Finding Fruition

Change of Pace

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

Seed cleaning is work that must be done by hand. No getting around it.

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.

Air column: chaff and immature seed.

Air column: chaff and immature seed.

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.

Cleaning Gold Rush beans by hand.

Cleaning Gold Rush beans by hand.

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.

Categories: DIY, Finding Fruition, food, food storage, garden, seed | Leave a comment

The second most important reason to save seeds…

More than one good reason to save seeds...

Tossed. Toasted. Tasty.

Growing and saving healthy seeds is what we do at the farm. It’s some of the most important work that can be done in today’s world. Consider what Seed Matters has to say:

“We usually don’t think about seed when we sit down to eat our cereal in the morning or tuck the kids into their cotton sheets at night, but it all starts with seed. And the seed we sow affects the quality, nutrition, cost, and environmental impact of all the food we eat and every fiber we wear.

“The last several decades of industrial agriculture have developed seed that is suited to intensive chemical agriculture. While this has sometimes resulted in higher yields, it has come with very real costs. Unintended consequences include air and water pollution, increased pesticide use, greater dependence on fossil fuels, degraded soil health, increased exposure to toxins in farm workers, and the loss of biological and genetic diversity.”

Pretty important stuff, right? But consider the other equally-important argument for growing and saving healthy seeds:

“Sweet Lord Baby Jesus these taste awesome toasted and tossed with salt and cayenne!”

As these cold days of winter begin to set in, don’t ever miss an opportunity to toast up some seeds. Pumpkin seeds are the standard. But squash seeds can be just as good.

A couple weeks ago, we were working double-time to clear the fields of all remaining produce. And I ended up with a tub of Delicata Squash. The rejects, from plants that might have cross-pollinated with another variety.

“Cook ‘em up,” said Matthew. “We don’t need the seeds.”

Roasted squash. Squash bread. Squash apple soup. No problem, I got some plans.

The first batch of seeds I scooped out of the first Delicata went straight to the chickens. Which is a great treat for them, especially since they’re all molting and sad looking. More protein in their diet to regrow those feathers.

But looking at the tub, it occurred to me: there’s a lot of seeds in there. I mean, a lot. Sending it all straight to the chickens felt like a little bit of a waste. Time to toast a few.

“I’ve never had good luck toasting squash seeds,” said Matthew. “Too fibrous.”

Mine turned out great. Sweet Lord Baby Jesus.

The trick – I think – is to soak the seeds in water overnight, helps them to soften up. You end up toasting them twice as long as usual – 20-ish minutes at 350 F – but they seem to cook more evenly and don’t burn from the inside out.

Before toasting, be sure to toss the squash seeds with some oil, salt, and whatever other spices you want.

“I always ground up my squash seeds after toasting them,” said Matthew. “I use them like a spice in other things. You get that nuttiness without the fibrous texture.”

Growing and saving healthy seeds is critically important, people. Because they taste so damn good.

**
Additional Info:
Seed Matters, http://seedmatters.org/

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, food storage, seed | Leave a comment

Churning out seeds

Processing Goose Egg eggplants. Not a lemon.

Processing Goose Egg eggplants. Not a lemon.

Today we removed seed from eggplants, Goose Egg and Violetta Lunga varieties.

This is not an easy thing to do by hand, not like peppers or tomatoes. The eggplant seeds are tiny and imbedded in the thick flesh. Could you do it manually? Sure. Is a mechanical process better for efficiency and sanity? Oh yes.

As long as it doesn’t damage the seed in the process.

This is the key consideration when harvesting any type of seed. And you just have to pay attention when getting creative.

Seeds can be incredibly durable when mature. This is actually one way we tell the difference between mature and immature seeds with eggplants. Mature eggplant seed is rock hard when pinched between two fingernails; immature seed is soft, dents easily, and often pops like a little zit.

But mature dry beans are incredibly durable, too. And it required a bit of trial and error to keep them from getting cracked and damaged when threshing with the wood chipper. One batch of Orcas went through beautifully. But the next batch of the very same bean got beat up really bad; we had to adjust the chipper in terms of speed and time-in-the-flails to minimize the damage.

