West Cape May farmers cling to lima bean crop: In 1950, 125 farms in county grew legume by 1992, only 4 did so


WEST CAPE MAY, N.J. -- Once this was the land of limas, in days when plump green-skinned beans graced many an American dinner plate. Then, farmers grew the beans on acre upon acre of flat, sandy earth, and townspeople had their pick of the bounty.

But American tastes have changed in 40 years, and so has the world of farming. There are few lima beans left in this town of

1,058, which nonetheless boasts it is the world's "lima bean capital."

"We're going to call it that until someone tells us we can't," said Alys Dolmetsch, chief organizer of West Cape May's big event - a spirited festival every October to celebrate the belittled green legume.

Such devotion to a vegetable that made children of the 1950s and 1960s go to bed without dessert might be quaint and amusing if it were not interwoven with a poignant tale of decline.

As this country has grown increasingly sophisticated and choosy about food, its culinary changes have taken a human toll in

places such as West Cape May.

Here, farmers such as Les and Ernie Rea have come close to losing the earth beneath them. At the same time, a town of sprawling bean fields has lost a piece of itself, a rite of harvest, a connection to its past.

"It used to be that lima beans were a staple, like a potato," said Diane Rea, who helps run the Rea farm with her husband of 37 years, Les, and Ernie, his younger brother.

A different dinner hour

But in 1997, she said with regret, in an era of fava beans, white asparagus and mesclun salads, it's a different dinner hour. "Now," she said, "there's all these fancy vegetables."

In the battle of changing tastes, few foods have faced odds as wretched as the lowly lima. This, after all, is a vegetable that is often remembered for the lengths to which some children went to avoid eating it. Lima beans were hidden under dinner plates, fed to family dogs - and politely refused.

If only they had known what nutritionists know: Like all beans, limas are a strong source of cancer-fighting fiber. They are also low in fat. Although fresh and frozen lima beans tend to be higher in calories than most other vegetables, they bring considerable protein and iron to the table - more than broccoli or green beans, for example.

When compared with other dried beans, limas come in with comparable calories - and a touch more iron. Limas have 5.9 milligrams of iron to a cup's serving, for example, while red kidney beans offer 4.6 milligrams, black beans contain 2.9 milligrams, and fava beans have 2.5 milligrams.

"They measure up as well - or perhaps even better in certain categories - compared with other beans," said Sue Snider, a food and nutrition specialist at the University of Delaware.

But even Dolmetsch, the lima's tireless promoter, cannot deny there may be a lasting effect from early experiences with the bland, mealy vegetable.

"I remember being sent to bed without dessert some days because I wouldn't eat my lima beans," she said. "In those days, you didn't say, 'Mommy, I don't like it,' and get something else."

Today, Dolmetsch acknowledged a little sheepishly, she is still not one to heap fresh-steamed lima beans onto her dinner plate. "I can eat them if they're baked in brown sugar," she offered.

Her reluctance is widely shared - and not just by small children.

'A total collapse'

Bill Finneran, a summer resident of Cape May, who said he eats lima beans because "I grew up eating them - and I'm ornery," pointed out that in 1997, even vegetarians such as his 22-year-old daughter shun the beans. "There's been a total collapse of lima bean culture, as far as I can tell," he said.

To the people of West Cape May, this may be a sad truth.

In 1996, 42 percent fewer canned and frozen lima beans were produced for American dinner plates than in the 1960s, the lima's heyday.

Other major forces also figure in West Cape May's lima slump: pressure to build on farmland, low crop yields, a decline in nearby processing. But on a recent Saturday morning, Mayor John Vasser Jr. and Dolmetsch wondered aloud whether changing times had not worked against the legume as much as anything else.

"How many mothers are home to cook lima beans?" Dolmetsch asked, sitting with the mayor in the square-mile town's flag-adorned Borough Hall.

"This is a generation that knows Taco Bell and McDonald's," Vasser said.

"Now, kids know they don't have to eat their vegetables," Dolmetsch added. "I think mothers today are so stressed out from work they don't want to argue."

Vasser recalled some fields of his family's farm filled with lima beans during his childhood in the 1930s. As recently as 1950, 125 farms in Cape May County harvested lima beans, state records show.

By 1992, only four farms still grew them.

"The larger bean growers are all gone," Vasser said. "There are just small growers using it to supplement their income."

He tried to visualize what now stood on those once-endless fields of beans. "Houses," he said. "A school. A campground. Sod farms."

Les and Ernie Rea wanted nothing more than to grow lima beans the rest of their farming lives. They had worked the crop as young men, as family farmers, like their father and grandfather, and now after their own children were grown.

But there will not be a fourth generation. "We told our kids: 'Get off the farm. There is no life here,' " Ernie Rea, 54, said.

The Rea brothers love the land, work it winter and summer, and they kept at lima beans long after others gave up - cultivating 500 acres as recently as 1995. Two other farmers in the county grow limas as a semiretired pursuit. But in effect, the Reas were the last major lima farmers.

"Salt-of-the-earth type people," said Larry Newbold, the Cape May County agricultural agent and a professor at Rutgers

University, who provides farming advice to many of the area's growers.

But in 1995, there was a hot summer and a terrible drought, the worst the Reas had seen since 1949. They lost 70 percent of their crop - and for the first time could not pay off their farm's operating loan. "We took a blood bath," said Les Rea, 61.

And this was just the first blow.

The next January, Hanover Foods of Hanover, Pa., the company that had bought their harvested crops for the last 15 years, told the Reas it would no longer do business with them.

