Mike Reeske spent 40 years immersed in science, teaching high school students, developing curriculum, and authoring books. He liked to experiment, not just in the lab but also with his classes. One year he taught gardening instead of life science, and found his students enjoyed the practical aspects more than abstract concepts and loved growing their own food.
Today, at 73, he is a farmer, a path he did not anticipate taking when he looked forward to retirement. He and his wife Chris own Rio del Rey Beans in Valley Center, and they grow many varieties of organic heirloom beans that have found a niche market.
“What else do you do when you retire?” he asks, laughing. “I was a teacher forever, which was demanding and stressful.”
A magazine article about heirloom beans prompted him to order some from Native Seeds in Tucson, Arizona and plant them. They were meaty and flavorful, and tasted much better than all the beans he had tried before, so he ordered more the next year and planted it in a larger area. That’s when he realized there could be a market for them, and that no one else was growing them in the region.
He had some experience growing vegetables in his backyard, and had been around his parents’ orange grove while growing up, but he didn’t have a lot of exposure to farming. His parents were actually restaurateurs in Anaheim. But Chris does come from a farming background, so when he decided he wanted to grow beans, she supported his venture.
Reeske approached it strategically, bringing himself up to speed and understanding the business really well before he dove in. Heirloom beans are different from blander commodity beans in that they are open-pollinated seeds, so while yield is lower, you get the exact same bean that is flavorful with unique texture.
He decided on sustainable organic farming, making a commitment to soil health, biodiversity, and holistic management practices.
Beans are different from other produce in that they don’t need to be picked or delivered daily, because they’re not fresh produce. He started with three kinds of heirlooms, Anasazi, Mayocoba and pinto, planting an acre of each in Pauma Valley in 2013, on land he leased from the Pauma Indian Tribe near the San Luis Rey River. The river influenced his choice of a name for the farm.
Once his initial planting did well, he expanded acreage, also planting melons, zucchini and squash. Last year, he moved the farm to Valley Center where he has lived for 30 years, leasing 9 acres from the school district. He employs five people to help with planting and operations, and grows about 17 varieties of heirloom beans.
Niche market customers
Chris helps him pick the beans, sort, clean and package them, and they travel to farmers’ markets together. He takes care of sales, marketing and the books. A good portion of his sales are online. People come across his beans at the market or when someone gifts them a bag, and they track it down online and order directly from him.
Selling direct to restaurants and grocery stores is another avenue for revenue. He collaborates with chefs in San Diego, from reputed eateries such as Cucina Urbana in Banker’s Hill, Fireside in Liberty Station, and Ironside Fish & Oyster in Little Italy.
“We had 17 chefs here in October, trying different beans,” Reeske says. “We invite chefs and have them sample new beans we are growing.”
Rio del Rey beans are also sold at the Cardiff Seaside Market, and Major Market in Fallbrook and Escondido. Vegetarians and those looking for flavorful food seek them out, because they’re different from the common varieties that have been packed and stored for several years, when they tend to lose much of their flavor.
“Common beans are grown and sold in tons, while I grow 25 to 50 bags at a time,” Reeske points out.
He grows a small red bean from Kashmir in India, another from Honduras, and tepary beans from Mexico. “Tepary beans are foolproof, there’s one rainfall and boom, up comes this bean. It’s very productive, you get a lot of beans from one plant,” he says. Tepary beans are also hardier than other types. Two years in a row, Reekse lost about 40 percent of his bean crop to the heat, but the tepary beans love heat and don’t need much water.
He is collaborating with ag researchers at the University of California, Davis to breed it with several common variety beans, to generate drought tolerance in the common beans. Steve Temple at UC Davis is a bean expert, and Reeske will grow and sell two types of beans that he bred up north.
As part of his sustainable farming practice, instead of ploughing the fields after harvest, he puts in a cover crop of winter fava beans.
“Beans put nitrogen in the soil as they grow, so we don’t have to put in a lot of organic fertilizers which are quite expensive,” he explains. “This is crop rotation strategy people have known forever. We try to add to it, and restore the soil as we go along here.”
Mosaic virus is a common threat for heirloom beans, and a majority of them have it, which affects productivity. There are no sprays or biological controls for the virus. So Reeske got involved in a research project to breed heirlooms that had the virus with a smaller type of common white bean, to get a resistant variety. He did this six times before he succeeded in getting a resistant variety that also had the characteristics of the original heirloom bean.
Husband and wife team
Mike Reeske’s wife Chris says the best part of growing beans is getting to eat them. “I have had beans all my life, but these are amazing in their flavor and variety,” she says.
When they were sorting through their first group of beans, they found a cross between Rio Zape and Anasazi, and it stayed true when it was planted, without reverting back to its parent plant’s characteristics. This year marks the first year of significant production for this combination bean, and it looks different from all the other types of beans, so she calls it Anazapi.
How do people react when she tells them they grow heirloom beans?
“Most of them are surprised. Most don’t know what heirloom means, although other farmers understand dry beans. We are the only one here growing organic, dry, heirloom,” Chris says. “It has turned out to be a great crop. We can store it, so we don’t have to rush to market daily like with fresh vegetables.”
The path forward
For Mike Reeske, a lifetime spent teaching may have been busy and tiring on a daily basis, but farming has its challenges as well.
“You’re up against Mother Nature and you work from season to season, and see what’s going to happen,” Reeske says. “Sooner than later, I’ll pass this on to someone else and they’ll move right ahead. There’s so much potential since no one else grows organic heirloom beans in the county.”
Seeing his work come to fruition, and harvesting beans that taste good is the best reward, he says. “There’s no guarantee it will even taste good, so when it works out, it’s very rewarding.”
This article was contributed by the San Diego Farm Bureau. The San Diego County Farm Bureau is a non-profit organization supported solely by more than 2,000 dues-paying members. There are 53 county Farm Bureaus in California. Established in 1914, the San Diego County Farm Bureau serves the needs of the San Diego agriculture community.