To get the seed out of the eggplants we used a little hand-cranked food mill. Absolutely nothing fancy. And it took a fair bit of jiggering to figure out the best way to use the thing. But once we had a system down, it made short work of the eggplant. No damage at all to the seeds.

The resulting heap of eggplant pulp was dumped in a bucket of water, letting the mature seed sink, and pouring off the rest. Just like with peppers and tomatoes.

The hand-cranked food mill is one of many creative solutions we’ve used to efficiently extract seed. And just another example of the cool shit we get to do on a small seed farm. Some more cool shit for your consideration:

Red Russian Kale and the truck

 

Squash and the wood splitter

 

Sunflowers and the wood chipper

 

Categories: DIY, Finding Fruition, seed | Leave a comment

Gypsy Seeds

Black Garbanzo, Orca, and Scarlet Runner beans.

Black Garbanzo, Orca, and Scarlet Runner beans.

The end of another day on the farm. I arrive home and empty my pockets: keys, knife, wallet, phone.

And seeds.

Cupped in my hand is a little collection of beans that had found their way into my pocket throughout the day.

A diverse little group. Individual beans that had gotten mixed in with others of a completely different sort. Threshing with the wood chipper makes easy work of beans. But things get stuck in nooks and crevices, get spit out with a completely different batch. You suddenly find a bright purple Scarlet Runner mixed in with the sea of Black Cocos lying on the tarp.

I picked up these gypsy beans as I found them. Put them in my pocket in the haste of the work we were doing. Keeping the current batch clean and wholly intending to return each gypsy to it’s own.

But being gypsies they continued to wander, disappearing into the very bottom my pocket. Not to be found until I got home.

Which is what seeds do.

Seeds are meant to travel. They’re meant to spread and put down roots in a completely different location from where they originally grew. Caught up in fur and hair and between toes. Eaten and later returned to the ground in a pile of poop. Blown free of their pod and carried away on the breeze. Seeds must spread to thrive. They can’t all drop from their parent plant and grow in the exact same spot. Nature got this figured out for plants a long time.

And at some point, we animals got involved. We became an effective mode of transportation for seeds. Often willingly and to our own benefit.

That’s really all the farm is: just another mode of animal-based transportation. We grow seeds in one location and share them with home gardeners to plant in another. Not exactly how we’d describe the business; not exactly what gardeners are thinking when they buy.

But animal participation was never about thoughtful consideration for the seeds’ need to travel. It just happened. It was all about the animal: like the fruit, eat the fruit, and poop out the seeds later.

Like the flower, grow the flower, and sell the seeds. Like the flower, buy the seeds, and plant them later.

Exactly what the seeds need. Sneaky.

Just like the beans in my pocket. They made it from the farm to my home. I’ll save them and plant them next season. Or if I decide not to put them in the ground, they’ll be tossed into the compost pile or out into the woods, both places where they could take root. Even if they go into the garbage, the beans will end up in a landfill. Eventually taking root?

Very sneaky.

To keep seeds from doing what they do, you’d have to want to stop them. You’d have to make a focused, purposeful effort to prevent seeds from spreading. Which would be just another exercise in human folly and hubris. But try if you want.

Nature’s got it all figured out. And Nature always wins.

Categories: Finding Fruition, garden, seed, waxing philosophic | Leave a comment

Magic Beans

Iroquois Skunk Bean

Iroquois Skunk Bean

“Have I shown you these special little beans?” asks Petra. In her hands is a single bean pod, brown and paper-dry. She’s just beginning to crack it open as she steps up next to me.

And inside are some of the coolest beans I’ve ever seen.

Of course, I’ve said this about every bean I’ve seen on the farm this season. Scarlet Runners. Chocolate Runners. Snow Cap. Calypso.

And now Iroquois Skunk Beans.

Also called Flagg and Chester, these are pole beans. Growing up to ten feet tall by some accounts. The bean looks like a huge lima bean but isn’t actually a lima. Gail Flagg gets credit for introducing this bean into the mainstream: in the 1970s she was given some by an unnamed farmer in Chester, Vermont. In turn, Gail gave some to Will Bonsall of seed-saving fame. He has since passed them on to others; the beans have also been traded by folks though Seed Savers Exchange. But it’s the Cornplanter Senecas who originally grew this bean in New York and Pennsylvania in the 1800s. Or something extremely similar. They called it a Skunk bean.

