The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Green Bean Venture

By Boyd S. Ray © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

He was just a curious man, my Daddy, Joe T. Ray. He managed to have a lot of information coming in to him, some useful, some not. This effort was aided in great measure by the very big book, the Thomas's Register, which was around our house for as long as I can remember. The copy Daddy had must have been printed in the early 1920s. It was a single book ten inches thick and contained the names, addresses and type of activity of about every manufacturer, fabricator, supplier, stocker, broker, dealer and wholesaler in business in the Unites States at that time. Whenever Daddy wanted to know who made what, where an article could be bought or who could ship a product, he would write the address given in the big book. Soon back came the information requested, information he could use in figuring whether a venture would pay off, what it would cost to get into a certain business, or what the general scope of the market was and its potential.

He also used government reports to secure information. Whatever he could get for free he ordered - for instances, government daily reports of the price of fresh vegetables sold on the large terminal markets in the eastern part of the country places like New York City, Washington, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Nashville. In this way he kept up with the price of potatoes, onions, cabbage, beans, et cetera on a daily basis.

Daddy had stationery printed showing him to be a dealer in many items, from curly maple lumber to sassafras oil. No doubt the letter with that letterhead typed on his old fashioned Remington typewriter, helped him get a lot of attention, information and answers he wanted. He was an entrepreneur of the old school, using common sense and a lot of guts to take a risk.

On this particular morning in late June, 1935, Daddy and I had spent a few hours picking the green beans we had grown in the garden. Like most families in town during that time, we grew in the garden about all we ate. The early green beans were ready to pick for Mama to can. We had two short rows about thirty feet long, from which we had picked two bushels of nice tender green beans.

Later Daddy walked down the street to the post office to get the mail. Back then the mail was not delivered in town, only on the rural routes. We had to go after our mail. He brought it home and we sat on the front porch while he opened the various letters, most in answer to some previous inquiry.

When he opened the market reports and scanned over the prices of the various vegetables, he exclaimed, "Why look here! Beans are bringing two dollars and a half a bushel in Cincinnati, beans just like we picked this morning. Now what do you think of that? Two dollars and a half a bushel, and we got two bushels off of two short rows." He immediately got out the short pencil he kept clipped in his shirt pocket, turned over an envelope, on which he usually figured, and began to figure. In a few minutes he looked up and exclaimed again, "Why at that rate we could get rich on just a few acres of beans!"

Daddy was not a man to think in terms of only one or two, or even a few dozen. He always expanded to terms of truck loads or rail car loads - never in terms of an acre, but in terms of fields of many acres. His philosophy was if it was worth going for, you might as well go for enough to make it really worthwhile.

He had come up with the figures that showed an acre to be two hundred and eight feet square. With rows two feet apart you could get one hundred rows per acre. And using the yield we got in the garden, he figured at least three bushels per row, which came out to be three hundred bushels per acre. And at two dollars and a half per bushel a gross return of seven hundred fifty dollars an acre. At that time, in our part of the country, you could buy a good farm for about one hundred dollars per acre, buildings and all.

He went back to the short pencil and the back of the envelope. Soon he determined that it took about fifty-five or sixty days for those beans to mature, if we hurried, we could get a crop planted in time for harvest before early frost in September.

At that time our family did not own any land except the town lot on which the house stood. He got up and walked out to the courthouse which was the center of activity and information in town. The Chairman of the County Court, Mr. Will Chapell, a respected man and a farmer, would know if there was any land that could be rented right now. Mr. Chapell said to Daddy, "Why yes, Joe, I have just cut the wheat off of eight acres of good level land on my farm just two miles down the road and have no plans for it the rest of the year. What do you plan to plant this time of year?"

"Green beans," Daddy said.

"You mean you intend to plant eight acres of green beans this time of year?"

"I sure do, if you will rent me the land right now so I can get started real quick."

"Well, I never heard of such a thing. How much will you pay in rent per acre?"

"Twenty dollars per acre."

