TGN Interviews Linda Borghi, Local Changemaker

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Nominee: Linda Borghi


Follow On Social Media At: Yard Farming (Patreon Podcast), Farm-A-Yard (iTunes Podcast), Farm-A-Yard (Facebook)

Fast Fact: In 2009, Linda spoke at the United Nations at a conference entitled “Food, Famine, and the Future of Food Technology.”

Nominated By:
Marsha H. | Fayetteville, NC


Did you coin the phrase Farm-A-Yard?

Yes, indeed, we sure did. We even have a jingle, because every movement needs a jingle!

Can you describe the first stirrings of this movement and what inspired you and your co-founders to create it?

I was an urban farmer in the Hudson Valley of New York for 11 years. Farm-A-Yard co-founder Criss Ittermann was my designer and “fairy godmother,” and always helped me with my business. In the latter part of those 11 years, I taught live-streamed classes to five African nations and Australia, and met my first co-founder Marsha Howe when I worked with Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. At the end of my 2015 season (when I grew 300 pounds of garlic), I had to make a decision to either farm full-time or teach full-time. I picked teaching to get exponential results from my efforts. I decided to travel the East Coast in what I called the “Grow Food, Earn Money Tour,” and it took me from Orlando to Boston and back. When Marsha and I launched Farm-A-Yard online classes, it made sense to bring Criss in too.

You’ve said that the mission of the Farm-A-Yard movement is to start a food revolution by “localizing our food one yard at a time.” Can you explain the main tenets of this process?

Every one of us depends on this thin layer of soil that feeds us. But modern agriculture is stripping nutrients out of soil and trying to replace them with lab-grown chemicals while it also forces plants to grow where there are no nutrients or life in the soil. So the food we’re eating, even organic food, is more and more depleted. All because we’ve stopped growing healthy soil. Soil is the foundation of all land-bound life as we know it—which means humans, too. Why are we getting so sick? Because we aren’t really being fed.

So our first goal is teaching people to grow healthy soil. Stop letting grass pull all the nutrients out of the little bit of land that you own before you throw all those clippings away in a big plastic baggie headed straight to a garbage dump! Most people are throwing away all the nutrients in 65 million acres of lawn and using drinking water to water something they can’t even eat!

Seeds will grow if they have sun, water, and soil. But we teach people how to choose the right seeds for what they want to grow, and make sure it’s growing in healthy, rich, soil. Once you start growing—once you taste that food that you know you raised yourself—you won’t stop. Everyone will get the farming bug! Try some pea shoots for starters—10 days from plot to plate! Who can resist that?

We believe that everyone needs to take responsibility and grow a portion of the food that we are eating. Even if it is simply green garlic in the windowsill of a Manhattan apartment on the 56th floor. We need this movement for its multitude of benefits—physical, financial, and economic. There’s magic in growing our own food, and that magic ingredient is love! Put love into growing things, and you get more out of it. Cooking with love tastes better, and growing food with love has more health benefits for you and the plant, too. (Name one person on the 56th floor of a Manhattan apartment building who couldn’t use more love!) But when your broccoli comes from 2,000 miles away, there’s no love left in it.

My Farm-A-Yard team and I are connecting people with the skills and information they need to succeed in putting this magic back into their lives. This way, they can successfully grow real, nourishing food, right from the get-go. You see, It would truly bother me if anyone failed, because I know their chances of trying again are nil to none. We can change the world one plot-to-plate at a time!

Why do you feel it is so important for us to know where our food comes from?

Unfortunately, we live in a time when food can make us really sick depending on how it is grown. Our bodies require clean, better-than-organically grown, nutrient-dense food in order to function like a well-oiled machine. If our food is devoid of nutritive value, we suffer … every cell in our body suffers, and that suffering is the beginning of disease.

The more removed we are from where our food comes from, the less sure we can be of how it was grown. You can produce “organic” food that is grown in depleted soil. The seeds will grow, but they won’t have the nutritional value we really need. Organic methods don’t require taking great care of the soil—only that you abstain from using certain products. And the list of allowable methods and products that can still pass as organic grows all the time—including questionable products and methods. So we really don’t know. Meanwhile, your organic berries can come from Peru. And you may even see organic Washington state apples in stores found in New York apple country! It’s crazy! When these foods travel that distance, they lose vitality all the way to your mouth—they just don’t have the same nutritional density.

