California bean start-up eyes possibilities in the Basin

Posted 5/13/21

Beans are nothing new to the Big Horn Basin, but a start-up is looking to grow new types of beans in the area.

Primary Beans was founded in the Bay Area last year by Lesley Sykes and her sister, …

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California bean start-up eyes possibilities in the Basin


Beans are nothing new to the Big Horn Basin, but a start-up is looking to grow new types of beans in the area.

Primary Beans was founded in the Bay Area last year by Lesley Sykes and her sister, Renee. They have been working with the Powell Research and Extension Center to figure out how varieties of beans grow in the Basin. Weather mishaps last year aside, the results so far have been good. It may open an opportunity for area producers. 


Elevating the bean

The two sisters grew up in southern Arizona and “got exposed to regular bean eating pretty early on, just given the implements of northern Mexican cuisine,” Lesley Sykes said. 

In her 20s, Sykes did a lot of traveling throughout Europe, South and Central America, and Morocco. Beans were a staple in much of the cuisine she tried in the places she visited, whereas back home in the states, they weren’t that prominent. 

Sykes saw an opportunity, she said, to “elevate the dry bean to the level I’ve seen in other places.”

Primary Beans came out of that idea. The goal of the company is to sell beans direct to the consumer, with field-to-pantry transparency. The beans are sold in bags that are labeled with the harvest location and date, as beans start to lose flavor after a couple years on the shelf. 

“There’s a freshness component to them, where they lose moisture over time,” Sykes explained. 

The sisters also want to inspire cooking confidence so people get the most out of their beans. On their website, the Sykes provide a lot of cooking tips and recipes. They also dispel some misconceptions about beans. A big one is the belief that beans need to be soaked; in fact, pre-soaking only marginally reduces cooking time 

“There’s a lot of bean myths out there,” Sykes said. 

The website also contains information on why beans are known as the musical fruit — and how that well-known side effect diminishes as the body becomes accustomed to the high-fiber staple.


Bean research 

There were a few challenges to getting the business off the ground. Sykes had a background in fresh produce, she said, but when it came to bean growing, she was starting from ground zero. She started researching how beans are produced and where they’re grown. 

She reached out to bean-growing associations and knowledgeable people in academia. Word of mouth eventually led her to the Powell Research and Extension Center (PREC) and its director, Jim Heitholt.

She also connected with the Powell Economic Partnership and took one of their agricultural tours. Sykes said she learned a lot from the tour in terms of how farmers use the data from PREC in deciding on new crops.  

The center, which is under the umbrella of the University of Wyoming, performs research into a lot of different crops grown in the Basin, as well as niche crops; those plant trials benefit area producers with data on what will produce good results. 

Farmers work on such slim margins that there isn’t a lot of room for experimentation on a farm. Before they put a lot of money into something new, whether it’s a new method or a new variety, they need to know it’s not going to be a waste of time and money. 

Heitholt helped the Sykes sisters set up a trial for two French beans, michelet and flageolet, the seeds of which came from a French seed company. These varieties had never been grown in the U.S. before.

Michelet is a mid-sized white bean with a soft, creamy texture and a mild, nutty flavor. Flageolet are small, pale-green beans. They have a mild, delicate flavor that is reminiscent of navy beans.

Also planted in the trials were cranberry beans and some white kidney beans. 

Last September there was an unexpected freeze that wiped out the flageolet trial, but they did manage to harvest the other three varieties, which are now being sold in Primary Beans’ online store.

Since there was unprecedented warmth prior to the frost, Sykes said beans were more mature than normal. So the frost wasn’t as bad as it could have been. 

“That did prove very promising, despite the damage,” Sykes said. 

Bringing the crop from trial to farms is a long process with several moving parts. As a direct-to-consumer company, Primary Beans still has to get the word out and try to identify markets where demand exists and can grow. Along with valuable data from PREC, the company hopes to be able to get producers in the Basin on board; Sykes said that’s still a couple years away. 

Sykes said culinary authorities in mainstream publications and cookbook authors are taking an interest in these niche beans, and the demand for beans will grow. 

“So far, so good,” Sykes said. 

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