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The Global Politics of FoodA Bean of a Different Color

Larry Proctor and the Enola Bean
Meet bean person No. 1: Larry Proctor, in jeans, western shirt, and red beard, nodding to a sign by his scalehouse—"Red Beard Beans." We're on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies, in a stunning valley framed by the San Juans, the Raggeds, and Needle Rock. "The house due to the east of us here is the house that I was raised at and the farm that I grew up on," says Proctor. The mountains to the northeast of us hide the town of aspen.

From the southeast, the Gunnison River runs down Black Canyon and into irrigation canals to water this hard, rocky valley, and its rows of corn and peas, onions, and beans. It is in this place, a few miles away, that Larry Proctor began work on what he calls a new invention.

In Mexico a while back, Larry Proctor bought a bag of beans at a local market. Some of them were beans he'd never seen before: creamy color, with a yellowish tint. He was curious. So he brought them over to his friend Harold, a retired dairyman whose home sat on a piece of land far from other bean fields—so that the two men could try out an idea, without fear of cross-pollination from other plants.

Proctor points to where they planted the yellow beans and says, "We planted them here because, at that time, none of the farm ground in this area here grew beans." They laid the seeds in the earth, and began to watch, generation after generation, selecting each time for ever-yellower colors. With each generation, Proctor says, the roots ran deeper than other bean plants; the pods were more hardy, more resistant to moisture.

"Every day [Harold would] call up and say, 'Well this one's flowering, that one's flowering. Man, those are mondo leaves!' Every day. And he'd say 'Come over!' " Proctor explains. "I started getting the idea that there was something going on, and that there might be something worthwhile out of our basically playing. And eventually, kind of like a light, it just kind of dawned."

This was special, Proctor thought, and he wanted to protect it. So he applied for and got a plant variety protection certificate from the USDA, which gave his family-run company exclusive rights to multiply the new creation: the Enola bean, after his wife's middle name. Then he went a step further, to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, to apply for a patent for his new invention. This would prevent others from developing any new beans based on the Enola. And, he thought, it would give hurting farmers in this valley a chance to grow beans that could fetch a better price. In 1999, the government awarded the patent to Proctor's company. The basis of the patent? Its color.

NEXT: Martin Robles and the Mayacoba >>