Company: Rio Del Rey Heirloom Beans
Fast Fact: It was a happy accident that first led Rio Del Rey to introduce the Anazapi bean, a cross between the Anasazi and Rio Zape. The company will produce its first commercial crop of the hybrid bean in 2018.
Cat M. | Escondido, CA
Please explain a little about your background and what first sparked your interest in developing organic dry heirloom beans?
I grew up in Anaheim, California, where my parents were orange ranchers and restaurant owners. I graduated from Chapman University in 1967 and began teaching high school science, a career that spanned more than 40 years in the classroom.
During this time, I opened the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point Harbor as its education director, developed the Outdoor Education Program on Palomar Mountain for the Vista Unified School District, and worked 12 years as a writer and developer on the Science Education for Public Understanding Program for the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley. I have co-authored 13 books there, including Science and Sustainability, Understanding Environmental Health Risks, and Plastics in Our Lives. My last book, The Life Cycle of Everyday Stuff, deals with natural systems.
In every place I have lived, I’ve developed programs that were community-based, teaching people about their local environments and the need to preserve them. I live in the chaparral now and have merged my bean-growing philosophy with the cultural and historic themes of the Southwest.
After retiring, I began what is now an eight-year effort to bring heirloom dry beans to more people as a fantastic superfood that is both very flavorful and great for personal health.
How did your passions grow into what is today Rio Del Rey Heirloom Beans and the “small family farm” that yields them?
While teaching, I had the opportunity in the early ‘70s to offer gardening as an alternative to a semester of life science in high school. There was an acre of land behind my classroom, and it soon became the center of 36 student gardens. There, the kids discovered that kohlrabi actually tastes great, and real learning takes place when we provide relevant, hands-on experiences.
Soon after this, I was hired at a new high school in Cypress, California. In addition to teaching science, I was asked to lead a volunteer community and student effort to raise funds in order to landscape the new school—a task both fun and formidable. It took two years of work, and when I wasn’t in the classroom, I was out pushing a wheel barrow of hoses to water the burgeoning plants.
After I retired, I asked myself, “What would I like to do when I grow up?” You see, in all of our lives there are opportunities to reinvent ourselves—to germinate the dormant seeds of creativity we have made in other parts of our lives and call upon those energies and ideas to lead us into the future.
I remember thinking back to what Voltaire said in the ending to Candide. After experiencing the world’s conditions and catastrophes, Candide was asked what he learned about life. His reply was, “We must tend our gardens.” That really struck me in its beautiful simplicity. I had always enjoyed working the soil and seeing the fruition of my labor. But what would I grow?
There are meaningful coincidences in our lives. In 2008, I was reading an article on heirloom dry beans—and it struck me that I had never really tasted these critters. I did some research and discovered Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona. It was founded to preserve the native tribal seeds of the Southwest (including Northern Mexico).
I obtained some purple Hopi beans. They were like the purple, black-striped, shiny Rio Zape beans we sell today.
I was blown away by their taste!
After preparing them simply with garlic, onions, and some salt, I took my first taste. Wow! These were not my mother’s limas. They were meaty, full-flavored, and oh, so creamy. They were so unlike the canned pinto, black, and kidney beans that I had come to think of as my culinary bean palette. They sung with flavor and richness. I had to have more, and I needed to do my homework on beans.
I was able to begin growing some varieties of heirloom beans to determine which ones had the best taste and were adaptable to the inland valley of San Diego County. After three years of work, I had grown enough beans organically to begin commercial production on 23 acres of land adjacent to the San Luis Rey River that I leased from an Indian tribe.
I named my farm Rio Del Rey (“the King’s River”) and began growing heirloom beans in 2013. In 2017, we moved the farm to the land surrounding our home in Valley Center, California.
Can you describe the main tenets of the organic and sustainable farming practices you employ? How can Rio Del Rey serve as a model for other small farms that share your climate?
