The late John Withee was once known in seed-saving circles as the “Bean Man” for his devotion to saving heirloom bean seeds. He developed a unique system for threshing dry beans. In 1980, John showed us how his threshing method works. We’ve never found a better system, and we recommend it to anyone who faces a big pile of dried bean plants this fall.
For the uninitiated, dry shelled beans (such as cannellini, red kidney, pinto beans), are grown just like fresh snap beans—from same species of plant, Phaseolus vulgaris—but harvested later. The pods of the shelled bean varieties dry on the vine until they begin to crack open. Before the pods fully open and the beans fall to the ground, they are “threshed”—which is the act of separating the individual beans from their pods.
If you handpick the pods, stuff them into a burlap bag or a sack that can breathe and hang them up in your barn or garage until they’re crisp—they should rustle when you squeeze them. If you have too many plants to pick by hand, pull them up by the roots and dry them outdoors on a rack.
Make a Drying Rack
To make a rack in minutes, drive two 6-foot-long poles into the ground about 8 inches apart. Run some wire or sturdy twine across the connecting poles or secure a strip of wood to the poles about a foot from the ground (see Fig. 1 below). Taking a good cluster of plants in each hand, lay them across the wire from opposite sides, and repeat to the top. They will balance each other well enough to stay in the rack. When the stack reaches the top of the two poles, wind another piece of wire or twine across the top to hold the plants in place until they are crisp.
Prepare Threshing Bags
Take a piece of burlap and make a cone 5 feet long and 3 feet wide at the top, tapering to a 6-inch opening at the bottom.
On a good, dry day—ideally, one with some wind—hang it from a branch outside and tie the bottom tightly with a piece of string. Load the dried bean plants into the top. With two clubs (large wooden spoons, lengths of dowels, or even drumsticks), beat the bag on opposite sides to get the beans out of the pods (see Fig. 2 below).
When the bottom feels full of beans, put a large container under the bag and open it slowly. The beans will tumble out, leaving most of the chaff in the bag.
If bits of chaff and dust get into the beans, spread a blanket on the ground and drop the beans onto it. (Remember to work on a windy day.) After two or three drops, the beans will be nice and clean.
John Withee, the “Bean Man”
Born in Portland, Maine, in 1910, John Withee had a lifelong love of the legume. He was raised on them, grew them, and sought out old varieties of them from his childhood as well as others that at first were unknown to him. By 1975, he had over 200 varieties. (One of his favorites was ‘Jacob’s Cattle’.) By 1979, the number was 680. In 1981, his collection totaled 1,186 heirloom varieties, and he had a following of gardeners who propagated his seeds. A short time later, Withee transferred his beans to Seed Savers Exchange, an organization that would perpetuate his visions of diversity, sharing, and preserving heirloom varieties. He died in 1993.