It is late September and the to-do list around here grows seemingly longer every day. Weed, harvest, prepare beds for winter cover cropping, harvest, market, harvest, make compost, harvest, remove irrigation hoses from the field, harvest….
You get the idea.
But every year at this time we also stop the gears from turning for a moment everywhere else on the farm. During that last spell of warm, dry days in September the dried beans must get harvested and threshed, or removed from their pods, before the inevitable transition occurs into drizzly, cool and gray off-season conditions more familiar in the Pacific Northwest.
Farms that grow grains on a larger scale than ours have the room, and cash flow, to utilize big machinery for the harvest and processing of their dry-seeded crops. Combines don’t make any sense for us, though, and intermediary, appropriate technology is hard to find in this day and age of industrialized agriculture.
So, we harvest and process our beans the old-fashioned way, by hand, with a great deal of help from as many people as we can find.
Vashon Island is bestowed with a number of small, diversified vegetable farms, many of which hire season-long apprentices. The Vashon Island Growers Association organizes a series of workshops each growing season for these apprentices, as well as other interested community members, where participants gather monthly on different farms for instruction about a specific topic of interest, followed by a short work party. We at Island Meadow Farm don’t have the luxury of full-time staff, but still participate each year in the workshop series. This time around we stumbled upon a good idea for the event; small-scale dried bean production.
We learned in 2011 that the best method for us to use when harvesting our plants was to snip them just above the level of the soil. That way, dirt and rocks held in place by the plants’ roots do not become incorporated with the beans during threshing. That season, we collected the plants on tarps and beat them with sticks to force the beans out of their pods.
Last year, we decided to experiment with another approach to threshing. Holding two or three plants together, we thrashed them around inside a clean 50 gallon barrel. It worked well, and felt more effective for us than the flailing with sticks, but was still relatively slow and certainly felt tiring to the arms.
Motivated to streamline the process, we continued researching how other farms bring in their dry-seeded crops. One great set of ideas emerged on the High Mowing Seeds blog about seed saving.
After harvesting a bed’s worth of plants onto a clean tarp, we folded the tarp up and jumped on it. Then, we drove our small pickup back and forth on the tarp to further crush the dried bean pods, forcing the beans from their shells.
Our plants still had a significant number of green leaves on them come harvest day, which inhibited our ability to get all the beans out of their pods just by jumping and driving on the tarp. So we sat together and picked the remaining beans out by hand. This step was slow, bringing the “bean burrito” method into a pace equivocal to the barrel banging approach. But plucking beans out of pods on a sunny September afternoon with friends and community members was pleasant, to say the least. In the end we harvested over 150 pounds of heirloom dried beans.
The beans are an important crop for us.
Primarily, they are incredible to eat — far surpassing in both texture and flavor typical supermarket beans. The beans also save well, and we can sell remaining stores during spring of the following season when other food crops are still scarce and start-up cash is sorely needed. We are the only farm selling dried beans at our local farmers market, offering us a unique niche product. They are also a high-protein crop on this vegetable farm, serving as a great accompaniment to the veggies and poultry that are our focus here. Finally, we love both growing the beans and connecting with our friends to get them out of the field.
We grow a handful of varieties, inculding Tiger’s Eye, Jacob’s Cattle, King of the Early, and Ireland Creek Annie (which are in the photo up top). Kenearly Yellow Eye were new to us this year.
We still need to winnow the beans, pouring them back-and-forth from bin to bin in front of a fan in order to clean away any remaining leaf and plant material. Now that the beans are inside and safely stored, though, this final step in the process can occur at a more leisurely pace.
There is still a long list of projects to get done this fall on the farm, but now that the beans are in it feels like we can work around the rain. Bring it on.