This week, we’re sampling a new item in your share. Before we tell you what it is, remember, it’s not fair to judge a vegetable by its looks — or its name.
Last month, while Erin and I were teaching African farmers how to intercrop cowpeas with their maize, our own cowpeas were fixing nitrogen in the River Farm field that provided you potatoes this summer.
Cowpeas by any other name — black-eyed, crowder, purple hull — are still cowpeas; that name stuck because European colonists preferred English peas and this “poor man’s” pea was fed to livestock. Across most of Africa and South America, however, cowpeas are a major source of human food, providing much-needed protein and other essential nutrients in dry, hot climates. More than 200 million people consume Africa’s indigenous pea — from the slender green pods and leaves to the dried peas.
Cowpeas also capture nitrogen from the air and make it available in the soil. Hence, its importance as a summer cover crop here in Texas. Each summer we plant several acres, tilling the lush plants back into the ground before they set fruit.
Planting cowpeas between maize plants is a creative way of getting two crops in a single row in a single season. That’s a valuable benefit for small farmers who have limited land and resources. Ironically, though we knew the practice worked, we had neither intercropped ourselves, nor had we eaten cowpeas.
Fast-forward two weeks and we came home to an infestation of pickle worms that quickly spread from cucumbers and squash to six rows of green beans. Losing those crops made a difficult start for the fall season, especially for the beans, which also had to contend with hungry deer. As I worried about what we could harvest for you, I noticed an acre of cowpeas sprouting little peas from its yellow flowers. This weekend, I was greeted with long thin pea pods that were just begging to be eaten.
So here you have it. A little taste of Africa and something new to consider. The fresh beans look like green beans and the dried peas, which some of you may receive, can be mashed, boiled, stir fryed….Our farmer friend at Guinea Hill Farm, who is known for her delicious black-eyed peas, has loaned us her sheller so we will see how that works out.
One final note. It turns out that the cowpea is more nutritious than the common green bean we had planted this fall. Similarly, many of its African cousins, such as lab lab, were lost when colonialists forced farmers to give up their native beans and grow the more common English varieties.
By chance, Erin and I visited a large farm in Mozambique, owned by Australians, that was growing tons of lab lab and exporting it. They gave us a few pounds and we took it to the farmers we were training to plant as a cover crop as well as to eat just as their forebears did. It had been so long since the bean was grown in their fields that no one had heard about this highly nutritious bean that, back then, was called the Tonga bean.