BEREA — Bill Best keeps almost 700 varieties of heirloom bean seeds at the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, which is at his farm in the Knobs country of Madison County just outside of Berea. But it's not just beans Best is preserving.
He's also continuing a way of life Appalachian farmers have handed down for generations: cultivating an appreciation for the tenderness and fresh flavor of favorite home-grown fruits and vegetables, teaching the process of producing and saving seeds from one season to plant in the next, and engaging the support of a like-minded community. You might recognize him as a long-time grower of ripe, juicy heirloom tomatoes, which he sells at farmers markets in Lexington and Berea.
On Oct. 5, the center will host its annual seed- sharing event, with more than 100 people expected from at least 10 states to swap stories and all kinds of heirloom seeds.
Heirloom beans are not the type typically offered for sale in grocery store produce departments or in general seed catalogs. Instead, they usually are kept and handed down through family or community connections.
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Many carry personal names, like the Fox Family greasy bean from North Carolina, which dates to the late 1700s; and the Frank Barnett cut-short, a mutant first grown by Barnett in Georgetown.
Other beans have names that describe physical or historical attributes, such as the Evelyn Wheeler Pink Tip cornfield bean and the Goose bean, fabled to have been found in the craw of a goose shot by a hunter in the distant past. A few of the types including cornfield beans want to be planted where they can climb; greasy beans, which have hulls that are shiny; and cut-short beans that have seeds that fill up the hulls so fully that they square off.
Unlike common green beans, which are best picked small and early, many of these heirloom varieties have seeds that grow large before they're picked.
"We like full beans because that's where the protein is," says Best, who has a new book, Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia.
He says he remembers planting his first home garden after moving to Berea in 1963. Although some of the commercially ordered vegetables were fine, the beans were tough and not what he was used to eating at home. Best's mother, Margaret Best, gave him some seeds she had saved from her garden in North Carolina's Upper Crabtree community. They were delicious, and Bill Best was set on a course of cultivating heirlooms.
Best was inspired to help others do the same. This year, he has planted about 65 bean varieties in his fields, most to be used for seed, which he sells at Heirlooms.org. Best says he has customers and contacts not only from the United States but around the world, including New Zealand, Australia, England, France and Ukraine.
IF YOU GO
Annual Heirloom Seed Swap
When: Oct. 5. Starts at 9 a.m. and continues until the last person leaves. Where: Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, 1033 Pilot Knob Cemetery Rd., Berea. Admission: Free Learn more: (859) 986-3204, Heirlooms.org, which includes directions and seed catalog