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Plant Breeding For Human Scale Farming  RSS feed

 
Joseph Lofthouse
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I have been paying attention this summer to traits in plants that make my life easier and harder as a human being engaged in farming. This fall, I have been consciously conducting seed saving in such a manner that I'm saving seeds from plants that make my life easier, and not saving them from seeds that make my life harder. I'm a human being. I do farming mostly by human labor. Therefore, I aughta be selecting for traits that make my life easier as a human being. I'm not a machine. I don't harvest by machine. Machines have steel parts and can simply mash, crunch, or pulverize anything that stands in the way of harvest. As a human, my fingers are delicate. The strength of my arms is about on par with the structural strength of the plants I am harvesting. The traits that make something better for machine harvesting may not apply at all to harvesting by human muscle power. So I'm starting this thread, to explore what traits I aught to be selecting to make growing and harvest easier for primates.

I'm of the opinion that every time i save seeds from any plant, I am engaged in plant breeding. Because, like it or not, I am doing inadvertent selection for traits that work best on my farm and with my habits. The machine harvesters are doing the same. I think that when we buy seeds from mechanical farms, that we are also obtaining varieties that have inadvertently been selected to be easier for machines to handle, which may make them harder for humans to deal with.

This summer I grew a flour corn. Some of the cobs were carried as high as 6 feet. That's at eye level, so it makes picking simple. Some of the cobs made me stoop over to pick them. It wasn't much of a stoop, but every bit of stooping I do is a little bit more tiredness by the end of the day, and a little bit slower to pick. So this fall when I was choosing which plants to save seeds from, I eliminated every plant that would have made me stoop to pick. Didn't matter what other traits it had. If it caused stooping, it was chicken food. I found a few cobs which were so tightly attached to the stalk that I couldn't yank them off. Another trait to eliminate from the gene pool.

Stoopers vs Joy-to-Pick




 
Su Ba
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I'm just starting to save seed, selecting for variations in varieties that suit my homestead. I really hadn't thought about this from an ergonomic angle, but that's something to take into consideration. Up until now, I have been seed saving and keeping varieties true to type in order to sell the seed the local gardeners.

Last year, without thinking much about it, I started making changes in my gardening methods to make things easier on my aging body. Like you Joseph, I do a lot of manual labor on my farm. Wide beds have gotten narrower so that they easier to straddle for harvesting. Certain crops are now in rows for easier care and harvesting .....example,  bush beans. Wide beds worked for me when I was younger, but no longer. And I'm now preferring crops that can be harvested without bending over for long periods of time.

Now that Joseph has put the idea in my head, I plan to start selecting seed from my favorite peas from plants that have longer vines. 24"-30" vines are getting to be too painful to harvest from. I'd rather use trellises and have 5' vines so that I don't have to bend over all the time for picking peas. Since I can grow 3 generations of peas a year, I suspect I could get fairly rapid results saving only seed from the tallest plants with the higher pods. We shall see. I've already grown some long vined peas this year and appreciated the difference.

I'm just starting growing my own corn, so I'll be saving seed from those pants whose ears are within easy reach. Great idea!
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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Here's another example of a pair of traits that make human-scale harvest easy/hard. This time with squash. As I've been harvesting squash seeds by hand, one fruit at a time, I've noticed that some squash are super easy to harvest seeds from, and some are super hard. The easy ones have air spaces surrounding the seeds, and the placenta is stringy, so the seeds are easily extracted. Other fruits have seed cavities that are more like watermelon: Crispy, and hard to deal with. I've been culling squash with the hard-to-extract-seeds trait.

An example of seeds that are hard to harvest compared to easily harvested.


Another example: Seeds surrounded in flesh that tightly adheres, compared to seeds that are loose and easy to clean.

 
Casie Becker
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I wonder if selecting for stringy placenta to extract seed was one of the first steps that led to the development of spaghetti squash?
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Casie: Could be. I find all sorts of unintended consequences when I start selecting which plants to save seeds from. For example when I started selecting for carrots that can out-compete the weeds, I also inadvertently selected for huge roots. Sometimes certain colors are associated with better taste, so by selecting for taste, I also end up selecting for color. When I select for earliness in tomatoes, I end up inadvertently selecting for smaller fruits.
 
