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Korean Soybeans and a Lesson in Subjective Yield

 

 

 

 

When I started my farm five years ago, I was really excited about soybeans. My climate in Sunol was well suited for them, and this was the first time I'd ever lived anywhere they would like to grow. I found seeds in the Kitazawa catalog for “Korean Black Soybean”.  I was delighted to learn of a Korean varietal and grew two 125' rows. Having been born in Korea and raised in the US, these beans felt like a story I wanted to tell.  The plants grew beautifully.  After about 4 months, I harvested the plants and dried them down to collect the beans. I monopolized a neighbor's greenhouse and had soybean plants drying everywhere. Harvest time came and it took what felt like an eternity to thresh and clean all those beans. At the end of it all, I had less than a five gallon bucket's worth of beans. I thought of how much space and time they took up, how modest it looked at the end, and felt disappointed in what felt like a small yield to bring to the restaurant eagerly awaiting them. For the next two seasons I steered clear of soybeans, not seeing the benefit of such a humble yield. However, soybeans weren't done with me yet. When they returned to my life, they returned in a way that significantly altered my way of seeing things.

 

In October of 2014 I spent a few weeks in Korea, working on farms and talking to others involved in agricultural efforts. I visited an organic research institute and school, Heuksalim, who work to preserve heirloom varieties of indigenous Korean crops, particularly rice, millet and soy. One of their researchers spent the afternoon with me and my friends, introducing us to a wide array of many different plants. My mind was completely blown. I learned about over 40 varieties of native Korean dry soybeans growing on their farm, and that at one point many more had existed. I reminisced about that first year on my farm and how excited I was to find “the” Korean soybean. Now I was learning about the existence of varieties bred by farmers over long expanses of time with names like “rat eye” or “extra delicious".  I felt proud to discover this staggeringly rich array of interesting plants and the stories that accompany them. I also felt saddened to think of how increasingly inaccessible both the plants and their stories are becoming, in the US as well as within Korea.

 

As I would learn over and over again, seeds have many stories to tell. Seeds can tell us stories about the smallest patch of land that raised them, and also of the global economic systems in which we are entangled. In the past two decades, trade liberalization has severely impacted Korean farmers. To remain competitive within the global market, farmers are increasingly reliant on hybrid seeds which promise higher yield and a more homogenous crop, but whose seeds cannot be saved to produce the same offspring in the following generation. The promise of higher yields is critical for famers hoping to keep their land and maintain their livelihood. But with this promise comes a prescription for how seeds need to be grown in order to be successful, since most of the seed available is bred and designed for conventional farming with a heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers. Growing these seeds with organic practices results in undesirable variability and a less predictable harvest. Because hybrid seed cannot be saved for consistent growing results next season, the natural process by which seeds become more genetically intelligent to their specific environment is interrupted. The expanse of personal and historical plant narratives, the richness of our relationship to plant communities, is forfeited for a singular one centered around industrial production.

 

Before leaving Heuksalim, I was given some soybean varieties that are treasured by the researcher we met with. One is called the “scholar bean”, a green bean with a small black mark that resembles an ink blot. He also gave me a series of beans all called “chestnut beans”. They are stunning, black or brown with a streaked white patterning on them unlike anything I had ever seen. It was bittersweet to celebrate the gift of being trusted with these amazing seeds, knowing that many farmers don't have to opportunity to grow them because of their economic contexts. I knew that I was coming home to the particular opportunities of places like the Bay Area with the economy, food culture, and interest in heirloom seeds that would allow me to grow these varieties commercially. In my travels through Korea I asked many farmers if they wanted any of these seeds that I had found along the way. Many were joyful to see these seeds and some of them expressed a certain nostalgia, but most didn't have a decided interest in growing them.

 

I grew those beans, along with a host of other vegetables and herbs collected in Korea last season. I have never felt so stressed out as when it came time to plant those soybeans. Starting with only twenty black chestnut bean seeds, I felt an enormous pressure. Knowing their rarity and the risk they face of obsolescence, I felt an enormous privilege to have them and to experience them growing on my farm. This translated to a religious sort of fervor in tending to them, and those 165 days spent with these plants re-calibrated my original attitude towards my soybean crop.  The concept of yield and success that I held three years ago had shifted completely. Now, I found that the most important thing in my mind and heart was to have even one plant survive and grow to produce seed. At the end of the season I had collected over a pound of what I believe will be viable seed of each variety for next season. I even had a small amount to share with friends and to bring to Namu restaurant.

 

Looking at the soybeans seeds that I saved to return to the soil of my farm next year, visually, they look like the same small beauties that were put in my palm in the country where I was born. However, I now know that in addition to the stories of their origin, they have acquired some new stories. They contain the story of a long trip over the ocean, hot Sunol sun, and California soil. For me, they also tell the story of optimism and resilience. And, in addition to sun, soil and water, these are two ingredients that all farmers need to keep growing.

 

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