Fall is shell bean season in the North Bay. For some farmers, harvest is winding down and their beans await winnowing, as the process that separates the beans from their dried pods is called.
For others, beans are still in the field, good news for the customers who have discovered the quality and diversity of beans grown close to home. Demand is high, and a later harvest by some extends the season.
“Every year, I double my planting and still sell out by the end of summer,” painter Tim Schaible of Canvas Ranch told customers at his farmers market stall on the last Saturday of September. A few of the 20 varieties of heirloom shell beans Canvas Ranch has grown this year leaned against one another on the table. Their colors and patterns typically inspire their names: Appaloosa, Yin Yang or Orca, Black Turtle and Jacob’s Cattle. There were Hutterites, too, a pale tan bean named for a religious community established in New Mexico in the late 1700s. By 10 a.m., Petaluma Gold Rush, a bean listed in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste catalog, already was sold out for the day.
Canvas Ranch, which produced 500 pounds of heirloom beans last year, has about a thousand pounds this year, which should last well into December and perhaps beyond.
Hector Alvarez of Hector’s Honey will harvest nearly a dozen varieties, including Peruano, Flor de Mayo, red Lima and Appaloosa; he expects his beans to be ready sometime in late October or early November.
At Tierra Vegetables, some varieties of beans had been harvested before the late September rains, but others were still in the field. With luck, the sun will dry them before they mildew. Beans are easy to grow, and farmers face a single challenge: rain at the wrong time.
Tierra Vegetables still has several varieties from last year’s harvest, including Haricot Tarbais, Swedish Brown, Petaluma Gold Rush, Yellow Eye, Flageolet, Montezuma Red, Nigel’s, Mrs. Keeney’s Pink, Bolita and Pebble Tepary. If things go well for the next few weeks, this year’s harvest will include Piquinto, Anasazi, Yellow Eye, Bada, cannellini, Rio Zape, Nicaragua Red and Petaluma Gold Rush. A nursery patch is producing seed for next year, with Lazy Housewife, White Settler’s and Bird’s Egg among the new varieties. The beans are available at the farm stand on Airport Boulevard, immediately east of Highway 101.
At Canvas Ranch, Salvadore Barragas, the farm’s manager, is almost done harvesting beans and has employed a low-tech method of winnowing to nearly all the varieties.
After harvesting the beans, Barragas spreads a single variety over a large tarp, tops it with another tarp and then drives a tractor back and forth over the beans. When the top tarp is lifted, the winds that sweep through Two Rock Valley, where the ranch is located, carry away the crushed pods.
“What remains are the beans,” farmer Deborah Walton says, adding that Barragas likens the process to farming in Mexico 25 years ago.
All of Canvas Ranch’s beans are sold dried. They’re available at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market on Saturday, at the Marin County Farmers Market at Civic Center in San Rafael on Sunday, at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, and at Swede’s Food in Kenwood.
A few farmers sell their crops or at least a portion of them fresh, some still in their pods, others shelled and packed into little plastic bags. Nancy Skall of Middleton Farms has fresh lima beans in their broad, almost flat pods. Libby Batzel of Beet Generation has two varieties, including a Romano bean that she left on the vine long enough for the beans to mature.
“They are so delicious - so meaty, rich and creamy,” Batzel said of her beans.
It is this quality, the meatiness, the richness, the creamy texture, that both sets locally grown heirloom beans apart from their mass-produced cousins and also warrants their price. In some supermarkets, you can find a bag of, say, conventionally grown black beans for not much more than $1 per pound. The price of local heirloom beans starts at about $6 per pound.
If all you know of shell beans is canned refried beans from your college dorm days, you’ll likely roll your eyes at the thought of paying a pretty penny for farmers market beans. But if you’ve ever tasted, for example, Tierra Vegetables’ fresh marrowfat beans, you don’t need additional convincing. A marrowfat - white, plump and remarkably rich - is absolutely extraordinary, with a delicate earthy flavor and a texture that is at once light and luscious on the palate. It doesn’t need much more than to be simmered in gently boiling water until tender to dazzle you.