The Winooski Bean Thresher Co–op
Written onMarch 01 , 2009
I moved to Vermont in 1989 with a desire to garden and build a self–sufficient life—values I inherited from my mother. As I began growing food for myself and friends, I naturally started out with the basics, also known as “the three sisters” native to the Americas: corn, beans, and squash. I grew winter squashes, Maine black turtle beans, and sweet corn—or at least tried to. The crows plucked up nearly every corn seed that sprouted from the earth, and the cucumber beetles attacked my squash plants.
But the dry beans flourished. I pulled the mature plants from the ground and hung them to dry in a friend’s barn, where they remained for several years as I transitioned from one home to another. When I finally got to pulling them out of the barn, I invited a handful of friends to thresh them and take their share for the effort. Little did I know that 17 years later I would be helping to organize what may be Vermont’s first bean–threshing co–op.
Threshing is the term used to describe the process of removing beans or grains from their shells. It can be done by hand, one pod at a time (called shucking), but more often it is done by breaking open the pods mechanically with a threshing machine or by putting them into cloth sacks or on a tarp and pounding the pods. They split open easily when dry. The next step, winnowing, is the process of separating the chaff (pods, plant matter, dirt) from the beans. This is done manually by throwing or dropping the beans or grains in front of a fan or breeze that blows away the lighter chaff. Large–scale farmers use a tractor–driven combine that harvests, threshes, winnows, and bags.
Those first beans I grew became the seed stock for my bean plantings in years to come and the foundation of many of the most amazing bean dishes I’ve ever eaten. I was hooked. The taste and texture of homegrown beans was in such stark contrast to the beans I’d purchased at the local co–ops. They were creamy, never grainy, and soft, sweet, and full of flavor, never bitter. I also learned a lot from that first planting: bean seeds on their own can remain viable for years, even in freezing temperatures hanging in a dry barn; they are not prone to be devoured by vermin; and they require a bit of work to get them out of their pods and into the pot.
Since then, I have modified my dry bean growing practices. I allow the pods to dry on the plant and, when harvesting, pull the bean pods off the plants in the field and complete their drying on racks in the shed. I have been hand shucking them for more than 15 years in the deep winter, sitting by the fire or with friends. I have grown several varieties: black turtle, jacob’s cattle, coco black, marfax, true cranberry pole beans, and another whose name I do not have, given to me by a friend.
Recently, I decided that I wanted to grow more beans than I could easily hand-thresh with my busy lifestyle. I see how dependent our food system is on petrol–powered trucks to transport our food thousands of miles. If (or when) that system is disrupted, we will have a food shortage and hunger crisis in our communities, right quick. I do not have enough of a surplus to go very far when a time like that hits, so I want to be able to grow a surplus of an easy–to–grow and easy–to–store food crop. Dry beans!
Thus was born the Winooski Bean Thresher Co–op. It is designed to assist home gardeners and small–scale organic farmers in the central Vermont area in processing their dry beans efficiently. Membership in the co–op gives you access to the co–op’s equipment: a pedal–powered thresher and a hand–cranked winnower. You also have a means of networking with others who are interested in growing dry beans. Currently we have a $10/year (individual/family) and $25/year (farmer/grower) membership fee. This will be used to keep the equipment functioning and to keep the administration of the co–op in order. We received a start–up grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, which helped us purchase and retrofit the equipment and get the organization up and running. We have put together by laws, membership applications, and an outreach letter. We are receiving memberships this first year from folks who already have beans to thresh and others who want to know more about how to get started growing dry beans.
As for the equipment, one of our members found instructions on the Internet on how to turn a small gas–powered chipper into a thresher. We don’t want this thresher to be dependent on petrol, so we are fine–tuning the retrofit to make it run on pedal power. Our first run showed us that we need to gradually feed the bean pods into the thresher, spinning the tines not too fast and not too slow. (We have not tried it with whole plants yet, but I’m thinking that the fibrous stems may get wound around the tines. We’ll see.) For winnowing, a local organic farmer–friend donated an old Vermont hill farm winnower to the co–op. It is hand–cranked, turning a wooden paddle fan. You drop the threshed beans into the winnower and it shakes, blows, and separates the beans onto various–size screens. We look forward to trying it out once we get all our beans threshed.
Photo courtesy of Janice Walrafen