They’re Cool, They’re Coveted, They’re … Beans?

Callie Enlow

Of all the hip heirloom produce catapulted into the spotlight in recent years, beans might seem the least sexy. And yet, if you’ve ever seen a pound of Rancho Gordo’s colorful, obscure legumes, contained in a kitschy wrapper featuring a saucy woman licking her lips, you may have found yourself strangely compelled to cook up a pot. And if you do, you may be hooked—while the few dried bean options available on your local grocer’s shelves could be seven years old, imported from China, and take eons to cook, Rancho Gordo offers about 40 varieties of super-fresh beans grown in the U.S. and Mexico (the company often sells out of stock after a year).

In 2002, Steve Sando founded Rancho Gordo after a hodgepodge of careers spanning branding, web design, and even DJing in Italy. He’s still involved in most aspects of the company today, from designing that memorable label to overseeing their in-house publications to answering customer service emails. Shortly after the Napa-based company launched, it received early and enthusiastic support from superstar chef Thomas Keller, of legendary The French Laundry. Now culinary pros and foodies throughout the Americas seek out Rancho Gordo products when they want to reflect a truly local flavor.

While beans are clearly Sando’s passion, he’s expanded Rancho Gordo’s offerings to include grains, spices, hot sauces, and popcorn. Some of the company’s most exciting products—sour prickly pear marmalade, purple-hued Ayocote Morado beans, stoneground Oaxacan chocolate—come via the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project. This partnership, forged in 2008 between Sando and Mexican exporters Xoxoc, works with some 30 family farms in Mexico to buy their heirloom, indigenous beans and products.

For Make Change’s Farm Week, I talked to Sando about why beans are magical, why his aren’t organic, the economic case for heirlooms over GMOs, and how worried he is for the Xoxoc project in the age of Trump.

You had a lot of different careers before Rancho Gordo, what was it about the beans that captivated you?

I just find beans interesting culturally more than anything… I thought that food was this great, non-political way to help define what an American is. Whether it’s South American, Central American, North American, my main interest was indigenous food of the Americas… I think we should know what our ingredients are and it’s very weird when people know all about something like balsamic vinegar yet they don’t know what a Rio Zape bean is and that’s our own indigenous food…. As a home cook I think it’s important that these things are available.

It wasn’t that I was so smart, but I remember watching Thomas Keller and the reaction [from other chefs], and thinking ‘this is the way to go, we’re going to market this as a fabulous food.’ Not healthy or great [for you], which they are. But it was really, ‘this is a great ingredient that you’re not using.’ And I think that’s what got people so excited. There’s this miracle of taking this rock and turning it into something lush and delicious. It just doesn’t make sense. When Keller said ‘what you’re doing is very important,’ it just went from a whisper to a scream.

What are some of the challenges of growing heirloom beans? If they are so wonderful wouldn’t more businesses be providing a wider variety of beans? 

You’d think so, but the skill set to produce a lot of foods is not the same skill set to market them… I don’t want to take all the credit, but…I just don’t think there was a market for heirloom beans until I started doing it. It’s hard—the yield is much, much lower, which is why they’re more expensive, and they’re harder to grow. So, I think a lot of modern farmers, they’ve invested in competing on the commodities market. For me to even come around [to farmers] and say ‘we’re going to pay you more per pound,’ there’s sort of this macho [attitude], ‘an acre needs to yield this many beans and I’m not interested,’ even if they could make more money. It’s been a very rough road in getting the network of growers, because I immediately realized I have no talent for growing and I needed to find other people to do this for me.

So Rancho Gordo does not grow its own beans?

Not any more, we had been. We partner with six farmers here in California and about two in Oregon and one in Washington now.

I think a lot of farmers are interested in growing heirlooms but, like you said, the economics are really not working out, to the point it’s really hard to get financing with an heirloom-based business plan

Yeah, I’m sure. The other problem is that [current economics] encourages [farmers] to grow commodity beans. I’m not a snob, there’s a role for those, but you’re competing with the Peruvians and the Chinese at that point and it’s just a race to the bottom. It’s great to find ways to encourage farmers to keep growing heirlooms. You’ve got to get to know the beans. We used to have one or two farmers growing everything and it was driving them crazy. So it was like no, this bean does really well in your climate, this will be your specialty bean. And that seems to have worked out much better for us.