Petra presses her hand to her chest, holding some thought close and near to her heart. Her eyes fill with gratitude, as they often do when discussing seeds.

“I just feel so humbled to think about how many generations these beans have been grown by others. And now it’s our turn.”

Chocolate Runner Bean

Chocolate Runner Bean

It’s easy to see why some people are so enthusiastic about beans, collecting them to grow and store. Never missing an opportunity to tell you about their collection. The richness of colors and diversity of patterns make them unique among all other things you could grow in your garden. Flowers might rival the splendor but cannot match the permanence of beans. Hidden in unremarkable brown pods, harvesting beans is always like lifting wonderful little gifts out of a dull box wrapped in brown paper and string. And every bean has a story.

When I had the opportunity, I took every type of bean available for my own collection of seeds. Despite my commitment to keep the home garden small, focused, and limited only to things I enjoy eating. Beans aren’t one of those things. Yet.

It’s a Skunk Bean. How could I pass up something with a name – a look and a story – like that?

Help me out? Historical information about the Iroquois Skunk Bean has been hard to come by so far. That is: nothing much showed up in my Google search. If you have any experience with the bean or know anything about the history, I’d enjoy hearing from you. Much appreciated.

**
Additional Info
Schreiber, T. (2012). Vermont Heirlooms: Plants with (more than one) story to tell. Retrieved from http://localbanquet.com/stories/times-past/item/vermont-heirlooms.

Will Bonsall, Khadighar Farm

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

Saving seeds. Getting burned.

Padrón peppers

Padrón peppers

There are never enough hours in the day to get everything done.

Been saying this sort of thing my entire adult life. But it took working on the farm to really appreciate how true it can be. So sometimes you bring a little work home.

Like five gallons of Padrón peppers to de-seed.

Saving seeds from peppers is easy, not the worse thing to bring home. Especially when you get to keep all the meat from the peppers to eat, freeze, or otherwise incorporate into the pantry. The quirky perks of working on a farm.

It all starts with busting open a pepper: dig your fingers in and rip off the top. If possible, remove the seed cluster with the top. Then rip open the rest of the pepper to get to any remaining seeds. Scrape all the seeds into a pot with enough water to ensure plenty of space for them to separate by sinking and floating.

Mature seeds sink. Immature, poor quality seeds float. Simple.

When all the seeds have settled, start pouring off the floaters. Refill and pour off a few times; be sure to let the seeds settle for about twenty seconds before pouring. I tend to pour the floaters through a mesh colander because sometimes I’ll do a second round of separating with these. Just to make sure I got all the mature seed.

Sinkers and floaters: winners and losers.

Sinkers and floaters: winners and losers.

When all you have is mostly sinkers, spread them out on a screen and give them good airflow. At the farm we have a walk-in drying booth: a series of 4-foot screens shelved in front of a wall of fans. At home, I just use another mesh colander and a single box fan. However you do it, make sure the seeds are spread in as thin a layer as possible. Let them dry for at least a couple days.

For the record: Padrón are hot peppers. Not the hottest we have in inventory but definitely delivering a firm kick to the palate. And any exposed skin.

The smart thing to do is to wear gloves when you process the peppers and seeds. Or be sure to wash your hands afterwards. Immediately. Do not touch your eyes or nose or armpits or other parts of your body after touching Padrón seeds. It burns. For days. Ambushing you from your fingernails and other hidden crevices on your hands. For days, people. Days.

Or so I’ve heard…

Categories: DIY, Finding Fruition, food, food storage, seed | Leave a comment

The Muther of Invention

Jamaican Cucumbers. Awesome.

Jamaican Cucumbers. Awesome.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Creative, quirky, jerry-rigged solutions to the problems that pop up on the farm. Solutions that safety-conscious individuals and agencies would likely frown upon.

Solutions that definitely qualify as “cool shit we get to do on a seed farm”.