Also, due to the hardiness needed for what I call “stupidmarket” foods (yes, I coined that term as well), the species and varieties of our fruits and vegetables are more and more limited. The food has to be able to be picked before it’s ready or keep for weeks in-transit as it gets on a boat or is driven across country in a truck. These foods are not selected because they’re delicious or nutritious. They’re picked because they’re stubborn.

How can home gardens contribute to overall wellness?

Wellness has everything to do with the kind of relationship we have with food and where it comes from. Gardens open a new awareness and consciousness about the value of whole foods. The garden gives us a place and activity through which to hone a new relationship with food that is alive, accessible, and fresh. This experience invokes a deep joy and appreciation.

The foundational act of eating and the kind of food we consume on a daily basis are either our medicine or our poison. Making a decision to grow some of your own food is powerful. It benefits the body and the soul. Gardens can be places that support emotional healing and so much more.  Food brings people together. It supports and nurtures healthy relationships with others, builds community connection, and can even provide new, local food entrepreneurial opportunities. Gardens are a place to learn valuable lessons from nature—for adults and especially for children—that can affect our wellness in every area of life.

Tell us about Abundant Life Farm—its start in 1988 and eventual reawakening in 2004—and your experiences with SPIN-Farming and bioenergetic practices.

Abundant Life Farm began on Old Mill Road, Block Island, Rhode Island, where I was the comptroller of the public utility Block Island Power. I farmed on a quarter of an acre, had 23 sheep, 50 chickens, a milking Jersey cow—and the only farm in the United States licensed to sell cheese to the public with a herd of only one. I invented a 5-gallon pasteurization machine to do this.

I was introduced to biodynamics in the late ‘90s when I was the first intern at The Pfeiffer Center garden in Chestnut Ridge, New York. This is the region where biodynamics came to the United States in the ‘50s. When Abundant Life Farm came back to life in Middletown, New York, in 2004, we embraced the SPIN (Small Plot INtensive)-Farming model using biodynamic practices.

When I began Farm-A-Yard, I came upon Evan Folds, the creator of bioenergetic agriculture, which uses biodynamic methods combined with other principles. Over the years, Evan and I have developed a strong relationship, and he is Farm-A-Yard’s official soil doctor. A soil test is the first step anyone who is really serious about growing nutrient-dense food would take. Visit Evan’s web page (be sure to tell him I said hi!) to get your soil amendment prescription and find out if you need a little of this or that—and don’t touch those chemicals! After all, all we need to do is grow the soil to grow healthy people, and Evan can show us how to grow healthy soil.

What are some tips for ensuring that our lawn soil is nutrient-rich and primed for crop production?

To take a page from Evan, who was studying marine biology before he studied soil—soil is a lot like an airy version of the ocean. A lot is going on under the surface when you look at it under a microscope and study it. We don’t know everything there is to know about soil. It is a miraculous and complicated system that, when healthy, delivers nutrition to plants. That may sound weird, but there are highways underground through which tiny microbes bring nutrients to plants. I kid you not! When you kill the soil, how do you replace this highways? You don’t! You fake it. You pretend. You make synthetic nutrients and give them to the plants so they grow, and the synthetics end up in the people and make them sick.

So how do you ensure your soil is primed for crop production? Compost your weeds, use worm poop, stir up some biodynamic preparations, and stay far, far away from those petrochemicals. We talk about this topic a lot on our podcast and have several hours of webinars that cover soil health. It’s difficult to put the whole process into words, which is why Evan is a guest on our podcast often!

How does the Farm-A-Yard movement encourage local food security?

NOTHING is more secure than food growing outside your kitchen door, and we need more of that. With just 100 square feet of growing space, you can shave about $700 off your stupidmarket bill a year.

And what you don’t grow may be grown by your neighbor. You can trade with friends or family. Or go to a farm market, look that farmer in the eye, and ask about the farm’s growing practices. See something you don’t recognize? Ask what it is and how to prepare it. They know!

