By Linda Halley | What’s creamy, nutty, high in protein, shelf-stable, AND grows right here in Waukesha County? The amazing black bean.
Although an important part of New World cuisine for thousands of years, and while our neighboring state of Michigan is a leader in production and breeding, growing black beans has never caught on in Wisconsin. Could it catch on at Gwenyn Hill? I’ve been on a two-year saga to find out.
Black and shiny, the beans shoot out of the combine’s auger, rapidly filling our 30-bushel tote. In only a few turns around the field, Lloyd William’s big red machine makes quick work of both harvesting and shelling our acre of dry beans. I grin ear to ear, remembering last year’s arduous hand-picking.
Bent over the low, leafless plants, tugging the pods off by the fistful, Collin, Benji, and Andy make their way slowly down the rows. Although we planted less than 1/10 of an acre, it takes more than a day to strip the pods and bring them to the greenhouse where they can remain warm and dry until removed from the pods. We spend hours with a homemade threshing device separating the beans from the pods. Eventually we have several bushels of clean black orbs, ready for sale.
It doesn’t take a calculator to conclude that growing dry beans, if you have to harvest and thresh by hand, is a losing proposition. But they are so delicious, and customers at the winter farmers market snap them up. I am inspired to take our tiny bean crop to the next level. Why not grow ten times as many and harvest them the modern way?
I need to buy way more bean seed than in the past. To buy enough seed from my typical vegetable seed purveyor will cost $800. I call my farmer friends in Michigan who plant acres and acres of beans, and who side hustle as bean seed dealers. I persuade them to sell me two fifty pound bags of beans at $65 each and have them coated with organically approved inoculum rather than the conventional synthetic product. I become their newest, smallest buyer of Zorro black beans, a variety developed by Michigan State for upper Midwest conditions.
Friend of Gwenyn Hill, Mike Curren, tractor whisperer and collector of vintage John Deere gear, plants the beans on a warm dry day. I join him as he is wrapping it up and discover that half of the seed is still in the planter. He carefully drives back over all the rows, planting out the rest of the seed. It is a lesson in why modern planters count each seed as it goes in the ground, helping the farm monitor their rate. Within days we see that the beans are up and looking like a very good stand.
With another old-fashioned implement I cultivate the beans several times, attempting to keep the weeds at bay. The weeds seem to be winning so Collin and Corinna take up the hoe. Our “little” acre starts feeling terribly big with just a hoe and a strong back to do the job. They both persist and win the battle after a few days.
By late summer the plants are yellowing and the pods are dry. Lloyd Williams meets me in the bean field to plan the harvest. Although Lloyd has farmed all of his life, including this very acre, he has never grown black beans, preferring to grow Wisconsin’s number one bean, the soybean. He admires the long, full pods. By biting down on a little black bean he tests it for maturity. Satisfied that it is hard and dry he heads home to ready the combine.
I hear its roar before I see it lumbering over the hill toward the beans. It seems like an odd tool for the job, like swinging a sledgehammer to set a tack. In no time, our two totes are full and the field is bare. I see mostly beans in the totes but also some broken stems, pieces of pods, and not an insignificant amount of weed seeds. The combine is not a selective harvester. It takes everything in, removes the seed, and leaves the chaff in its wake.
The next day we hustle to clean the weed seeds from the dry beans. Much like a compost pile, green plant matter, such as the weed seeds, heat up when confined in a heap, or in our 30 bushel tote. The heating will swiftly spoil the beans. I insert my hand in the tote and feel it is already quite hot. With our antique Clipper 27 seed cleaner we set to work shoveling everything from the tote into the top hopper. The Clipper shakes and hums, moving the beans and “trash” over specially sized screens. The small weed seeds fall through as the beans move along to another screen. Somewhat miraculously, the seeds funnel off to the side, the fan blows the light weight pods out the back and the beans drop into a hopper below. From the hopper they are moved by auger into a bagger and we sew the fifty pound bags closed with a hand-held stitcher. Although a few weed seeds remained and a small percent of the beans had split open, I am happy to see that what was a field of beans yesterday is now food nearly ready for my pot.
I enjoy the black beans several ways, with my favorite being refried beans topped with red chili flakes and a shaving of cheese. Black beans are traditional in Central America and southern Mexico, so lend themselves to Latin American cuisine. Being so freshly harvested, they need no soaking, and simmer to a creamy texture in less than one hour. They store for months and provide a mellow, nutty flavor to any recipe calling for beans. What a practical, versatile source of protein!
Gwenyn Hill’s foray into dry bean growing has taught me a lot in the past two years. Next year I am going to plant and cultivate with more modern equipment. I will handle them with a conveyor, instead of an auger, to prevent splits. Maybe I will even convince Lloyd to switch from soybeans to black beans on his farm.
Linda Halley is General Manager of Gwenyn Hill and a new fan of “Bean Farming.”