Farm Field Trip: Powisset Farms

Leona Palmer

Leona Palmer › Leona Palmer was a native of rural Wisconsin before becoming a time-tested New Yorker. After having ...

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Bean Threshing at Powisset Farms

A few weeks ago on a Wednesday afternoon I was able to participate in a CRAFT activity at Powisset Farms in Dover, about fifteen minutes SW of us. CRAFT stands for Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training and programs consist of regional farms hosting themed events on-site during which other farmers in the area can come and learn new skills, gather information, network and support each other. It’s a fantastic opportunity to be see what the neighbors are up to. Also, it’s a grand time. Farmers, I’m learning, laugh as hard as they work.

Powisset is a CSA farm on a rural, picturesque property. The farm cultivates around 10 acres, growing for 300 shares which ends up feeding about 500 families in all. Walking trails weave through the woodlands, fields and wetlands on the rest of the 108-acre property, which is run by the conservation organization The Trustees of Reservations, who have conserved, restored and opened 7 farms, as well as being the custodian of non-farming conservation properties.

It was a beautiful day when we arrived at one o’clock in the afternoon. We got a quick introduction and summary of labor. Various stations of barrels, baskets and bins were arrayed on the floor of the barn. Piles of gathered stalks lay to one side. This was Tiger eye, one of five varieties we would thresh that day, a gorgeous orange and red speckled bean.

“Threshing” basically required that we beat the bundles of dried stalks—pods still attached—against the inside of a barrel. This was done vigorously and without mercy. Ideally this first step would remove upwards of eighty percent of the beans from the pods. Some combination of pent-up aggression, over-eager enthusiasm, unabashed farmer strength, and physics of the beans meant that a decent few ricocheted out of the barrels and into the air. I was hit from renegades on more than one occasion. Only once did it sting, but it wasn’t painless.

The next stage was to transfer them to orange perforated baskets to sort the “chaff” (plant materials) from the beans. This also required that you look for any intact pods and pry them open for the beans within. A more patient task, but not the most tedious of the day. The last part of this stage was to sift the beans through the baskets so that minimal chaff remained, then pour them into bins. The bins were actually quite small, compared to the heaps of chaff. My appreciation for what goes into a bean increased ten-fold on this day. But they looked gorgeous, shining in the bins, and validated our labors.

Step three involved moving over to the impressive vintage fan mill, aged 150 years, judging by the weathered label on the inside panel. This explanation will not do the engineering justice, but basically a handle turned a looped leather strap that ran between it and another wheel. This turned an internal fan (shaped like a steamboat rudder) and also pivoted the tray on top back and forth, shaking the beans down. They fell in a steady stream through the air of the fan, which blew away the remaining chaff, and down onto an angled mesh grid that sifted them further as they slid down into a bucket on the ground under the amazing contraption. I felt as though I was working the original printing press or cotton gin. Human ingenuity and mechanical invention, huzzah! I couldn’t help but think of my Dad, and the glee he would have taken in this as I turned the handle at an even clip. It’s worth noting that the modern powered units are still of the same basic design.

The final step, being the most tedious, was to hand sort the beans by removing small bits of gravel as well as moldy or undesirable bean bits. Ten or so people gathered around a large table frame covered with a fine mesh in various teams, working on separate varieties of beans. I was in charge of the mixed variety bin, all of the renegades that had been swept up and thrown in together. They made for a gorgeous collection: Tiger Eye, Black, Hutterite Soup Bean (a sort of glow-in-the-dark color), Kidney (a lovely dark pink), and Calypso (nicknamed Yin Yang and Killer Whale for its black and white spots). The farm would sell these organic, hand-processed beans for five dollars a pound. A crazy deal, as far as my arms and back were concerned.

Other highlights of the day included: a circular hand-cranked popcorn sheller which separated the kernels as the cob dropped straight down and then was spun around and shot naked out the side in one smooth, impressive motion; a bicycle powered root washer complete with spinning barrel and perforated hose; an old grain fan mill that did the same to wheat as the other did to beans (here I verified the science of gluten intolerance by the gum-like substance that formed when I chewed the wheat berry); two lovely sows large with babes, their uncannily intelligent eyes watching me closely as I petted their heads; and a nicely speckled flock of chickens to complete the idyllic scene.

We ended the day with a potluck supper rich in snacks, jokes, beer and, of course, beans. The farm talk ran to policy and politics among other common sense matters including pest control, planting dates and weather forecasts. After eating, torn between propriety and exhaustion I struggled to keep from curling up in an armchair. I lost the fight and fell straight asleep at barely 8 pm, to the total, good-natured amusement of the established farmers who were carrying on energetically. Just days before I’d been warned that in the full summer I would be craving sleep before the sun set. This late-night city girl scoffed. But, lo and behold, the newbie farmhand was totally bushed.

Photo Credit: Leona Palmer