FoodPaths - August 2011
Loving Lou’s Legumes
Lou Iacopi loves legumes. 40 years of love. Lou is passionate about his family, his customers, and his fields of green wedged between the Pacific Ocean and acres of rolling hills. Chefs describe Lou’s legumes as unique. The secret? The terroir -- the moist, salty sea air, cool morning fog, and afternoons of warming sun, combined with the love of a grower, giving us locally grown legumes thriving within the ripples of change challenging our food systems.
Until I met Lou, legumes -- beans, peas and lentils, among others -- fell into one of my “neutral” vegetable food groups. As I child, I didn’t dislike beans or peas, but I didn’t love them either. My mother put them on the table because they were mostly green and good for us. As an adult, I classified them as the equivalent of the “Plus One,” a nice addition to the party, but not necessarily someone you would go home with.
The business of beans, however, is not only about what is ready to release at harvest. Increasingly, it’s about the market position of the grower, reaching new customers, and marketing the product in a different way. A few years ago, Lou’s English peas, sold largely to wholesalers, distributors and restaurants, formed the base for nearly all of Iacopi Farms production. Today, English peas account for 50%. A growing percentage comes from a new product line – dried beans, directly from Lou’s oceanside fields.
For most of us, understanding what a grower, farmer or rancher must confront every day to bring food to our tables is almost incomprehensible to those of us far removed from the fields. My backyard battles with snails are a non-starter when compared with the battles of grower v. pest waged over hundreds of acres.
“I would love to have the dollar value for what the crows, blackbirds and starlings have taken from me,” Lou Iacopi told me on a walk through his bean and pea fields, with only a trace of a smile. “The crows pick the pods and eat the peas... then, there are the gophers, the mice, the moths...”
There’s a romance to the land, but there’s also a reality to growing food;
- Weather spikes and the ongoing vagaries of climate changes.
- Labor shortages, affecting every aspect of the growing cycle.
- A complex agricultural and food safety regulatory environment.
- Agricultural technologies changing the way crops are produced and harvested.
- The shift to consumer-driven food policies, forcing growers, farmers and ranchers to learn HOW to market in a changing agricultural industry.
Yet, for all the challenges, growers like Lou would not have it any other way.
To understand Lou’s love of legumes, we begin with the land and the family heritage. As each generation has lived a life of the land, the roots of family, food as a cultural connector, and the feeding of memories as new ones grow, have been passed along. Today Iacopi Farms is a 4th generation operation covering 165 acres growing English Peas, a few acres of artichokes for good measure, and beans, beans, beans. The beans fall into four main categories:
- Fresh, specifically, Romanos and Blue Lakes;
- Fresh Shelled ( beans are removed from the pod), specifically, Italian Butter Beans, Gigantes and Cranberries which can be eaten fresh or dried;
- Dried, (beans need to be pre-soaked), for instance, Cranberries, Manchurians and Prima Manteca , the latter rumored to be the “nearly gasless bean.”
- And Favas, fresh or dried.
One son, Mike, works alongside his dad; Lou’s grandchildren can be seen at his side at Bay Area Farmer’s Markets. Two other sons, Steve and Peter, have a secondary construction business, yet remain as deeply steeped in food and the love of legumes as their dad and brother.
The journey of the Iacopi family, begins in the early 1930’s when Lou’s father and three brothers arrived in California from Lucca, a beautiful, stone wall ringed medieval city in the heart of Tuscany. Settling in Pescadero, with its rich soils and ocean environment, the family worked the Cascade Ranch with other Italian immigrants. Lou’s dad was the farm’s cook, briefly returning to Italy in 1938 to bring his childhood sweetheart to America as his bride. Born in 1939, Lou attended Cal Poly, returning to join the family business. In the early 1960’s he started farming in Half Moon Bay.
For Lou, his legumes are all about location. “Everything benefits from the ocean. The salt air, fog, dew and rich soil produce a different flavor. You can taste it. You can see it. And you can feel it. The plants are happy. Happy plants make for happy eating. You don’t need much to make any bean taste great. Olive oil, vinegar, preferably red or balsamic, salt, pepper can usually be found in any home kitchen. My father brought the original seeds back from Italy. With each visit, he’d pack the seeds into his pockets. I guess they’re our own Heirlooms.”
Phil West, acclaimed owner of San Francisco’s Range restaurant, has enjoyed a long relationship with Lou. “Farming and restaurants are really in the same business,” Chef West explained. “We are inter-dependent. Lou has a passion about what he does. He’s still excited about his peas, his beans, his artichokes... Anyone that works the land needs to wake up every morning and love what they do; so does a chef.
“You can feel it when Lou talks about what he coaxes from the ground. Sometimes a grower won’t make the precise decision to harvest a given field until the very last moment. Lou keeps us apprised of not only what his fields yield, but when. This allows us to create dishes that offer flavors only available through the different stages of growth. The communication between grower and chef fosters nimbleness in the kitchen, creativity in what we offer on our menu, and keeps our customers excited.”
Global competition and the new era of surging societal demand to understand where our food comes from is seeing growers, farmers and ranchers adapting modern marketing practices . Farmers Markets are one avenue, with over 7,000 now operating across the United States, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2011 National Farmer’s Market Directory, and indicating the power of local demand and expanded opportunity for farmers to grow their businesses. The learning curve, however, is sometimes steep. Oftentimes isolated without internet service, limited cell phone access and without professional marketing assistance, a grower is often faced with having to go it alone.
Son Mike is proud of the family’s new line of dried beans. Re-allocating half the ranch’s acreage, Lou selected the very best beans for his oceanside “pocket of place.” Italian Butter Beans, Gigantes, Cranberries and Manchurians from Lou’s local fields are now available year round through Bay Area Farmer’s Markets.
Lou wants to share the memories he grew up with and that his sons carry with them. “Mom and Dad never had a lot of ingredients in the house, but we always had olive oil, garlic and tomatoes. You don’t need much more than this to create a lot of meals. Somehow the flavors come together.”
Somewhat embarrassed, I admitted that even after a day in the fields, I could not tell one plant from another. “They all look like string beans initially,” Lou told me. “Even the flowers look the same. The leaves might be a little different, but when the plants are young, all we see are fields of green. It’s only when the pods begin to blow up and mature that the plants change size, color and character. Like people, it’s the insides that count... I love the flavors, the diversity. It’s easy to feed a family a great meal with only a pound of legumes. They’re versatile, easy to prepare, and among the healthiest foods available.”
“We all have a passion for food,” Lou concluded. “We grew up with it. All it takes is a lot of loving. I love my life. I love what I do and always have. I would not exchange one day of it for anyone or anything.”
We have a secret for you, Lou. We wouldn’t exchange you either.