News

Farm Field Visits • Little Bean Farm & Larder

31-Jul-2019

This season, Countryside is taking the opportunity to visit the farmers and farms who participate in our markets. We do this to verify that farms are producing the products that they bring to markets, as well as get to know them better – to learn more of their stories, their techniques, their successes and their challenges. We want to share what we’ve learned with you! Eating local is not just about geography, it’s not even just about flavor, nutrition, and ecology – it’s also about supporting a person and the small piece of the earth where they have planted themselves.


Little Bean Farm & Larder

~ from erin, Director of Local Food Programs; unless noted, photography by Fitzwater Photography

You may know Little Bean Farm & Larder from the Howe Meadow Farmers’ Market – it’s impossible to walk past Liz’s beautiful bouquets without taking notice. 

Bouquets on bouquets on bouquets! (Photo courtesy of Little Bean)

If flowers aren’t your thing, Liz’s veg are beautiful specimens as well.

Maxibel French Filet Green Beans ~ Haricot Verts

Broccoli glamour shot!

Little Bean is a small, sustainable vegetable and flower farm located on 2 acres in Chardon. When Liz and her husband Tony moved in, in 2014, much of the property was lightly wooded. A quarter acre is now in production. This is a relatively small space that Liz maximizes by dense plantings (close spacing, only 12 inch pathways between beds, and strategic interplantings) and careful successions.

Little Bean was originally started with a focus on dry beans – a crop not produced in great quantities in northeastern Ohio. Hence the name! While many people are only familiar with a few varieties of commodity beans (black, pinto, navy, possibly cannellini), there are SO MANY varieties that offer differences in flavor and texture. (If you’re interested in exploring further, check out Rancho Gordo.) Dry beans would provide a niche foundation among the standard annual vegetable crops. The beans have proved a challenge based on acreage, scale and equipment and climate. Liz continue to work to find a balance that allows for sustainable production – in growing the beans, as well as drying and processing. This season she has modest amounts of Borlotti (aka cranberry beans or horticultural beans), Kenearly Yellow Eye, and Black Coco (aka, er… black beans) in the ground.

Baby beans! Dry bean production starts similar to green bean production, but pods are not harvested when they are young and tender. They remain on the plant as the beans within the pods mature. As this happens, the pod wall thins and toughens. Pods can be harvested with mature beans and thin walls and eaten as fresh shelling beans – these fellas have a very short season, but are a real treat and don’t need to be soaked! For dry beans, pods are left on the plant even longer, for the pod to start drying. In Ohio, wet fall conditions usually prevent fully drying on the plant. To finish the process, pods are picked, or full plants are pulled and laid out. Once appropriately dry, beans are processed by a threshing and winnowing process to remove the dry pods – this can be labor-intensive without the right equipment.

As the beans were proving difficult, Liz diversified in another direction – flowers. During Little Bean’s first season, Liz grew a small amount of flowers for her wedding. This opened the door to learning that while there is much that is similar about growing flowers and vegetables, there is also much that is different. The following season, more varieties of flowers were planted and Liz started learning much, much more – including how to arrange bouquets, how to encourage stem length and full blooms, how to prolong vase life, how to succession plant for flowers, what pest pressures and nutrient levels affect flowers – it’s a long list!

The first Lisanthus bloom! Notice the trellising to support the plant as it grows – this is particularly important for flowers, which require long, straight stems to be easy for florists (including farmer-florists) to arrange.

Liz explaining how “pinching” the first buds/blooms on certain types of flowers is important to producing subsequent flowers with good blooms and stem length. Removing those first buds redirects the plant’s energy into side branches to grow long and strong and produce flowers.

Liz definitely grows centerpiece flowers, but has a particular fondness for “fillers”. These are the accent flowers and greens that come in a bouquet that we often don’t think too much about. If you took them away though… you would find that the arrangement is much less engaging. The diversity of and uniqueness of fillers is one thing that sets farmer-florists apart – they can add small amounts of a wider variety to bouquets, controlled by planting and harvesting, rather than ordering. Flowers have a limited life and for a florist who is ordering from a wholesaler, they have to control costs, which usually means ordering larger quantities of fewer things.

Feverfew

Dusty Miller

All the while that Liz has been learning more about growing flowers, she’s also continued to refine her overall agriculture vision and methods. Over the past few seasons, Liz has transitioned to a no-till method. Mechanical tilling (plowing, rototilling) is usually done to accomplish a few things – kill/suppress weeds, incorporate cover crops and crop residues, and create a friendly soil texture for planting. It has significant downsides though – while it breaks-up soil on the surface, it can create compaction below the plowed/tilled depth; it increases susceptibility to wind and water soil erosion; it inverts the soil, bringing both weed seeds and microorganisms the prefer conditions deeper down to the surface; and it’s mostly fossil-fuel dependent.

