A Visit to Morningstar Farm

This past week, a few of us from the Co-op headed out to the Northeast Kingdom to visit one of our organic dry bean producers: Morningstar Farm.  The farm is operated by Seth and Jeannette Johnson (and their 3 young children) and is a diverse operation – in addition to organic dry beans, Seth and Jeannette also raise beef cows, breed golden retrievers, and care for 4 Belgian draft horses. 

The Johnsons

Seth, Jeannette, and their 3 kids

After attending college, Seth and Jeannette moved back to Vermont and worked with Jack and Anne Lazor of Butterworks Farm where they learned more about practicing organic agriculture and growing beans and grains in the northern Vermont environment.  Seth believes strongly in the value of organic agriculture and practices a crop rotation of grains, beans, and corn to keep the nutrients in the soil at good levels.  In addition to promoting good soil nutrients, Morningstar also benefits from about 3 feet of lake-bottom silt on their fields as a result of “Runaway Pond.” Just down the road from the farm, there used to be a 1.5 mile long pond called, fittingly, Long Pond that had an earthen dam. The story goes that in 1810, the grist mill downstream didn’t have enough water to power the mill, so a few men started digging away part of the dam to let some water flow.  Unfortunately, the soil from the dam started washing away and the water from the pond started to “runaway,” releasing, in 1.5 hours, 1 billion gallons of water toward the mill. A man named Spencer Chamberlain, seeing that the dam was going to break, ran into town ahead of the water (5 miles!) and warned the town’s residents.  No lives were lost, but everything in the water’s path was uprooted and destroyed. Now, lake-bottom silt can be found in farm fields downstream from the former Long Pond.

Seth describing legumes

Seth explaining leguminous plants to Aaron and Clem

Even with healthy soil, growing, harvesting, and cleaning dry beans is hard work and a long process.  This year, the Johnsons grew 10 acres of dry beans, and this is the first year that they were able to use machinery for harvesting (in the past, they used to gather a group of about 12 people to hand harvest each bean plant).  It is interesting to note that most of the machinery that the Johnsons use for harvesting and processing their beans are circa 1950s-1960s, which is about the time when farms started to scale up and become more commercial, requiring larger and more expensive pieces of machinery.  For small farmers nowadays, finding scale appropriate machinery can be difficult, and since the machines are no longer made, finding parts and making repairs can be a challenge.

But back to describing the process: Seth and Jeannette plant their beans in rows 30 inches apart.  Soon after the first leaves appear, they cultivate the fields to control weeds early in the season.  They do this about once a week for the first month.  After that time, the beans become too large and fragile to cultivate the fields. When the beans are ready for harvesting (when the pods are dry), the Johnsons pull the beans using a tractor and a bean puller, which pulls up 4 rows of beans in one pass. Then, they run the tractor over the field again with a windrower that lifts the bean plants and merges 6 rows into one.  Lastly, they can pass over the field one more time and pick up the rows with a small combine.  The process in the field is extremely weather and time sensitive – even the time of day makes a big difference in bean pod moisture levels!

Bean harvester

Bean harvester

Bean windrower

Bean windrower

Once the beans have been taken out of the field, they are put into a thresher to remove the pods.  From the thresher, they go to the bean cleaner which separates beans from any chaff or other plant material (video below).  After going through the cleaner, beans are transferred to 80 pound bags. The bags are stacked on each other and then a fan is laid on top in the center of the pile.  Clean rags are stuffed in between the bags to close any holes, and the fan dries the beans down to 13% moisture (until the beans crack when you bite them) in about 2 or 3 days.

Beans in the thresher

Beans in the thresher

Beans awaiting the bean cleaner

Beans awaiting the bean cleaner

Video of the bean cleaner in action

Drying beans

Drying beans

But we’re not done yet!  After drying, the beans are put on a gravity table to separate good beans from not-so-good beans, stones, and other heavier materials.  The gravity table is a surface covered in mesh that is slightly tilted up on one side.  When you turn the machine on, air is blown up through the mesh and the whole table surface vibrates.  Beans are poured onto the surface, and the higher density beans move toward the top of the table, while the lighter beans (split beans, off color beans, not ideal beans, etc) move toward the bottom of the table.  They then fall off the table into separate segmented bags. This not only helps remove stones from the batch, but also grades the beans according to their density.  The final step in cleaning the beans is to run the beans through another machine (powered with a foot treadle) that releases a small amount of beans onto a conveyor belt, allowing the person running the machine (usually Jeannette!) to manually pick out any stones or bad beans they see.  Once all these steps have been completed, then the beans can be packaged and shipped out to customers.  Whew!  I’m tired even describing it!

Cleaned beans

Cleaned beans

Video of the gravity table in action

Jeannette sorting beans

Jeannette hand-sorting beans

Despite all the time and work that goes into growing, harvesting, and cleaning dry beans, we could tell that Seth and Jeannette are passionate about what they produce.  This year, they grew 9 varieties of beans to test which beans work best in their system and to try out some new, less common varieties.  One of the things Seth loves about growing beans is the wide varieties of beans that exist. Some produce plentifully, some produce reliably, and some are just beautiful and fun to grow.  We love having Morningstar Farm organic dry beans in our Bulk Department, and we’re looking forward to receiving deliveries of this year’s crop.

Not sure how to use dry beans? Check out our Dried Beans brochure for more information, or talk to one of our friendly staff members in the Bulk Department. Need some recipes? Check out our bean recipes online. Melissa Pasanen, from the Burlington Free Press, also wrote an article about Morningstar Farm in early 2014. Flip to the back of the article for 2 dry bean recipes from Jeannette Johnson!