Phipps Farm is well-known around the Bay Area for their dried heirloom beans, and we are fortunate to be able to buy these uncommon varieties every other Saturday directly from the grower at the San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market.
What are Heirloom Beans?
Valerie Phipps, a founder of Phipps Farms, explains that "heirloom beans are varieties which have not been commercially exploited in the U.S., but have been grown in Europe and other countries for many centuries and may even be considered a common bean there". Many of the beans that we call "heirlooms" today found their way to North America with people, who migrated to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries hand carrying with them seeds from their native country to grow in their new homeland. But the varieties that they brought didn't attract the attention of commercial growers largely because beans were considered a poor man's food at that time. It wasn't until the advent of the "health consciousness" movement in the 1970's that the nutritional benefits of beans were re-discovered, particularly their protein and fiber content, elevating it from a "poor man's food" to a "health food" and creating a demand for a wider variety of organically-grown beans that commercial growers were not cultivating. This trend indirectly led Tom and Valerie Phipps to become bean farmers.
How the Phipps Started Growing Heirloom Beans
From 1969 up until the early 1980's, Tom and Valerie Phipps grew artichokes in California's "artichoke belt" north of Monterey where the cool and foggy summers make an ideal climate for artichokes. But the continuing need to apply pesticides to keep the artichokes pest-free, coupled with an increasingly competitive market for small growers like the Phipps, led them to think about what other crops they could grow instead of artichokes. In setting out on a new farming path, they wanted a crop that would be relatively easy to grow without pesticides and was not perishable. Aware of the increasing popularity of beans as a health food, they decided to try growing beans. Steering away from the common varieties that large commercial growers were already growing, they looked through some seed catalogs and choose to experiment with a few exotic varieties.
Starting with just a few mail-order seed packages of beans that most likely originated from seeds brought to the U.S. by immigrants, the Phipps began growing small quantities of different varieties until they found ones that would do well in their cool climate. Surprisingly, they found that Pescadero was well-suited to a wide range of beans. The warm, but not hot days, cooled by summer fog, allowed the beans to grow without splitting, a common problem in regions with hot summers.
The Phipps now grow over 60 varieties of "heirloom" beans and are constantly on the look out for "undiscovered" varieties". Their loyal customers who travel abroad will often bring back a few seeds for them to try out. If the bean grows well, the Phipps will save enough seeds from year-to-year so that in three to four years they can have a large enough crop to sell. Since these beans are open pollinated and are not hybrids, the Phipps can be sure that the beans grown from their own seeds will have the same characteristics from year-to-year.
Thanks to the efforts of the Phipps, who have chosen to specialize in popularizing these lesser known varieties, we now have readily available to us the in Bay Area such unusual varieties as Bounty, Appaloosa, Autumn, Borlotti, and Italia.
Beans and More. . .
The Phipps Country Store, which is adjacent to their farm on Pescadero Road in Pescadero, is a delightful place to visit. It has become a well-known destination point for bean lovers as a place to stock up on heirloom beans as well as the Phipps famous jams made from their own farm-grown berries. A one-hour walking tour of the farm gives visitors an introduction to how the farm operates. Children can enjoy petting farm animals in the "barnyard" and picnic tables bordering the berry fields provide a relaxed setting for a picnic lunch. A total family experience! The store is open 10 am - 7 pm during the summer and until 6 pm during the winter, daily except Christmas Day and New Years' Day.
If you time your visit to Phipps Farm during the berry season, you can also pick your own berries. Their U-Pick Berries operation is open from 10am - 6pm every day during the berry season.
- Strawberries June - Nov $1.00/lb
- Olaliberries June - July $1.00/lb
- Raspberries July - Sept $1.00/lb
In addition, there is a nominal admission fee.
If You Miss Them at the Market
If you can't make it to the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market on a Saturday when Phipps Farms is there, you can buy their dried beans at several health food stores around the Bay Area and you can also find bean dishes made using their heirloom beans at some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area. You can now also order many of their products online via their website www.phippscountry.com or place an order by mail or fax using the order form on the website.
Vitamins and Soups
Like all beans, heirlooms contain protein, calcium and fiber. To introduce new customers to the world of heirloom beans, Valerie has assembled 5 types of bean soup starter packages that contain a seasoning packet and her own recipe to make a hearty bean soup. Choices include:
Country Bean Soup
Deluxe Country Bean Soup
Western Heirloom Bean Soup
Cranberry Bean Soup
Runner Bean Soup
Here's a sampling of some of Valerie's recipes:
Runner Bean (or Cranberry Bean) Salad a la Pescadero
Fast soak method: Put the beans in a deep pot in 4 x their volume of water and put on a pilot light or in a warm oven to soak for 2-3 hours.
Ditty's Favorite Vinaigrette
Valerie's Cranberry Bean Soup
Tip from Valerie: "This is a hearty soup that is even better the next day!"
Simmer: Beans cooked over low, slow heat are much more flavorful than those cooked over high heat.
January 1997; updated November 2001.
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