Maybe this is a good segue to talk about your partnership with… man, I’m going to screw up this pronunciation… Xoxoc.

Xoxoc (shu-shock) is how they say it. It’s a shortened word I think they made up from the word xoconostle for the sour prickly pears. That was their specialty. I met these people and they were all set up for export. And I kept thinking, ‘well the sour prickly pears are great but I don’t know how big a market there’s ever going to be to support exporting them. Maybe are there any heirloom beans in the area?’ And they said, ‘no, no they’re all gone, there’s none here.’ But one of their mothers said ‘I think there may be one [heirloom grower] in my village’ so we went to check it out, and of course it’s a great bean called Moro that we still have. [Yunuén Carillo Quiroz and Gabriel Cortés García], these two young people [behind Xoxoc] who really had no awareness of this, are [now] experts in finding heirloom beans.

When we first started, we’d meet the farmers and the farmers would look at me and say ‘no freaking way.’ They just can’t imagine working with a gringo that they’re going to come out ahead. They’re just assuming that they’re going to get the low end of things. So now [Quiroz and Garcia] go ahead of me and then I come in later. Which is a little hurtful but I don’t blame them. The farmers just can’t imagine a situation where they’re going to sell us all this stuff at a fair price and it’s going to continue. But it has, that’s the beautiful thing.

Are you nervous about this partnership given the Trump Administration and not only their stance on immigration but trade, and trade with Mexico?

Trade is the big one. I can feel the hands pulling away on the other side. ‘Oh wait, you said America was one way and now this is just what we suspected.’ Even though Trump hasn’t done anything yet, it’s already harming my relationships in Mexico.…By declaring Mexicans the enemy, creating the wall, and adding a 20 percent tariff to what they want to export, you’re just ruining their opportunities, which is the very reason they have to come [to the U.S. illegally]. So, I’m not liking it at all.

What is incumbent upon you now to make sure this partnership can survive?

I haven’t heard specifically of any problems yet but … suddenly it just seems riskier to do. It’s not like these [crops] are here, so it’s not like we’re taking anyone’s job [in the U.S.]. In fact, I’ve got 18 workers here who are waiting for the beans and other products to come in from Mexico, so they can bag them and seal them and do their jobs here. It’s affecting jobs here as well. … And I feel like [Trump] is not thinking it through—it’s very complicated, all this stuff.

I read that your products aren’t certified organic. What do you say to people who ask why?

Mostly people don’t know anything about bean production. They just know that you’re supposed to ask for organic. But beans are really green. Most times we don’t have to spray [for pests]. If we do, it’s before they even flower and then they’re in a pod for months after that….They’re harvested in the field. The pods are cut up and shot right back into the soil as green manure. To me, it’s already this incredible thing. If someone wants to go all organic, that’s great. I just don’t see it as a benefit for this product itself, and [growing organic means] adding more money to it, and they’re already [priced] high for beans. But there’s organic black beans from China and it’s like well, how do you certify it? To me you have to pick your battles and it’s a leap of faith as it is.

Do you weigh in on the GMO debate?

I don’t like them. So far there’s no GMO beans—there’s no point yet, luckily. I just don’t think we know what’s going to happen…. I think it’s really fun to be a scientist and breed these things but I don’t know that it’s so important for feeding the world. From my understanding, which is very, very limited, food problems are more about distribution than actual production. I would rather figure out how to get food to where it’s needed rather than producing something else.

Just the fact that you have to continue buying the seed tells you something. You can sort of follow the money. If you have an heirloom, you can continually, year after year, take the best seeds for next year, whereas with a GMO you’re going to be buying seeds as long as you’re growing that crop.

A big part of your mission is seeds and seed banking. 

At one point, there was a bean called the Vallarta and Thomas Keller loved it. It’s a small, odd little bean that no one gives a crap about. It was really on the verge of extinction but he loved it, so we had to grow it. And because we grew it and he loved it, other chefs wanted it. Here’s a bean on the verge of extinction that is now thriving because it’s being eaten. So my theory is the best way to save this stuff is to eat it, to get it in the hands of people. It shouldn’t be exotic, it should be second nature.

Photos courtesy of Rancho Gordo