Over the past 30 years, my backyard garden in upstate New York in the Pine Hills section of Albany has been the fertile source of delicious tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, green peppers, green beans, brussel sprouts, onions, garlic, lettuce, spinach and other home-grown vegetables. For the past 10 years, I have gardened organically without the use of fertilizers or pesticides, instead spreading lots of organic mulch and manures to build the soil and smother weeds. But last year, I decided to give my garden a rest.
For the 2011 growing season, I decided to join the Roxbury Farm CSA (community supported agriculture) in Kinderhook (Columbia County) with some neighbors. This biodynamic farm [www.roxburyfarm.com/] of 300 acres, which includes part of what was the original estate of Martin Van Buren, the 8th president of the United States [www.nps.gov/mava/index.htm], makes weekly deliveries in season to approximately 1000 shareholders, including 75 shareholders at a nearby residence in my neighborhood. Since I wanted to experience what it meant to be a shareholder in a CSA farm, and to give my backyard garden a rest, it was an easy decision to become a shareholder of this Hudson River Valley CSA farm. As a consequence, instead of planting a variety of vegetables, I decided to plant only two crops last growing season, garlic and beans for drying.
Growing beans for drying seemed a good idea to me for two main reasons. Beans, which are legumes, fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. My soil would be enriched after all the years of growing tomatoes, which depletes nitrogen from the soil. Second, beans, simply stated, should be a part of every human’s diet. The National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCCA) publishes informative “All About” food brochures (available at co-ops, including the Honest Weight Co-op [www.hwfc.com/] in my hometown of Albany) on various types of food, including beans, rice, flour, grain, soy foods, and sweeteners. The “All About Beans” brochure notes concisely how useful beans are in improving our diets:
“Beans are an excellent source of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins, calcium, iron and other essential minerals.. Most are low in fat and high in soluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol levels. Beans are richer in protein compared to other plant foods.”
What type of bean to plant for drying, however, was not a simple question to answer. The bulk section of my food co-op sells 21 different types of dried beans in bulk at reasonable prices, of which 20 are organically grown. The twenty types of organic beans are all reasonably priced per pound at the food co-op as follows: Moong Dahl, $3.49; Green split peas, $1.49; Yellow split peas, $1.35; French lentils, $2.99; Brown lentils, $2.29; Red lentils, on sale $1.89, $2.49 regularly; Adzuki, $2.39; Navy beans, on sale $1.49, $1.99 regularly: Mung beans, $2.89; Red kidney,$ 2.19; Soybeans, $1.65; Green lentils, $2.05; Anasazi, $2.69; Pinto, $1.85; Garbanzo, $1.99; black beans, $2.89; Baby lima beans $2.15; Black eyed peas, $2.15; Great northern beans, $1.99; White kidney (cannellini) $2.49. The only type not sold as “organic” are Chana Dal beans, also know as Bengal Gran, which are imported from India. Resembling yellow split peas, the Chana Dal beans actually are a split and husked relative of garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and are $2.79 per pound. Without a doubt, a food budget for a healthy diet can be easily stretched when organic beans are included at mealtime.
Of the 22 types of beans sold at the Honest Weight Food Co-op, Tom Gillespie, a knowledgeable staff member in the bulk foods section, was pleased to point out that the organic black beans, and sometimes the pinto beans, were grown “locally” in upstate New York, sourced from Cayuga Pure Organics in Brooktondale (Tompkins County) near Ithaca. In the 19th century, in upstate New York, it was not uncommon for a farmer to plant a field or two of oats or wheat as well as some beans for the specific purpose of drying the beans for use in wintry months ahead. Cayuga Pure Organics [www.cporganics.com/] (dry beans and grains) and Farmer Ground [http://farmergroundflour.squarespace.com/] (wheat, oats, corn, etc) honor this past and work hard to provide food staples to the Ithaca, Albany and New York City markets and beyond. I felt some pride to think I could be part of this renewal in a small way by growing beans for drying in my backyard garden.
I decided that it made sense to look for a special type of bean to grow for drying, given the inexpensive pricing of organic beans at the food co-op. My answer came when I was shopping late last winter at the Troy Farmers Market across the Hudson River from my home in Albany in Troy (Rensselaer County). A local farm was selling dried heirloom cranberry beans at $4.00 for only 8 ounces, and I thought, “I found my bean for growing and drying.” These beans were not available in bulk foods at my food co-op and their price per pound of $8.00 supported a decision to grow my own heirloom cranberry beans for drying in my backyard garden.
Williams-Sonoma sells heirloom cranberry beans, grown in Idaho, for $8.95 for a 1 pound, 8 ounce package [www.williams-sonoma.com/products/heirloom-cranberry-beans/], but their coloring seems pinkish rather than the deeper cranberry color of the beans I ended up growing. Still, they are delicious-sounding beans from the description at Williams-Sonoma:
“A favorite in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese cuisines, cranberry beans are pale pink with maroon markings. Mild, hearty and exceptionally nutritious, they are perfect for soups, stews, salads and casseroles. These botanical heirlooms are a part of living history, supporting centuries-old plant varieties and preserving the genetic diversity of our food supply. Produced by Zürsun, a second-generation family-owned company and one of America’s oldest suppliers of heirloom beans.”
Utilizing heirloom cranberry beans from Fedco Seeds of Waterville, Maine [www.fedcoseeds.com], I planted up my backyard garden with beans to be grown for drying. I can report that I produced 9 pounds of dried cranberry beans to be enjoyed over the wintry months. I let the beans dry on the vine and didn’t harvest beans until early October. Beans that had not dried sufficiently I spread on baking trays and permitted them to dry indoors. Before shelling the beans, the pods should be dried until they lose their color; I was shelling beans at various times over the course of a month.
Did it make economic sense to grow beans for drying? Perhaps not, but the pleasure of growing some of my own food that would last through the wintry months was priceless, and the second time around, I can utilize some of my own dried heirloom cranberry beans and would not need to purchase seeds for planting.
[FW Barrie, 3/1/12]