Preserving Heirloom Beans with Rancho Gordo

Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo
with a portrait made out of
beans  by Jason Mercier
Steve Sando with a portrait made out of beans

“My beans are bubbling over! Hold on one sec,” says Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo over Zoom. His enthusiasm for his own products is infectious and so obviously genuine that it will make you want to run home and cook up a hearty meal featuring Rancho Gordo’s heirloom beans, spices, and chile sauces. In fact, that enthusiasm is integral to his success. What Steve says began as a passion project has grown into something truly remarkable.

A love of discovery and good food isn’t the only thing that drives Steve in his mission. He actively preserves bean varieties that might otherwise be lost to the demands of Big Ag. He sources these indigenous, heirloom varieties directly from small farmers in Mexico in what he calls The Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project.

Pre-pandemic, Steve took regular trips from where he lives in Napa, California down to small farming towns in rural Mexico to meet with potential producers. Where our modern agricultural system values varieties which emphasize shelf stability, disease resistance, and yield, Steve was looking for two major characteristics that tend to be overlooked these days: flavor and texture. Commodity purchasers buy only a few, not-so-tasty varieties of beans at commercial rates, so small farmers are giving up crops they’ve been growing for generations to meet the demand. “When I say ‘I want your grandmother’s beans’ the farmers are shocked,” says Steve. “It’s a leap of faith for everybody. Not for me, because I know it’s worth it. But these small farms tend to have a mentality that to get so much per acre, you need this many pounds. But we tell them, we’re going to pay you twice as much as the commodity market for a smaller-yield, tastier crop. It’s secure. We are the market. They see the difference in their sales and they can’t believe it.”

 In one town in Hidalgo, his orders revived the local job market. When he had first been there, the men of the town had all accepted work elsewhere and only old women lived there full-time. When he went back after connecting them with his bean-loving customers, the streets were paved and people had returned home to do the work they love. These are jobs that preserve cultural and regional heritage.

How does Steve find these delicious, obscure varieties? “It’s mostly through traveling and coming home and not having access to certain foods,” he says. “With the beans I noticed no one’s doing this, which seemed insane, so I'll do it! For the New Mexican Chile Powder it was that the other chile powders I could find were not good. The Stardust Dipping Powder, same thing. It cakes a little, but it tastes like something. Basically I ask myself, what do I wanna see in my cabinet?”

At the heart of it all, whatever direction Steve moves, it’s all about people. “I’m so lucky. I have no ag background, I’m just in love with these things and I’m able to share them. And people get it.” Another mission that Steve stewards is inviting food-lovers into the rich history of appreciating beans. “So many people don’t know how to cook beans,” he says. “You have to help someone who doesn’t know. It’s all about in-person interaction, talking to people. I will say, the Instant Pot isn’t the best way to cook beans, but it is getting people to cook them!”

It can be a hard sell for many people who have only ever known access to a few bland bean varieties. “It goes from telling them, ‘you’re doing the wrong beans’ to ‘I promise you’ll turn this rock into something creamy.’ You have to know how to talk to everyone. Home cooking is really the way to go. It changes everything.”

Steve points to his time at the Ferry Building Farmers Market years ago as an important part of his outreach. And he was a few tents down from Farmer Al at the Frog Hollow booth! “Farmer Al would give me slices of peaches. I would go by several times in a market. I was rude!”

Frog Hollow and Rancho Gordo’s relationship continues to today. We are proud to carry quite a few Rancho Gordo products, which you can order to be delivered to your home. “There’s a level of product that I’m thrilled to be involved with. And I’m pretty picky," he says. "I’m thrilled we're involved with Frog Hollow Farm."

Images from Rancho Gordo's blog and Instagram.

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