Chip and Bobbie Morris know beans.
They rattle off exotic names like old friends – Good Mother Stallard, Eye of the Goat, Jacob’s Cattle, Black Valentine, Snowcap. Each bean comes with its own story and personality.
“Good Mother; it should be ‘Bad Mother,’” Chip joked as he ran his fingers through a speckled pile in a bin next to a mammoth sorting machine in his company’s Sacramento warehouse. “For farmers, it can cause nothing but grief to grow.”
“Each bean variety has its own nuance – how it grows, how it’s farmed, how it develops, how it tastes and looks,” added Bobbie, Chip’s wife and business partner. “They’re all different and all beautiful. They’re not only elegant, they’re sexy.”
Elegant or sexy aren’t adjectives most people apply to dried beans, but the Morrises appreciate the sometimes mysterious allure of this all-natural staple. That’s why they chose the brand name Elegant Beans and Beyond.
And thanks to that gigantic sorter, their deluxe heirloom dried beans have gone mainstream. After years of limited supply to the public, they’re now sold in Raley’s and Bel Air supermarkets as well as Whole Foods and other outlets. They’re served in hundreds of restaurants throughout the Sacramento area. Via mail order, they feed consumers’ appetites for unusual beans nationwide.
The breakthrough in their bean business came recently, allowing Elegant Beans to ramp up production. Labor-intensive, dried beans traditionally need hand sorting to cull broken halves and debris. In past years, Elegant Beans used 130 laborers to pick over each crop.
Last year, the company purchased a state-of-the-art sorting machine. Custom built in Belgium, the ViSys Python sorter stands 30 feet tall in Elegant Beans’ warehouse near Executive Airport in Sacramento. Using five color lasers, it rattles through 4,500 pounds of beans an hour, kicking out grit and misfits.
“The hard part was the fine tuning,” Chip said. “Every bean (variety) is different; the lasers key on color, and so many of these beans are speckled. It really took a lot of time to program it to do what it needed to do.”
After sorting and washing, the beans are polished with ground corn cob grit to a high gloss. Then they’re packaged and ready to go.
“We used to do everything by hand,” Bobbie said. “Now, we’re mechanized. What a difference! We couldn’t do what we do now without it.”
Elegant Beans’ 11,000-square-foot warehouse is jam-packed with beans. Stored in hundreds of 1-ton totes, they await their turn in the sorter and polisher before trucking off to stores and restaurants.
Fifth-generation farmers, the Morrises have grown more than 250 bean varieties at their family-owned Mohr-Fry Ranches in Lodi. Founded in 1855, Mohr-Fry farms more than 700 acres of beans plus other crops.
“One year, we grew 54 different beans – unbelievable,” recalled Bobbie, shaking her head. “Now, we stick to about 20 (varieties) at one time plus a few new ones.”
“We’re always finding new/old heirlooms to try,” Chip said. “There are no shortage of unusual beans.”
“(There are) more than 2,000 varieties of beans – at least the ones that can be farmed (here),” added Bobbie with a small sigh, knowing that there are still many more weird names to add to her inventory.
Arikara Yellow, Black Calypso, Hidatsa Red, Green Flageolet – they sound like a rainbow-hued map of the bean world. According to plant experts, about 40,000 bean varieties exist, but only a small fraction are grown commercially or in quantity. Mohr-Fry Ranches focuses on the best-tasting beans for our Central Valley climate.
Like heirloom tomatoes, the seeds of these rare beans were saved by generations of farmers, who grew them over and over to perfection. Seed hunters scout these seed savers worldwide for “new” heirlooms to introduce to a wider market.
“They’re sustainable, they’re natural, they’re non-GMO and gluten-free,” Chip said. “Beans are part of a healthy diet. That’s what customers want now, and beans have all that and more.”
Another plus: These beans are locally grown and processed. That has added appeal in the farm-to-fork capital.
