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The Global Politics of FoodA Bean of a Different Color

Martin Robles and the Mayacoba
Twelve hundred miles to the south, meet bean person No. 2.

Martin Robles is an agronomist who works with a bean cooperative in Los Mochis, near Tobolabampo and the Sea of Cortez. We stand on the soil of the Rio Fuerte valley, good land for beans, watered by the rivers of the Sierra Madre. Martin explains his surroundings: "Right now we are seeing here a lot of different kinds of beans. Some alluvial beans, some canario beans, some asufrado beans, grown for tests…"

All around us are men with clipboards and baseball caps, fingering leaves, crouching in front of seed pods. "This is campo experimental, experimental field, there are some agronomists working here all the time, doing research and trying to improve the characteristics of the crop," says Robles. It is here, Robles says, that Mexican breeders came up with their own new life form. He says the beans have been around. Years ago, archeologists discovered yellow beans in a cave in the Peruvian Andes and dated them back at least four millennia to before the Incas. Thousands of years later, Mexican agronomists crossed two yellow-tinted varieties and came up with the modern version of the yellow bean. This was back in 1978. They called it mayacoba, after a nearby village in Sinaloa state. Mayacobas have been coming out of this valley, thousands of tons worth, ever since.

Robles says, "It's ironic that people here developed that variety of beans, that they actually have a name, mayacoba beans, for the community that first grow them. Some researchers here devoted many years to do research and experiments. And in two or three years, someone claimed them as their own invention."

Rebecca Gilliland: A Bean Entrepreneur Shut Down
All this brings us to bean person No. 3 and her Nogales warehouse, buzzing with forklifts carting not beans but fresh produce, from semi-trailer to drive-in cooler. If Rebecca Gilliland had her way, the coolers wouldn't even be running. This warehouse would be choked with bags of yellow beans. Instead?

Gilliland says, "We have eggplants, we have roma tomatoes, we have cucumbers, we have pickles..." But not a hill of beans in sight. In the early '90s, Gilliland retired as a small oil producer in California and came to Arizona, wanting to do something at the onset of the North American Free Trade Agreement. She traded produce for a couple of years, but all the time kept thinking of the yellow beans she ate as a child, two hundred miles to the south, in Obregon, Mexico.

"In 1994 I was missing, here in the United States, the beans they've been eating in Mexico," says Gilliland, "the one I grew up with, the peruano mayacoba. It's very, very delicious. Once you eat this bean, you never eat the pinto again. The taste is so unique."

"Besides the taste, it doesn't give you gas." She laughs.

Mexicans love these beans, Rebecca Gilliland thought, and more and more Mexicans are living in the United States. So she started talking to Martin Robles's colleagues down in Los Mochis about exporting the Mexican yellows. Soon she was doing it, building up the business slowly, working on the distributors and grocery chains.

"They don't want to buy in the beginning," Gilliland says. "I say, 'Fine, don't buy it. Just let me put it there. If you sell it, good, you pay for it. If you don't we come and pick it up.' So they did. And they sell it. As soon as the consumers know that they're bringing that kind of bean into the United States, they started requesting it. And the demand started getting bigger and bigger, you know."

The first year, Gilliland says, she imported half a million pounds of yellow beans. Then a million, and by 1999, she says, she was up to six million pounds, or about a semi-truck load every couple of days. The next year, she says, business was to triple. The market was ready.

"In '99, the whole dream collaps[ed]," says Gilliland.

That's when a letter arrived from Larry Proctor's company in Colorado, saying they invented the yellow bean. "And it was against the law," says Gilliland, "illegal for me to continue bringing that bean from Mexico. So they say they're very proud to notify me that they own the patent, they invent it. In the beginning I thought it was a joke." She laughs.

In fact, Proctor's company now owned the U.S. patent for any beans falling within a range of yellow on the color spectrum. And so Larry Proctor, with associates and a legal team, flew down for a meeting with Becky Gilliland on the border.

"They asked me when I started selling the beans. And I told the guy, 'Way before you invent it. These beans [are] from Mexico, and these beans are being legally declared through the customs. We're not smuggling anything.' And I say it's very surprised that you just invent it when I've been eating it for 30 years, you know?" Gilliland says.

Proctor suggested they could work it out if she paid a licensing fee—up to six cents per pound. For bringing in the very beans she grew up eating? Gilliland didn't think so. So Proctor's lawyers slapped a patent complaint on her desk, saying, "You are legally served."

NEXT: No Ordinary Hill of Beans >>