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Food Studies: Rescuing the Overlooked Bean

Raspberries and tomatoes are hot favorites at the farmers' market. Turnips and dried beans: not so much. What's a chili-lover to do?

Food Studies features the voices of volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world. Don't miss Claire's last post, on the trouble with land-grant universities.

Besides getting a chance to dig around in the dirt (and hang out in the humidified greenhouse during a Minnesota winter), one of the best parts of my farming class is that we, the students, actually get to decide what the farm grows this year. There are some obvious choices. Raspberries and strawberries, for example, are huge money-makers for the farm. Done. Basil and tomatoes: yes, absolutely. It isn't a summer farmers' market without basil and tomatoes.

Then there are some tougher questions: turnips, for one. The lowly turnip does not sell well at the farmers' market, it turns out. So, if we were planning a farm purely for profit, turnips would be out and more raspberries would be in. But—and this is an important but—we are a farm working partially for profit and partially for education. That education is both for the customer (how to eat the produce) and for us (how to grow the produce). So, turnips are still in, though probably fewer than last year.

Last week, a guest professor came to talk to us about the possibility of growing beans on the farm this summer. Not green beans, not peas, but the kind of beans you make into dried beans —pinto beans, black beans, and so on. These are the kind you buy in bulk at your local co-op or maybe in bags at the supermarket. How often do you see dried beans at the farmers' market? Not too often.

In my experience, there are certain gateway fruits and vegetables, produce that makes consumers (myself included) get interested in organic, local, and sustainable food. These are the fruits and vegetables that taste noticeably better when they're organic and/or local. I'm talking about tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, lettuces, and herbs. Then there's the other produce: the potatoes, the onions, the beets, the turnips. The produce that doesn't necessarily jump to mind when you think of farm stands, but that are also exponentially tastier in their organic and/or local incarnations.

And then—often far removed from the minds of even the most ardent of locavores—there are the dried beans. Sometimes it's difficult just to remember they came from a field. You don’t know how long they've been sitting on the shelf, or how long they were in a storage facility before that. Some of them might even be years old.

On the other hand, if you grow your own beans (it's possible!) or you buy them from a farmer, then they're fresh dried beans, if that's not an oxymoron. Not only will they be organic and local, but they'll taste better, too, with both a better texture and better flavor.

So, if farm-fresh dried beans are so great, why don't you see more of them? The main reason, the guest professor explained, is that the types of beans that are easiest to grow organically— black, pinto, navy, kidney—are also the hardest to sell at a good price. These are the beans you can buy for a dollar at the supermarket; why would anyone pay four dollars at the farmers' market?

A place like Rancho Gordo has made a name selling heirloom beans, and you can buy beans from them online. But how to get dried beans locally? Use your purchasing power. Let your co-op know you're interested in organic, local dried beans; let your CSA know you would sign up for a bean share; buy dried beans when you see farmers offering them. Your chili will thank you.

Claire is a student blogger for the Food Studies feature on GOOD's Food hub. If you enjoyed this, you should check out the rest of the Food Studies blogger gang here, including recent posts on farming as activism, how to make a flax egg, and immigrant food.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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