Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Bean Field War

(Today's prompt was to enter a story at its end, with a character walking away from a situation. I was planning to write about volunteers and pests, but the pests became such a source of reflection and enjoyment that I never quite got to volunteers. Perhaps they will be next.)

Mid-September 2012. It was about 8 p.m., and the hens had finally calmed down for the night. Jim and I were in the chicken coop administering medication for a potential bacterial infection and/or virile illness that was threatening to decimate the flock when a loud crash and clatter came from the barn.

"The goddamn deer," said Jim.

"Stay calm," I replied. "We can only handle one crisis at a time."

The crisis that the deer wrought became apparent the next morning when Jim strolled through the three sisters garden we had planted on the south side of the barn and discovered that the deer had pretty much eaten every bean growing on the vines wrapped around the drying corn stalks. We had used the barn wall as a border for a fence made of a flimsy deer-netting material that surrounded the other three sides of the garden. Even thought the deer-netting kept falling down and often snared small birds and butterflies in its filmy layers, it had managed to keep the deer somewhat at bay until the night when consumed by efforts to heal our hens, we had inadvertently left the barn doors open and a path into this particular garden that the deer were delighted to discover.

"Goddamn deer," said Jim. "They destroyed our winter bean crop."

"Don't worry about it," I replied. "We'll know better next year."

We survived, of course. By late October, frosts and a steady rain from the remnants of Hurricane Sandy that made it to upstate New York had left whatever bean pods still stood in the local farmers' fields into a soggy mess. A farming family known as the Otrembiak's brought their wet vines to the local farmers market. Jim and I eyed them with delight. After being assured that the beans would still be good if we gave the vines a chance to lie flat and dry out, we virtually bought the Otrembiak's out, spending about $15 on beans over the the last three summer markets. With a little patience and a few hours of shelling, we managed to procure enough dried red, black, and white beans to last us through the winter.

And Jim finally won his fight for an electric fence to block the deer from future harvests after I, doing some research, became sufficiently convinced that such fences were not inhumane. The fences produce a low-voltage shock that keep the deer out, much as the locked door to a house is said to keep the honest man from breaking in. The fences only need to be on when humans are not present, and offer a better alternative to both the netting that endangers birds and the six-foot-high fences that would cost a couple thousand dollars to install and require a hefty amount of yearly maintenance. On top of all that, the electric fences are not fences in the literal sense. They're more like a circle of posts with two or three ropes of wiring in between.

Now, you might be wondering why we'd go through so much trouble to grow beans and battle deer when beans -- quite frankly -- are so cheap. Even when marketed as organic, dried beans rarely run more than $3 or $4 a pound. And, if you don't want to deal with the hassle of soaking the beans overnight, canned beans, which are sometimes even cheaper than their dried counterparts, offer a ready solution.

The reason why we invest so much energy into growing beans is that the taste of beans grown fresh by you and allowed to dry in their natural pods for four to six weeks before you shell them is indescribably delicious. The best commercial supplier of beans cannot deliver a product as fresh as this. Most dried beans that are sold in health food stores, co-ops, and groceries are at least two years older than the products of a summer harvest.

Neither Jim nor I cared for beans that much until the summer of 2009 when the Alvarez brothers from Moses Lake, WA, began to bring their harvests of black, white, red, pinto, and yellow beans to the farmers market in Seattle that we used to frequent. The attractive colors were too alluring to pass up, and one bite of their beans cooked with onion, green chili, and a gentle grating of cheese had us hooked for life. We resolved that if we ever had a chance to do so, we would grow such beans ourselves. That resolution grew into an imperative during our first summer of living in Saratoga Springs, NY, when we could not find a single farmer who grew beans for market. Few farmers possessed the machinery that the Alvarez family had, we were told, and the task of hand-shelling would make the market cost of beans overly prohibitive.

The Alvarez family told me that they let the beans dry in their pods through the winter. In early spring, they ran the pods through a threshing machine that mechanically separated the beans from the pods.

