by Japhi Westerfield
IN ALL SERIOUSNESS, I EAT A LOT OF BEANS. ONE CHRISTMAS MY sister bought me a set of bean-themed kitchen storage containers – for a gag– and I’ve used them with a straight face for years. When a guy heard my wife talking about how many times a week I slow-cooked beans he told her he was amazed I hadn’t bought a pressure cooker, so the next week she gave me an Emeril T-fall 6-Quart electric model that is by far my most treasured kitchen gizmo – I even take it on vacations. Beans are an easy source of protein when I’m on a vegetarian kick, high in fiber, they come in handy for Rick Bayless recipes, but more than anything, I just like them. I’m on the bean team.
My wife, though, is not, so one night when she looked down at my frijoles and said, “If I’m ever going to get into those, I think I need to find a really good bean,” I was initially at a loss. As she twirled some idealized bean around in her mind like a free-range rotisserie chicken, I realized that, quite frankly, other than for the coffee variety, the only thing I’d ever shopped for in a dry bean was price; I liked my beans cheap, in bulk or pre-packaged 2 pound bags that I dumped into plastic Stikko wafer-stick jars (now you know my guilty pleasure). Raising an eyebrow when she noticed my complete cluelessness, she suggested, “Maybe something locally grown.”
With one (big) exception I’d never heard of dry bean farming around Kansas City. Green beans were one thing; everybody’s grandmother grew them, the ones that flossed your teeth for you if you didn’t string each pod prior to dumping them into the crockpot with a chunk of bacon and a bag of brown sugar to ease their day-long simmer into evisceration. That big exception of course is soybeans. According to stats that the US Department of Agriculture carefully harvests each year, Kansas hovers around 10th in annual soybean production. But soybeans are grown as an oil crop (the meal is used to feed pigs). I wanted culinary beans I could stoke the Emeril with. I checked with a couple of local health food stores but didn’t have any luck. After I’d forgotten about it, I overheard some people at Bad Seed Farmers Market talking about local beans. They told me to drive up to Lawrence and look for Sacred Sun Cooperative Farm at the Saturday farmers market there. A few weeks later I did, and I would find not only that perfect local bean my wife wanted, but also learn about the fascinating reinvigoration of a family farming tradition that traces its roots to the 1850s on a plot of land near the Kickapoo Indian Reservation and a remarkable new cooperative agricultural experiment 50 miles northwest of Kansas City that blends the latest organic non-GMO urban farming techniques with foodie culture, indie music, and traditional Kansas row cropping.
As a farmer, thirty-something Jake Johannes defies easy categorization. What’s certain is that, for now at least, he’s the only culinary dry bean farmer in northeast Kansas. Even when he lived thousands of miles away, the bean culture of northeast Kansas was never far from his mind. “After I graduated from college and worked for a little while, I left for Japan where I went to teach high school students and study Japanese timber farming. My dad had been farming soybeans almost his entire life near the town of 50 people where I grew up. In Japan I ate soy products on a daily basis, fermented soy, but also a lot of tofu and unfermented soy. I think it gets a bad rap, because of GMO soybeans. But it was really good for my health,” Johannes told me.
Back from Japan, Johannes, who graduated from KU with an architecture degree in the early 2000s, got a job with an architecture firm in Kansas City. But in 2008 everything changed. The economy crashed, he lost his job, and nobody was hiring freshly minted architects. Beans were back on the plate for Johannes, this time literally, as in rice and beans for dinner every night. Johannes had a solid fallback though, a 150 year tradition of farming, something his family had done in Kansas since the days of abolitionists and border ruffians. But he knew to make an impact, it wasn’t enough to just move back to the land. He needed to add to his agricultural pedigree, not in the fields alongside his father or in an ag program at K-State, but right there in the city where he had been laid off.