Ray South
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Location: Northern Tablelands, NSW, Australia
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I guess I've been saving at least some seeds to make my life easier without consciously doing so. When I thresh pulses only those that come out with the bashing they get are saved and planted the next year. I haven't been saving large numbers long enough to notice any changes but I will focus a little more on this in future.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Ray: Thanks for pointing that out. I've been making a conscious effort to select for pulses that are easily threshed by my favorite method of hitting the plant against the inside of a garbage can. I like for the beans to fall into the can, and for the pods to stay on the plant. If the pods don't break open easily, or if they fall into the can without breaking open, then I cull that plant.

I've also been unconsciously, and consciously, selecting for wheat and rye that are easily threshed with human muscle-power.
 
Tracy Wandling
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Brilliant! Another thing to add to the list of desirable plant attributes. I've been thinking of trying out a few different quinoa and amaranth seeds, and to find ones that are the easiest to thresh. But now I'm thinking that I might be able to select for that attribute. That would be fabulous! And the peas and beans, too. Great thoughts.

In this vein, I will also be looking for/selecting for greens with upright growth habits, to keep the leaves cleaner, as well as making harvesting easier. And I hope to grow/select for onions, green onions, and leeks that grow well in bunches, as I read about in one of Eliot Coleman’s books. I like the idea of being able to pull up green onions in one bunch, ready to tie up for market. I also like the fact that planting 3 or 4 onion seeds into one bunch makes for FAR fewer transplants. Same with leeks. I tried it this summer and it worked pretty well. Looking forward to doing it more next year, and trying out some different varieties.

I’ll definitely be thinking more about this idea of selecting/breeding for ease of harvesting. I like the idea that I can fine tune my vegetable varieties to make my market garden more productive and time-wise. Thanks for putting more good ideas into my head!
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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Today I shelled the flour corn. It reminded me of another "human-scale" trait that has been important to me over the years. That is selecting for corn kernels that readily fall off the cobs while shelling. In my popcorn, that was second most important selection criteria after popping ability. The corn I was working with today is a variety in which I haven't selected for the easy shelling trait, so it was more difficult than I would have liked. I ended up culling a few cobs that had kernels that were tightly attached to the cobs.

Another trait that I didn't consciously select against this year, but might start selecting against in the future, is that the kernels on some of the cobs were so delicate that the metal teeth on the sheller were damaging the kernels. That's a great trait for making flour by hand using rocks, but not so good when using a steel based sheller.

 
Todd Parr
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It seems to me that there are so many traits a person could select for, that I should select for survivability first, and then when I get a lot that survive and grow well here, and can select for taste.  Once I have a lot of plants that taste good and grow well, I can start selecting for other traits.  Is that a good way of going about this, or am I missing something?
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Todd: The ability to survive long enough to make seeds is always my first selection criteria. No seeds = No breeding project. After that, I generally select for productivity. After I have a variety that produces reliably and abundantly, then I start selecting for optional traits like ease of harvest, color, taste, culinary traits, fruit size/shape, etc.

I don't always follow that order, but I typically do. One year, I grew a crop of muskmelons, and one of the varieties that I included in the planting was poisonous. Not just a little. It contained a nasty poison that lingered in the mouth for ages. I ended up culling the entire year's worth of seed production, cause I wasn't willing to introduce that trait into my muskmelons. And I kept a mealy textured (unpleasant) muskmelon in my breeding program for many years, because it was always the earliest to produce fruit. I have since culled it. So there are trade-offs and compromises. These days, taste is one of the primary selection criteria for my established varieties of tomatoes. However, I am working on new lines of tomatoes that will be characterized by promiscuous pollination or self-incompatibility. For a few years I will not be selecting those tomatoes based on taste. The primary selection criteria will be the characteristics of the flowers.

And other people have different priorities in their plant breeding efforts than I do, so I'd expect them to place priority on different traits than I do. And it might vary from crop to crop. For example, any beet that I plant here is likely to do well. So I can focus on taste from the very beginning of a beet breeding project.

 
Wes Hunter
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This is a really interesting topic, and one that is quite timely as I sit here shelling dry beans.