With droughts threatening our food from California and storms threatening our food from Florida, we need to think more about local food and not be so dependent on just a few large areas of our country and imports. If everyone is growing something, canning something, and sharing something, then when the power is out, everyone can eat. When a storm comes through, people can send relief food—that’s not in a can—to their neighbors. It’s not rocket science to realize that if the food is in your yard, in your kitchen, or at your church down the street, then your food is more secure than if it has to go 2,000 miles by truck and make it from a warehouse to your market, and then you have to go to the market to pick it up.

How do your efforts stimulate entrepreneurial opportunity?

I teach how to grow food and earn money. For the home gardener, I STRONGLY suggest looking at the Seed Voyage web page. This is where the home gardener can easily turn to sell some extra produce. We want all communities to work with a venture like Seed Voyage and collaborate in the growing of food. We also have Wayne Roberts on board, teaching city planners some 30 benefits and billions of dollars of free public service by growing food everywhere. Yup … everywhere! This just makes more sense than allowing 40 million acres of turf grass—the largest cultivated crop in the nation—to use 40 percent of the drinking water on the East Coast!

In your wildest dreams, how do you see the Farm-A-Yard vision benefiting the world?

I see Farm-A-Yard being a major player in reversing the status quo of the lawn. This YouTube video says a lot. I dream of driving down residential streets called Lettuce Lane and Broccoli Boulevard. Yes, indeed.

Can you offer a specific piece of gardening, farming, or healthy living advice that would be of interest to our Grow Network community?

When we develop an intimate relationship with the soil beneath our feet, something happens. I can only describe it as joy. I would like nothing better than for everyone to feel this joy … then it will be Heaven on Earth.


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Meet Elena Upton, Local Changemaker

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Elena Upton, Local Changemaker

Elena Upton
Local Changemaker


Follow on Social Media: Mastering Alternative Medicine (Facebook)

Fast Fact: Elena’s first book, Mastering Alternative Medicine: Your Family’s Guide to Wellness, is set to release this spring. Find all the details and more great tips on her website!


Tell us a bit about your background—your heritage, where you grew up, and what first drew your attention to the world of natural remedies?

I am a native of New England, and my family ancestry is Italian. You know what that means . . . good food!

My paternal grandparents had a garden, and my grandfather made his own wine. He also owned small neighborhood grocery stores (five at one point). I remember them as being no more than probably 500–600 square feet and jam-packed with fruits and vegetables and imported Italian grocery products.

I would go into the store up the hill from my house after school and, of course, make my way to the little ice cream cooler. He kept a box of change by the register for those who needed a little extra, and I’d pick out a nickel to buy a frozen treat.

I also remember he had a large notebook with names and numbers scribbled in it. He said it was for “credit.” The locals would come in and pick up food staples they needed and run a tab, promising to come back later to pay.

This didn’t connect me with natural medicine specifically, but it gave me a foundation for good, healthy food and a sense of taking care of the community.

Was there a particular “Aha!” moment in your family’s medical history that you’d consider a true turning point away from traditional treatment methods?

The “Aha!” moment that changed my life forever was a ski trip to Colorado with my husband and sons in 1988.

We were visiting my husband’s former college roommate, George, when his wife, Colleen, pulled out a little white box filled with vials. She referenced a booklet, opened one of the vials, and popped a few little pills into her mouth.

She had been getting noticeably sick with a cold. Within an hour or so, though, there was no sign of the cold continuing to materialize.

I asked her what had been in the box, and she said homeopathy.

I had never even heard the word before!

She went on to explain that it was natural medicine from Germany. It is made from tiny expressions of plant, animal, and mineral substances that act as “information” for the body to follow to heal itself.

I thought that was the most amazing thing I had ever heard! When we went back to Massachusetts, I immediately went to the library to research homeopathy. (There was no World Wide Web then.)

The reason I was so interested was because I was developing some health issues, my husband had health issues, and both my sons had their own health problems cropping up. It seemed whatever conventional medical intervention we were given only suppressed the problem or made it worse. I wanted to know what this magical medicine was and why I’d never heard of it.

Soon after, my husband was transferred to California, and my good friend’s family was also transferred there. At our first West Coast reunion, my friend mentioned learning about homeopathy in Ohio and had a prospectus in her hand for The British Institute of Homeopathy. They had opened a satellite school in Los Angeles. Needless to say, we both enrolled. This was the beginning of a decade of formal training in homeopathy.

