In Search of the Local Bean

Reviving Heritage Bean Varieties on Small Farms in British Columbia

by BC Farms & Food  -  Permalink
October 7, 2014

A colorful mix of heritage dry beansThink 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 Crop

Early maturing Grand Forks soybeans, known for their buttery sweetness, grow at Salt Spring Seeds.

Early maturing Grand Forks soybeans, known for their buttery sweetness, grow in the coastal marine climate at Salt Spring Seeds.

As 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, a number of farms have begun growing heirloom dry beans.

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 Flavour

pink beans

Pink beans, similar to pinto beans, are often used to make refried beans.

At 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.

Orca beans, Hidatsa Shield, and Ireland Creek Annie beans.

Video >

Rebecca Jehn talks about heritage beans23 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 BeansThreshing Dried Beans: A Low-Tech Method for Small-Scale Growers

Beka Brown Maple Baked Beans

Tuscan White Beans with Rosemary. Basic Recipes You Can Make at HomeTuscan White Beans with Rosemary Recipe

3 Responses leave one →
  1. 2022 April 22
    B. Hey-J permalink

    I have been growing my own dried beans for almost 50 years and remember my little children enjoying sifting through them, loving the texture and the colours while the beans sat in their containers waiting to be sorted. We grew many varieties in Ontario in our sandy loam soil. Here in BC has been a challenge with dry summers and rocky soil. After 15 years, I find the scarlet runner beans and the butter beans, also called Pole Limas, as well as Big Red Favas are my most successful as they can be planted earlier and are often sturdy enough to deter the rodents that like to chew the stems. Everyone loves a big bean stew or soup on a winter day!

    I am hoping to try chick peas in my greenhouse this year as the season was too short outdoors and transplants get eaten by rodents and wood bugs!

  2. 2019 February 22
    Sandy Ingham permalink


    Your heritage beans sound delicious!

    I’m celiac and am having trouble find dried beans that are uncontaminanted with gluten-containing products through shipping and processing.

    Do you ship your products? And are they handled in gluten free areas?

    Congratulations on growing such cool beans.

  3. 2018 April 16
    Julia permalink

    I’m so happy to hear you are reintroducing some great crops. I’m going to try some different beans this year as well as lentils and kabuki chickpea. I just need to learn more about well as deal with thick clay soil. Thanks

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