This season we’ve been growing Jamaican cucumbers for the first time. The biggest ones fit in the palm of your hand. They’ve got a sweet-ish cucumber taste. Their spiny skins aren’t as tough on the palate as you might think. They definitely rate high on the novelty scale.

They also rate pretty high on the “how the hell do you get the seeds out of these things” scale.

Their small size, rough rinds, and prolific quantities make de-seeding by hand an all-day affair. For several days. A mechanical solution is ideal and preferred.

Enter the wood chipper.

A small, green, 20-year-old wood chipper with a 5 horse engine. Tumbling flails inside the drum for shredding and pulverizing material. A nice big hopper to put the material in and a wide-open underside for ejecting all the material out.

Easy to start. Easy to maintain. And sitting right in out barn, waiting to be put to use.

With the addition of four cinder blocks, a 10-gallon tote, and a make-shift chute, the chipper was cucumber-ready: one block under each wheel, one tote under the chipper, and a chute directing ejected seed into the tote. Most of the seed, anyways.

Not just for wood.

Not just for wood.

Plenty of room for improvement in design but a more than passable solution for the day. None of the seed was damaged by the process. And what would have taken a full work day ended up requiring only fifteen minutes before lunch.

Before heading in, we filled the tote of cucumber seeds with enough water for things to start floating. Then left it to sit and ferment for several days to clean the anti-germination gel from the seeds. If left alone, the cukes would do the same thing all on their own: the fruit would drop from the plants, rot and begin to ferment, cleaning the seeds.

But that would take weeks.

Nature don’t have a wood chipper.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, repurpose, seed | Leave a comment

Seed Greed

“Seeds will make you a thief… I steal seeds in the hopes of surrounding myself with a bewildering and awesome universe of plant life.”
– Janisse Ray, The Seed Underground

The limits of my seed greed.

The limits of my seed greed.

“You should take a look to see if you want any of those seeds.”

Matthew was pointing to a cardboard box on a table in the corner, a random assortment of bags spilling over the sides.

“We’re cleaning out the cooler. It’s stuff we don’t need to keep.”

This is another of the unique perks of working on a seed farm: free seed coming your way. High quality seed. Interesting seed. Seed you’ve never seen before, maybe most people haven’t seen before. Maybe never will see in a catalog anywhere.

I don’t know if Janisse Ray is right. I don’t know if seeds will make you a thief. But they definitely fire up a key cardinal sin: greed.

It’s easy to get over-enthusiastic digging through a box of seeds like this. The look of the beans alone make you want to grab them all. You start thinking to yourself, “I’ll definitely grow an entire field of anise hyssop next season.”

No I won’t.

And so I set limits, mostly choosing only things I want to eat. Varieties I know I will take care of.

An almost-empty packet of Black Zebra tomatoes, “a cross between a Green Zebra and a Black tomato.” Half used packets of cucumbers: Bush Pickling, National Pickling, and Little Leaf. A giant ziplock bag of cilantro. A dime-bag of basil. Lemon queen sunflowers and barley, two varieties I want to grow for chicken feed as well as cover crop.

And I took the beans, every last one. Beans leftover from a collector who gave them to us. Calypso, Dolloff, May Flower and Annelino Giallo.

I brought them all home. Sealed them in glass jars. Made sure they were labeled. Stored them in the back, bottom corner of the refrigerator.

And started dreaming of next season.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

The Blight of Uncertainty continues

Gold Medal tomatoes, no blight. Yet...

Gold Medal tomatoes, no blight. Yet…

Today we walked the fields again, this time in the company of our friend Ada from High Mowing Seeds. We had just spent two days at the Vegetable Breeding Institute, talking varieties with everyone from High Mowing to large corporations and seeing what Cornell’s breeders have been up to. Seeds and sharing are inseparable, even in business.

We walked among our rows and hoop houses. We talked of the flowers and lettuces and tomatoes surrounding us. We stopped to make observations.

“That’s blight,” I said suddenly.

On either side of us, the rows of tomatoes were showing the uber-wilted decay of plants hit hard by late blight. We were surrounded by the bastard.

