Bean There: Check Your Pulse

Editor’s Note: This week marks the launch of a new feature in the Cape Breton Spectator, “Bean There,” a monthly column by Cape Breton farmer and seed-saver Michelle Smith

It’s only right that I came to the end of the United Nation’s Year of Pulses with a visit to Agriculture Canada’s pulse crop specialist in Morden, Manitoba. I didn’t plan it that way, though. For the last seven years, in addition to the other seed-saving experiments and projects on my Cape Breton farm, I have been working on improving and expanding my production of unusual dry bean varieties. Other seed-heads will know some of them; Mrocumiere from East Africa, Pepas de Zapallo or Tiger Eye from Chile, Thibodeau du Comte Beauce, Hutterite Soup Beans, not to mention regional specialties like Monastery, grown by the monks in Tracadie or Iannetti pole beans brought by that family from Britolli Italy in 1902.

Morden Research and Development Centre, Morden, Manitoba (Photo via Agriculture Canada)

Morden Research and Development Centre, Morden, Manitoba (Photo via Agriculture Canada)

When you are known as “the Seed Lady,” you become used to strangers pressing small packets into your hand with a plea to help another rare variety. Horochuk beans were given to me just before a political debate, from a man who had heard I was looking for this unusual European-style yellow pole bean. Then he disappeared. I never even found out if he was going to vote for me or not. The beans, however, were definitely elected into my collection.


Not-So Natural Selection

The Cape Breton climate being what it is, producing reliable crops of dry beans and seed is challenging. Short seasons; rainy, humid autumns; high winds — many of the more common varieties like Jacob’s Cattle and Red Kidney just don’t dry down properly here, even when we pull them and finish them under cover. High humidity means more diseases and molds, especially during harvest season. With that in mind, I have been growing larger and larger populations of my beans, with a view to selecting hard for disease resistance, productivity and even nitrogen-fixing capability. Most beans are at the 600 row-feet or 4,000 plant level when this work begins in earnest. The only drawback? Well, I don’t really know what I’m doing. High school biology was a LONG time ago. I try to keep up with relevant academic papers, but not being a bona fide scientist myself, it is pretty hit and miss. I was sure, for example, that this kind of selection process had helped me develop a disease-resistant strain of Black Valentine bush beans – an important goal for me after I lost almost my entire crop in 2011 to anthracnose. But I didn’t know how to evaluate what I thought I was seeing or whether the traits I observed were actually shifting within the populations.

A tip-off sent me to Dr Anfu Hou, the earlier-mentioned bean specialist at the Morden Agricultural Research station. I wrote to him requesting a little of his time to answer some possibly (probably) simple-minded questions about bean genetics and breeding. His gracious agreement meant I hopped on a plane, stayed with my parents and borrowed their car to make the drive from Winnipeg to Morden.


Well, not quite. I got on the plane only after I spent all my spare time for two months memorizing terminology (What is the difference between genotype and phenotype? What does epigenetic mean?) and reading his published papers. Okay, just the abstracts. At this point in my life, I am a skip-the-formula kind of girl. Yes, I knew I was going to make a fool of myself, but I was determined to make a valiant effort to appear intelligent before the inevitable ignominy.

I was pretty nervous, not to say terrified, waiting in the small lobby of the station. “Is he expecting you?” the secretary asked in a puzzled way, clearly baffled by my appearance, though I had tried my best to tidy up. “God, I hope so,” was all I could think. Dr Hou appeared right away and welcomed me to the station and told me everyone in the lab was ready and wating to meet me. “Oh, God,” I thought again. “Who is Everyone? Are all the bean experts in Canada with all their degrees, knowledge and experience going to have a front row seat at how idiotic I am?” A terror which was only increased when, sure enough, he ushered me into the lab with five of his colleagues waiting expectantly around the main table. He is such a nice man, I don’t think he had any idea how close I was at that moment to bolting from the building altogether.

(For those of you who like to skip to the end of the story, he and all his colleagues were incredibly welcoming and patient. I can only guess that they either don’t get many visitors or they are all just naturally very nice people. Very probably the latter. One had even made black bean brownies for a snack.)


Bean Better

I found out that I had been doing some things right, though often for the wrong reason. For example, anthracnose resistance is a single gene trait – a plant has it, yes or no. One year of selecting is all you get. Common Bacterial Blight, however, which has a similarly devastating effect on plants under the same high humidity conditions, has a multi-gene based resistance which makes it an ideal trait to work with using mass selection techniques. Even using the Bible otherwise known as Diseases and Pests of Vegetable Crops in Canada put out by the Canadian Phytopathological Society, a bad case of both can confound the untrained observer.

Dr. Martin Entz, University of Manitoba

Dr. Martin Entz, University of Manitoba (Photo via

I was cautioned against too much selection. In modern plant breeding the parent lines are deliberately narrowed and then remixed to specifically target certain genes. Mass population selection is an older, less technical method which relies solely on field observations and gradual skewing of a large population towards a desired goal. The strength of this method and the adaptability of the seed lies in the continued diversity of the population. Over time, hard selecting will narrow the gene pool and this resilience will be lost. In other words, three or four generations, then stop and review the results. Know when enough is good enough. Uniformity is only needed for much bigger farms than mine with precision, machine-based production.


Show & Tell

One of the highlights of the visit was when one of the researchers asked me just what kind of beans I grew. Naturally, I had a bag of mixed beans from this year’s harvest with me. Doesn’t everyone? There was an audible gasp at all the bright colours and varied shapes. Someone got up and quickly brought out a bag of their own collection – also quite gorgeous. I regret now that I can’t grow lima beans, just for the look of them in my bean bowl. The visit moved at that point from technical advice to swapping stories. One researcher was entirely bemused when I told him I pulled the plants by hand and threw them into the cart while the driverless tractor moved in first gear with a wheel in the furrow. “Then I thresh them with an old chicken plucker!” They promised if I came back next fall I could see them use their state-of-the-art plot thresher. I do love good tech and I am already scheming to get back for a peek. I got to see the special grow units where they can replicate all kinds of environmental stresses such as low light and temperature – even introduce diseases in a controlled way. In their greenhouses, they can grow three generations in a year. Their work with genetic markers and parent lines is made much speedier this way. I was told I can adapt this kind of greenhouse production to assess the genetic diversity in the initial sample of seeds, especially from an unknown or untried source.

The following day I had a visit with Dr Martin Entz at the University of Manitoba, who told me that a good way to measure progress with my population was to compare them in a simultaneous growout with a sample of the original. Like most seed-savers, I have a healthy/unhealthy obsession with keeping old stock “just in case” so this would be easy. To compensate for differences in germination with the older seed, both should be grown out one year then formally compared the following year. A very elegant solution to the problem of evaluation.

I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me that highly educated and skilled researchers like Martin, Anfu and the rest of the “Bean Dream Team” were so kind and helpful with my quest to be a better farmer and seed saver. I don’t get off the farm much, but when I do the world holds such welcome for a curious mind. Now I have the whole winter to mull over what I learned – and to learn even more – and come spring, to put it all into action in my green and growing fields.




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.