effect was to give them a rich, silver-streaked appearance. We called them Silverados and decided to grow out a small patch. We also planted a small patch of mixed hybrids culled from all the other beans. This was the 15 Bean Soup patch, which we called Krazee Beenz. Predictably the output from this patch was a wild array of beans, a veritable riot of colors and sizes. More amazing to me was that the Silverado patch produced at least 11 distinct bean types (perhaps more depending on how finely one graded their appearance), including a large quantity of Silverados. It demonstrated to me the incredible amount of diversity inherent in the beans themselves. We will plant the Silverados again next year as well as some other interesting hybrids.
     I have seen many suggestions for shelling beans such as putting them in a pillow case and beating your husband with it (my body proved to be too soft), or putting the pillow case in the clothes drier (since we don't have a drier I put, the pillow case on the clothes line; it didn’t work). We settled on hand shelling. I find hand shelling beans while sitting in front of a toasty wood stove to he a deliciously relaxing experience. It's like eating peanuts and watching TV without any of the unpleasant side effects. I would say that 60 pounds is just about the upper limit for this method.
     There is much to commend the extensive growing of this simple, beautiful crop. At the present time when much of our energy here at the Homestead is focused on building projects, dry beans are a perfect crop. They grow readily in marginal soil. They sprout quickly and a single cultivation in the first month is usualty all the weeding necessary before they completely shade the bed. There is no hard and fast “harvest time” for dry beans. We let the pods dry on the plant at which time they're ready to harvest. Even then they can be left in the field 2 weeks or more in this condition. Very dry conditions will lead to some dehiscing (opening of the pods) with loss of seed and wet conditions promote fungal growth and sprouting, but in general they are a very forgiving crop. They are easy to store and require no extra energy inputs for processing (unlike canned and frozen foods). Hand picking and shell¬ing means they barely need rinsing before we cook them. We put them in jars on shelves in the kitchen and they sit there looking beautiful and reminding us of many wonderful meals to come.
     If you're unsure what to do with all those beans once you grow them, write to the California Dry Bean Advisory Board, 53 l-D North Alta Ave. Dept CB, Dinuba, CA 93618. Their cookbook, Beans, Beans, Beans, is an inexhaustible supply of great recipes for every taste.

Jim Strickland and Laure Freeman achieve bean independence 3 miles from downtown Gloversville.

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