Bean business is a snap Timing: That's a big concern if you're a canner, and if you're a big canner the grower will time and otherwise fit the crop to your needs.

October 12, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

If you buy more than 9 million pounds of green beans from a farmer, you get more than just green beans.

You get exactly the kind of green beans you want, on exactly the day you want them.

In exchange for a guaranteed price, canning plants tell farmers such as the Lippy brothers of Carroll County what variety to plant, what day to sow the seeds, what day to harvest and even what time to deliver. In most cases, the company even provides the seed.

Vegetable farmers have contracted with canning and freezing plants for decades, but now chicken and hog farmers also do it, as well as those raising specialty crops such as for gourmet or organic foods.

"The old days of saying, 'I'm going to plant wheat and barley in the fall and corn and soybeans in the spring, and take it to the harvest-time market, and that's what I do year after year' -- those days are coming to an end fast," said Tony Evans, a marketing spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "When you do that, you become a price taker, and not a price maker."

The Sept. 30 green bean harvest by Lippy Brothers Inc. was timed to the Hanover Foods canning plant schedule. Since May, and through last week, about seven truckloads of beans a day arrived as the plant operated round the clock to accommodate the seasonal rush.

The Lippy brothers say contracting with a producer is the safest way for them to go. Raising vegetables to sell fresh after harvest can be risky.

"If you're early, you make a killing," Donald Lippy said. "If you're late when everyone else has them, you sell them cheap."

"In order to have consistent, high quality, we wanted to be involved from the farmer's gate to the consumer's plate," said Gary Knisely, spokesman for Hanover Foods Corp., which cans and freezes the green beans grown by Lippy Brothers and numerous other growers along the Eastern seaboard.

Farmers have to compete to get these contracts, and companies insist on dependability, Evans said.

"A plant like Hanover Foods is not going to work with some Johnny-come-lately who says, 'Gee, I'm sorry. These tomatoes aren't ready this week. Maybe next week,' " Evans said.

"Our goal is to have the green bean here literally hours after it's harvested," Knisely said.

"Forty years we've been growing green beans for Hanover. Haven't missed a year yet," said T. Edward Lippy, who with brothers Donald and Joe owns Lippy Brothers Inc. For the past three years, Ed Lippy has served on the Hanover board of directors.

The bean harvest is an example of agriculture on a grand scale, but operating in a small window of opportunity and with rigorous standards. The beans are processed hours after they're picked, and on grocery store shelves as early as two weeks after harvest, said Knisely.

Customer tastes affect what varieties are grown. The snap beans of today aren't called string beans anymore, because the string has been selected out of them.

"They want it to snap clean," said Donald Lippy.

One of the largest in the state, Lippy Brothers farms 8,700 acres in Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties, as well as in York County, Pa. The operation grew 1,620 acres of snap beans this year, mostly for Hanover and some for Seabrook Brothers and Sons in New Jersey, for freezing and canning. They also grow peas and lima beans for Hanover.

The beans picked on the last day of the harvest were planted Aug. 3, Donald Lippy said after a check in the record books. A green bean should be picked 52 to 60 days after planting, he said. During those two months, a field representative from Hanover stays in touch with the Lippys, monitors the beans' progress and does the same with other bean growers in the area.

The growers had all been told when to plant by Hanover, so that the beans arrived in a steady stream throughout the summer.

"If everybody would just go planting, we'd all be in there at the same time," Donald Lippy said.

When the field representative says it's time to harvest, the Lippy crews rev up the school-bus yellow machines that are built for that one job.

Home gardeners tenderly pluck beans one by one off staked vines. But that won't work with 1,620 acres of the plants and a window of a few days in which they are at their peak.

Lippy's workers drive giant bean harvesters, moving about 2 miles per hour, inching their way up wide rows of knee-high plants. They look like they would flatten a field of beans, and they do, but only after a series of rollers in the front methodically retrieve the product -- the bean itself.

The beans, amazingly intact and unbruised, fill up a cart behind the harvester and then are dumped into a tractor-trailer. When the trailer is full, a driver takes it 15 miles up Route 30 to Hanover's canning plant, where the beans are processed within hours. This time of year, the plant operates 24 hours a day to handle the green bean season.

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