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Harrington: Green Beans

08/04/11 5:55PM By Elaine Harrington
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(HOST)  Vermont's vegetable growers provide an increasingly important source  of local food.  Commentator Elaine Harrington considers some agricultural history while picking beans from her garden.

(HARRINGTON) The first green beans from the garden are here, marking the midpoint of summer.

We have lots of beans: Royal Burgundy (actually purple, until cooked), then the long, straight Providers - excellent for freezing or making Dilly Beans. After that come the delicate French Filets- perfect for Salad Nicoise. In early fall, Italian Romano pole beans - flat and flavorful.

Growing vegetables seems to be hereditary: My parents, now in their 80s, still grow tomatoes and string beans with enthusiasm. My sisters and I used to hold two-handed bean-snapping contests when we were kids.

So we'll eat beans for dinner - and I'll freeze some for winter. But the economic importance of these beans can't compare to those once grown in this same Middlesex field by my neighbor, Eloise Rollins, who farmed here with her husband Wentworth from the 1940s to early 1960s. They specialized in chickens and eggs - but Eloise often told me about planting the entire field into beans for the cannery in nearby Waterbury.
Demeritt Company corn husking

Bertrum Demeritt opened the Demeritt Canning Factory in 1900, says Linda Kaiser of the Waterbury Historical Society, who had a summer job there in 1963, its last year of operation. The Demeritts covered all aspects of food production - from giving farmers specific seeds for planting to employing people to pick in the fields, and then trim, cut, and process the vegetables.

They made their own metal cans on site and assembled crates from boards cut at the company sawmill. Workers then loaded the boxes of canned green beans, tomatoes, squash, corn, pumpkin, and apples directly into rail cars for shipment around the country.

Their colorful labels included Ethan Allen (of course), White Seal, Queen City, Cream of the Valley (for corn), Winooski Crown, John Stark (more Vermont patriotism) - and Red Clover.

Kaiser remembers working the conveyor belt - the teenager snipped the tops off green beans. And she did the hard work of picking beans out in the fields. Kaiser, whose mother-in-law was a Demeritt, says the company kept employees busy during winter with canning baked beans and making clothespins.

She cites impressive production numbers. In 1900, the company produced 10,000 cans per day - with 250,000 that first year - and by 1923, the facility was putting out 750,000 cans of locally grown food annually.

The Demeritts also ran canneries in Randolph and St. Albans. One gets the picture of a food processing network that supported dozens, maybe hundreds, of small farms. Today's vegetable growers market to restaurants in the Vermont Fresh Network - and to consumers via farmers' markets, farm stands, and CSAs (community-sponsored agriculture shares.) Perhaps canneries could again be part of our state's food economy.

For 35 years now, I've been growing and picking beans on this hillside - on a much smaller scale than my neighbor Eloise and central Vermont farmers of the past. On a hot summer afternoon in the garden, I think of her - and this bit of local agricultural history.
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