Doesn’t amount to a hill of beans?!

Or rather: of negligible importance?! What am I talking about? About the traditional cultivation of pulses in the Netherlands. Cultivating beans is a labor-intensive job and in the Netherlands only a handful of farmers remain to cultivating them the traditional way. But first….

Every region has its own typical pulses. You might know that the Brown bean, which are quite well known in the Netherlands, is only cultivated in one of the Dutch provinces: Zeeland. Beans that are cultivated in another province, like the the Fresian Yellow bean are hardly consumed and cultivated in other provinces. The same goes for pulses that are cultivated in other parts of the world. Italians are crazy about the beautiful Borlotti bean, which is less known to the Dutch public. We know red lentils to be used in typical Indian traditional dishes, but Italy also has their own varieties of lentils. In June the fields in the Italian province called Umbria turn bright blue when the lentils are in bloom. In July the plants are harvested and collected on large piles to dry. In August in is time for threshing and in September the new yield is in the local shops.

Back to below sea level

Back to Holland. In the Netherlands the growing season is slightly different. Sowing of the pulse seeds is typically done after the Ice Saints (period from May 12 to May 15), because pulses cannot deal with temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius very well. The weather is a very determining factor during the cultivation of beans. Rainy and damp conditions can throw a spanner in the works and influence the quantity as well as the quality of the precious yield. The plants are harvested at the end of summer. The roots remain in the ground and there is a special reason for this.

Pulses and soil quality

Pulses are special, because the bind nitrogen in the form of little bulbs in the soil. By doing so, they have the capability to increase soil fertility. The pulses form a partnership with nitrogen binding bacteria. There are many kinds of nitrogen binding bacteria and not all of them naturally occur in every type of soil. On top of that each type of legume prefers to partner with its own specific bacteria. The ability to bind nitrogen is also the main reason why pulses hardly require any fertilization during cultivation, which makes them a climate friendly crop.

Super wide

Up the greasy pole

The harvested plants are put in rows. Then it is time for a very typical treatment, that will benefit the taste of the pulses, but is not applied any more by many farmers: putting the plants to dry on wooden scaffolding. A wooden scaffolding consists of three wooden poles that have been tied together at the top and placed in the filed like a tipi tent, in long rows. At the bottom of the tipi tent three smaller poles are secured, like a kind of plateau. Using a large fork the harvested plants are put on the scaffoldings. On these, the beans will ripen and dry further. Because they lay above the ground the pods do not become too damp and they are quite protected from influences from the weather. This is an important process, but also quite time consuming. It is not only applied in the Netherlands though, but also for instance in Japan.

When the beans have reached a the right level of dry matter the scaffolding and the harvested plants are taken from the field and threshed. This means that the beans are removed from their pods. In the Netherlands the end of September or October is about the right time. And then, it is time for some routine drudgery!

Reading beans instead of books

Between the threshed beans is still all kinds of other material such as stones, twigs and leaves. This dirt is removed by hand in traditional cultivation. The beans are set on a conveyer belt and they are cleaned by picking out everything that does not belong in the final product. Nowadays 'reading' of the beans is also done by a machine. Not all beans are as 'beautiful' and ready to sell. A machine reads the beans, which come via a conveyor belt, one by one on shape and color. The beans that are not perfect are thrown out by the machine. In the past, this was all done by hand.

The beans are now ready to be packed for retail! Respect!