At this time each year, dozens of heirloom bean varieties from a collection of hundreds are in their final stages of drying to prepare for another year of planting by the Friends of Sam Birch, a local seed saving network.
Herbert “Sam” Birch, of Coopers Mills, collected 350 varieties of dry beans over about 25 years, beginning around 1991. After his death in 2017, his friend Rosey Guest, of Jefferson, continued growing them with the help of other friends and Midcoast school garden programs to maintain a supply of viable seed and keep the collection of unusual and historical beans alive.
“I had this friend who couldn’t do what he loved to do anymore, and so I started pitching in,” Guest said. “When he died, I wanted to carry the torch forward and was happy to do it.”
Guest met Birch through their shared enjoyment of growing vegetables to exhibit at local fairs.
“He was one of those kinds of people who had that kind of twinkle in his eye,” Guest said, remembering him laughing often. “He was pretty jolly and just fun, an easy person to talk to, down to earth.”
In a 2001 interview with The Lincoln County News, Birch said he began growing beans as a serious hobby after retiring from Cony High School as science department chair.
“I didn’t realize there were so many kinds,” he said, noting he appreciated their beauty and variety. “You take these brown crummy-looking things (pods) and you open them up and you have all these magnificent colors.”
Birch grew his beans organically, he said, composting with leaves from the curbs of Augusta, animal waste from the Windsor fairgrounds, and once even elephant dung left behind by a circus.
The beans were harvested and hung for drying, then shelled by Birch and his family for display at the Windsor, Union, and Common Ground fairs. His record was between 100 and 197 varieties in one year, by various sources.
Before they became friends, Guest typically grew just three types of dry bean at her small market farm in Jefferson. She now plants upwards of 40 bush and pole beans annually on a five-year rotation.
“I had never imagined I would be a bean seed saver, but then suddenly I’ve gotten so excited about it,” she said.
She began growing beans from Birch’s collection in 2015, two years before his death, with him as a mentor. She and one of his Whitefield neighbors each grew about 10 bean varieties a year and brought them to Birch to spend the winter shelling.
When Guest inherited bins of beans from Birch’s home, she knew she needed to preserve his years of work.
The Friends of Sam Birch bean growers were organized soon afterwards, which currently includes Troy A. Howard Middle School’s garden in Belfast, the school gardens of RSU 3 in Waldo County, Guest’s friend Benji Knisley, of Somerville’s Sand Hill Farm, and an employee of Fedco Seeds in Clinton.
David Wessels, recently retired longtime teacher of the Troy Howard agricultural program, said that like the Friends of Sam Birch collection, school gardens are models for community seed saving.
“They are keeping not only the genetic information in seeds, but also the history, skills, and cultural knowledge to keep them alive,” he said. “I hope to see that model expanded to develop decentralized community based seed ‘banks,’ which will ultimately be more accessible and less fragile than a vault under a glacier.”
The larger bean collecting community is small but dedicated. Guest has met a number of what she calls her “bean boyfriends,” or sources, through her organization of the Birch collection.
They include Midcoast heirloom seed legends and schoolteachers Neil Lash and Jon Thurston, Illinois collector and A Bean Collector’s Window website founder Russ Crowe, and a Massachusetts vegan she met at Common Ground who buys all the spare beans she can fit in a box to eat every day for the next year.
“They’re just such fun people who are so passionate,” she said.
Guest now also grows a few varieties for Crowe’s Little Easy Bean Network and the Seed Savers Exchange Renew program, which aims to keep stock up for the nonprofit’s mission of preserving and sharing heirloom seed.
When she inherited Birch’s collection, his inventory listed 350 varieties, 86 of which were missing or too old to germinate. The collection is now back up to 308, following trades with bean boyfriends and orders from the exchange.
“The only thing I’ve really realized about it is, there’s such a story behind all these beans, and all I have is the name,” Guest said. “I don’t have any background about why he was interested in any beans. That’s one thing I’m sad about, because I’m sure he could have told a story about all of these.”
Guest has slowed down acquisitions because of the work involved in management – Birch was adding 20 beans a year at one point, and she tries to keep it to three or four – but sometimes new varieties are too appealing.
“I usually can’t resist getting something that looks fun,” she said.
The bean collection varies in size and pattern. Some are round, some oblong, some shiny, some matte. A display at the Windsor fair this September included Smelly Stone, Long John, Soldat de la Beauce, Swan River, Jesse Fisk, Early Vermillion, Lowell, Early Goodland, and Little Brown Cat.
Each variety yields about a pound to a pound and a half for eight to 10 feet of plants.
Guest has “totally adopted” Birch’s process and methods, except for the removal of beans from their shells. He would hang the plants to dry and spend the winter at his kitchen table opening them by hand.
“His kitchen was a mess,” Guest said with a laugh. “He had beans all over the floor!”
Instead, she dries the plants in her greenhouse for about two weeks and bangs the beans out in a barrel to separate the chaff, then dries them in her house for two more weeks using flat baskets.
Finally, Guest fills plastic cups for fairs and future seed stock with the best specimens. Extras are stored in the cellar to be sold or eaten, where they will remain viable to grow for several years.
Each year, she exhibits about 50 beans under the Friends of Sam Birch name at the Windsor Fair and the Common Ground fair in Unity. The monetary awards for prize winners help cover costs for the next growing season.
Fairs also bring interesting connections, such as an attendee at Windsor who told Guest her father had developed the Jacob’s Cattle gasless variety on display and a man who described a 100-year-old can of beans he had in his garage.
After the fairs, Guest will sell extra beans by the pound or in grab bags, with samplings of several varieties. She herself eats about 24 varieties a year, always cooking up several to eat together, but has a ways to go before tasting the entire collection.
School garden growers typically exhibit their own beans separately and often bring home ribbons for the students.
Chantal Brouillard, current garden coordinator at Troy Howard, said she emphasizes the history of her seeds with the students.
“This bean is the work of hundreds of people before you, hundreds of years of hard work,” she tells them while processing. “If you lose this one bean, it’s hundreds of beans.”
Wessels said the key to keeping community seed models alive is to encourage young seed keepers to “take the baton,” as Guest did. She is careful with where Birch’s beans go, and looks for dedicated growers who will protect their plants to produce seed for the next year.
“It’s mostly for the purpose of having seeds to plant, more than anything else,” Guest said, though “anything else” includes so much.
Guest is open to inquiries from serious growers interested in joining the Friends of Sam Birch and from those who want to purchase beans. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.