“I was determined to know beans.”
Having abandoned journalism and returned to her family’s farm on Whidbey Island, Georgie Smith ’93 started gardening, and one thing led to another. Smith had at least two things going for her, family land and a knack for farming. Farmer’s markets sales led to supplying restaurants, and ten years later, she’s still in business, farming 20 acres on Whidbey’s Ebey Prairie outside of Coupeville with four full-time employees and the same number of three-quarter time workers.
Even though Smith grows multifarious crops—greens, alliums, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, whatever—at the heart of her enterprise right now is a lovely little bean called the Rockwell.
Besides its superb taste, the Rockwell is noted as growing well in a climate not particularly conducive to dry beans. It germinates well in cool soil and matures up to three weeks earlier than other dry beans.
The Rockwell is what we call an “heirloom” bean, a label generally attached to crops that have been saved and passed down through generations because of their value, whether that be flavor, adaptability to a region or climate, or other factors, including attractiveness.
Indeed, heirloom seeds are generally much prettier, often unusually so, than commodity beans, or beans you buy in a bag at the supermarket. Such is certainly the case with Rockwells. They are a light ivory color, overlain with mahogany, which varies in surface coverage from just a few small spots to nearly the whole bean.
The bean was introduced to Whidbey Island by Elisha Rockwell in the late 1800s. The pioneer came to Washington from Maine, by way of Colorado. It is uncertain where he got the beans.
Vegetable historian William Woys Weaver believes the Rockwell came from a very old Hungarian bean called the Rote van Paris or Piros Feher.
The Rockwell gained favor among church ladies on Whidbey who competed as to who brought the best beans to church potlucks. Smith is adamant that her grandmother made the best
Brook Brouwer, a graduate student in horticulture, and Carol Miles, professor of horticulture at WSU’s Mount Vernon Research Station, are conducting variety trials of heirloom beans they have collected from a 12-county area of western Washington.
When he talks with gardeners and farmers about the seeds they save, says Brouwer, “They say they want something that grows well, tastes good, and ‘we love them because they’re beautiful.’” In other words, growers of heirloom beans will select not only for hardiness and flavor, but for looks.
The Rockwell is one of 20 heirloom beans in Brouwer’s variety trials. Others include the Swedish brown bean brought by Jungquist ancestors in the 1880s; a cranberry bean grown in Skagit County since the 1920s; the Henderson, a pole bean grown in Snohomish County since the 1930s; and two different soldier beans, one grown in Skagit County since the 1920s and the other in Clallam County since the 1940s.
For comparison, Brouwer is also testing commercially available beans and the Orca, a variety developed by USDA breeder Phil Miklas at Prosser.
Brouwer and Miles believe that demand for locally produced foods has opened a market opportunity for dry beans in western Washington. Although eastern Washington grows approximately 115,000 acres of dry beans, which is about 10 percent of total production nationally, western Washington has never seen any large commercial production of the legume.
Miles, who has promoted dry bean production on a small scale for years, in Africa as well as the Olympia and Vancouver areas, does not envision beans as a major high-value crop for small farmers. Rather, they provide an important niche in a viable farm system, building nitrogen in the soil and breaking disease cycles.
They also taste good and are very nutritious, angles that graduate student Kelly Atterberry is pursuing (see sidebar).
Their taste and uniqueness, combined with Smith’s salesmanship, have turned her Rockwells into a relatively lucrative crop. The bean has captivated area chefs and reportedly makes an excellent cassoulet. This year, Smith and her crew will harvest 3-4,000 pounds of Rockwells, which she sells for $9 a pound. She also raises six other varieties of beans and is trying out several more.
“I’m not interested in doing a commodity bean,” says Smith. “I want to do something special.”