Four years ago I began experimenting with the idea of growing as much of my family’s food as possible, which would include growing my own protein on a small scale. I live in Tennessee, definitely the south, and we are blessed with a long growing season, and pretty dependable rains. You really can raise enough food to feed a family on a relatively small piece of land. I started by thinking about what types of foods people in the South ate before mass transportation made it possible to ship food from all over the world, something that will become less and less affordable in the decades to come. I also thought about what were the staple foods that Native Americans relied on to feed themselves from this land, and the answer became obvious: beans and corn. I remembered back to the late ’70’s, when I lived for two years among the Mayan people in the highlands of Guatemala. There, black beans and maize are still the primary sustenance for most families.
Over the last several years I have had successful harvests of pinto, kidney, navy and black beans. Last year I planted two rows 75 feet long and harvested nearly 30 pounds of dry beans.
The young black beans start our crisp and green.
Because of the humidity and summer rains in Tennessee, on many years I cannot let the pods stay on the bush to dry because often they will either mold or begin to sprout. I also want to get them picked and off the vine as soon as possible to avoid losing them to insects (boring beetles) or filed mice and rats.
I pick the pods every other day right after they turn from green to purple (black beans), brown (pintos), or yellow with purple stripes (kidney). The shell changes from a crisp green to soft and leathery, letting me know the beans inside are now basically ready.
The yellow leaves tell me the plants are fully mature and starting to dry out.
This year I followed an approach related to the Native American “Three Sisters” method (beans, corn and squash), planting the beans directly in my rows of corn. This allowed the beans to climb up the corn stalk, using them as a natural trellis to support the vines. My winter squash is planted adjacent and its vines wind their way through the corn as well.
2014 was a wet summer with plenty of rain, so I never needed to do any additional watering. However the weather turned dry towards the end of July, allowing the pods to fully mature on the vine. The dry, brittle pods were very easy to shell by hand.
Dry black beans pods among the corn stalks.
After shelling, I spread all the beans out in the trays of my dehydrator and run them through this overnight to remove any extra moisture. This insures that none of the beans mold or go rancid in storage.
As an added measure, I keep all of the dried beans inside a freezer for my long-term storage, eliminating the possibility of a moth infestation.
When I think about the amount of land it takes to raise a protein source like cattle, space for the pasture, acres for hay to feed them in winter, still more acres for the corn and beans that make up their feed, it seems clear to me that it takes a lot less land to grow the corn and beans for ourselves.
When we think about what it will take to be sustainable, not just on our own homestead, but on our planet, we have to consider the amount of resources it will take to support all life. Beans, are believed to be one of the oldest, cultivated plants and are definitely a truly sustainable source of protein!