As I began my farm, I realized that to produce great food, you must employ the best of farming methods—and do this in a sustainable way. Conventional farming methods are, at many times, at odds with nature and interfere with the natural systems that produce soil fertility. The heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on our food crops is not sustainable and, in many cases, harmful.
We go through a great deal of effort to say that our beans are certified organic. Unlike with other terms, such as “natural,” our beans are regulated through an extensive certification process and undergo an annual inspection to ensure they meet the USDA’s National Organic Program requirements.
Our products are also certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a not-for-profit organization. It is important to me to share with others the goal of sustainability and the stewardship we practice in caring for the land we grow on.
There are more small farms and organic farms in San Diego County than in any other county in the U.S. More than 5,500 farmers call it home and make their living on 5,732 small family farms. Sixty-eight percent of these are nine or fewer acres in size.
When I decided to farm heirloom dry beans organically, I made the commitment to a holistic management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.
In short, it’s restoring the soil to the point that it can sustain healthy growth now and in years to come.
Beans are a natural complement, because they add nitrogen to the soil and are a part of the traditional rotation of crops to promote long-term sustainability. As farmers, we work for years to restore this natural balance of the soil. Sustainable farming works in harmony with the renewable systems found in nature. Because it requires long-term goals, it costs more to implement—and leads to increased costs for organic produce.
Heirloom dry beans are a niche market with few organic players. Our farm serves as a model for what is possible using relatively inexpensive equipment and enhanced farming practices to produce a unique crop that is highly desirable for a healthy lifestyle.
Rio Del Rey’s goals focus on:
- Developing new and disease-resistant bean varieties
- Collecting and preserving rare and endangered beans from around the world
- Supplying unique organic heirloom beans for cooking and for planting as seeds
- Creating a sustainable farming system as a model for future small farms to use in further developing heirloom beans
- Providing educational opportunities for everyone interested in our heirloom beans
You source rare and endangered bean varieties (and even the farming equipment used on them!) from all over the world. Please describe how some of these connections came about.
When I met Steve Temple, a highly respected bean researcher at the University of California, Davis (UCD), he pointed out that the greatest barrier for the small bean farmer comes in the cost of a bean threshing machine, because no small machines have been made in the U.S. for many years.
My earlier research had confirmed this, and lingering at the back of my mind was the impending harvest of 4 acres of beans. Imagine freeing the beans by hand labor! (We do this now for our 44 experimental beans, and I can assure you that shelling thousands of beans is no pool party!)
The only small-scale threshers on the market were those made in China and Italy, but after intensifying my search, I also found a company in Konya, Turkey—home of the Whirling Dervishes. These threshing machines are used all over Greece, Turkey, and northern Africa. And the best part? They were affordable! I contacted them and purchased two machines. The thresher runs off the PTO drive of a tractor. It met my desires for a more sustainable use of energy, as opposed to buying a diesel or electrically powered model.
In October 2013, my wife, Chris, and I flew to Konya for a day to meet the owners, Osman and his son Nuri, and the workers at their thresher factory. [It astonished me that the threshers were completely manufactured there using large rolls of steel and steel bars, formed by milling, bending, and welding. Only the wheels and tires were outsourced. Even the painting was done there.]
It was a great visit, demonstrating to me the high quality of the product and the integrity of the owners. I also learned how to operate the thresher and diagnose any problems that might arise during operation.
As for the beans themselves, I spent time in 2014 in Mexico’s Hidalgo state learning to harvest and prepare many foods in a 1704 hacienda. I had the opportunity to meet bean farmers who had preserved some of the great diversity found in beans.
One Hidalgo farmer gave me a bag of large, purple runner beans—each just sparkling like a deep purple gem—the Ayocote Morado.
I planted these beans back home along with subsequent beans that we collected from Turkey in 2014 and from Chile and Argentina in 2015 to determine which kinds were most productive and well-suited to our soil and climate. All of this has led me to the passion I have today for growing and sharing my heirloom beans with people.
