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."

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