The business of agriculture has been changing for years. Today Americans plant roughly the same acreage as a half century ago, but farms are bigger (the average family farm was 733 acres in 2015) and a growing percentage are corporate owned. 4H, Future Farmers of America and the Grange (the once radical farm “fraternity” otherwise known as the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry) have long been declining. But go to any health-food store and browse the magazines at the checkout aisles. A new kind of farming with a new kind of farmer has taken root. This new farm is inspired in equal parts by Palo Alto startup culture, “Goin’ Up the Country” indie social collectivism, and foodie cravings for organic non-GMO crops grown within a 50 mile radius of the whoever’s holding the fork. The business model involves eliminating the middle man and going direct to market, which reduces the number of acres you need to plant and creates a potential job market for local cultivators willing to get out in the fields and sweat.
Johannes found the perfect way bolster his farming IQ. “I got an internship with the Growing Growers program through Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture (now called Cultivate Kansas City). Katherine Kelly hired me, and in one year I learned a lot about the vegetable side of the business.”
But Johannes didn’t want to grow vertical gardens in Westport; he had the potential to become organic farming’s “triple threat.” He’d row cropped since childhood and now he knew small-scale urban vegetable farming. Add to that the business side – the ability to direct-market everything to the end user: farmers markets, coops, restaurants, and local food manufacturers – and Johannes was ready to make good on a dream he’d had since high school. He told me that studying engineering and architecture, teaching in Japan, and now wading into the world of urban farming was always about “bringing some set of skills back to that rural community where I grew up, to enliven it, to give back,” as he put it.
So in 2010, he moved back in with his parents and worked with his father to convert their traditional grain and soybean operation to organic. It wasn’t an easy decision and took 5 years to complete. He said, “Going back home, it was like going to graduate school for agriculture. I learned so much from my father in the time I got to work with him. It was the kind of information I couldn’t have picked up at any other farm in the area because he was doing large acreage row crops.”
His father, skeptical at first, is a believer now that they’re on the other side and fully certified. Last season when neighbors in Brown County were farming four times the acreage and getting $3 per bushel for corn, Johannes’ corn was food grade quality, which allowed them to drive to Indiana and sell it for $14 per bushel. They were working smarter, not harder. As Johannes said, “It’s like farming four times as much land, and our inputs are less, we’re not spraying, we’re using mechanical cultivation to take care of weeds. We don’t get the yields our neighbors do, we make up for it in profit since we’re a niche product now.”
But he wasn’t finished with his experiment. His ultimate goal went beyond the revitalization of his family’s Brown County farm – he was interested in what the future of Johannes farming in Kansas could be, how he could build on his heritage and start his own family tradition. So in 2014, with his wife Jessica and their friends Jen and Jim Martin and their children, the two families founded Sacred Sun Cooperative Farm on 40 acres northeast of the small town of Perry, Kansas. Perry was once a bustling railroad town with an ancient elm tree in the town park that locals named the “tree of knowledge.” Johannes brought his own knowledge and community vision to the Perry region, one that looked back to the days when families lived together in close-knit agricultural enclaves. He wanted to revive what his grandparents and greatgrandparents did: grow everything a small family would need to survive winter.
Sacred Sun is a hipster farm. 40 acres and they’re cool. The farm is cooperative in the sense that both families – the Martins and Johannes – share the costs, labor, and profits of the farm. They employ a “whole diet” CSA farm model (CSA stands for community supported agriculture). Members pay a monthly fee to become shareholders, but unlike shares of stock, the farm pays dividends in produce via a weekly supply of whatever crops are in season. Of the Martins Johannes told me, “They moved to the land with us. We farm together, we share the costs together, I feel like we are a true coop. We share the profits. They’re incredible, we couldn’t do any of this without them. Eventually, it’s a goal of ours to hopefully bring more families here and establish a community out in the country, centered around agriculture.”
