When I consider my favorite crops to grow, I always judge this question through various criteria. The obvious considerations being: flavor, yield, disease-resistance, etc. There are, however, many other qualifiers that sometimes get overlooked. The idea of dual or multi-purpose crops is the subject of this post. By dual and multi-purpose, I am not necessarily describing crops like common beans, that can be harvested early as green beans; allowed to further mature to be harvested as shelly beans, or picked as dry beans once fully matured. These are great characteristics for any crop, but this is just showing the diverse uses of a particular crop at various stages of maturity. What I am pondering, are those crops that yield more than just one edible or useful product. A basic example would be Winter Squash or Pumpkins. The mature fruits are cooked for their delicious flesh, but the seeds can also be extracted and roasted to make a delicious high protein food in their own right. One plant. Two foods.
To go a little further with this idea, consider Sorghum. Sorghum is generally classified into four groups: (1) grain sorghum used for making meal or flour (2) cane sorghum used for making syrup (3) broomcorns, and (4) grass sorghum used for pasturing. Milo is an example of a grain sorghum but has little sugar in the stalks and is unsuitable for pressing into syrup. There are many cane varieties, like Honeydrip, that are grown specifically for processing into sweet sorghum syrup. While all varieties produce grain heads, the seed is too bitter for human consumption due to tannins in the seed coat. Enter varieties like Dale and Mennonite. The canes can be pressed and boiled down to make a
delicious syrup and the seed heads are threshed and milled to provide a tasty flour or meal for baking. One plant producing two distinct nutritious foods. These multi-purpose sorghum varieties are also suitable for pasturing or as fodder from the residual leaves and stalks after harvest and processing. If not being used for animal food, the plant produces a significant amount of biomass for the compost pile. Here are some more examples of multi-purpose crops:
Quinoa and Amaranth Not only do you get the delicious grain once the plants are mature, but all during their growth you can harvest delicious and extremely, nutritious greens. Amaranth grain and leaves are extremely high in calcium, while Quinoa leaves can be harvested and consumed fresh like spinach, in salads during the hottest part of the summer, when true spinach would bolt.
Fiber Flax Grown primarily to be processed into fibers for processing into linen, the seeds can be harvested and used like any flax seed. Granted, there are varieties of flax grown specifically for culinary use. I find the seed from the fiber variety to be nearly as good as its culinary sister.
Sweet Potatoes Everyone is familiar with the delicious tuber, but when was the last time you saw the equally delicious leaves available at the grocery? The leaves and tips can be harvested and consumed raw or cooked. They are nutritious and a good source of dietary fiber.
Molokhia and Kenaf Here are two relatively unknown crops. Both have been traditionally grown for their greens to use in cooking and as animal fodder. Molokhia is an Egyptian plant whose leaves are used as a cooked green or used to thicken soups and stews. Kenaf is in the Hibiscus family. The young leaves are used for human consumption or as animal fodder. What these two plants have in common is the mature stalks are rendered into fiber, much like flax. Kenaf is used to make everything from rope to paper. Molokhia is also known as jute. It is processed into rope and twine among other things.
I am sure this is the short list, and that there are many other examples of multi-purpose
crops. This brings me to another way of thinking about crops as multi-purpose, but this time, expressed as singular crops that can be rendered into more than one distinct food product. ( I am discussing simple processing here, that can be done on the homestead without sophisticated and expensive equipment. Corporate Agriculture makes many, sometimes unnatural, products from a single crop, like corn. I will leave that for another time) Here are two brief examples I have had experience with:
Peanuts This crop can be eaten raw, roasted, fried, boiled, and processed into a vast array of food and special-use products. George Washington Carver dedicated a large portion of his career to exploring the many uses for just this one crop (300 in all). When you process peanuts into oil, the byproduct is press-cake (this goes for any nut or seed pressed for oil). I dry the press-cake and then mill it into meal or flour, which can be then used in baking, drinks, or even reconstituted with a little water or oil to make peanut butter.
Soybeans This is the crop that really opened my mind to the possibilities of multi-use plants. Once the beans are dried they can be processed into a vast array of soy foods. One of the easiest is making soymilk. