FLORENCE — For about 10 years before his death, Tony Melton worked to find a heat-tolerant butter bean. This year, his labors will bear fruit, uh, rather, beans.
The beans, seven varieties of them, sprouted on about 16 acres at Clemson’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center just above the Darlington county line.
“This crop is looking fantastic right now,” Clemson’s Bruce McLean, area commercial horticulture officer for Pee Dee and surrounding counties, said in June.
“We have made a few changes to our planter. In the past we have had issues getting good support. We made a few minor changes and it worked like an absolute charm. We have what I would consider full support “, McLean said as he stood among the plants.
The plants are the product of about 10 years of breeding to bring out the desired traits and remove the undesirable ones.
“We can talk about a decade or more (of development time), even with an annual harvest like this,” McLean said.
That’s if the weather cooperates, which it has and hasn’t done this year.
“The harvest is a little late compared to previous years. Some of the weather variability we had earlier in the spring. It seemed like every time our soil reached an optimal temperature, a cold event would occur that would set us back,” McLean said. . “Unfortunately we had to wait a bit late. They like warm floors.”
The beans were finally planted in May on an irrigated field.
Late planting will give McLean and others at REC a good idea of the beans’ heat resistance.
“Because where we got a slightly late start it will realistically flower and set the pods just right in the summer heat and we will harvest in the summer heat,” he said. “That may push the harvest back a few weeks. Our harvest time may actually be mid-August. When we do our second planting, we may have a second planting before we have harvested our initial planting.”
“It will really give us a good idea of pod set, flowering, yield and overall potential in the height of summer,” McLean said.
The stand will produce four varieties of green/white lima beans and three varieties of speckled butter beans.
Beans will also face another challenge this year – one that comes with seasoned pork and cornbread.
“The thing is, we want to come and see how good he tastes. You can have the prettiest bean in the world, the highest yield in the world, and the highest heat tolerance in the world, but if it doesn’t taste good, what’s the point?” McLean says.
The plan is to bring some of them to full maturity, in a dry bean, to see how they hold up to taste as well.
Dried beans, he said, offer a seed source as well as a food source.
The quest for a heat-tolerant butter bean began when Melton noticed that the seeds farmers were getting weren’t as heat-tolerant as they had been in the past.
“A lot of it was where a lot of our bean seed production is grown on the West Coast,” McLean said of what Melton inferred. Because the seeds are produced in areas with low heat, natural selection has eliminated heat tolerance from the crop.
“We’re reintroducing a kind of heat tolerance back into a crop that we considered heat tolerant to begin with,” McLean said.
By breeding heat tolerance in the crop, McLean and Clemson researchers will produce a resilient crop that could be a boon to remote Pee Dee countries.
“Beans are a nutritional powerhouse,” McLean said. “It’s something that has so much potential to feed people. A lot of the work we’ve done has a global effect.”
While seeds could be ready for farmers next spring, McLean said the project is far from over.
“It’ll be an ongoing project for us. We still have a lot of work to do on that. We’re looking at a lot of work going forward. Maybe it’s something that we take quite a long way and pass on to the pass it on to the next group of people,” McLean said.
McLean said he hopes to name one of the bean varieties after Melton.
“We hope to be able to do at least one in his honor,” he said. “I have one or two in particular that I could see being called the Melton bean.”
“The varieties we have are looking really good so far,” McLean said. “Trying to clean up the seed. In a situation like this, we have a bit of a stray seed, some errant genetic material that’s still there and we’ll focus on cleaning that up in the next step.”
Next season, McLean said, Clemson will get bean help as it distributes seed to some farmers to see how well it performs in their fields.
“We know the crop works well, all seven varieties work well. A couple of them really stand out,” he said.