Monday, March 8, 2010

Farming Is Not Soy Easy


Let me set the stage here with two simultaneous situations.

Scenario 1.  It's a beautiful Saturday summer morning, well technically morning because it's11:59am and you roll out of bed after a long night out on the town.  Your head is pounding and you need to hydrate so you crawl to the kitchen, grab an Advil and a bottle of water or maybe a multi-vitamin and some Gatorade or maybe some instant coffee.  Whatever your method, you are looking for a quick result.

Scenario 2.  It's a beautiful Saturday summer morning, well technically morning because it's still dark out, but it is 5:00am.  You may want to stay asleep a little longer, but there's work to be done on the farm soon.  You want to get so much done, but you realize that patience is the key and some things require waiting.  Today is the day you are going to harvest the soybeans to sell to the restaurant and at the market, but it is also the first day you prepare to save your seeds for next season.  This process will take time, about 6 months.

Now fast forward to March.  The soybeans have been harvested, sold and eaten, but about 1/5th of the crop has been saved and hang drying.

Zach, the farm's field foreman, recruited Matt and I to help separate the soybeans from their pods and sift out the chaff so they can be used as seeds during the next planting season.

Although the soybeans look like the edamame we all love and enjoy at our local Japanese restaurant, after being dried out for 6 months they taste slightly different.
Like any rational person, I thought maybe I just wasn't eating enough of them.
Boy was I wrong...

It was no easy task removing the beans without mixing in all the dried out leaves and pods, but Zach taught us a good shucking technique.  To avoid scrapping our hands, we used gloves and first removed as many of the leaves and stalk as possible, then crunched the pods together dropping the seeds into the bucket.

We even got to use these crazy, futuristic, high-tech seed separating chairs...
One word of advice, if you are a 6' 4'' basketball player, always stretch before sitting on a 12'' upside down bucket for two knees hate me.

We shucked the pods, dropping the seeds into one bucket, but a lot of excess remained.

We threw the empty shells into another bucket, BUT nothing goes to waste at the farm.  All the leftover leaves, stems and empty pod shells are saved and used for compost.

If we used a combine, this process would have gone much faster and all the chaff would easily be separated from the beans, but as you can see although we were able to remove the beans by hand, we still needed to figure out a way to get rid of all the excess.  The Captain came by and offered the solution...physics.

We used a combination of two methods.

1.  Gravity
We took a tarp and folded it over to avoid any holes or snow.

The tarp would be used like a seed slide because the seeds weighed more than the chaff.  The seeds would slide down the hill while the chaff would get caught on the way down.

Although conventional wisdom would lead you to believe that snow was a deterrent, it turns out it was quite useful.  Zach was able to create an indent in the snow allowing for a more direct path for the seeds.
Perfection.  We had our hill, our tarp laid over an indent in the ground and our bucket in place.  All that was left was to pour on the seeds and watch gravity take over.

We used a broom to help push the seeds down, but the Captain explained that sweeping the seeds back and forth would help speed things up.
FARM WARNING: Seed envy is a very serious and painful disease that inflicts millions of Americans every year.  Please learn from my mistakes and avoid attempting to be a seed.  Leave the fun to the experts, that's why they get planted.

Once we got the bulk of the chaff separated, Jack showed us the second method.
2.  Winnowing
Winnowing is an ancient agricultural technique that uses wind as the catalyst for separation.  By throwing the seeds up in the air on this piece of wood, the blowing wind takes away the tiny chaff while the weight of the seeds helps set them back down.
After repeating this exercise a few times, we managed to clean all the seeds.  They were taken in various buckets and stored in a cool, dark, dry place.

This particular soybean had a great name, "Black Panther."  They are high in protein and fiber and low in carbohydrates.  Soybeans are easy to grow and have easy seeds to save.  They are a great first step to learn about seed saving.  Other plants may have much smaller and harder to capture seeds such as carrots.  In general, carrots produce a tiny seed in their second year of growth, so the waiting time is clearly much longer and the process much more intricate.   

For more on seed saving, check out wait.


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