Maine Farmer Fights to Preserve New England Culinary Traditions
Charley Baer calls himself a farmer, and as soon as you step onto his South Berwick, Maine, property you know it’s true. His is no “gentleman’s farmhouse” meant for show. It’s a real working environment, and Baer regularly tends to 25 acres to harvest just one product … beans.
But these aren’t your average, everyday lima or kidney beans. Among the 20 varieties he grows each season in New England’s typically cantankerous weather are names most people have never heard of: Bumblebee, Yellow Eye, Jacob’s Cattle, Marfax and Scarlet Beauty among them.
Spend some time with Baer, 67, in the converted southeast Maine garage that serves as an office/storage area/work space, and you’ll be struck by the diversity and simple beauty of his dried beans as he proudly paws through the large plastic buckets where they are stored before packaging.
Some resemble kernels of rainbow corn. Others appear to have been individually hand painted. But Baer isn’t growing them simply because they look striking on Instagram.
His casual conversation reveals why he is committed to such a unique niche market, and it’s hardly for big profits. He reckons there may be just one other farmer up in Bangor growing Bumblebee beans. The Marfax beans come from a farmer in Bar Harbor. The beans known as King of the Early came into his possession thanks to a sole grower in Knox, Maine.
The Jacob’s Cattle beans (the name is a Biblical reference — they are spotted, just like Jacob’s cattle), Baer explains, originally were passed along to Mainers by the Passamaquoddy tribe. At least that’s the story he’s been told. These beans, and plenty more like them, were kitchen mainstays in Maine and much of New England for scores of years, especially during Colonial times.
Dried beans have a long and varied history in the Pine Tree State. Maine’s “wicked long” winters made them a regular part of the early settlers’ cold-weather cuisine. They store well, have high nutritional value and, as Baer says, “They’re a vegetable protein that can really take the place of meat.”
So for over a quarter of a century he has been doing his small part to see that those local varieties don’t go the way of the dodo bird, which makes him more than a farmer. Baer is also a preservationist, committed to making sure that dried beans don’t become extinct.
“Some of these beans are really rare,” he says. “We may be the only grower.”
It’s a labor of love, and Baer has had to do a little creative business juggling to make it all work. For example, he purchases more mundane (my word, not his) legumes such as lentils from other parts of the country so he can be a one-stop wholesaler to many of the gourmet and specialty stores in central New England that carry his “Baer’s Best” products. “Having that variety is what sells all varieties,” says Rob Eckman, Baer’s business partner.
Baer’s beans aren’t cheap. One-pound bags are in the $4 to $7 range, which helps explains why the niche products are available mostly in food specialty shops and at farmers markets.
Baer is proud of his mostly organic items and the extensive work it takes to get them into stores. “My beans are a superior product,” he says. “No grocery store bean will look as good. We ask a premium price, but people will get quality.”
For the average consumer, dried beans are, well, just dry. Baer, a former chemist, was quick to explain it’s not quite that simple.
A certain percentage of moisture in so-called “dried beans” is essential. Baer always shoots for 12 to 13 percent. If it’s higher than that, the beans will get moldy and won’t last; lower than that (as in old beans on store shelves too long) and it’s all but impossible to cook them. They’ll never soften.
There is also the wild-card factor of Maine’s constantly changing weather. Many bean and legume varieties just won’t grow there. The season is too short, and the weather is often too damp. Lentils, Baer said, like a cool, dry climate. A rainy harvest season can ruin a crop. Maine just had one of the rainiest autumns on record. Baer doesn’t mess with lentils. Besides, why should he when there are so many glorious local beans he can grow, such as Scarlet Beauty, Vermont Cranberry, and Boston Roman?
Baer’s beans go through several levels of grading and cleaning before being bagged. On their Facebook page, a four-minute video encapsulates an entire growing season from start to finish. The final step is especially awe-inspiring. The farm has a few century-old grading machines that help sort through all the beans by hand for one last inspection. All the beans. By hand.
The end result, Baer says, is that, “People won’t have to sort out the beans on the kitchen table before they cook them.” And because he keeps the moisture level in that 12 to 13 percent sweet spot, home cooks don’t have to presoak them before cooking.
“But isn’t a bean just a bean?” you might say. “None of them taste like ice cream or cheesecake,” Baer quips. “But some are sweet,” Eckman says. “Some are richly flavored, others have almost a smoky quality.”
Baer’s healthy obsession took root in the late 1970s, when good friends moved to Maine and began growing dried beans. “I used to visit them a lot and saw what they were doing, and I thought, ‘Huh, I could do that.’” And now he is, in a big way. Big, that is, for a “niche” farmer
The last question is the obvious one. When it comes to dining, what is Baer’s favorite bean? Could it be the Black Turtle or the Calypso or the Italian Cranberry or one of the other exotically labeled varieties he grows? “I like the Sulphur bean,” he says, referring to one that came courtesy of a single grower in Brewer, Maine.
“It’s a terrible name,” he admits.
Baer’s Best Beans