The Global Politics of FoodA Bean of a Different Color

Reporter's Notebook
When is a Handful of Beans Not Just a Handful of Beans?

Correspondent Sandy Tolan compares Larry Proctor's Enola beans with the Mexican Mayacobas. Photo: Rhonda Bernstein / Homelands Productions
I wanted to take the beans with me—The yellow ones from Larry Proctor's bean operation on Colorado's Western Slope. I was fixing to leave Mr. Proctor's place, which was converted by hard times from family farm to "Red Beard Bean" processing plant near land where his father once grew onions and alfalfa. I asked he of the red beard if I could take some yellow beans with me.

I figured he'd say no; earlier, watching a stream of yellow beans quiver down the sorting screens in the bean shed, I'd been told to put the handful I'd scooped up back in with the rest of the yellows. Inventory purposes, I'd been told. That's an interesting rule, I'd thought; who'd miss this tiny handful?

Sure enough, when I asked again if I could take a handful of beans with me, Larry Proctor said he was sorry, but that wasn't possible. The lawyers, Proctor said now, by way of explanation. They advised him not to let any beans leave the property.

Ah, yes, the lawyers. There were plenty of them involved on all sides in a dispute over the origin of a bean some claim came from Mexico, only to be "pirated" by Larry Proctor; while others, including Mr. Proctor, say this unique brand of yellows was developed by his own hand on land here on the Western Slope. At the core of the dispute is Mr. Proctor's U.S. patent giving him exclusive rights to distribute yellow beans in the United States. The outcome of the legal battles carries significant implications in the growing disputes over intellectual property in the global economy.

Standing there on Proctor's land, Humphrey Bogart's line from Casablanca sprang to mind: "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

I repeated the line to Mr. Proctor, adding, "Looks like sometimes a hill of beans is a lot more than a hill of beans."

He smiled, if a bit nervously, and invited me inside to show me pictures from a pile of family albums: images going well back to high school, and the sweetheart he's still married to. He wanted me to know that he was just a guy struggling to make things work for his family and community of small farmers. By ensuring that the yellow beans fetched a better price, he argued, he could help save farming in this hard, rocky valley.

Indeed, I was struck by the contrast between this and other global patent disputes I've reported on. Here, though the stakes are high and implications far-reaching, the players are small, and the consequences of the legal battle will be felt on the level of family.

Earlier I'd been down to Nogales, where Becky Gilliland argues her yellow bean operation was gutted by Mr. Proctor's exercise of his patent. Ms. Gilliland wanted me to know how carefully she'd built up her business, and why the yellow bean was worth it. To prove her point, she invited me to lunch, where she cooked yellow beans and pintos (along with machaca and flour tortillas) so I could compare for myself.

As I put a forkful of refried yellows in my mouth, I was struck by how sweet and flavorful they were. I'm no a bean aficionado, but these tasted great. And, I thought, now here's something Larry Proctor and Becky Gilliland could probably agree on: Whatever the origin of the yellow bean, they sure do taste good. If they didn't, maybe there wouldn't be any fight. And maybe Larry Proctor would have let me take the beans with me.

Sandy Tolan
NPR News and AmericanRadioworks

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