Can you explain the goals behind the research you conduct on your own and in conjunction with the University of California?
Our goal is to make the supply of heirloom dry beans available in larger quantities and at a cheaper price than the going rates of $6-plus per pound.
We face two challenges.
The first is the lack of availability of high-quality organic bean seed, and the second (and much more daunting) is the limited amount of seed free of the Bean common mosaic virus (BCMV), which stunts plant growth and pod production.
Any industry is always in need of good research and development, and I found that partnering with UCD was an ideal answer. It has one of the most well-known bean researchers in the world, Dr. Paul Gepts. With his support, we are making great progress toward our goal.
As I mentioned, one of the greatest problems in growing heirloom dry beans is the presence of BCMV. Plants infected with the virus have light green or yellow mosaic patterns on the leaves, accompanied by puckering, blistering, and downward curling and rolling, resulting in stunted growth or death of the bean plant. This is a major barrier in producing substantial bean yields.
In 2015, we provided a grant donation to help fund the research efforts of Travis Parker, a UCD doctoral student. Travis’s work involves inserting the BCMV-resistant I gene (found naturally in most string beans and many commercial beans) into some heirloom varieties using the traditional processes of plant breeding. This begins with growing, then cross-pollinating, an heirloom plant.
In this example, the Rio Zape is crossed with a white bean, the Matterhorn, which contains the resistant I gene. The plant is grown to maturity, producing what is called the F1 hybrid seed. The hybrid seed (all brown) looks quite different from the original Rio Zape seed (purple with black stripes), but now contains the I gene. This process is repeated six more times. With each generation of back-crossing to the heirloom parent, more heirloom seed characteristics are recovered. To regain all of the original qualities of the Rio Zape bean, the hybrid seeds are planted, and their pollen is used to cross-pollinate a normal Rio Zape parent.
At the end, 99.6 percent of the qualities of the original Rio Zape have been added—with the benefit of the plant now being resistant to BCMV. From our 2017 research, this bean produces a plant twice as big as the original and with many more pods!
Our goal now is to scale up seed production and distribute the seed free of charge to farmers across America.
How about the work you’re doing to develop your own hybrid bean made from crossing an Anasazi with a Rio Zape?
Since there are no large bean processing warehouses in southern California, I needed to find a way to further clean my beans. I purchased a new Clipper seed and grain cleaner—the most widely used air screen cleaners in the world—from the A.T. Ferrell Company, which has been manufacturing them since 1869.
It worked wonders in separating split beans and debris from the beans. However, no cleaner can further separate out discolored or slightly cracked beans.
The big warehouses use a $750,000 color sorter that uses computers, laser beams, and air jets to do the final sorting. For a small farm like ours, it’s my wife and I who do the final hand sorting, a slow but effective process.
In 2014, while hand cleaning some Anasazi beans, my wife noticed a very different bean that looked like it had the characteristics of both the Anasazi and Rio Zape. After cleaning several hundred pounds of beans, we had gleaned about 50 of these seeds.
Since beans are self-pollinating, there had to be a pollinator, which we attributed to the four beehives on the farm (the Anasazi beans were planted on a field next to a field of Rio Zape beans). The following year, I planted these seeds and they stayed “true,” producing the same hybrid seeds we began with. After two more years of planting and selectively harvesting, we now have almost 30 pounds, enough to finally produce a commercial crop in 2018—God willing and the creeks don’t overflow!
Anasazi and Rio Zape beans are some of our best-tasting beans. The new Anazapi bean, as we call it, should surely excel in taste, and it also has a more upright bush habit and shorter maturity date than the Rio Zape.
You work with chefs in San Diego County and throughout southern California. How do you partner with them to determine which heirlooms will most complement their menus?
Our beans serve as an alternative to traditional bean varieties, offering unique taste and freshness free of synthetic residues. (Commercial bean producers employ up to six different synthetic pesticides.)
