Spilling the Beans
Growing Beans for Beantown
by Naz Sioshansi
As the chill of fall became the true cold of winter, Bostonians of Colonial times would settle in for a winter of baked beans and bean soups. “Beans were a hearty staple that would help the Colonists make it through the cold New England winters when there was little else to eat,” explains Charley Baer of Baer’s Best Beans. “The Native Americans taught the Colonists how to grow and cook the beans, along with corn. Back in those days, varieties of solider beans and Jacob’s cattle were popular.”
“I hate to admit it, but I don’t care for Boston baked beans,” he smiles. “I may be one of the last heirloom bean farmers in Massachusetts, but I prefer my beans with a tomato base rather than molasses. Now chili—that’s a favorite.”
Needless to say, times have changed. The local population can look to California and Florida for a constant supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. Beans play a less dominant role in the Bostonians’ diet. “People are familiar with lentils, kidney and chickpeas, but I am working hard to keep the old varieties alive, such as money beans and scarlet beauty beans. A favorite of mine is the flageolet, a French variety that is a green and white kidney-shaped bean. I grow my seeds true to type and do not cross fertilize them.”
“I grow approximately 20 varieties, about 10 types each year, the rest the next. By alternating years I can grow enough acreage of each type to produce enough to sell for two years, leaving enough extra viable seed to be planted afterward. I also trade varieties with a few other bean farmers in Maine, where I used to grow. This way I can offer a few extra kinds for sale. For example, I usually don’t grow yellow eye, since it is popular in Maine and several farmers there produce it. This year I planted extra Vermont Cranberry to trade for yellow eyes with a producer I know in Freedom, Maine.”
“Half of my crop is sold to local CSAs, farms stands and grocery stores. You can purchase my beans at Idlewild in Acton and Russo’s in Watertown. I let the other half go to seed for companies such Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine and Vermont Bean Seed.”
Not only do beans play a smaller part in the Bostonians’ diet, they are a smaller part of the native crop.
“Ironically, most of the commercial beans are now grown in the Midwest, specifically Michigan and the Dakotas. So the beans you buy in grocery store are not ‘fresh,’ which for many people is a foreign concept when applied to beans. After all, most people would never think of beans as growing old. But beans do have a shelf life. Personally, I don’t like beans that are any older than three years. Most of my beans are sold in the first year. You know if beans are too old when they never truly soften after being boiled.”
“The biggest enemy in growing beans is moisture. Rain or heavy dew can leak through the pod, causing the beans to stain and possibly rot. You need to find species that are more resistant. I can’t grow chickpeas here, although I have tried.This looks to be a good year. I have suffered from some flooding, but I have been pretty lucky. I replanted my crop and it looks fine. Ten years ago, I lost five acres to flooding and it cost me roughly $7,000 in revenue.”
Baer admits that he never dreamt of being a bean farmer. In fact, he moonlights as a bean farmer and spends the rest of his day as a chemist for Thermo Fisher Scientific, fixing water monitors in power plants— “another field job,” as he put it.
“As with many things in life, I fell into this hobby. Friends of mine from college bought 60 acres in Central Maine and I would spend the weekends with them. There was an old farmer down the road who grew beans and he taught me how to do it. I then bought 40 acres in St. Alban, Maine, and started farming “long distance.” I would travel the 200 miles from my home in South Hamilton to St. Alban on weekends throughout the summer and fall to grow and harvest the beans. Then 15 years ago, my wife saw an ad for farmland for rent on an estate in Beverly, Moraine Farms. It is beautiful here…the estate was designed by the famous landscape designer Fredrick Olmstead. And it is closer to our home, so I can take care of my fields after work and not just on weekends.”
The actual harvesting of the beans begins in late September to early October, when the plants are all dried up. The beans are picked by machine and cleaned.
“I am one of the few farmers that still handpicks the beans for debris, so there is no need for my customers to go through the beans…there should be no sticks.” He uses the typical commercial machinery to pick and clean the beans, but for the final touch, he has a 100-year-old machine that assists with the final sorting—or handpicking—the beans as it is called. The beans spill out of the machine and Baer sorts out any remaining debris. “I prefer quality to quantity.” And then his crop is divided into cellophane bags with the label of Baer’s Best Beans and distributed in November.
And so Baer remains one of the last Boston bean purists, using antique machines to keep heirloom varieties of beans alive for Beantown.
Baer’s Best Beans are available at A. Russo and Sons, 560 Pleasant Street, Watertown, 617-923-1500, russos.com; Idlewild Farms, 366 Central Street, Acton, 978-263-5943; and Wilson Farm, 10 Pleasant Street, Lexington, 781-862-3900.
Naz Sioshansi is a freelance writer living in Boston with her husband and daughter. She has written for the Boston Phoenix, Lola Magazine, misstropolis.com and Wayside Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.