Remembering local farmer Richard Bean

Richard Bean. Photo: Ashley Twiggs Richard Bean. Photo: Ashley Twiggs

Eleven years ago, in the spring, my friend Leslie told me she was going to an organic farm to interview for a job. She’d seen a flyer at Integral Yoga. Did I want to come too and maybe work with her?

I asked how much it paid. Five bucks an hour, she said. I laughed and said no thanks, but I’d come along for the ride.

We drove deep into Nelson County. At Double H Farm, Jean Rinaldi greeted us and took us out to the middle of a huge vegetable patch to meet her partner, Richard Bean.

I still remember Richard, sitting on the seat of his Gator on that warm day, sizing us up from under his hat brim. Somehow, by the end of our brief conversation, Leslie and I had both gotten hired. We reported for our first day of work. From 7am until noon, we hoed weeds. Richard gave us an hour for lunch and we laid in the shade. Then we hoed again until 4pm, and went home, barely able to stand up straight.

Having passed this test, we stayed and worked all summer. Richard had us plant cabbage, harvest parsley, and tie tomato plants. We picked tomatoes, too, filling big plastic lugs and then hoofing them up the hill to the barn. We washed kale and packed produce boxes full of beets and lettuce.

The farm was a magical place, redolent of pigs, rotting Brandywines, and fresh, bushy basil. Tomato plants tarred my fingers and red clay painted my clothes. Richard was at the center of it—a looming figure in clogs and button-up shirts, with a loud voice that could be gruff or merry, depending. He was a butcher and a farmer and a onetime grocer. He’d spent his life feeding people. He had white hair, a brassy face, and a belt buckle shaped like a pig.

I fell hard for farming, and Richard was my guide. He drilled me on the importance of soil, and drove me around the fields on the Gator, delivering mini-lectures on nematodes or nitrogen. Over the next few years, as I became a bigger part of the farm—working the Double H table at the Nelson farmer’s market—he kept on schooling me, in his peculiar, blustery way: half-teasing, half-challenging.

My boyfriend and I built the kind of friendship with Jean and Richard that people call “unlikely.” We were new to Virginia then, and their kindness was intertwined with the way we learned to feel at home here. It happened on a cellular level, as we sat at their table, eating the food they’d raised; or at home, as I scrubbed the Double H clay off my skin.

Our friendship wasn’t always comfortable. Richard had strong opinions and zero political correctness. He wasn’t exactly a man of contradictions, but he was a one-of-a-kind collage. As a young man, he’d learned Farsi in order to serve in the Peace Corps in Iran. He was an expert hog farmer, a dyed-in-the-wool organic grower who planted veggies by the moon, and an old-school Yankee libertarian—a self-styled “radical.”

He believed in tough love and disciplining your kids, and a kind of generosity defined by personal responsibility. After Hurricane Katrina, he and Jean jumped in their trademark yellow van and headed for the Gulf Coast to help anyone they could. As for me and my boyfriend, now my husband, Richard was a father figure. He encouraged our attempts at self-sufficiency, rolled his eyes at us, and told us he was proud of us. He loved to introduce me as his “original slave.”

Sitting behind a farmer’s market table with Richard—as I have done many times over the years—it quickly became clear that many people saw him as a cornerstone of local farming. They came with questions and left with more answers than they’d bargained for. “There’s room for everyone,” I often heard Richard say, referring to the proliferation of small farms. Though Double H outlasted many of those operations—lots of them founded by the young and naïve—Richard encouraged anyone he thought was worth a damn. And he worked for years to make it easier for small farms to survive in the world of big ag.

In 2007, Richard and Jean were both arrested for slaughtering their own pigs instead of taking them to a federally-inspected facility. The case became national news. Richard told The Washington Post he was ready to go to jail. That didn’t happen, but the episode made clear how serious the small farm question is, and the depth of Richard’s commitment to it.

Richard’s son David recently told me that the last chapter of his father’s life—the 16 or so years he spent living and farming in Virginia—was his favorite. It was a roller coaster, with farm workers coming and going, legal troubles, and several tough years of battling cancer. But his accomplishments during that time were enormous. He built a business, brought a family from Armenia to partner with him and Jean, and carved a muddy hillside into a farm that positively vibrated with the goodness of real food. And he assembled a family of friends: chefs, growers, healers, and eaters.

Richard died on November 27, the day before the great American feast day, Thanksgiving. He was 69.

He comes to my mind at odd moments. I felt a fleeting shock when I thought of next summer’s solstice, and Richard not being here for it. Or stepping into our greenhouse to pick winter lettuce, and realizing we probably wouldn’t even be growing lettuce in the winter had Richard not loaned me that Eliot Coleman book back in 2003.

This place won’t taste nearly as good without him.

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