Unlike the limited variety of dry beans found in stores (that can be up to five years old), our beans are sold fresh each year. The difference in how fast they cook is amazing! But the real delight comes in the remarkable taste of heirloom beans.
After hosting many cooking demos at farmers markets and stores, I realized that another valuable way for people to learn about heirloom dry beans was to educate the chefs of top San Diego restaurants. I invited the chefs and their staffs to our farm to see how we grow and process the beans and, most importantly, to do some tasting!
I developed a bean-tasting scale to evaluate the flavor, texture, and other qualities people look for in a good bean. This provided an education for the chefs and helped them discover what traits were valuable for use in their cooking. They assessed our current crop of beans and also some new varieties we had been growing to help determine what we would plant the next growing season.
This made them feel more connected to the farm and also provided us with a future market for these new beans. My philosophy here was to have chefs taste and think of the beans as a culinary palette of colors and flavors. A creative chef could use these experiences to come up some great new ideas that featured our beans in their menus.
You’ve said your work is a “celebration of a common heritage we share with all the people of the Americas.” What makes this a focal point of your efforts as a farmer and business owner?
Dry beans were domesticated from wild plants and first cultivated in Mexico more than 10,000 years ago, then shared with people who spread both north and south to form some of the great empires of the Americas. Today, we find these beans in a multitude of shapes and colors throughout the world. It is these dry bean seeds that are the heartbeat of Rio Del Rey.
I share a love for the indigenous people of the Americas, who gave us so many foods, including beans, corn, tomatoes, chocolate, potatoes, quinoa, and myriad more.
I first discovered this on my honeymoon in 1968, when we visited my best friend, John, who was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. We traveled through Quito and reached the headwaters of the Amazon in the small village of Tena, crossing the river on a cart attached to a wire and pulley. There was no electricity, but infinite night sky and bats flying through the open houses!
It was here that I first experienced the wonder of the unknown, the sweet taste of so many different foods, and, most importantly, the friendship of the people.
We continued our travels, and in early 2017, we met organic farmers in Lima, Peru, who shared some of their beans with us. They are now growing outside our home so we can determine whether they are adaptable to a southern California climate.
We all benefit from the great diversity of people, cultures, and food traditions found in the Americas. In a time when there are forces at work to separate us from our common humanity, I find the mentality of the campfire most useful. Around the warmth of the fire, we share songs and stories and celebrate our differences rather than our prejudices. In our eyes is reflected the fire that radiates our hopes and dreams for the future and our optimism that those forces that would divide will fade away in the coming dawn.
Are there plans for Rio Del Rey to provide formal educational opportunities to those interested in heirloom beans?
We are currently working with CCOF to promote more agritourism in San Diego County. In the past, we have hosted groups, such as Farm Bureau members, schools, garden clubs, and permaculture clubs. We are working on a plan with a major tour company in San Diego to promote Valley Center, where our farm is located, and the new, unique groups of farms, wineries, and specialty livestock growers in this area 40 miles north of San Diego. We also teach organic farming to students at the local high school adjacent to our farm.
Can you offer a specific piece of farming, cooking, or healthy living advice that would be of interest to our Grow Network community?
Beans are an excellent, nonfat source of protein. Just one cup of cooked dry beans provides as much as 16 grams of protein (adults generally need to eat between 50 to 60 grams in a day). Beans can also help to counteract increases in diseases linked to lifestyle, such as obesity and diabetes, and are celebrated for increasing food security in areas with shortages. Plus, they improve cropping systems and are good for farmers.
The Grow Network is a global network of people who produce their own food and medicine. We’re the coolest bunch of backyard researchers on Earth! We’re constantly sharing, discovering, and working together to test new paths for sustainable living—while reconnecting with the “old ways” that are slipping away in our modern world. We value soil, water, sunlight, simplicity, sustainability, usefulness, and freedom. We strive to produce, prepare, and preserve our own food and medicine, and we hope you do, too!