Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dry bean threshing

Today was warm and pleasant, with a good breeze coming off the ocean in the afternoon keeping the temperature in the low 80s (in the shade), and a perfect day to thresh last year's grown dry beans, now very thoroughly dried and hanging from twine stretched across the rafters on the roof of the barn. After getting the bunches of beans down, I threshed a few plants at a time by holding the stems and turning them upside down and banging them against the sides of a metal garbage can that I reserve for this purpose. It's an easy, suitable low tech way to thresh the half dozen to two dozen quarts of dry bush beans that get put in covered Mason jars each year, to go to chili, soup, and baked bean dishes, chiefly.

It's also a day to complete the year's records in terms of varieties, yield, and lessons learned for future years. After decades trying many varieties, I've settled on two staple varieties to grow each year: Jacob's Cattle and Light Red Kidney. These are reliable with many good qualities and overall better than any other varieties here. I like black bean soup, and so for a decade or so I've been growing Black Coco, which does well some years and not well in other years. The fourth variety I grew last year was an experiment, called Saturday Night Special.

In terms of warmth, rain, and harvest dates 2010 was an average year overall. According to the weather bureau, it was a little warmer than usual; rainfall was a little less than usual in the summer (but beginning in September, more than usual). My planting date for the beans was a good two weeks earlier than usual: May 24; but the ground was dry enough and warm enough to plant then in that unusually forward spring.

I planted a similar amount of Jacob's Cattle Gasless, Light Red Kidney, and Black Coco beans. Yield of these was in the ratio of 3 to 2 to 1; that is, 3 times as many Jacob's Cattle Beans as Black Coco, with Light Red Kidney in the middle. The yield differences had most to do with the relative earliness of the cattle beans, which I was able to harvest before the September rains; the others had not dried enough on the vine before the rains came, which caused some disease and lowered the yield. Earliness is therefore a plus, not because they will be killed by frost before they are ready (which is what happens with most crops where earliness is desirable) but because of the rain. When threshing the beans I look for pods that will break apart easily; here the kidney beans were best, the black beans next, and the cattle beans shattered a little less easily when banged against the insides of the metal can. Of all the beans I've grown over the years, the one with the best qualities for threshing is Red Mexican, a variety that also grows very well here; but it has two inferior qualities--one, it tends to send out vines, with the result that the plants entangle so that picking and drying is more difficult than with the other varieties that do not vine; and the texture of the bean when cooked is slightly grainy compared with the others. And so although I'm keeping Red Mexican going by planting a half row every few years from saved seed, it's not one that I'm currently using for an eating crop.

The experimental bean this year, Saturday Night Special, is described in the Fedco catalog as a bean that the legendary plant breeder Elwyn Meader developed at the University of New Hampshire agriculture extension program in the 1960s in response to a request for a pea bean (that is, a small bean) that would bake well and grow in the short season characteristic of most of New England. The request came from the B and M Company, one of the oldest commercial cookers and canners of baked beans, who were based in New England and who no doubt wanted to rely on regional growers. But, the Fedco description goes on to say, B and M lost interest when they were bought out in the late 1960s by the Underwood Company, and so the "Saturday Night Special" that Meader bred for B and M never was introduced to the public. Meader's son John preserved the variety, which had not been named, as "X-3," and somehow Fedco growers got ahold of the seed and for the last couple of years have made it available, calling it Saturday Night Special.

Fedco describes it as heavy yielding (up to 20 pods per plant), early, on sturdy plants, and with delicious pea beans. In the 1980s and 1990s I tried a few pea bean varieties here, such as Navy beans, but they were not reliable and seemed subject to more mold in the September rains than the best varieties, so eventually I gave up. But who could resist such a story, and description of the result? Not I, and so I planted an experimental row of Saturday Night Special on May 24, 2010; but the results were not as Fedco said they would, or should, be. I would describe them as light yielding, with about six to eight pods on very slender stemmed, weak, short plants, containing pea beans so tiny that six of them would fit on top of my thumbnail. They were early, to be sure, missing the September rains; but the yield was small. I imagine they may do very well in baking--we shall see. But if I grow them again, I think I will add a good deal of composted chicken manure to the rows before planting. Beans don't as a rule need much, if any, fertilizer; but it appears that these specially bred ones need an extra amount if they are to grow into the little giants that Fedco says they will.

The varieties that I'm growing out to keep the variety going this year are Hutterite, Montcalm Red Kidney, Maine Surprise, Red Mexican, and Dot Yellow Eye. Each has its good qualities. Thus far this year Maine Surprise is surprisingly vigorous, more so than any other variety. I'm growing all the beans this year in the garden by the old store, where the soil is a little better than it is in the usual spot, in the garden down the road to the Scotts house. So I expect a better yield.

The sad thing about threshing the beans and putting them up is that it's time for the oldest jars of beans, if any are left, to be disposed of. After about 3 years in jars they begin to get pretty dry and tough, and although they can be used, they don't taste as good or cook as evenly or well as younger beans--the younger, the better. So out went the beans in the jars from 2007, which was a very high-yielding year for beans here. The 2010 is now on the shelf, along with the 2008. 2009 was a very difficult year because of all the rain throughout the planting and growing season, and the result was a very small harvest. But 2011 is growing well--the beans have been in flower for a few days now and I expect a good yield; and next summer there will be more beans to put up in jars, while any remaining 2008 and 2009 will be disposed of.

1 comment:

  1. Ah-ha! I knew there was more than one secret to your terrific veggie chili! Now, I see that it is partly due to your home grown beans. Fascinating! Your blog is reminiscent of that written by E.B. White. In these days of political incivility and legislative insanity, it is somehow refreshing to discover that a very good life can exist for those who choose to live it. I hope to get a vegetable garden growing on our farm. I'll add it to my list! Jim (from North Gage Farms, Barneveld, NY?