"Twenty dollars per acre!" Mr. Chapell exclaimed. In 1935 twenty dollars rent per acre was unheard of, and he knew what land was selling for at that time.

"That is," Daddy said, "if you will wait till I sell the crop to get your pay." Daddy didn't have a hundred and sixty dollars to pay down. This was in the middle of the Great Depression and nobody much had any money. Mr. Chapell knew he had mighty little to lose in that deal, and he knew that one hundred sixty dollars was a lot of money as rent for eight acres for less than a year.

"Well, I reckon we have just made a deal." said Mr. Chapell.

"Fine," said Daddy. They shook hands to seal the agreement.

Since Daddy didn't own any farm land he didn't own any horses or farm equipment. But he had a friend who lived just at the edge of town, Mr. Arthur Nichols, who did. Daddy explained what he wanted, offered a deal, and Mr. Nichols took his team and plowed the field. It took about ten days, since one team could only plow about an acre a day. Then the ground had to be worked down and got ready to plant. He was ready to plant by the second week in July.

Nobody in that part of the country had ever heard of a bean planter since nobody ever planted more than a few rows in the garden. But time was of the essence and Daddy had to get those beans in the ground or risk losing it all to an early frost. Mr. Nichols did have an old horse drawn wheat drill. This machine drilled the seed through holes about seven inches apart, and let the fertilizer in at the same time through a different hole. The two men reasoned that if they plugged up every two holes in this machine they could plant three rows of beans at one round with this equipment. They took a corncob and plugged up every two holes. This let the beans out in the row about four or five inches apart, made the rows about twenty-one inches apart. This was good enough to take a chance.

At that point it became my turn to get in the act. Mr. Nichols had a son, Ross, about my age of 17, who knew how to handle the horses, and I was to help him in carrying the seed and fertilizer and drive the horses. We had been friends for years and got along fine in this new adventure. Our orders were to keep the drill going till the beans got planted.

Finding the seed to plant eight acres at one time was a job, since nobody in the county had ever planted that many beans at one time before. Daddy again went to one of his friends, Mr. Arthur Potter, who operated a large country store and was a man who got things done.

"Do you mean to tell me you intend to plant eight acres of green beans at one time, right away?" he asked Daddy.

"I sure do, and I need you to do your best to get me the seed quick."

"Well, I'll call right now and see if they have them in stock." Mr. Potter confirmed they were in stock down near where the vegetable canneries were located below Knoxville, and could be delivered here in Mountain City, Tennessee in three days. That was soon enough. In a few days the beans were planted. Now to wait for the rains to see what kind of stand we got.

After the beans started growing it was customary to hoe or cultivate to take out the weeds. But these beans were growing so rank and close together it was not necessary to do this. Thus the field was not gone into till time to pick.

The early part of September I left to go to school at Mars Hill College in North Carolina and didn't get in on the picking that year. Again Daddy used his mail ordered information to help him locate buyers for the beans. He wrote several brokerage houses in several large cities to see if they would handle the beans. A buyer who worked the Charlotte, North Carolina market heard about the beans and drove up to check out the possibilities.

This was the first time a large field of beans had ever been grown in Johnson County, Tennessee. Thus no buyer or processor had ever been here to buy beans. This was the first outsider' to see the quality of beans grown in the fertile mountain land and high altitude. He was amazed. They were long, straight, clean, beautiful beans of excellent quality. Daddy, Mr. Nichols and Mr. Potter were surprised at his reaction because they had been used to this quality of beans all their lives. The buyer assured Daddy he would buy the beans when they were ready to pick. No price was set then.

To get that many beans picked at one time was a big undertaking, but it had to be done. Daddy went to Mr. Potter and Mr. Hammonds, who also ran a large country store. He told them the exact day he would pick beans. They were to get the word out that Daddy would have a truck there to haul the pickers to the field that morning and back home that night. This was in the middle of the Great Depression and most wanted desperately to work to make some money. Jobs to make just a little cash were welcome and sought after by most people. There were no government programs, no food stamps, just a few commodities given out. Times were tough and people wanted to work. They filled the trucks with men, women and children.