My health immediately improved with the use of homeopathy. My husband’s lifelong allergies were gone, and my son’s chronic, seasonal bronchitis cleared. I never looked back.

You’re a strong believer in “food as your first medicine.” How has your diet and that of your family evolved since the days before your homeopathic training?

Wholesome, fresh food was always my first medicine with the rich experience from my family.

The piece of the puzzle that came next, once I was deeply ingrained in the holistic medical community, was developing an understanding of how our food sources had deteriorated with the use of preservatives, the introduction of fungicides into “modern” farming, and the advent of GMO seeds.

What studies/training did you undergo to lead to your role today as a homeopath, author, lecturer and product development specialist?

When you study homeopathy, or any other form of holistic medicine (naturopathic, acupuncture and Chinese medicine, chiropractic, etc.), you gain insight into working with the whole person mentally, emotionally, and physically.

This includes their energetic body.

It is a huge departure from the Western model of medicine, with its use of pharmaceutical drugs and invasive procedures. Instead, there is a respect for the innate intelligence of the body to heal itself, if given the correct information. This information comes in the form of clean, nutritious food and natural-based medicines.

My earliest experiences included a Canadian naturopathic doctor who came to work with me in the clinic I opened after finishing school. He had trained in Germany and opened my eyes to many modalities beyond homeopathy.

We found herbs, supplements, and homeopathic remedies to be a winning combination.

In addition, my older son became a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist (yes, I’m very proud!), and we have clients we work with together. He can read their pulse, use needles to direct or unblock energy, fix structural issues, etc., and homeopathy adds another dimension.

Sometimes, when someone is stuck in a certain health pattern and not making the expected progress, I treat with a homeopathic remedy that reaches the emotional blockages, and Bam!, their physical issues clear up.

Grief is, by far, the largest block to healing.

You make an especially ardent case against commonly used antibiotics. Please explain the research behind this movement and the top alternative treatments you credit with keeping you and your family off of antibiotics for 30 years now.

Before antibiotics (and before vaccines were introduced in response to epidemics), there was homeopathy.

It is over 230 years old and is the second largest system of medicine in the world—everywhere but America.

In my upcoming book, Mastering Alternative Medicine: Your Family’s Guide to Wellness, I briefly explain the history of homeopathy and how this inexpensive, safe medicine has been systematically driven out. The space here simply doesn’t allow me to explain the volume of research that exists for homeopathic remedies and the true facts about people saved from smallpox and other diseases when conventional medicine failed.

Armed with a reference guide and a homeopathic kit, you can stop many illnesses in their tracks before they even develop.

Examples include using Euphrasia as soon as symptoms of conjunctivitis (pink eye) arise; Hydrastis for sinusitis, and adding Sanguinaria if it’s chronic; mercurius solubilis or mercurius vivus for tonsillitis; hepar sulph calcarea for dental abscesses; Allium cepa for hay fever; Aconitum and Bryonia (or Gelsemium, depending on symptoms) for the common cold or flu; Belladonna or ferrum phos (depending on symptoms) for fever; and Nux vomica for acid reflux.

I could go on with pages and pages of natural solutions, and this is exactly the subject of my book. Listed above is just a small sampling of the FDA-approved remedies you can buy for $6 to $8 in any health food store or pharmacy or online. (I have an extensive reference section in the book on how to source the remedies you need.)

Not everyone has an opportunity to grow their own food or healing herbs. Even if you do, there are important natural remedies we all should know about sitting on a shelf in your health food store. Just as it takes effort to grow your own food, it takes effort to find health solutions not readily spoken about in mainstream society.

Please tell us how your new book came about and the personal research that fueled it.

For nearly 30 years, I have studied homeopathy and other holistic modalities.

It never gets old to see how quickly people improve (with no side effects) when they use remedies from nature.

I have gathered data, researched, and studied with medical professionals who have found another way . . . a safe way to stay healthy. It was a natural transition to pull it all together and share information you’ll never hear on the nightly news or from your insurance-mandated doctor.

It is your right to keep your family and yourself as healthy as possible. Bringing holistic medicine into your life may be what you are looking for, as it was for me.