They also share heroics when nature raises hell in the middle of the night. Jim Martin said that in May it rained at the farm 29 out of 31 days. Their land extends mostly down the south-facing slope of a gentle hill. He said that late in the month, around 2 a.m. he and Johannes had to go out in the middle of a severe thunderstorm to dig a retaining ditch around their fields. More than 10,000 acres of water ran down that hill during the month. That’s some serious bonding male bonding, Kansas style.
Towards the community side the farm hosts potlucks for friends who drive up from Kansas City and Lawrence to help with large projects. When they first moved in, all the outbuildings were crammed with 10 to 15 years of trash. They filled up a roll-off dumpster, hooked up the amplifiers (many of their friends are musicians), and cooked food at the end of the day.
Johannes might have moved his family to a new farm and started working towards his vision of cultivating everything on the table at Thanksgiving dinner – but he still couldn’t stop thinking about beans (remember, this is a story about beans). Because of soybeans, he knew a culinary dry bean culture in Kansas was possible. Some Western Kansas operations planted pinto beans. The Kanza and Osage tribes cultivated dry beans, as did Johannes’ childhood neighbors the Kickapoo, whose generational seed collections were so sacred that only select members of the tribe were allowed to see them. He also knew that local veggie-burger producer Hillary’s Eat-Well was actively looking for local farms to grow adzuki beans for their products.
So the first full year of operations at Sacred Sun included a stab at dry bean farming (the beans were actually grown up in Brown County – next year they plan to grow beans at the Perry location). Johannes decided to start out with black-eyed peas and black beans, but immediately ran into a roadblock. He couldn’t find enough seed. In a state dominated by five crops, planting enough edible beans to harvest wasn’t as simple as driving down to the seed store and placing an order. But unlike many vegetables and fruits, beans themselves are seeds, so Johannes worked out a deal with the Community Mercantile in nearby Lawrence to buy 200 pounds of organic black-eyed peas and black beans for seed stock. He planted them. They came up. A bean’s a bean right? Well maybe, Johannes wasn’t completely sure the equipment he used for soybeans would work for his new culinary cultivars. When it was time to harvest he even switched from his old John Deere 8820 combine to an International 1666 which has a gentler threshing mechanism. The black beans were a success, but the black-eyed peas presented a problem at harvest. “The plants they grow on are viney and the pods are fibrous, so when they went through the combine they didn’t get shredded up and pulverized and ended up coming out as these giant balls of vine. You can’t disc them into the ground. I had to go out with a pitchfork and manually remove them from the fields. I found out that even though we can grow a lot of these beans here, a missing part of the equation is how they are harvested.”
That’s how my wife’s perfect bean was grown. Sacred Sun marketed many of those first year’s beans to local restaurants across northeast Kansas and western Missouri, but a few choice 5-lb bags were saved for the Saturday Lawrence Farmers Market, and I snagged one with my daughter on a sweltering August morning. When I showed my wife she was impressed. “You really did find a local bean.” That night we ate perhaps some of the first completely local Kaw Valley bean burritos ever made – authentic down to the local corn tortillas my daughter pressed out in our tortilla press, some low-heat jalapenos out of the garden, and the Sacred Sun black beans. My wife’s still not on the bean team, but she’s interested in the other products Sacred Sun brings to local markets. I loved the beans, but I also loved the story of Sacred Sun and Johannes, just one of many stories of sustainable agriculture taking root on the rich alluvium of the Kansas and Missouri River valleys and the vacant lots and garden plots of urban Kansas City. Jake Johannes can’t really be called a pioneer – he’s a son of the pioneers after all – but he embodies the spirit of the new Kansas City, a city which was founded in a large part by farmers.
In October you can find Sacred Sun at the Saturday Downtown Farmers Market, 900 block of New Hampshire Street, 8 am – noon and the Thursday Cotton’s Farmers Market, 1832 Massachusetts Street, 4 pm – 6:30 pm, both in Lawrence, Kansas. You can also find them on Facebook: http:// www.facebook.com/sacredsunfarm.