'Almost lost the farm'

Production costs were too high and sales were falling off, the company told them in a letter. It could buy frozen beans cheaper from growers in California.

The Reas were crushed. It was nearly time for spring planting. What would they grow? Where would they get the equipment? Who would buy the crop?

Amid the uncertainty, their bank demanded full payment of their farm loan, since they no longer had a contract for crops.

"We almost lost the farm," Les Rea said. "We had put every dollar we had back into our business."

Lima beans have always been a garden vegetable in Cape May County. But in the 1930s, as the nation came out of the Great Depression and farmers looked for a moneymaker, it became the crop of choice.

The soil was right. A processing plant was nearby. Frozen foods were just coming into their own. And the county agricultural agent at the time, Henry White, was sold on the market possibilities.

"Mr. White even took a small contract himself to show the farmers how to do it," recalled John MacLeod, who became the county agricultural agent in 1958, five years after White retired, and held the post until he retired in 1985.

In the golden days, West Cape May was a landscape of bean plants.

"Lima beans put many a washing machine in farmers' homes or got them another tractor," MacLeod recalled.

At harvest time, local children would pluck bean pods off the bushy plants and bring them home to their mothers.

"We'd shuck them and have them for dinner," Jean Davis, the borough clerk, remembers from her childhood. "That was the crop."

Even so, it was probably never true that Cape May County grew more lima beans than other areas of the country like Delaware and California.

Cape May County simply had a heavy concentration, excellent growing conditions - and an uncommon appreciation.

But the 1960s brought the first lima retreat. Three major farmers switched from beans to sod. There was more money in it.

"You make more money for the things that people don't eat," lamented Ed Wuerker, whose family operated a major lima farm.

Still, Wuerker and others continued planting lima beans. Even 20 years later in 1983, when Vasser was asked how his town should promote business, he shrugged. "The biggest thing we got going," he said, "is lima beans."

So began the West Cape May Lima Bean Festival - that October occasion when the town crowns a lima bean queen, dances to a lima bean polka, holds lima contests (eating, tossing, cooking) and serves a fine bean cuisine.

Upon visiting the bean-bedecked festival in 1994, Saveur magazine wrote, "If West Cape May is not the lima bean capital of the world, it deserves to be."

Some mystery remains about how one vegetable rises to great popularity and another falls from grace. But it is clear that lima beans start out with major drawbacks.

For one thing, they are old hat. Fifty or 60 years ago, they were the only bean most Americans served, said Martin Stone, who with his wife, Sally, wrote "The Brilliant Bean" (Bantam Books, 1988) and "The Instant Bean" (Bantam Books, 1996).

Stiff bean competition

Now, limas face stiff competition from highly popular black, red kidney and navy beans, as well as from a new wave of beans that capture the imagination of fine restaurant chefs, like coronas, giant white beans from the Mediterranean region, and favas, large, flat, tan beans.

"Favas are chic and trendy right now because they are Italian and European," Stone said. "Fava also doesn't have the Depression hanging over it. A lot of beans do," sucg as the lima, he said.

Jim Melban of the California Dry Bean Advisory Board also makes the argument that the lima bean is misunderstood. "Take a baby lima bean, for example," he said. "A lot of people think baby lima beans are just lima beans that haven't grown up yet - and they aren't."

For the record, limas come in many varieties. Large, green

Fordhooks were the kind that put West Cape May on the map. But baby lima beans are grown there, too. Baby limas are small, not young, beans - green or white in color, more widely available and often less expensive.

Lima beans were also usually served plain and overcooked.

"Most of our mothers didn't know how to properly cook lima beans," said Sheila Lukins, co-author of the "Silver Palate" cookbooks, which were popular in the 1980s. "They boiled them into a mush."

Several years ago, Lukins traveled to West Cape May for the annual festival to sample the town's vaunted beans - and was won over completely, she said. "They were phenomenal," she said.

To make her point, Lukins has included West Cape May and its beans in her new cookbook, "Sheila Lukins U.S.A. Cookbook." "I think lima beans should be considered right up there with other vegetables," she said.

And if Lukins manages to revive a bit of the lima bean's lost luster, West Cape May is ready to show the world new possibilities.

Lima bean ice cream

Here the beans are used for more than simple succotash. They are made into baked beans. And soup. And casserole. They are used to create hummus. And salad. And pate. For dessert, imagine this: lima bean ice cream.

That idea comes from Diane Muentz, chef and part-owner of Alexander's, an elegant bed-and- breakfast and restaurant in Cape May, the shorefront tourist spot that borders West Cape May.

"I wanted to get people who wouldn't eat lima beans to taste them," Muentz said, adding, "If lima bean ice cream is weird, how weird is carrot cake?"

Last summer, Les and Ernie Rea planted soybeans, as they struggled to hang on to their foundering farm.

They reorganized their debt with the help of a federal loan, and the soybeans let them pay bills for one more year.

"We don't know where we're heading yet," said Ernie Rea, who explained that soybeans won't keep the farm afloat for long.

Last year was the first time Les and Ernie Rea did not plant a major crop of lima beans. They planted just 2 acres, for their roadside farm stand, a new venture that helped pay the bills in cash-strapped times.

When asked to describe their feelings about giving up lima beans, Les Rea's brow furrowed. His voice rose. "They are not gone," he said, pointing out that the lima bean will never be their sole crop again but that they hope it will rise once more. This year they will plant 10 acres.

"They are not gone," he repeated. "We didn't stop growing them."

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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