Can you offer any last piece of healthy living advice that would be of interest to our Grow Network community?

I would like to stress that, because of the source of homeopathic remedies, they are safe for pregnant women, infants, and the elderly, as well as animals and plants. In essence, when you feed the body what it needs—clean, organic food and clean, natural medicine—it responds in kind.


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Vandana Shiva talks ‘fake cheap’ food (VIDEO)

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Just saw this video of Indian scholar and sustainable-agriculture advocate Vandana Shiva talking about the true cost of cheap food and three keys to ending what she calls “the final stages of a very deceitful system.”

(By the way, Shiva is on our list of 50 Global Changemakers, here.)

She makes some excellent points, and I thought you might enjoy the video as much as I did.

Some of my favorite quotes from the video:

  • “We are living the final stages of a very deceitful system that has made everything that is very costly for the planet, costly for the producer, look cheap for the consumer. So very high-cost production with GMOs and patents and royalties and fossil fuel is made to look like cheap food.”
  • “Every young person should recognize that working with their hands and their hearts and their minds—and they’re interconnected—is the highest evolution of our species. Working with our hands is not a degradation. It’s our real humanity.”
  • “We are not atomized producers and community. We are part of the earth family. We are part of the human family. We are part of a food community. Food connects us—everything is food.”

I also love the way she defines “true freedom” in the video: “Never be afraid of deceitful, dishonest, brutal power. That is true freedom.”

And hey, let me know what you think about her solutions to the problem of high-cost “cheap” food! What others would you add? Leave me a comment below. 🙂


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Meet Mike Reeske, Local Changemaker

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Mike Reeske, Local Changemaker

Mike Reeske
Local Changemaker

Company: Rio Del Rey Heirloom Beans


Fast Fact: It was a happy accident that first led Rio Del Rey to introduce the Anazapi bean, a cross between the Anasazi and Rio Zape. The company will produce its first commercial crop of the hybrid bean in 2018.

Nominated by:
Cat M. | Escondido, CA


Please explain a little about your background and what first sparked your interest in developing organic dry heirloom beans?

I grew up in Anaheim, California, where my parents were orange ranchers and restaurant owners. I graduated from Chapman University in 1967 and began teaching high school science, a career that spanned more than 40 years in the classroom.

During this time, I opened the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point Harbor as its education director, developed the Outdoor Education Program on Palomar Mountain for the Vista Unified School District, and worked 12 years as a writer and developer on the Science Education for Public Understanding Program for the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley. I have co-authored 13 books there, including Science and Sustainability, Understanding Environmental Health Risks, and Plastics in Our Lives. My last book, The Life Cycle of Everyday Stuff, deals with natural systems.

In every place I have lived, I’ve developed programs that were community-based, teaching people about their local environments and the need to preserve them. I live in the chaparral now and have merged my bean-growing philosophy with the cultural and historic themes of the Southwest.

After retiring, I began what is now an eight-year effort to bring heirloom dry beans to more people as a fantastic superfood that is both very flavorful and great for personal health.

How did your passions grow into what is today Rio Del Rey Heirloom Beans and the “small family farm” that yields them?

While teaching, I had the opportunity in the early ‘70s to offer gardening as an alternative to a semester of life science in high school. There was an acre of land behind my classroom, and it soon became the center of 36 student gardens. There, the kids discovered that kohlrabi actually tastes great, and real learning takes place when we provide relevant, hands-on experiences.

Soon after this, I was hired at a new high school in Cypress, California. In addition to teaching science, I was asked to lead a volunteer community and student effort to raise funds in order to landscape the new school—a task both fun and formidable. It took two years of work, and when I wasn’t in the classroom, I was out pushing a wheel barrow of hoses to water the burgeoning plants.

After I retired, I asked myself, “What would I like to do when I grow up?” You see, in all of our lives there are opportunities to reinvent ourselves—to germinate the dormant seeds of creativity we have made in other parts of our lives and call upon those energies and ideas to lead us into the future.

I remember thinking back to what Voltaire said in the ending to Candide. After experiencing the world’s conditions and catastrophes, Candide was asked what he learned about life. His reply was, “We must tend our gardens.” That really struck me in its beautiful simplicity. I had always enjoyed working the soil and seeing the fruition of my labor. But what would I grow?