On the last day of the Saratoga Springs summer market in 2010, the Otrembiak's surprised us by selling bean vines in shopping bags. Looking at the vines, I could see brittle pods. I cracked one pod open and a half-dozen dark red beans fell into my hand. I realized that we could do the shelling ourselves.

We left the market with three giant bags of beans, and ended up with enough of a supply to last us through our first winter (though I have to admit that we ate beans sparingly) as well as a handful that we planted the following summer. The bean vines survived an onslaught of winds produced by Hurricane Irene, and created for us a modest harvest. We decided in early 2012 to get more ambitious and ordered packets of several types of beans from Johnny Seeds, a popular organic New England supplier.

Where we live now in upstate New York, the beans usually are dry enough to shuck from their shells by late October. We have found that they do need an overnight soak and a slow long cook to maximize their flavor. We've also found that if you plan your harvest right, you can plant your beans quite close together (two to three inches) apart starting in early June, and have a pretty strong harvest by October. A pretty strong harvest ideally lets you eat beans once a week between November and June, and leaves you with enough to start your following year's crop.

The only problem is that deer love beans even more than humans do.

Beans sprout fast. But the plants need heat and between 75 and 100 days to form the bushes or the stalks upon which the pods form. Once the pods form, the beans can be eaten -- if you want to eat green beans. But if you're planning to dry them for the winter, they need to remain in the garden much, much longer.

The deer do not understand the nuances of this logic.

We planted beans in five different sections of our various garden beds. Systematically, the deer discovered them -- usually after dark -- leaving us to discover the next morning stubs. We put up the netting and did our best to free the birds and insects that got entangled in them, but soon the netting, too, proved to be not enough. The plants grew tall, and eventually taller than the netting, which created an invitation for the the wide-eyed, graceful deer to lean in and munch. The longer we waited for our harvest to ripen, the more available the beans became for the deers' daily diets.

"Once they discover you're growing beans, you'll never get rid of them," warned Dave and Liza, chicken farmers who came to visit one day and see our fields. "They'll go after all your other crops, too, especially when the pickings get slim in the woods, come September."

And so they did. Besides beans, the deer devoured our fall plantings of collard greens, kale, and spinach. They also decimated brussels sprouts, and even nibbled at our hot cayenne. It might not have mattered if our gardening was a hobby, and if we weren't trying to live sustainably by growing our own food. With our source of food under attack, Jim could be heard muttering threats about buying a .22.

Numerous families in our area of Saratoga County possess hunting licenses. When deer hunting season opens in November, it is not uncommon to hear gunfire, though a bit unnerving for the two of us, who as former city dwellers were used to gunfire resulting from much more violent human interventions.

State laws regulate the hunting as a way of maintaining nature's balance; without some human clearance of the deer, the animals themselves would overtake the humans.

Some see deer-hunting as a war in which humans have an unfair advantage. I do not -- and probably never will -- own a hunting weapon or procure a license. However, I have come to see the relationship between deer and humans in terms of a truce. It is true that humans have come to occupy lands where deer once freely roamed. It is also true that deer enact a sort of reoccupation by consuming the fruits of human labor.  Both deer and humans need a certain amount of protein in their daily diets. Both can receive that protein from plant-based foods such as beans. If the deer consume the plants beyond the human's capability to grow more, humans are left with an alternative to get their protein from the flesh of animals, including deer. If the truce is unfair, it is because the deer -- as herbivores -- are limited in their options for protein. Hence, we have the bean field wars.

Yet, we survived the winter. So did the deer. We see them in the woods behind our house, and sometimes crossing through our neighbors' lawns. They see us, perhaps, and grin. Both us and the deer are ready for June 1, an unofficial start date for bean-planting. The electric fence posts have been hammered into the ground, along with a solar-powered operator. A few trees -- long dead and one felled by the 2011 winds of Irene -- need to be cleared and converted into firewood so the fence can be properly installed. For the past four days, it has been raining. When the skies clear, the fence will be installed. And the bean-planting will begin.

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