Liz’s no-till conversion started with her use of landscape fabric for weed suppression in large areas. Without the sunlight, weed seeds don’t germinate – or if they do, once they’ve emerged, they don’t receive the sunlight they require to continue to grow. (Also, they can’t physically penetrate the fabric...) She found that there were additional benefits for soil and plant health, as well as soil texture; landscape fabric – as well as other mulching methods - help improve water retention, regulate soil temperature, and reduce compaction from rainfall. Landscape fabric can also be used to help kill cover crops and incorporate residues into the soil – it requires a little more patience, but worms and other decomposing organisms love the dark, moist, warm environment. Liz also uses other mulching methods – cardboard, straw, wood chips – and prefers those. They accomplish the same goals as the fabric, while also adding organic matter, and they aren’t made of plastic. They are a bit more costly and can present additional challenges. Finding clean straw, for example, has been a challenge. Using straw that brings its own seed bank with it is counter-productive. Liz is hoping that the fabric will be transitional – that as weed pressure decreases with continued suppression and increasing soil health, she can minimize or eliminate her dependence on it.

Liz explaining her use of landscape fabric and mulches.

Once Liz saw how mulching impacted the soil, she wondered if she *needed* to till, she switched to using a broadfork for soil prep. Broadforks effectively and efficiently penetrate and break up the soil to reduce compaction and improve aeration, which helps water and nutrient penetration, as well as root development for plants.

Liz demonstrating the broadfork. The structure of the broadfork leverages your full body weight to do the work. Tines are driven into the soil and then rocked back and forth with the handles to loosen and break-up the soil.

Liz’s methods are minimally invasive across the board. She is considering organic certification, but the cost is holding her back. In the meantime, all of her practices would meet organic requirements. She sprays/treats only as required for pests and fungal diseases and using the gentlest treatments possible. Her nutrient amendments are all natural. (Also, she’s already an excellent record keeper, so that aspect isn’t particularly daunting either.)

These natural practices are something we consider a lot for our food, but they hold implications for flower farming as well. Industrial flower farming has the same environmental, health, and economic implications as commercial produce farming. A 2015 article in the magazine Modern Farmer states, “According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 80 percent of all flowers sold in the U.S. are imported, primarily from South American industrial flower farms that have a history of using harsh chemical fertilizers, toxic pesticides and unfair labor practices. At the U.S. border, flowers must be fumigated to clear customs.” The transport and storage of these flowers adds to their fossil-fuel consumption and environmental impact.

Also similar to fruits and vegetables, Various characteristics (ease of harvest, fragility, shelf/vase life, etc) determine which varieties are appropriate to grow at an industrial scale. Just like you can find a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes at the farmers’ market, but cannot at the grocery store, your market bouquet will contain flowers that are too difficult for grow and hold for transport in mass quantities. A farmers’ market bouquet will be fresher and seasonal too – having been harvested in the few days prior to market. Broken record warning: like produce, supporting local flowers farmers and their seasonal products can help connect you with the natural rhythms of your area.

Liz is primarily a one-woman show, though she does get significant support from her husband, Tony, and her sister, Kate. Kate is often the face that you see at the market these days. Tony helps with clearing, maintenance, and construction projects. Their most recent project has been completing a cooler trailer. This trailed will provide much needed storage space – at ideal storage temps for vegetables crops and flowers – but also adds a lot of efficiency. Before, the movement of flowers and veg required movement of totes, coolers and bouquets up and down stairs to store and then load for market. Now, the storage step is the same as the packing for market step. (If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, trust me, IT IS.)

Checking out the new trailer. Excellent vinyl flooring choice, Tony!

At this point, Little Bean is split about equally between flowers and vegetables. To supplement market sales, Liz has branched out into events and weddings with the flowers. Working with clients has further developed her flower crop planning skills to include variety selection and timing for color palette. While the attention to detail and commitment involved in fulfilling a flower vision can be a little overwhelming, it’s extremely rewarding to see how the flowers compliment other elements of an event and enhance it overall.

A gorgeous bouquet from a recent wedding. (Photo courtesy of Little Bean)

Want to know more about Little Bean Farm & Larder and be delighted by the eye candy of Liz’s flowers and vegetables? Give a follow on Instagram, @littlebeanfarm!

Better yet, visit with Liz – or Kate – at the Howe Meadow Farmers’ Market, every Saturday, 9am-12pm, through October 26th, and take the beauty home with you!

If you’re interested in flowers for an event or wedding, email Liz at elizabeth.macek@gmail.com.