There are meaningful coincidences in our lives. In 2008, I was reading an article on heirloom dry beans—and it struck me that I had never really tasted these critters. I did some research and discovered Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona. It was founded to preserve the native tribal seeds of the Southwest (including Northern Mexico).

I obtained some purple Hopi beans. They were like the purple, black-striped, shiny Rio Zape beans we sell today.

I was blown away by their taste!

After preparing them simply with garlic, onions, and some salt, I took my first taste. Wow! These were not my mother’s limas. They were meaty, full-flavored, and oh, so creamy. They were so unlike the canned pinto, black, and kidney beans that I had come to think of as my culinary bean palette. They sung with flavor and richness. I had to have more, and I needed to do my homework on beans.

I was able to begin growing some varieties of heirloom beans to determine which ones had the best taste and were adaptable to the inland valley of San Diego County. After three years of work, I had grown enough beans organically to begin commercial production on 23 acres of land adjacent to the San Luis Rey River that I leased from an Indian tribe.

I named my farm Rio Del Rey (“the King’s River”) and began growing heirloom beans in 2013. In 2017, we moved the farm to the land surrounding our home in Valley Center, California.

Can you describe the main tenets of the organic and sustainable farming practices you employ? How can Rio Del Rey serve as a model for other small farms that share your climate?

As I began my farm, I realized that to produce great food, you must employ the best of farming methods—and do this in a sustainable way. Conventional farming methods are, at many times, at odds with nature and interfere with the natural systems that produce soil fertility. The heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on our food crops is not sustainable and, in many cases, harmful.

We go through a great deal of effort to say that our beans are certified organic. Unlike with other terms, such as “natural,” our beans are regulated through an extensive certification process and undergo an annual inspection to ensure they meet the USDA’s National Organic Program requirements.

Our products are also certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a not-for-profit organization. It is important to me to share with others the goal of sustainability and the stewardship we practice in caring for the land we grow on.

There are more small farms and organic farms in San Diego County than in any other county in the U.S. More than 5,500 farmers call it home and make their living on 5,732 small family farms. Sixty-eight percent of these are nine or fewer acres in size.

When I decided to farm heirloom dry beans organically, I made the commitment to a holistic management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.

In short, it’s restoring the soil to the point that it can sustain healthy growth now and in years to come.

Beans are a natural complement, because they add nitrogen to the soil and are a part of the traditional rotation of crops to promote long-term sustainability. As farmers, we work for years to restore this natural balance of the soil. Sustainable farming works in harmony with the renewable systems found in nature. Because it requires long-term goals, it costs more to implement—and leads to increased costs for organic produce.

Heirloom dry beans are a niche market with few organic players. Our farm serves as a model for what is possible using relatively inexpensive equipment and enhanced farming practices to produce a unique crop that is highly desirable for a healthy lifestyle.

Rio Del Rey’s goals focus on:

  • Developing new and disease-resistant bean varieties
  • Collecting and preserving rare and endangered beans from around the world
  • Supplying unique organic heirloom beans for cooking and for planting as seeds
  • Creating a sustainable farming system as a model for future small farms to use in further developing heirloom beans
  • Providing educational opportunities for everyone interested in our heirloom beans

You source rare and endangered bean varieties (and even the farming equipment used on them!) from all over the world. Please describe how some of these connections came about.

When I met Steve Temple, a highly respected bean researcher at the University of California, Davis (UCD), he pointed out that the greatest barrier for the small bean farmer comes in the cost of a bean threshing machine, because no small machines have been made in the U.S. for many years.

My earlier research had confirmed this, and lingering at the back of my mind was the impending harvest of 4 acres of beans. Imagine freeing the beans by hand labor! (We do this now for our 44 experimental beans, and I can assure you that shelling thousands of beans is no pool party!)

The only small-scale threshers on the market were those made in China and Italy, but after intensifying my search, I also found a company in Konya, Turkey—home of the Whirling Dervishes. These threshing machines are used all over Greece, Turkey, and northern Africa. And the best part? They were affordable! I contacted them and purchased two machines. The thresher runs off the PTO drive of a tractor. It met my desires for a more sustainable use of energy, as opposed to buying a diesel or electrically powered model.

