• Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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Vermont Heirlooms

Plants with (more than one) story to tell

Chester Beans

Written By

Tatiana Schreiber

Written on

June 01 , 2012

My plan was to write an interesting story about a few vegetables that have a Vermont heritage—that is, they were grown in Vermont over many years or were thought to have first been developed commercially by Vermont farmers or breeders. I was thinking of Gilfeather® turnips, Green Mountain potatoes, Chester beans, and Roy’s Calais Flint corn, as examples. I also wanted to include an interesting sweet corn thought to have been grown by the Abenaki in the Connecticut River Valley hundreds of years ago and recently “returned” to a Koasek Abenaki band after being saved for generations by non-Indians. I wanted to tell these tales because I believe the tenaciousness of farmers and seed-savers who kept these varieties alive all these years says something important: These seeds were saved because they are good vegetables, well adapted to our climate, and resilient to the vagaries of cold, wet springs, unexpected summer droughts, or early fall frosts. They were also saved because of their unique qualities—such as the sweet, mild taste of the Gilfeather even when it grows as big as a well-fed woodchuck.

Little did I realize, however, how murky these waters would be. It turns out that there is ardent debate about whether the Gilfeather is a turnip or a rutabaga; Chester beans may have come from New York; Roy’s Calais Flint may be from the Iroquois even though it is listed as Abenaki on the “Slow Food Ark of Taste”; and as for the sweet Abenaki corn, the history of native people’s use of sweet corn (as opposed to field or flour corn) is hard to come by. As far as I know, no one disputes the origin of the Green Mountain potato: It was developed in Vermont in 1878 and was named in 1885 by one O.H. Alexander of Charlotte.

Of course, potatoes did not really “originate” in Vermont, or anywhere else in New England—they were first domesticated by the Inca in the Andean highlands of what is now Peru. Corn was first domesticated some 9,000 years ago by indigenous farmers in Mexico, and the earliest archeological evidence for the common bean comes again from the Peruvian Andes and dates to 8,000 years ago. As for turnips, according to Rebecca Rupp’s How Carrots Won the Trojan War (you’ll have to read the book to find out), they may have come from the eastern Mediterranean, or perhaps Afghanistan or Pakistan; the rutabaga, on the other hand, may be from Sweden. We owe our enjoyment of all of these food crops to the skill and inventiveness of farmers who have grown and saved these seeds, always selecting for adaptation to the local climate and passing them on, generation after generation, for millennia.

••••

Guilfeather TurnipThe Gilfeather “turnip” was either brought to Wardsboro, Vermont, from Europe, or developed through hybridization or selection by one John Gilfeather of Irish heritage, described by those who knew him as a tall, skinny, soft-spoken gentleman who was very particular about his turnips. My favorite line in Theresa Maggio’s film, The Gilfeather Turnip: Rooted in Wardsboro, comes when Theresa, off camera, calls out a question to old-timer Wales Read: “Why would John Gilfeather concentrate a lot of his precious time on a turnip?” Wales leans on his hoe, in the classic “thinking farmer” pose, considers a bit, and then replies, “Because he probably wanted to make a better turnip.” To me this epitomizes the value of “heirloom” vegetables—they testify to the ingenuity of farmers since the very first one (probably a woman) noticed that a good wild plant produced seeds and it might make sense to save them, plant and nourish them, and pay attention to the results.

While learning and passing on the stories of heirloom seeds is mostly a fascinating and inspiring adventure, there is also sadness in it—not only for the seeds that have been lost along the way, but for the fear, anxiety, greed, and bad blood that has accompanied this history. These days, with the advent of patenting, genetic modification, and lawsuits filed against farmers who plant seeds patented by someone else, it is not surprising that seed stories are not so readily shared, and that there is anxiety about seeds getting into the wrong hands. But even in John Gilfeather’s time (he was born in 1865) farmers sometimes kept their seed secrets close to their chests. Gilfeather is said to have cut off the tops and bottoms of his turnips before he brought them down to Brattleboro and Northampton to sell so no one could grow them out for more seed. Later, in the early 1980s, Mary Lou and Bill Schmidt of Dummerston trade-marked the name Gilfeather with the state of Vermont (hence the little ® you often find next to the name) to make sure no big seed company “from away” got hold of the seed and didn’t respect its Vermont roots. These days, although the trademark still exists, you can readily obtain Gilfeather seeds (from Fedco Seeds, for example, which pays a fee to re-sell them), and don’t tell anyone I told you: If you store plants with roots attached you can replant them the next year and grow out the seeds for your own use.

