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Two experienced growers give advice on this crop that is both attractive to look at, and lucrative too!
Runner beans can bee very rewarding crop to grow ,and not only financially. The sight of a well established crop in full flower on a sizeable area is a feast for the eye, and the sight and sound of myriad insects enjoying the nectar and pollinating the Bowers makes this crop one of the most enjoyable to produce.
Having said that, growing runner beans as stick beans in an organic rotation is fairly labour intensive, since the frames have to be moved every year.
Here at Binden Home Farm, runner beans were one of the Dust summer crops we found to be fairly reliable and marketable, and after several years of experimentation (and one or two big mistakes that taught us important lessons) we were able to establish a fairly sound system.
Equipping for successful stick beans is important, and the place to start is to look at machinery. Although runner beans do not require much in the way of specialized equipment, good soil conditions are vital, and types and timing of tillage are important. Weed control equipment is standard, a good inter-row hoe and a battery of good, sharp hand hoes. A post hole borer is useful for constructing frames.
Stick beans require good sturdy frames since the weight of a fully grown crop is considerable and flimsily-built frames will often collapse under the weight of beans or else be blown down by the wind. We use a post and wire system with en bamboo canes and sisal twine if we run out of bamboos. For this you need good solid posts which you can cut yourself, strong wire, stakes, staples, and the requisite number of bamboo canes.
As we also propagate the crop under cover, we also need to make sure we have trays, pots, composts and of course seed in stock at the right time.
In our system, stick beans usually follow an over winter green manure cover crop, usually rye or rye and vetches. The crop is incorporated when soil conditions are good, around the beginning of April, and composted FYM is applied at a rate of 1520 tons per acre. It is usually possible to obtain two or three weed strikes by the time the crop is ready to plant, once danger of frosts is past.
At the same time, propagation is under way in the polythene tunnel. We firstly fill plastic or wooden trays with 'Jiffy' pots fill these with a seed compost, and sow two seeds to a pot. These are watered well and laid out on black plastic sheeting inside an unheated polytunnel. Sowing two or three weeks before the date when frosts are unlikely will provide a crop ready to plant at the right time. Frequent watering is necessary, often twice a day in warm weather, as the young plants should never be allowed to dry out.
Having grown several varieties, often side by side, we have found that the most reliable for yield and quality is Énorma, but other varieties recommended as a result of variety trials include Achievement, Scarlet Emperor, Prizewinner, White Emergo and Fry.
There is no doubt that stick beans benefit from a sheltered site, preferably with a south facing aspect. Rows should be aligned north-south to prevent unnecessary shading. A healthy environment around the crop, such as grassing field margins and hedgerows will provide a habitat for natural enemies of crop pests, thistles in particular appear to 'trap' the black aphid, as does fat hen and allowing these plants to survive in 'controlled' areas does Hem to keep the aphids diverted.
After a final weed strike the sturdy young plants, having been hardened off, are planted as doubles at a spacing of thin between plants, and Join between the rows. This gives a plant density of around 35,000 per acre. Pathways need to be about 3 ft wide to allow good access.
The newly planted crop is irrigated if necessary to facilitate rapid rooting and establishment. The beans are then steerage and hand hoed thoroughly before the frames are built.
Frames need to be built rapidly on the crop is established, and before the beans start to 'run'. This is labour intensive and best carried out as a team with all equipment readily to hand. We find two working with the post hole borer pulling up posts and wires, and two or more on canes and strings can coyer half an acre in a week or thereabouts.
ADAS publish a very clear and useful booklet (number 2428) on runner beans, and this gives derails of various ways of supporting a crop such as slick beans.
Good weed control of weeds by early wed bed preparation and thorough cleaning before building the frames is important, because once the frames are built it is not possible to use machinery to control weeds. If conditions are good runner beans are a fast growing crop and soon suppress most weeds. Pathways may be hoed with a pedestrian rotavator, or preferably mowed with a sturdy motor mower. Once the crop is mature and pickers are regularly using pathways no further weed control is necessary.
Although there are numerous pests and diseases that can attack the crop, in practice we find stick beans remarkably free of problems and have never suffered any aphid attacks at ail. This is probably largely because of the well established and diverse plant and insect populations on the farm. Although there are usually aphids about, they prefer certain indigenous plants, and do not move onto the crop.
The only disease problems encountered have been heavy seed losses due to soaking the seed prior to planting (not a recommended practiced, and botrytis, a minor problem on beans that get damaged, of ten those touching the ground.
In our experience, the two major dangers to the crop are wind, which can devastate flowers and bruise beans, and frost.
The major factor affecting the vigour and yields of the crop is without doubt water, or rather, lack of it. Yields may be almost doubled by the use of irrigation, and the quality of the beans maintained throughout the season. The response of a crop to irrigation in terms of vigour, set and development of fruit is remarkable to see, and it is hardly worth considering producing stick beans without access to adequate irrigation.
After irrigating the transplants, regular irrigation should take place when the first truss of flowers reaches the green bud stage. At this point soil moisture level should be restored to field capacity, and maintained at or near that level. II is important to avoid waterlogging, as this may leach out valuable nutrients and cause diseases.
On most medium loam soils l.5 in per application is recommended, leaving soil about a quarter inch below field capacity to allow for any rainfall. Depending on the growth stage of the crop and prevailing weather conditions, applications should take place at 7-10 day intervals.
It is important not to let the Soil Moisture Deficit (SMD) drop below 2in as this will cause a growth check and a drop in yield for several days, and the crop may not fully pick up again. It is possible to obtain a report on likely SMD from ADAS, or experience with your own soils may be enough to assess requirements. It is actually possible to see very quickly, within a matter of days, if the crop is not sufficiently irrigated, but by then yields will already be affected.
Second to irrigation, regular and thorough picking of the mop is vital to achieve high yields of quality beans. As with most fruiting crops, if the fruits are allowed to mature on the plant production drops, so it is important to remove any beans that were missed on previous pickings, them may then be graded out during packing.
Picking is normally into crates with a capacity of about 401bs, and the optimum size for picking will depend upon the market requirements. For most purposes, we found a thorough picking two or three times a week was suitable. However, supermarkets may require a smaller, more even sizing. Therefore it may be necessary to pick three or four times a week, which is labour intensive and costly so a good premium will be required.
The beans are then graded and packed, normally in 12 or 201b boxes in neat rows. The small amount of extra effort does make a large difference to the appearance of the product.
Like most summer crops, the price fluctuates from week to week, often starting very high at the beginning of the season and dropping rapidly as production increases. An average for the season is likely to be around 35p/lb., unless you are supplying supermarkets with a highly graded crop, in which case the average should be higher to justify extra labour requirements.
Yields achieved have (with irrigation) averaged at 7.5 tonnes per acre so the calculation for a gross margin is as follows:
7.5 tonnes @ 35p lb. = £784.00 per tonne
Total enterprise output £5880
Less variable costs £2047
Cross margin per acre £3833
A very respectable gross margin as you can see, but a very demanding crop in terms of management. Conditions and timing are critical, and an ill timed hurricane can undo the results of a great deal of work in a few hours!
The most that we have ever attempted is half an awe of stick beans. This is due to the intensity of the crop; the fact that managing teams of pickers and packers is important to ensure a quality crop, and the fact that the crop usually peaks at around the same time as the wheat harvest during August and early September. But there is no reason why a skilled grower with the right equipment could not grow on a larger scale, and still achieve similar returns. In order to extend the season it would be possible to make a second and later sowing, something we have not yet attempted.
Laura Davis and Lawrence Hasson
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