In October 2013, my wife, Chris, and I flew to Konya for a day to meet the owners, Osman and his son Nuri, and the workers at their thresher factory. [It astonished me that the threshers were completely manufactured there using large rolls of steel and steel bars, formed by milling, bending, and welding. Only the wheels and tires were outsourced. Even the painting was done there.]

It was a great visit, demonstrating to me the high quality of the product and the integrity of the owners. I also learned how to operate the thresher and diagnose any problems that might arise during operation.

As for the beans themselves, I spent time in 2014 in Mexico’s Hidalgo state learning to harvest and prepare many foods in a 1704 hacienda. I had the opportunity to meet bean farmers who had preserved some of the great diversity found in beans.

One Hidalgo farmer gave me a bag of large, purple runner beans—each just sparkling like a deep purple gem—the Ayocote Morado.

I planted these beans back home along with subsequent beans that we collected from Turkey in 2014 and from Chile and Argentina in 2015 to determine which kinds were most productive and well-suited to our soil and climate. All of this has led me to the passion I have today for growing and sharing my heirloom beans with people.

Can you explain the goals behind the research you conduct on your own and in conjunction with the University of California?

Our goal is to make the supply of heirloom dry beans available in larger quantities and at a cheaper price than the going rates of $6-plus per pound.

We face two challenges.

The first is the lack of availability of high-quality organic bean seed, and the second (and much more daunting) is the limited amount of seed free of the Bean common mosaic virus (BCMV), which stunts plant growth and pod production.

Any industry is always in need of good research and development, and I found that partnering with UCD was an ideal answer. It has one of the most well-known bean researchers in the world, Dr. Paul Gepts. With his support, we are making great progress toward our goal.

As I mentioned, one of the greatest problems in growing heirloom dry beans is the presence of BCMV. Plants infected with the virus have light green or yellow mosaic patterns on the leaves, accompanied by puckering, blistering, and downward curling and rolling, resulting in stunted growth or death of the bean plant. This is a major barrier in producing substantial bean yields.

In 2015, we provided a grant donation to help fund the research efforts of Travis Parker, a UCD doctoral student. Travis’s work involves inserting the BCMV-resistant I gene (found naturally in most string beans and many commercial beans) into some heirloom varieties using the traditional processes of plant breeding. This begins with growing, then cross-pollinating, an heirloom plant.

In this example, the Rio Zape is crossed with a white bean, the Matterhorn, which contains the resistant I gene. The plant is grown to maturity, producing what is called the F1 hybrid seed. The hybrid seed (all brown) looks quite different from the original Rio Zape seed (purple with black stripes), but now contains the I gene. This process is repeated six more times. With each generation of back-crossing to the heirloom parent, more heirloom seed characteristics are recovered. To regain all of the original qualities of the Rio Zape bean, the hybrid seeds are planted, and their pollen is used to cross-pollinate a normal Rio Zape parent.

At the end, 99.6 percent of the qualities of the original Rio Zape have been added—with the benefit of the plant now being resistant to BCMV. From our 2017 research, this bean produces a plant twice as big as the original and with many more pods!

Our goal now is to scale up seed production and distribute the seed free of charge to farmers across America.

How about the work you’re doing to develop your own hybrid bean made from crossing an Anasazi with a Rio Zape?

Since there are no large bean processing warehouses in southern California, I needed to find a way to further clean my beans. I purchased a new Clipper seed and grain cleaner—the most widely used air screen cleaners in the world—from the A.T. Ferrell Company, which has been manufacturing them since 1869.

It worked wonders in separating split beans and debris from the beans. However, no cleaner can further separate out discolored or slightly cracked beans.

The big warehouses use a $750,000 color sorter that uses computers, laser beams, and air jets to do the final sorting. For a small farm like ours, it’s my wife and I who do the final hand sorting, a slow but effective process.

In 2014, while hand cleaning some Anasazi beans, my wife noticed a very different bean that looked like it had the characteristics of both the Anasazi and Rio Zape. After cleaning several hundred pounds of beans, we had gleaned about 50 of these seeds.