Mohr-Fry Ranches and Elegant Beans earned Slow Food Sacramento’s “Snail of Approval” for helping preserve these vegetables with global heritage. As a local producer, these growers also are attractive to other Northern California companies who value those same assets.
Raley’s is an example. With 128 stores, the large regional chain was drawn to Mohr-Fry Ranches and Elegant Beans for their high-quality product as well as location. The new sorter allowed Elegant to meet Raley’s demands and supply all its supermarkets, which now carry seven Elegant varieties.
“Raley’s is proud to partner with vendors like Mohr-Fry Ranches, who share our vision for wellness and sustainability,” said Raley’s spokeswoman Chelsea Minor. “Mohr-Fry is delivering locally grown, fresh products to our customers through our ‘Local 50’ program, which partners with local farmers within 50 miles of our store locations.”
One of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, beans – particularly unusual heirloom varieties – are enjoying an American renaissance. Chefs like the convenience and creative opportunities dried beans offer. They’re a flavorful foundation for vegetarian entrees.
Mulvaney’s B&L puts Elegant Beans in its beef and black bean soup. Mother, the popular Sacramento vegetarian restaurant, uses them in chili verde and soups. The Firehouse serves Elegant’s black-eyed peas alongside pork tenderloin.
Home cooks like dried beans’ value as well as taste. Beans, even fancy ones, are a comparatively inexpensive source of high-quality protein. One pound of Elegant Beans (any variety) costs $6.99 (suggested retail price) and can feed at least 12 people. Try that with 1 pound of hamburger.
By definition, heirloom beans are old varieties that have been grown unchanged for generations, often a century or more. Unlike modern hybrids, they grow true to their variety, exactly the same summer after summer, decade after decade. Some trace back to ancient American Indian tribes. Others were familiar to early colonists or Old West pioneers.
“The thing about these unusual beans, they come with no directions (on how to grow),” Chip said. “People call us from all over the place, asking for help. Most farmers are not into beans except for rotation (crops with grains). They really don’t like runner beans. These beans can be bush, runner or half-runner. Heirloom beans have become a specialty crop.”
Planted in May and June, beans are a notoriously tricky late-summer crop, Chip explained. One year, he planted one variety too early – and lost all 80 acres. Another season, the heavy combine harvesting machine – which can pick and carry up to 12,500 pounds of beans in one load – couldn’t work the field because of too much rain, and its wheels got stuck in the muck; that crop was lost, too. Other years, some beans just refused to grow.
“We started this bean project 23 years ago,” he added. “We’ve been through a lot of changes in that time, done a lot of experimenting. We kind of pioneered these heirloom beans – nobody else is doing this, not like us.”
Drought presents another challenge, Chip said. While some bean varieties require generous irrigation, other species – particularly those originally grown by Native American tribes – are used to desertlike growing conditions and can cope with drought.
The Morrises have grown niche crops before. They’re still experimenting with lupine (a legume and bean cousin) as a gluten-free flour source.
“We tried Asian baby corn, fresh not canned,” Chip recalled. “The labor was incredible. You had to take an X-Acto knife to get it out (of the husks). We were the first ranch to raise (sugar alternative) stevia commercially; that was 29 years ago.”
But they were repeatedly drawn back to heirloom beans.
“They were something unique and really challenging,” Bobbie said. “We wanted to see what we could do with them.”
Delno Campbell, Bobbie’s father, helped them get started in the bean business, she said.
“I used to tease my dad; he sent me to college to be a bean counter,” Bobbie joked. “Other farmers grow beans, but they’re not doing this on such a major scale.”
Elegant Beans’ best sellers: Runner Cannelini, Christmas Limas and that troublesome Good Mother Stallard.
“They’re so healthy and gorgeous,” Bobbie said. “We’re producing a crop that’s sustainable and good for you. It’s really an A-1 superb product that tastes great, too. We take a lot of pride in our beans, and I think it shows.”