Gene Logsdon is one of the gurus of the local food and farming movement, and as Wendell Berry refers to him, “the most experienced and best observer of agriculture we have.” Here’s a bit from Gene’s seminal work on growing your own, which has now been revised and expanded for home gardeners and small-scale farmers.
The “Poor Man’s Meat”, as it turns out…isn’t meat at all.
DRY BEANS: The “Poor Man’s Meat”
I don’t know who first called dry beans the poor man’s meat, but today they are also the rich man’s meat, as many people take advantage of their rich content of proteins as a way to eat less meat or no meat. Technically, edible dry beans like the soybean and the navy bean are legumes, not grains, as everyone knows, but they belong in this book because growing them is much like growing grains, and the two make great partners both in crop rotations and in our diets.
In fact the basis of natural, sustainable farming is the working partnership between grasses (grains) and legumes (beans and clovers). Grasses grow well in rotation with legumes because the legumes draw nitrogen from the air to invigorate the grasses. When the grasses (grains) use up that free nitrogen and weaken a little, the legumes or clovers come back strong and charge the soil with more nitrogen. Farmers who take advantage of this partnership to its fullest can avoid spending lots of dollars on expensive nitrogen fertilizer and save inestimable amounts of natural gas, which is used extensively to make that fertilizer. To me there is no greater gift from nature than the combination of bluegrass and white clover because both will grow free and spontaneously in good soil and can provide the major part of the diet of grazing animals. Pasture farmers know this, and are again producing meat and milk almost entirely on the strength of permanent or semipermanent stands of grasses and legumes.
By the same token, corn and soybeans, or wheat and lentils, to name two examples, can be beneficial partners in farming. At least as long ago as Virgil, who sang the praises of partnering grains and legumes in his Georgics, this truth of good farming has been recognized. I believe that the garden farmer would do better to heed the words of poets like Virgil (or Wendell Berry today) than the money-inspired science of modern farming.
The sheer number of the edible dried beans shows their importance to the human diet around the world: soy, pinto, lentil, blackeyed, black, brown, kidney, white, sprouting, runner, tepary (I never heard of this kind until I saw it mentioned in a Seeds of Change catalog recently), garbanzo, chickpea, field pea—just to name a few. If I couldn’t justify putting dry beans in a grain book any other way, then I would simply say that baked beans are one of the heavenly dishes of civilization and don’t need any justification. If the carbon footprint folks want to worry that the subsequent gas from eating them is increasing global warming, I say when they quit exhaling carbon dioxide, I’ll quit eating baked beans.
The soybean is the number one “cash grain” crop in America, so it gets the most attention in farming circles. I think soybeans can make wonderful food for humans, as Asian civilizations have shown for centuries, but I wonder, all things considered, if we should feed them to our farm animals when oats might be cheaper and generate a more sustainable kind of farming. Before the soybean came to America—“before farmers went crazy,” as my father liked to say—American farmers grew corn, oats, wheat, and hay or pasture crops, in that order of rotation. Now much of the Corn Belt is in an endless rotation of corn and soybeans, which amounts to almost a monoculture. Fields in soybeans erode worse than fields in oats, and thus, with so many millions of acres in vast fields of soybeans, erosion problems are more severe. Soybeans do have more protein than oats, so they are a good food, properly prepared. On the other hand, because of the large quantities needed for farm animals, oats might be a better choice because they produce more grain per acre than soybeans and can be fed to animals without cooking. But, of course, oats do not put nitrogen in the soil the way soybeans do. So I guess it’s a draw.
Raw soybeans should not be fed to animals or eaten by humans. I learned that the hard way. When I was a child, I tried to eat more soybeans right out of the bin than our hired man, who tried to make me believe he liked them raw. To this day that taste sickens me. Raw beans, especially soybeans, contain enzyme inhibitors and need to be cooked to get rid of them. Some nutritionists say that soybeans need to be fermented like the Japanese do for miso and tempeh rather than cooked, or in addition to being cooked. I am not going to get into that argument. Soybeans for animal feedare roasted or cooked in some way before they are crushed into soybean meal, which is then fed as a protein supplement along with grains. As far as I know, not much attention has been given to the cost of this roasting or cooking versus the much lower cost of feeding raw oats and good hay or pasture to animals for their protein. The small farmer can still avail himself of custom bean roasters who will come to the farm to do this operation, although, more often now, farmers or custom feed services have extruders to do the job more efficiently. An extruder heats the beans by friction and therefore cooks them as it crushes and grinds them into meal. Today commercial farmers mostly buy soybean meal from commercial suppliers and mix it with the grain rations for their animals. Fermenting the beans, or soaking and cooking them as for human food, would be very laborious for more than a very few animals. I think legume hay and legume pastures, with perhaps a little oats as a supplement to corn, is a better livestock feed than soybeans, and the manure won’t stink as badly as manure from soybean meal.
With the exception of the delicious black-eyed pea or crowder pea of the South, most beans for baking are grown in the North, where they seem to do better. But evidence suggests that most of these beans can be grown equally well north, south, east, or west. Experiments at the University of Arkansas Experiment Station indicate that many dry bean varieties can be commercially successful in the northwestern part of that state at least. That means that they’d do all right in a garden even in the southern part of the state, and most likely on down to the Gulf Coast.
The reverse is true too. I’ve had good luck here in the North growing southern black-eyed peas, as well as northern white beans. They seem to produce with no extra care as to soil fertility. The crucial part is harvesting. I like to let the beans dry in the pod on the stalk completely, if possible. But if the weather is wet in September the beans are very apt to mold in the pod. The blackeyed peas seem to be worse than others in this respect.