Since beans are self-pollinating, there had to be a pollinator, which we attributed to the four beehives on the farm (the Anasazi beans were planted on a field next to a field of Rio Zape beans). The following year, I planted these seeds and they stayed “true,” producing the same hybrid seeds we began with. After two more years of planting and selectively harvesting, we now have almost 30 pounds, enough to finally produce a commercial crop in 2018—God willing and the creeks don’t overflow!

Anasazi and Rio Zape beans are some of our best-tasting beans. The new Anazapi bean, as we call it, should surely excel in taste, and it also has a more upright bush habit and shorter maturity date than the Rio Zape.

You work with chefs in San Diego County and throughout southern California. How do you partner with them to determine which heirlooms will most complement their menus?

Our beans serve as an alternative to traditional bean varieties, offering unique taste and freshness free of synthetic residues. (Commercial bean producers employ up to six different synthetic pesticides.)

Unlike the limited variety of dry beans found in stores (that can be up to five years old), our beans are sold fresh each year. The difference in how fast they cook is amazing! But the real delight comes in the remarkable taste of heirloom beans.

After hosting many cooking demos at farmers markets and stores, I realized that another valuable way for people to learn about heirloom dry beans was to educate the chefs of top San Diego restaurants. I invited the chefs and their staffs to our farm to see how we grow and process the beans and, most importantly, to do some tasting!

I developed a bean-tasting scale to evaluate the flavor, texture, and other qualities people look for in a good bean. This provided an education for the chefs and helped them discover what traits were valuable for use in their cooking. They assessed our current crop of beans and also some new varieties we had been growing to help determine what we would plant the next growing season.

This made them feel more connected to the farm and also provided us with a future market for these new beans. My philosophy here was to have chefs taste and think of the beans as a culinary palette of colors and flavors. A creative chef could use these experiences to come up some great new ideas that featured our beans in their menus.

You’ve said your work is a “celebration of a common heritage we share with all the people of the Americas.” What makes this a focal point of your efforts as a farmer and business owner?

Dry beans were domesticated from wild plants and first cultivated in Mexico more than 10,000 years ago, then shared with people who spread both north and south to form some of the great empires of the Americas. Today, we find these beans in a multitude of shapes and colors throughout the world. It is these dry bean seeds that are the heartbeat of Rio Del Rey.

I share a love for the indigenous people of the Americas, who gave us so many foods, including beans, corn, tomatoes, chocolate, potatoes, quinoa, and myriad more.

I first discovered this on my honeymoon in 1968, when we visited my best friend, John, who was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. We traveled through Quito and reached the headwaters of the Amazon in the small village of Tena, crossing the river on a cart attached to a wire and pulley. There was no electricity, but infinite night sky and bats flying through the open houses!

It was here that I first experienced the wonder of the unknown, the sweet taste of so many different foods, and, most importantly, the friendship of the people.

We continued our travels, and in early 2017, we met organic farmers in Lima, Peru, who shared some of their beans with us. They are now growing outside our home so we can determine whether they are adaptable to a southern California climate.

We all benefit from the great diversity of people, cultures, and food traditions found in the Americas. In a time when there are forces at work to separate us from our common humanity, I find the mentality of the campfire most useful. Around the warmth of the fire, we share songs and stories and celebrate our differences rather than our prejudices. In our eyes is reflected the fire that radiates our hopes and dreams for the future and our optimism that those forces that would divide will fade away in the coming dawn.

Are there plans for Rio Del Rey to provide formal educational opportunities to those interested in heirloom beans?

We are currently working with CCOF to promote more agritourism in San Diego County. In the past, we have hosted groups, such as Farm Bureau members, schools, garden clubs, and permaculture clubs. We are working on a plan with a major tour company in San Diego to promote Valley Center, where our farm is located, and the new, unique groups of farms, wineries, and specialty livestock growers in this area 40 miles north of San Diego. We also teach organic farming to students at the local high school adjacent to our farm.

Can you offer a specific piece of farming, cooking, or healthy living advice that would be of interest to our Grow Network community?

Beans are an excellent, nonfat source of protein. Just one cup of cooked dry beans provides as much as 16 grams of protein (adults generally need to eat between 50 to 60 grams in a day). Beans can also help to counteract increases in diseases linked to lifestyle, such as obesity and diabetes, and are celebrated for increasing food security in areas with shortages. Plus, they improve cropping systems and are good for farmers.


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