The Gilfeather is a big, light-fleshed, sweet-tasting vegetable that can be eaten raw, made into soups and stews, roasted, or sliced up for slaw. The Friends of the Wardsboro Public Library, who every year sponsor the Gilfeather Turnip festival, have put out a cookbook filled with Gilfeather recipes. It seems like everyone in Wardsboro is sure their famous vegetable is a turnip (Brassica Rapa) but most folks outside of town believe it’s a rutabaga (Brassica Napobrassica) because of its long growing season and large size. Mary Lou Schmidt, one of the trademarkers, says, “It’s neither; it’s in a class by itself. Some say it may have a sweet German turnip” in its parentage, while others point to a white rutabaga called “Sweet German” that could be an ancestor. Will Bonsall, who directs the Scatterseed Project in Industry, Maine, where he saves and grows out hundreds of unusual varieties, believes the Gilfeather is definitely a rutabaga, due to its “rough skin, slight neck, (true turnips have a hollow crown, no necks) and the bluish-green foliage color” that comes from the wild kale in the rutabaga’s parentage. I’ll just go with the comment of another Wardsboro resident in Theresa Maggio’s film: “I like ‘em anyway I get ‘em.”

••••

“It’s a good bean,” was the only information Gale Flagg of Maine had when she acquired some black-flecked seed from an old farmer she visited in Chester in the mid-1970s. He was growing these extremely tall pole beans in a garden near a barn she was looking at, and he gave her some. She, in turn, gave some to Will Bonsall. I met Will at a seed-saving conference in Brattleboro in 2004, where he passed some on to me, and I have been growing these “Chester” beans ever since. They grow 10 feet or more, are very productive, and have a robust flavor that some describe as “lima-like,” although Will is certain this is not a lima. He says the bean, which is beautifully mottled with black or dark brown swirls, reminded one plant breeder he showed it to of the “Vermont Horticultural Lima,” although that used to be white. But William Woys Weaver, of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods in Pennsylvania, says that what we now call the Chester bean is identical to what the Cornplanter Senecas grew in the New York and Pennsylvania region in the 1800s and called the Skunk bean. If any reader recalls growing this bean here in Vermont in the past, please let me know so we can fill in some gaps in its story.

The Green Mountain PotatoVermont has a long history of commercializing good potato varieties. For example, a Chilean variety called Garnet Chili (known to be resistant to Late Blight, the fungal disease that caused the Irish potato famine and that devastated our own potato and tomato crops two years ago) was the parent to a variety called Early Rose, developed by Albert Bresee of Hubbardton, Vermont, which became extremely popular, and in turn was a parent to the wildly successful Russet Burbank. According to Harold L. Bailey, in Vermont’s Potato Story (1955), more than 80 commercial varieties became standard in Vermont between 1860 and 1890, all originating from the selection work of Vermont farmers and plant breeders. The Green Mountain, still popular here, produces high yields of white-fleshed tubers that have great flavor, store well, and are resistant to several potato diseases.

Vermont also has a much longer history of corn cultivation. Radiocarbon dating of corn kernels found at an archeological site in Springfield puts the first widespread corn agriculture at about AD 1120 in the Connecticut River Valley. Indigenous farmers grew corn in the river intervales and oxbows continuously until their lives and settlements were disrupted by the French and Indian War and the arrival of settlers in the 1700s. However, some good relationships may have existed between the indigenous Abenaki and settlers; in 1973 Newbury sheep farmers Sarah and Charles Calley received an unusual sweet corn from Carroll Greene, a New Hampshire descendent of the earliest white settlers of Newbury. Carroll told the Calleys that Abenaki farmers had befriended his ancestors in the 1760s and had given him some kernels from a short plant that produces a 3-to 4-inch ear, which he always called “Indian Corn.” It was passed down for generations, and Carroll, who was elderly at the time, asked them to keep the seed for the future. The Calleys describe Carroll as “a character and a half…old-style, self-reliant, cantankerous at times, persistent, a little stubborn.” In short, all the characteristics that make a good seed saver.

Sweet Abenaki cornThe Calleys in turn grew out the seed in a corner of their garden for another 35 years. In 2006, they “returned” the corn to the Koasek Abenaki of the Koas (based in the Newbury, Vermont and Haverhill, New Hampshire areas). According to Chief Nancy Millette, there is oral history suggesting that this “rare strain of corn was grown and harvested and eaten, and ground down to make into soups and flour … it’s a short stalk, one ear on a stalk, it’s an early corn, very sweet.” The Calleys say they can plant this corn in late April up on their mountain above Newbury and that it is ripe in July. In 2009, this corn was given to a different Abenaki band, as well, and both groups are successfully growing it out. At this time they prefer to keep it in Abenaki hands, although Chief Millette says some was sent down to Haiti following the earthquake, in the hopes that this early resilient variety would help the Haitians develop a good variety for their own climate.