During those years if a man could find a job for a dollar a day he was lucky. And most people considered a dollar a fair wage for a fair day's work. So Daddy set the price at ten cents a bushel, because a good picker could pick ten bushels or more per day.

The beans got picked. Families worked together. Taking two rows for each person with the smaller children sharing a row, they helped each other.

Young men would carry empty baskets out to the pickers and carry the full baskets back to the scales to be weighed. For each hamper full the picker got a coupon to be turned in at the end of the day for cash pay. It was a sight to behold: scores of people lined out across a field, dressed in different colors, wearing different shaped hats to ward off the hot sun. The workers enjoyed each other's company and were glad for a chance to work and earn some money for the family needs. However, it was hard work. You got wet and muddy, hot and tired. Your back ached and your knees hurt.

The buyer from Charlotte returned with sacks and hampers he wanted the beans put in for his handling and resale. He and Daddy got together to agree on a price to be paid per bushel, delivered to his truck there in the field. Now if you have never dealt with a produce buyer you have never seen the capitalistic system operate at its worst. The buyers will do all they can to get your product as cheap as possible regardless of the actual worth. Daddy had this figured before they ever started talking. The buyer said, "Now Mr. Ray, you have some pretty good beans here, in fact an awful lot of beans to get rid of. The price has gone down since I was here last. It looks like a dollar a bushel is all I can pay for these beans." The buyer had no idea Daddy knew anything about the price on the large terminal markets. Daddy looked him square in the eyes and said, "Now I know from government market reports that the price of beans in Cincinnati today is two dollars and seventy-five cents a bushel. If you don't want to pay that, I will load these beans on these trucks and send them to Cincinnati tonight."

"Even if you got that price of two seventy-five at Cincinnati, you would have to pay a commission and a haul bill."

"Well, that would beat your offer of a dollar."

"Then have you thought of the price going down by the time you got there?"

"Yes, but that doesn't bother me. I talked with my broker this morning and he told me beans were scarce and thought the price would hold for several days."

"You know you could have a wreck and lose the whole load."

"Yeah, and I could get there and the price could go up."

By then the buyer was too nervous to argue more. "Why don't we quit this dancing around and get down to business?" He got out his pad and pencil and started figuring. "Now look here, take $2.75 less a haul bill is $2.25. Then take out a commission of 25¢ and that leaves $2.00. Then take out insurance and chances of a wreck and that leaves $1.50. That's what I'll give you for the beans."

"You know! I appreciate you coming up here and looking, and for your interest in my welfare, but if you can't make that $1.75 I'll start these boys loading the trucks," Daddy said.

"O.K., we've made a deal." said the buyer as he started pulling his sacks off his truck. This was a fair price for the beans, where they were at the time, and the buyer and Daddy both knew it.

I remember Daddy writing me at school that in 55 days after planting he had $1050 in his pocket and was still picking beans. That was a lot of money in those days.

The next year Daddy rented the same eight acres from Mr. Chapell, plus another field of six acres and planted fourteen acres. Mr. Nichols and Mr. Potter both men to see a good thing, planted a few acres each.

From eight acres in 1935 an industry grew up in Johnson County. The local farmers all needing cash, started planting beans. The family members and school kids picked them. There were no manufacturing plants of any kind in the county at that time, and people were glad for the work. Soon an auction was opened and regular sales started. Buyers came from all over the country. The quality was the best to be found. People began to make a little money. By the year 1947 there were beans sold on the auction market in Mountain City from over five thousand acres. This represented an average of about one and a half million bushels, which sold for an average of about three million dollars.

I like to think that Daddy's curiosity together with his use of that big book, helped bring it all about. In any event, it's not a bad deal to come from resting on the front porch while reading the market reports after picking beans from the garden on a hot summer day.

Editor's Note: See the companion story, Puttin' On A Little Weight, in the Summer, 1996 issue.