When I was a kid, I used to sing a song that went something like this “beans, beans, the magical fruit the more you eat the more you…” I am not sure where the song came from but did you know that technically and botanically speaking beans are considered a fruit? The bean pod forms from the fertilized flower and contains seeds of the plant just like pumpkins, tomatoes and corn. Vegetables do not develop their edible parts in the same way. When we eat vegetables we eat the stems, leaves, roots or other parts of the plant and include products like carrots, radishes and lettuce. It looks like the writer of the song did some research before penning the tune.
I grow green beans in my garden for my family to enjoy. My husband and I also grow soybeans on our farm. Soybeans resemble the pea pod more than the green bean pod. When I became a farm woman over thirty-years ago, I would hear my husband talk about planting beans and I really didn’t know much about the difference from one type of bean to another. I continue to gain knowledge about beans since in Nebraska we also raise dry, edible beans. One characteristic they all have in common is how they sprout. Bean seeds swell and are pushed above ground from a shoot.
Most of us picture the seed as staying in the soil developing roots and sending a shoot above ground like corn. A bean seed pushes out through the ground after germination opening up to reveal those first leaves.
Imagine the work of pushing that swollen seed up through soil. If the soil is dry or has a crust on the top from a hard rain the seed could find early life a bit challenging. Note the bean in the background having to push a dirt clod out of the way.
The beans I grow in my garden will be nice for a few meals. The challenge farmers have is to feed not just their own family but hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of other families in the world. Farmers around the world face similar challenges in making sure those little seeds become plants to provide food. The soybean seed has come a long way since first becoming domesticated by the Chinese in 1100 B.C.
Thanks to the continual development of hybrids farmers have been able to increase yields using less land. In Nebraska alone, we raised 258,405,000 bushels of soybeans in 2011. One bushel of soybeans can make 11 pounds of oil and 48 pounds of protein-rich meal.
It can seem a bit magical that a little seed can take nourishment from the soil, rain and sun and make food for us to eat. What we need to remember that magic doesn’t stock the shelves in the grocery store. Our food supply is the safest and most abundant in the world and I am grateful for each and every farmer that plays a role in getting that food to our table.