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April 2, 2013

Our Neighbors: Farmer Harris collects heirloom bean seeds

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Dewey Harris is an heirloom bean seed saver.

“I’ve got way over a hundred,” he boasted. “When I first started, I had a dozen different kinds and I thought I had them all. I come to find out, I didn’t. I counted 135 different kinds of my seeds.”

Harris pointed out there are thousands of heirloom bean seeds and some seeds could have more than one name, depending on what region the beans are grown.

He wants to preserve the seeds that have good flavor and to keep the heritage alive.

Harris, 70, came from Harlan County to Laurel when he was 12 years old because his father was looking for work in the coal mines.  He has a 19-acre farm behind Hazel Green School. He used to sell his crops at the Farmers Market but not this summer. He has retired and only grows beans for the seeds so that he can sell them. He plans on growing 50 different varieties this summer.

He laid brick for 29 years. In 1995 he started to collect seeds when Ethel Middleton from Harlan gave him some white greasy bean seeds and another friend gave him some Aunt Betsy seeds. Most of his seeds are given to him by his friends.

A woman from Clay County gave him some quarter-runner bean seeds. The beans cook up brown and have a nutty taste, he said.

Every bean has a story.  The story goes that the daddy bean comes from Kash Noble of Breathitt County. Noble’s grandfather, Evan Hounshell, cooked in the coal fields and served the beans to the miners. Hounshell had gone down a river on a raft back in the 1930s to Frankfort. He was the cook for the crew and they stopped down in Estill County, near Irvine. He bought local beans to cook and kept the yellowed pods in his pockets and brought them back to Breathitt County to raise.

Some of the heirloom beans Harris grows are red eye fall, granny cornfield, turner cornfield, brown crowder, turkey craw, square house white, cynthia rose, creamy bush, and black cornfield.

The Amgro Master Gardener Flower and Garden Show will be giving out samples of Harris’ heirloom green bean seeds for free on May 4 at the London Community Center.

cmills@sentinel-echo.com

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