In Search of the Local Bean
Reviving Heritage Bean Varieties on Small Farms in British Columbia
Think of this— a bubbling pot of maple baked beans on a cold, rainy day. It’s Canadian comfort food. After all, Canada is one of the world’s leading producers of pulses: dry beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils. A trip to the local supermarket, however, tells another story.
Look for the source of the conventional or organic dry beans you buy packaged, canned or in bulk and you won’t see “product of Canada.” More often than not, the beans and chickpeas you eat come long distances from China, Thailand, India or maybe the U.S.
Canadian producers export 75 percent of their pulse crops. Well under 10 percent is for the Canadian food market.
According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian producers export 75 percent of their pulse crops each year. Of the pulses that stay in Canada, about 90 percent are for animal feed, a small amount is for seed, and the rest— well under ten percent— is for the Canadian food market, mainly in the form of soup mixes, gluten-free flour, snack foods, dehydrated products and frozen meals.
Most Canadian dry beans grow on large commercial farms in Manitoba and Ontario, while dry peas, lentils and chickpeas are typically prairie province crops. British Columbia doesn’t even figure in on this equation. So how can one find the “local bean” in BC?
Local BC Bean: An Emerging CropAs it turns out, dry beans are an emerging crop on small farms in coastal British Columbia, where in spite of the rainy climate, farmers are finding ways to grow pulses. On Vancouver Island, Saanichton Farm recently began producing red lentils and hard red spring wheat flour as part of its passion for the 100-mile diet.
West coast small seed producers have also been reviving heritage pulses and pioneering their viability as crops for the coastal climate. Heirloom seed growers like Dan Jason of Salt Spring Seeds and Rebecca Jehn of Rebecca’s Garden in Victoria have searched out traditional varieties from our grandparents and from cultures around the world. These heirloom pulses, with a rich assortment of flavours, colours, sizes and textures, offer many advantages—from crop diversity to nutrition.
Diversity in Farming and in Diet
Growing many varieties of pulses rather than a single monocrop, protects a farm against loss from disease, pests or weather extremes. Different varieties are adapted to survive under different conditions, so if one fails, another will continue to produce.
This diversity extends to eating, where incorporating many different beans into your diet provides your body with a palette of nutrients not found in any single kind of bean. Compared to the hardy, but often bland beans and chickpeas selected for mass market, heirloom varieties offer unique flavours and a host of nutritional benefits.
Nutrients and Antioxidants
Pulses are one of the highest protein sources in the plant world. They are also low in fat, and a rich supplier of fiber, the essential nutrient folate, and minerals such as iron, zinc and phosphorus. In addition, colourful heritage bean varieties— black beans, followed by red, brown, yellow and white beans—contain antioxidant compounds linked to heart health and cancer protection.
A Tradition of Culture and FlavourAt Rebecca’s Garden in Victoria, Rebecca Jehn grows over 30 varieties of heirloom dry beans and chickpeas, a collection gathered and tested with care over the years with an eye toward preserving not only diversity, but culture and flavour as well. Among her treasures are rich, creamy Ireland Creek Annie beans, which came to Canada from England and are thought to be named after Ireland Creek Farm in BC where they were grown in the 1930s. Others include golden-brown Beka Brown beans with a meaty flavour excellent in baked beans, nutty tasting Norwegian beans, and Black Kabuli chickpeas which make an earthy hummus that surpasses any on the commercial market.
Some the heritage pulses have unique and beautiful markings, like Hidatsa Shield beans, passed down from the Hidatsa tribe in the Missouri River Valley, or distinctive black-and-white Orca beans, from the Caribbean, also known Calypso beans or Yin Yang beans.
23 Heirloom Beans
Rebecca Jehn describes 23 of the unique heirloom beans she grows on her farm in Victoria, BC.
As interest in finding the local bean increases, more farms are adding them as crops. Local seed growers also produce a range of dry bean, chickpea and lentil seed. To find local sources of dry beans and lentils, search the Vancouver Island Farm Map under Vegetables for “beans (dry)” or “lentils” (for eating) or under Plants & Flowers for “seeds” (for planting).
More on dry beans:
Threshing Dried Beans: A Low-Tech Method for Small-Scale Growers
Tuscan White Beans with Rosemary Recipe