Grocery shelves of canned and bagged beans were the first to be wiped clean with the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S. When restaurants and farmers markets closed down and stay-at-home orders were put in place in most states, many continued to stockpile beans and other storage staples in an attempt to assuage fears about an unknown future. The US Dry Bean Council reported a 40 to 50 percent increase in demand for dry beans in the first months of the virus.
Though the pandemic has helped cement demand for pulses, heirloom beans in particular were already riding a quiet resurgence among small-scale farmers, chefs, and dedicated home cooks. This was not born of fear of scarcity, but a devotion to their understated flavors, versatility, health benefits, and histories. Napa-based heirloom bean purveyor Rancho Gordo’s sales have grown 15 to 20 percent every year since its launch in the early aughts, and they were up 164 percent by June 2020. The company’s subscription bean club boasts over eight thousand members and a twelve thousand-person waiting list.
Heirloom beans are open-pollinated, meaning the seeds can be planted and saved year after year, yielding roughly identical genetics. Though they can be challenging to cultivate on a large scale and tend to be lower-producing, heirlooms retain their unique flavor profiles across generations. Despite production challenges, these distinctive traits and agricultural legacy appeal to many young growers.
Caitlin Arnold Stephano first began cultivating heirloom beans on a small farm on Washington’s Vashon Island. She got hooked after starting with just a few varieties in 2009. “The farmers I know growing dry beans are doing it because it’s just so fun,” Arnold Stephano said. “There are so many varieties and they all have interesting stories, like any heirloom crop.”
She’s partial to beans with names and origin stories as colorful as the seeds themselves: Jacob’s Cattle, Painted Pony, Ireland Creek Annie, Olga’s Pink, and Kilham Goose bush bean. Kilham Goose was developed by a farmer on Whidbey Island, north of Vashon, and has a shiny dappled skin of maroon and white, like an Appaloosa pony—also the name of another heirloom bean. “It feels like magic,” she said. “You plant one bean and you get so many back. And you can store them pretty much indefinitely.”
She’s right. Beans, if dried properly, can see you through not just a global pandemic, but millennia. The first wild beans were gathered for food roughly nine thousand years years ago, with first cultivated variants dating back to 2000 BCE. Originating in Central and South America, beans were one of the many crops domesticated by Indigenous peoples and saved season after season. One heirloom variety, the cave bean, was uncovered in the 1980s in a sealed clay pot in New Mexico and is believed to have been first cultivated fifteen hundred years ago by the ancestral Puebloans who inhabited what is now the Four Corners area. Some of the unearthed ancient cave beans germinated successfully, and they are widely available from heirloom seed distributors.
Today, the Zuni, Hopi, Iroquois Six Nations, and other Indigenous peoples maintain seed banks to protect the crops essential to traditional ceremonies, diets, and culture. Of the more than four thousand varieties of beans grown in North America, less than 20 percent are available commercially.
Through the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project, founder Steve Sando purchases beans directly from growers in Mexico who cultivate heirloom varieties in an effort to counter the “international trade policies that seem to discourage genetic diversity and local food traditions,” he said. The larger volumes Rancho Gordo pre-purchases from Mexican farmers allows the farmers some financial security at the start of their growing season and ensures a market for their heirloom crops so that they can avoid only growing conventional bean, corn, and soy varieties for international commodity markets. Sando said creating a market for at-risk crops is the best way to save them. Though the Xoxoc Project has received significant attention from press and consumers, the vast majority of Rancho Gordo beans are actually grown in the U.S., specifically in California, Washington, Oregon, and soon in Arizona. “Some of these beans are indigenous to this area here in Napa, and most people don’t even know what they are. That education piece is always part of the focus—this is a great ingredient that you’ve taken for granted,” he said.
Sando believes the challenge of harvesting often becomes a deal breaker for young and beginning farmers. “We’ve worked with new farmers who are all gung-ho, and then they just fall apart at harvest time,” he said. “We’re trying to do a mix of old-timer California farmers, and newer farmers, but the newer ones often don’t quite know what they’re in for—we’ve had several crops we’ve invested in and the farmers have ended up walking away.”