Their cautiousness around allowing these seeds to be grown by others is understandable, given the long history of Abenaki oppression in this state. For hundreds of years the Abenaki had to live underground, and their language all but went extinct, as did this corn. Sweet corn is a mutation of the starchier field or flint corn, and some sources suggest that it was the white settlers who first began the widespread use of sweet corn for fresh eating. Whether or not this particular strain was used by the Abenaki as sweet corn 300 years ago may be less important than its use and enjoyment now. But there is fear that in the wrong hands this corn, now considered sacred, could be sold and marketed by large seed companies, trading on Abenaki cultural history and not benefitting the Abenaki at all.

••••

Another corn thought by many to be Abenaki is Roy’s Calais Flint corn, commercialized by Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott. It was grown by Roy Fair in Calais and given to Stearns in the mid-1990s. Tom wrote in High Mowing’s 2001 seed catalog that it was “the most exciting heirloom [he’d] ever been handed.” The corn was grown by Roy Fair’s grandparents and used for johnnycakes, cornmeal, or hominy. Doug Guy, who grew up next door to the Fairs, told me he remembers seeing “great garlands of this red and yellow corn” hanging from the attic rafters, where Roy would dry it in the fall. Doug says this corn’s claim to fame was its cold-hardiness in a valley that never got even 90 frost-free days, and no other corn could mature in time. It produces some ears that are completely yellow and some completely red, but none that are mixed. Doug recalls that when he was growing up, about one-fifth of the ears were red, and that at husking bees “if you got a red ear you got to kiss your girlfriend… that’s part of why the red ears were kept in that strain.”

Somewhere along the way the story emerged that Abenaki gave this corn to Roy Fair’s grandparents, but according to Doug, Roy’s parents, who came from western New York in the 1920s, always called it “Iroquois 8-row” and he thinks it is more likely the corn was Iroquois than Abenaki. Nonetheless, it’s now listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste (a compendium of notable crop varieties in danger of extinction if not appreciated and protected) as an Abenaki (Sokoki) corn. Whatever the real story is, all agree that this is a good corn—coldhardy, high in protein, reliable, productive and tasty. Doug calls it “lazy,” in that if you grow it in a region that’s not so cold and give it more time, it will quickly adapt and begin to require a longer growing season. Savvy seed-savers know that to achieve plants that are most resilient you need to grow them in the most difficult environments and select for those plants that do well at the margins.

Some seed-savers feel like they are at the margins, too, quietly keeping their seeds, year after year, and keeping with them the stories and the knowledge of how the seeds should be nurtured for the best results. These days, however, to the benefit of all, more and more seed-savers are coming out of their gardens to meet and share their stories, knowledge, and seeds that all agree are “good vegetables.” The Upper Valley Seed Savers, for example, are looking for local vegetable and herb varieties to preserve and add to their collection of local open-pollinated seeds. They are especially interested in unknown varieties that have been grown in this area for years or even generations and that are no longer or have never been available commercially. They are also very interested in the stories or family histories that go with the seeds. If you have seeds and stories to share, contact Ruth Fleishman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For me, the detective work that goes into learning the history of these varieties is part of their allure, as is discovering the passion and pride of the people who have maintained and passed on these seeds. Protecting seeds for the future is critical not only because of the genetic diversity they embody (and with that, perhaps, resistance to the next devastating blight), but because they represent an intimacy between people and the land that is as endangered as the plants themselves.

Tatiania thanks Sylvia Davatz, Will Bonsall, Gale Flagg, Anne Miller, Doug Guy, Theresa Maggio, CR Lawn, Tanya Stefanec, Peggy Fullerton, Sarah and Charles Calley, Nancy Millette, William Woys Weaver, Ben Watson, Dave Skinas, and Ginger Nickerson for their contributions to this (ongoing) story.

About the Author

Tatiana Schreiber

Tatiana Schreiber

Tatiana Schreiber grows and sells heirloom and unusual varieties of eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes, as well as medicinal and culinary herbs, at her farmstead, Sowing Peace Farm, in Westminster West. She also teaches ecological agriculture and other topics at local colleges.

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