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We Will Rockwell

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BY JILL LIGHTNER
PHOTOS BY CAROLE TOPALIAN

When Georgie Smith talks about spilling the beans, she means it literally. She’s holding a big bag of beans and attempting to pour them into a basket; if the beans get spilled, they’ll bounce all over the concrete barn floor and be nearly impossible to collect. One of the fun things about hanging around farmers: you really get to visualize the roots of old sayings.

The beans at hand have a very special story, one well worth spilling. They’re Rockwells, with lovely pink-brown freckles on their ivory sides, and the only place they grow in the whole world is on Whidbey Island. Georgie did some research with a vegetable historian, and from what they were able to figure out, the Rockwell’s roots stretch back to a common European/Hungarian bean colloquially referred to as “the red and white bean.” It shows up in seed catalogs dating back to the 1860s. Rockwell’s have mutated to the point where they have a slightly different appearance and eating characteristics than their red and white ancestor. Rockwells keep their shape nicely when cooking, but their centers have a wonderfully creamy texture. Aside from the special local food history connection, it’s a great bean for soups and baking.

Georgie’s family didn’t have their own private stash of Rockwell beans, as so many Whidbey-area farmers do. A neighbor gave her a coffee can full of seed beans in the early ‘90s, and she first started growing them more seriously in 1995, when she says that to her knowledge, the total worldwide production of this bean (meaning, the total Whidbey Island production) was less than 300 pounds. Since then, the volume has grown to perhaps as much as 3,000 pounds between the neighboring farms. It’s still nowhere near enough to keep up with demand, so more people have inquired about seed bean availability. Georgie and her neighbors are all working hard to increase the amount they grow—ideally enough to support a Rockwell bean festival, not to mention the obvious ideal of several small family farms being able to improve their bottom line thanks to a unique heirloom product.

 

Willowood Farm—you have to practically wade through bald eagles to get there—is in the central, section of long, skinny Whidbey Island. These days, it’s as lovely a stretch of farmland as you could find driving through the Skagit Valley, but it’s also the farmland that almost wasn’t. In the 1970s, thanks to the combined wallop of two unexpected deaths in the family, a nationwide collapse in the viability of small farms and a burdensome inheritance tax on the land value, Georgie’s grandmother and great aunt were making plans to sell of a stretch of sandy hillside land to developers. What ensued was a nightmarish seven-year battle over property rights. It’s disconcerting to stand on Georgie’s historic homestead and consider that at one point her family was trying to save a part of their farm by casting themselves in the villainous role of property developer. In a complex series of trades that included an official Act of Congress, the National Park Service bought all but 20 acres of land from the Smiths, and then sold back the land, minus the development rights, to area residents. That land is now a relatively small part of the 17,400 acres that form the Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve. On Willowood Farm, the park service still holds an easement that prevents further development of their 20 acres, and controls any exterior changes to the historic farm buildings.

 

Visitors, including all those bald eagles, have plenty to appreciate. Some 50 buildings in nearby Coupeville are on the National Historic Registry, and it’s one of the prettiest places in Western Washington to drop by on a spring or fall weekend. It’s likely great in the summers, too, but isn’t it nicer to visit when there’s not a horde of tourists already there? The annual Whidbey Island Farm Tour happens in mid-September, ideal timing if you’re looking to reap a good part of the local harvest for your own pantry.

During the years that Georgie’s been farming her patch of Olympic rainshadow land, she’s learned to take advantage of its relative dryness and good drainage. Unlike other nearby farms that have to cope with waterlogged clay soil, garlic thrives on her farm. The varieties that she rattles off as her favorites—Georgian Fire, Killarney Red, Japanese, Siberian, Chesnok Red—are mind-boggling. For garlic fans, she suggests Georgian Fire and Japanese for big roasted cloves, and Chesnok Red for everyday sauces and cooking. Killarney Red has a “great ‘stinky garlic’ aroma.”

With a combined specialty in beans and garlic, it’s hard not to wonder if her farmers market stand doesn’t attract more than its fair share of digestive humor. Georgie’s favorite market story is even sillier—it involves a glossy cyclist pulling up to her stand and asking where to find the bananas. She, rather nicely I thought, suggested he try Florida.

 

Sidebar: Find the Beans

Reprinted from Edible Seattle: The Cookbook, Sterling Epicure 2012

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