I grew a handful of cornfield-type beans this year, and though they were mostly meant/developed for green bean production we are using them as dry beans.  (Our bush beans tend to get quickly overgrown and thus don't yield well.) A couple of varieties--"Genuine Cornfield" and "Cherokee Cornfield", both from Southern Exposure--have nice slender seed pods that are fairly brittle when dry and shell moderately easily.  One variety, "Turkey Craw," has thick meaty pods (when green and when dry) and is a literal pain to shell.  But Turkey Craw is prolific, putting out loads of pods per plant, so it's kind of a trade-off.  Turkey Craw is a beautiful dry bean, too, which is another point I want to consider when choosing varieties.  Pure practicality is soul-killing.

We planted a lot more Turkey Craw this year, because we had grown it the past couple years and had a good supply.  But going forward we'll probably grow a smaller percentage, because of the shelling difficulties, as long as our total production is sufficient.

And there are, of course, intermediate-scale technologies to be considered.  I recall, for example, the plans for a bean-shelling "machine" made from an old reel mower, in a back issue of Small Farmers Journal.  Such a harvesting/processing aid is surely somewhere between human-scale and big machinery, and would fit into this discussion.
 
Casie Becker
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Wes Hunter wrote:This is a really interesting topic, and one that is quite timely as I sit here shelling dry beans.

I grew a handful of cornfield-type beans this year, and though they were mostly meant/developed for green bean production we are using them as dry beans.  (Our bush beans tend to get quickly overgrown and thus don't yield well.) A couple of varieties--"Genuine Cornfield" and "Cherokee Cornfield", both from Southern Exposure--have nice slender seed pods that are fairly brittle when dry and shell moderately easily.  One variety, "Turkey Craw," has thick meaty pods (when green and when dry) and is a literal pain to shell.  But Turkey Craw is prolific, putting out loads of pods per plant, so it's kind of a trade-off.  Turkey Craw is a beautiful dry bean, too, which is another point I want to consider when choosing varieties.  Pure practicality is soul-killing.

We planted a lot more Turkey Craw this year, because we had grown it the past couple years and had a good supply.  But going forward we'll probably grow a smaller percentage, because of the shelling difficulties, as long as our total production is sufficient.

And there are, of course, intermediate-scale technologies to be considered.  I recall, for example, the plans for a bean-shelling "machine" made from an old reel mower, in a back issue of Small Farmers Journal.  Such a harvesting/processing aid is surely somewhere between human-scale and big machinery, and would fit into this discussion.


This is a very interesting tangent, which I am glad to see. I'm always interested in learning better ways to process what I grow in my garden. The hope is that eventually I will have enough production to make such innovations a necessity. I'm not sure where this relates to plant breeding. Are you considering selecting the most easily shelled beans from your Turkey Craw harvest to start developing that trait?
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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I grow snap beans for seed. I also grow dry beans. The nature of the pods is way different between the two types of beans. With the dry beans, I can pull the plant, and hit it against the inside of a garbage can, and the beans are threshed. With the snap beans, the pods typically don't break open, so I end up piling the plants on a tarp and beating them with a stick, or stomping on them.
 
Wes Hunter
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Casie: I don't think that breeding for easy (or significantly easier) shelling is feasible unless I were to happen upon a plant that randomly produced pods that were greatly easier to shell, because all the ones I've done so far have been basically the same.  Maturity of the pod when picked seems to have more impact than anything, but even then it's a matter of hard versus harder.

Joseph: The Turkey Craw, interestingly, don't respond well to the smash 'em and sort 'em technique.  The pods are so fibrous that they still cling together when crushed, and the individual beans still have to be popped out.  It's actually easier to just pry the pods apart one by one.
 
John Weiland
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@Joseph L: "I grow snap beans for seed. I also grow dry beans."   ....and runner beans if I recall.

But to add to the mix, you may need to create a few extra rows for the following:

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/12/29/506603462/the-lost-ancestral-peanut-of-the-south-is-revived?sc=17&f=1001&utm_source=iosnewsapp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=app
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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John: There is certainly room on my farm to try growing peanuts. I doubled the size of my fields last fall, and I expect that most of my newest field will remain falow this year, so there is plenty of room for peanuts or soybeans: two common pulses that I haven't done much work with.

Wes: If I were to encounter a variety of bean like you describe -- that had to be shelled by hand -- then I would stop growing that variety on my farm. It wouldn't matter to me what other traits or stories were associated with it. Easy threshing by human skale equipment and muskle power is pretty close to the top of my selection criteria for every crop.
 
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