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History

Like its sisters (squash and corn), most beans of the genus Phaseolus, which includes all beans except for broad and fava beans, originated in the New World.

Highly nutritious, dried beans (also called shell beans) are high in starch, protein, and fiber as well as vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B6, thiamine, iron, and potassium.

Traditionally, American Indian farmers in North America often grew and cooked the three sisters together. When cooked together, the sisters provide a balanced meal with a complete protein and rich nutritional value. If you have had dishes that contain all three, you know that there is the possibility of tasty fare when the three sisters come together.

When planted together in close proximity (which is known as companion planting), the corn provides shade for the squash, the beans climb up the corn stalk, the beans provide nitrogen for the corn, and the squash prevents weeds by covering the ground, helps capture moisture in the ground, and deters pests with its prickly vines and leaves.

One of the beans that Black Cat farm grows are Borlotti beans, which are a kind of cranberry bean. Cranberry beans originated in Colombia as the cargamanto bean. Borlotti or Roman beans are a variety of cranberry bean bred in Italy to have a thicker skin. They are much used in Mediterranean cuisine.

Cooking stored dried beans

While dried beans will keep indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place, they lose flavor and nutritional value over time. Also, the cooking time for dried beans increases as they age.

This is why the time needed for a recipe with dried beans varies depending on the age of your beans. So, prepare for a much longer time to cook those beans that have been in your pantry for the last two years.

Black Cat Farm and its shell beans

The Black Cat farm grows several types of shell beans every year, the bulk of which it harvests when dried (it sometimes sell a portion of some beans, such as the black Garbanzo beans and Scarlett Runner beans, while tender and young at the Boulder Farmers Market).

In 2013, it grew the following types of dried beans:

  • Three types of Lima beans
  • Scarlett Runner
  • Topiary
  • Borlotti
  • Cannelini
  • Black Garbanzo

Some of these are bush beans, others are climbing beans.

Planting

Black Cat farm workers sow shell beans roughly around the day before the last frost in Spring, sometimes slightly earlier. Historically in Colorado, the day of the last potential frost is May 17th with an 80% degree of certainty.

Beans are one of the few crops that Black Cat farm workers plant by hand, since large beans don’t fit in the automated seeder chute.

Workers drop beans into furrows that are two rows apart (2 or 3 feet), so that the bean vines have enough room to sprawl. (The farm does not trellis any beans, bush or climbing.) They fill in the soil over beans, creating mounds, and irrigate well. Normally, the beans germinate in 7-10 days.

Growing

The Black Cat farm lets its bean vines extend across the field. As they grow, the vines bush out. The runner beans can grow as long as twelve feet across. Because the farm has a relatively large amount of land, it can afford to let the climbing bean vines grow across the field whereas home gardeners can maximize their growing areas by trellising their climbing beans and letting them extend into the sky instead.

When young with small immature beans, the shell bean pods start out looking like green bean (filet) pods. They taste like green beans when immature with varying degrees of tastiness depending on the bean variety. Later, the beans develop as the pods shrink to a husk.

Harvest times

When left on the vine, green beans all become shell beans, at which point they can no longer be sold as filet beans. Some of the varieties yield excellent dried beans. For example, the mature beans of yellow wax beans are known as black turtle beans when dried. The farm not only sells yellow wax beans at the Boulder Farmers Market but also sells them as dried black turtle beans.  

Following is the progression by which green and shell beans are harvested:

  1. Green bean stage (applicable to both filet and shell beans)
  2. Green shell bean stage (fresh pods can be eaten whole, together with immature beans)
  3. Dried shell bean stage

Not all beans are good at all stages.

Harvesting

In September, the farm withdraws irrigation and lets the shell bean pods dry on the vine. (Shell beans naturally stop growing in October.) The husks are like clamb shells at the end of Fall, dry and slightly to fully agape.

The first frost kills the tops of the bean vines. The beans start drying then. The dry Colorado climate helps dry the beans. Beans have to develop to a certain stage of  development before the first frost to successfully dry.

A shorter season can create problems where there might be a bountiful shell bean crop but they cannot mature enough for the beans to dry. If left on the vines, immature shell beans will mold and not dry. Instead of becoming compost, immature beans become pig food.

In mid- or late-October, when the vines and beans are dried and before the pods have become brittle and the beans start falling out, farm workers walk through the bean field with machetes. They cut the plant stalks at their base, leaving the roots intact so that the nitrogen attached to the roots stays in the ground  and enriches the soil. They then hack up the vines into pieces and bundle them into mounds.

Workers use  pitchforks to pick up the bundles and transport them into the truck. The Spanish word for these bundles is borregos, which also means “sheep,” which are also thrown into trucks like these bundles.

The Spanish connection is apt since the Black Cat farm method for harvesting and processing dried beans originates from the Mexican homeland of some of its  workers.   

Processing

After harvesting, workers place the bundles on a large tarp and spread out the plant matter. Some people stomp on them while others jump up and down and beat on them. Other participants toss the resulting pieces into the air. This breaks and shatters the pods. The beans are heavier than the plant matter and pods, so they fall to the bottom of the pile.

When the beans are separated from the pods and the rest of the chaff is sufficiently crushed, nearly everybody distributes themselves around the tarp and grabs an edge. They lift the tarp and vigorously and repeatedly raise and lower it. During this agitation of beans and chaff, a few others use pitchforks and snow shovels to remove the chaff at the top of the pile until there is a 50/50 mix of beans and chaff.

They then transfer the mix to large plastic bins and wait for a windy day. When one occurs, the workers start pouring the bins from the beans into other containers while outside. The beans fall first into the containers because of their greater weight and nearly all of the chaff floats away.

At the end, workers sift each shell bean variety through a screen (the mesh holes of the screen are sized to be slightly smaller than the mature size of the bean variety). The small immature beans and detritus fall through the screen.  

The remaining  beans are then ready to be sold at the Boulder Farmers Market or used by the Black Cat Farm-Bistro-Table and Bramble and Hare restaurants.