Love them or hate them, lima beans could be key to climate resilient crop

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On a misty, spring day in May, about a dozen volunteers gathered at Plowshare Farms in Pipersville, Pennsylvania to sow different varieties of lima beans.

Farmer Teddy Moynihan handed over the seeds to volunteers — some shades of white, pinkish brown, and some speckled as the crew planted them down a long, brown field.

Moynihan said he’s grown green beans, garbanzo beans, and heirloom dry beans, but he’s never had much success with lima beans.

“I think most people only know limas as being the big, frozen, green bean, and they’re much more than that,” he said. “So, we are hoping to not only see what varieties grow best here, but also see what varieties taste the best.”

This new planting is an experiment. It’s part of a four-year research project out of the University of California, Davis — that spans seven institutions in six states including Delaware Valley University, in Doylestown, and the University of Delaware. Scientists, producers, chefs, and small-scale farmers like Moynihan — all collaborate to unlock the genetic and consumer potential of lima beans in the U.S.

Researchers on the project say lima beans are more resistant to climate stressors, including heat, drought, or high moisture than the more popular common beans like string beans, pinto beans, and navy beans.

Faith Moynihan of Plowshare Farms in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, holds a handful of speckled lima beans. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

“We don’t just think about climate change. We experience climate change out here,” Moynihan said.

He and his wife, Faith, started Plowshare Farms about 10 years ago. They raise chickens, pigs, berries, and vegetables that they sell to restaurants in Philadelphia.

Moynihan says he got into farming because he wanted to eat more locally and grow food in a sustainable way.

“And it would in some tiny, infinitesimal way mitigate climate change. But the irony is that we are a very susceptible industry to climate change.”

Since he’s been farming, Moynihan says he’s seen hotter temperatures, drier seasons, and earlier frosts.

Farmer Teddy Moynihan started Plowshare Farms in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, 10 years ago with his wife, Faith. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

A ‘climate smart crop’

Research scientist Sarah Dohle traveled from Washington state to help with the planting. Although she admits she never cared much for lima beans growing up, today, she may be their biggest champion.

Dohle’s job is phaseolus curator or bean curator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She’s in charge of making sure the department’s seed collection is safe, growing, and distributed to researchers around the world. She even carries a purse that has “Bean Queen” embroidered on it.

Dohle calls lima beans a “climate smart crop.”

“Wild lima beans have adapted to grow in hotter, drier, wetter, colder, more stressful climates than wild common bean,” said Dohle. “And so, we think that lima bean cultivated types that we grow could also be more stress tolerant. So, lima beans potentially can grow in environments that common beans can’t grow in.”

Wild lima beans naturally grow in Central and South America. They have robust root systems that can go deeper than other plants and so in times of drought they can still access water and nutrients in the soil. Like other legumes, lima beans are nitrogen fixing — they can build their own plant food — and are a good rotation crop for the soil.

  • November 20, 2023
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