Everyone went silent. The sort of silence you’d expect from a group people suddenly realizing they’re surrounded by the enemy.

“It is,” said Petra. She’s knows my Tomato Anxiety.

I knew the farm hadn’t been spared the heavy hand of late blight this year. Some varieties have shown no signs but others have suffered mightily. We are fortunate late blight is not a seed-born disease.

But the blight will still kill my plants at home if it gets there. It will steal all the tomatoes I plan to can.

The best way to avoid getting blight on your tomatoes is to avoid being around blight on tomatoes; there’s no way to know if you’re picking up spores to spread. Don’t set yourself up to be a disease vector.

I made a hasty exit from the field. Far, far away from the field. Sorry, Ada.

Fortunately, I had brought a second pair of shoes. If I had contact with the blight in our fields, it was walking on any plant matter on the ground. At the end of the day, I switched shoes before heading home.

I took additional quarantine-style precautions when I arrived home.

I parked my car in a different spot, downwind and away from my tomato plants.

I sprayed my shoes with bleach. Bottoms, tops, sides, laces, everything. I let them sit overnight.

I threw all of my work clothes in the laundry.

I showered immediately.

This is all I could do. Because there’s no way of knowing for sure.

And I will not lose my tomatoes this year.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, food storage, garden, seed | Leave a comment

The Harvest begins

Threshing. With a wiffle ball bat.

Threshing. With a wiffle ball bat.

It’s now that point in the year when we live up to our name on the farm and all of our efforts come to fruition.

Plants are going to seed. Time to harvest.

Time to get all these little embryonic plants ready to put into packets for someone else’s garden.

Seeds are different in this regard. Our process for harvesting and cleaning depends on whether the crop is dry-seeded or wet-seeded. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash are examples of wet seeds; beans, lettuce, and basil are examples of dry.

Chervil is an herb that successfully overwintered. Which means it’s one of the very first to go to seed. Chervil is a dry-seeded crop and was allowed to dry in the field. When harvested, we hung it in the mill to dry even further. Until the leaves and stems were brown and as close to feeling like ancient, fragile paper as possible.

Using fans to further clean the seed, after screening.

Using fans to further clean the seed, after screening.

Then we threshed the chervil. There really is quite a bit of finesse involved with threshing. It’s not just whacking dead plants with a stick (or wiffle ball bat). If you bludgeon instead of thresh, you’ll create way more chaff than necessary. Which will just make cleaning harder. Threshing the chervil with a stick is just as much a stroking motion as hitting. And listening is incredibly important: you can hear when more chaff than seed is falling on the tarp.

When threshing was done, we gathered all of the detritus on the tarp to screen it. This is the first step to cleaning out the chaff. We have screens with openings of all different sizes and shapes because we have seeds of all different sizes and shapes. You want to find the screen that’s just right; that lets mostly seed fall through the openings. Until you’re familiar with every seed, it’s a bit of trial and error.

Once screened, the cleaning continues with the use of fans. Two boxes fans, actually, one positioned right in front of the other on a table. Two fans are used because, in combination, the airflow is less turbulent and can be fine-tuned with greater precision.

Clean chervil seed.

Clean chervil seed.

Immediately in front of and below the fans are two bins, side by side so that one bin is closer to the fans than the other. The detritus is poured through the airflow of the fans. Because seed and chaff are different weights, they separate in the breeze; mature seed is heavier and will fall closer to the fans, while chaff and immature seeds are lighter and will drift more. This means mature seed – the stuff we want – falls into the bin closest to the fans and the chaff blows into the second bin. Or off into the mill. Like screening, there’s a bit of experimenting to find the right strength of airflow to make this happen.

We often clean the same batch of seed several times in this way, both to ensure the maximum amount of mature seed is kept and the maximum amount of chaff isn’t.

And when we’re done, we’re left with clean chervil seed. Or kale seed. Or radish seed. Or whatever dry-seeded crop we’re working on.

The seed is then bagged in a cloth bag, labeled, and put in the cooler. To wait patiently until we’re ready to start filling packets.

To wait patiently while we continue with the harvest.

**
Check out the whole process in photos.

Categories: DIY, Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

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