When we started growing dry beans, we used a one-row push planter to plant a quarter of an acre. With the help of our friend Clare, we picked the pods off the plants by hand, laid them out on a tarp in the garage, and stomped on them with clean boots. We lifted as much plant material as possible off the tarp, leaving the beans behind, and then poured the beans in front of a fan to winnow them. None of those beans were eaten, as I recall. I was under strict orders that they were for seed only, because buying the seed was prohibitively expensive.
The next year, we planted about four acres with three one-row push planters that were cleverly mounted behind our 14hp garden tractor.
The planters only cost $89 apiece, but that meant that the beans got stuck in the plastic plates fairly often, and there was a lot of hopping on and off the tractor to unstick them. The rows weren’t very straight (due to an inexperienced operator), but the beans flourished.
When they were dry, we harvested them by cutting the whole plant off at ground level by hand with garden clippers. Then we fed them through a modified wood chipper to thresh them.
When some guys we had hired to help with the harvest expressed their horror at how many beans were broken by our home-made thresher, we tried their method: we laid out the plants on a tarp and beat them with pitchforks, flipped them over, and beat them again.
Then we lifted the plants off the beans, lifted the tarp and poured them into buckets. The guys were right – we lost far fewer beans.
From there, we fed the beans one scoop at a time into a winnower made from an old furnace fan and some ductwork.
The fan wasn’t very adjustable, so after that, we did a “finish cleaning” which involved pouring out half a cup of beans at a time on a cookie sheet and using our nimble fingers to pick out the broken beans, weed seeds, and anything else unsavory. Several hundred pounds and many, many hours later, we decided maybe we should look for another solution. Help came in the form of Larry Gorenz at Kaneville Feed & Seed, a seed cleaning operation about an hour from the farm.
We took about 1500 pounds of beans up to Larry on our trailer on a nice day in February, and he ran them through his cleaner. As they ran through, the beans looked great.
After the beans came out of the cleaner, they were funneled into a pit under the floor and moved by vacuum to a hopper overhead so that they could be loaded back into our hoppers.
Moments after this excited picture was taken, loading cleaned beans into the hopper, we realized that we had a problem. The equipment that moved the beans around the Kaneville seed cleaning operation broke a lot of beans. We were losing maybe 25% of the beans to breakage after they had been cleaned. The solution for that day was to re-clean the beans with me kneeling on the concrete and catch the beans in 5 gallon buckets before they fell into the pit, handing them off while swapping buckets with my dad and Larry. It’s a good thing we didn’t have many beans with us that day. This was not an experience that any of us, Larry included, wanted to repeat.
We did manage to sell all of the beans we harvested except the ones that we saved for seed, but we didn’t take any of our harder-to-find, more precious heirloom beans up to Kaneville for cleaning – those we did entirely by hand.
It took us 2 1/2 months to harvest 2 1/2 acres of beans. We ended up leaving about an acre unharvested because we just didn’t get to them.
We had a few other “scaling up” issues:
We tried to make do with what we had at the beginning, hoping to avoid too many costly equipment investments. As we processed more and more beans, though, it became clear that we would have to find some equipment that was better suited to the work we were doing.
So the next year, 2011, we bit the bullet and scaled up.
We bought a used 6-row planter and borrowed a tractor to pull it.
We found the same kind of combine that my uncle Johnny had used when I was born.
We got a digital scale, and we ordered bags and a bag sewer so that we could package fifty-pound bags.
When it was time to harvest beans in 2011, we picked 2 1/2 acres in as many hours; the year before, it had taken us 2 1/2 months to harvest the same acreage.
The cleaning, though, was still a problem. All winter long, we sat in the workshop (heated, thank goodness), pouring out beans half a cup at a time on a cookie sheet and picking through them. My dad started to hate Merle Haggard because that’s what we listened to while we worked…Merle meant cleaning beans. Ugh.
So in 2012 we decided that the cleaning had to be mechanized. Our budget was small, so we got the smallest mechanized cleaner from A.T. Ferrell, the maker of Clipper seed cleaners. It was called the Office Tester, meant for use in laboratories. The folks at Seed Savers Exchange said that’s what they used, and that we would be able to clean thousands of pounds with it. When it came, it was even smaller than I expected.
Looking dubious about the capacities of the new little Clipper Office Tester (right).
With some modifications, we managed to get up to the high cleaning rate of 1 bushel per hour. I spent hours scooping beans out of the big storage hoppers into tubs, and then feeding them one scoop at a time into the top of the cleaner. After two scoops, I would stop the cleaner to clear the partial beans and weed seeds that were stuck in the screens. It took all winter to clean our 2012 harvest, and I could only handle doing it for 3 or 4 hours a day before I got either too cold or too bored. But it worked!
In 2012, we grew about 6,600 pounds of black beans. We had to stop delivering to our restaurant customers in January or February, and by July we didn’t have any beans left for farmers’ markets. We estimated that we needed to grow 10,000 pounds just to be able to supply our (then) current customer needs, and more if we were to be advertise elsewhere. There was no way that I could clean two to four times as many beans on the sturdy little Office Tester and get everything else done on the farm (and keep my sanity!).
Read on to learn about the solution: Cleaning Beans, Part 2.