The beans either need to be harvested by hand, which is time consuming or an expensive labor cost, or production must be scaled up to acreage that justifies purchasing or renting costly harvesting equipment. The beans also take up a lot of valuable ventilated storage space for drying in the few months after harvest. Judging harvest time can also be challenging. Last year, Arnold Stephano waited too long to harvest and caught a hard frost, which cut her yield by more than half. Temperature fluctuations and extreme weather events resulting from climate change are only making these decisions tougher and losses more common. She agrees that it’s often a tricky proposition for new farmers: “When I tell other farmers I grow dry beans, they’re like ‘what are you talking about?’”
“It might sound weird that so many people are excited about dry beans—that I’m excited about beans—but you taste them fresh and you just get it,” Nick Lubecki, a farmer in Butler, Pennsylvania, said. Nick grows a variety of staple crops with his brother, Justin, including potatoes, onions, corn, rice, wheat, and rye in addition to Good Mother Stallard and other heirloom bean varieties.
Despite his enthusiasm, Lubecki agrees that hand harvesting can be a real barrier to scaling up production. Instead of picking each pod individually, he waits for the beans to dry in the field and then pulls up the entire plant to dry in crates in his attic. He also found an online tutorial that coached him through converting an old wood chipper into a thresher that has minimized his hand work.
Another major challenge for farmers getting into beans, or any other crop for that matter, is access to secure, affordable, quality land—repeatedly the number one challenge reported by beginning farmers and ranchers across the country. Over the last decade, farmland prices have more than doubled.
Arnold Stephano, who currently lives in suburban Hudson Valley, has been getting around the land access challenge for several years through a cooperative arrangement with friends who own a farm in Bethel, Vermont. She splits her harvest with the farm owners in exchange for use of their land and their help with weeding. Even through this arrangement, Arnold Stephano knew she would never be able to turn a profit. “I think if you want to do dry beans lucratively, it would need to be your main focus. You need the storage and equipment. Or you could grow a few other crops that need the same growing conditions,” she said. Her dream has always been to start up a garlic, onion, potato, and bean operation, which she jokingly refers to as “Beans ‘n Taters Farm.”
“To make any money at it, you really have to grow at volume,” Sando said. He generally contracts a farmer to grow a single variety each season so they can focus on the needs of the crop and grow at scale. It usually ends up being more profitable than trying to grow several varieties or additional crops.
These production challenges mean that small-scale growers often have to charge super high prices at market to break even. “Some of my friends who sell at farmers markets have to charge about $10 per pound or more,” Arnold Stephano said—a tough sell when up against conventional dry beans which can cost as little as two dollars per pound at the grocery store. Rancho Gordo heirloom beans go for six or seven dollars per pound on their online store. But cost doesn’t seem to be a factor for customers who pay a premium for the jewel-colored goods, the connection to the farmers who grew them, and the chance to participate in the legacy of seed-saving.
Rick Easton, owner of Bread and Salt in Jersey City, New Jersey, hosted a weekly pop-up called Bean World at Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The entire premise was to let the inherent flavor of the legumes speak for themselves, and on Friday evenings, he served cooked beans straight up with olive oil and salt. Lubecki was one of the suppliers for the events and said, “Everyone was given two types of beans to pick from and that was it. I think eventually someone talked him into giving you some bread too.”
Arnold Stephano prefers to cook them simply as well, boiled with a few dried chilis, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. She and her husband regularly make a giant pot, “and then we eat them with everything for days and days.”
Like all heirlooms, the beans Arnold Stephano, Lubecki, and other farmers are putting in the ground in 2020 are the latest link in a long chain through history, connecting thousands of seasons of hard labor, sun and rain, and dirty hands that carefully saved seed year after year. “I’m not sure that my ancestors ate beans, they were from Norway—did they eat beans in Norway?” she asked with a laugh. “But it does connect me with my farming ancestors, everyone who has farmed through time.”