Winter is finally here. Snow covers the fields. Hollow winds blow through naked trees and across gray hillsides. A change of pace at the farm.
“We’ll get some down time,” says Matthew. “Like never.”
Now is when the true push begins to clean and package seed for the coming spring. Hours spent in the warehouse with screens and air columns, with scoops and dishes. With bag upon bag, bin upon bin full of seed.
There’s no quick and easy system to doing this. No matter how fancy the tools, seed cleaning is work that must be done by hand. You have to pay attention; you have to look at and listen to the seeds as they move through the process.
The change of pace in our work is from physical to mental; from days in the sun and breeze to artificial light and four walls. But the care and attention and hours of effort remain the same.
The air column makes it much easier to clean large volumes of small, light seed like lettuce. Load your seed into the column and send a continuous but carefully modulated blast of air through it. Just like using the box fans, the air column lets the heavier, mature seed to settle into one chamber while the lighter chaff and immature seed blow off into another.
But how strong to make the blast? There’s always some figuring out to be done. You don’t want good seed blowing off.
And before you can put the lettuce seed in the air column, you have to screen it all by hand. Do we use a 1/22 screen?
“I think 1/20 is better,” says Kim.
“Make sure you screen the Gentilina twice,” says Matthew. He’s looking closely at the seed we’ve done already, letting it fall from his fingers back into the tray.
You can only shake the screen so much before chaff starts to fall through with the seed. But there’s seed still left in the screen. So do it twice. All four varieties of lettuce seed, each a slightly different size and shape.
We’ve got a Dodder Mill for the beans. A wooden box with two adjacent rollers inside, set at a gentle slope from one end to the other. Crank the rollers and pour beans in the narrow crease between them; whole beans will roll smoothly along the crease and out a hole at the far end; broken beans and bits of chaff get bounced along the rollers and eventually into the bottom of the mill.
At least, that’s the idea.
We’re still getting broken beans falling out the end. We change the speed of the spin. We change the speed of the pour. We change the height of the pour.
“There’s less cracked beans falling out,” says Petra. She’s got her hands cupped under the hole, above the bin catching the beans. She’s slowing the fall of the beans and looking at every one.
“We’re getting whole beans in the bottom of the box,” says Kim, showing us the tray.
We’re thoughtful about this for a moment. Is it worth the time and effort to get every single good bean in the bin?
“If we get ninety percent of the whole beans, that’s good,” says Matthew.
It’s an eyeball measurement. An educated judgment call.
But even with the perfect spin and pour, the mill is still letting cracked beans fall into the bin. It’s not a perfectly clean batch.
“Maybe we should skip the mill and just clean all the beans by hand,” says Matthew. He means sorting through a ten-gallon bin of beans by hand, picking out the broken pieces and chaff. It’s an option but not a favorite one.
Maybe we should decide by bean.
Uncle Willie’s gets mostly clean with the mill, making the hand-picking much easier. But Supermarconi is such a big bean, it’s more effective to clean it all by hand without the mill.
And in the process of picking through the Gold Rush beans, we find the mutants. Variations from the rest. Same size but completely different coloration. Maybe from cross pollination?
“I think a cross is unlikely,” says Petra. “Self-pollinated varieties like beans are more likely to have variation from inbreeding. Not crossing.”
“Let’s save them,” says Matthew. “We can grow them out and see what they give us.”
Work that must be done by hand. No machine would have noticed these variations. No machine would have appreciated them.