Farmers' Kitchen—Spilling the Beans

by Jennifer and Spencer Blackwell — Elmer Farm

Jennifer and Spencer Blackwell

Written on

March 01 , 2009

A rustic wooden bin filled with black beans sits on our table at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market. Some delighted customers march right up and serve themselves heaping bags full. Others slowly approach our stand to see what’s in the bin. These folks are either disappointed that we’re not selling what appeared to be roasted coffee beans or, more often, they just stand and contemplate the implications of a purchase. Cooking beans is a new and time–consuming activity for most. But people are often excited to learn that dry beans are being grown in Vermont, and many are surprised to know that it’s even possible in our climate.

We grow two acres of black turtle beans each season, yielding 800 pounds per acre on average. We plant them in early June and use row cultivators on our tractor to control the weeds. After nearly five months in the ground and a heavy killing frost, the beans will dry down in the field. The next step is to wait for a clear and crisp fall day with a good breeze to harvest. This assures that the beans will be completely dry going into storage.

We have a 1970s John Deere 4400 combine that has a 12–ft. grain head. The machine cuts the plants and sucks them into the thresher, which separates the beans from the stems, leaves, dirt, weeds, and other foreign material. It then collects the beans in a bin on top and spits the debris back onto the field. Next, we run the beans through a seed cleaner known as a fanning mill, similar to a winnower. Ours is an oak and cast–iron hulk manufactured by Crippen in 1954. The cleaner has various–size screens and fans to further separate the good beans from the damaged beans, small stones, and other debris. Lastly, we hand-sort them in a final inspection.

Here are some basic tips on how to cook black beans. They can then be used to make soups, burritos, dips, omelets, and veggie burgers. I’ve even heard of a black bean chocolate cake but I can’t say we’ve tried that yet.

Jennifer and Spencer Blackwell, along with their 2–year–old son, Angus, operate Elmer Farm in East Middlebury. In addition to black beans, they grow vegetables, sunflowers as an oilseed crop, and other small grains for the Middlebury Farmers’ Market and wholesale accounts. They recently purchased the Elmer Farm through the Vermont Land Trust Farmland Access Program. Learn more about the farm at www.vlt.org.

Photo courtesy of Elmer Farm

Tips for Cooking Black Beans

Sort–Even though we work hard at sorting our beans, we always tell customers to sort the beans again for blemished beans or small stones.

Rinse and Soak–Rinse beans well before soaking them overnight. Cover the beans with at least two inches of water. In warm weather, it is helpful to soak them overnight in the refrigerator, which will prevent the beans from fermenting.

Cook–Before cooking your beans, drain the old water and rinse them well. Add about three times more water than beans to a pot. Bring the beans to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cover. You can always add more water if you want the beans to be softer. The total cooking time depends on the quantity you are cooking and how well–done you like them. You should plan on at least 1 to 11/2 hours of cooking time.

Additional Tips

  • Do not add salt to the beans while they are cooking. This greatly increases the cooking time and makes the beans tough.Wait until they are finished cooking to add salt or any seasonings that are acidic.

  • Cook the black beans in a pressure cooker. This greatly reduces the cooking time.

  • Cook larger quantities of black beans at a time, throw them in some containers, and freeze for later.

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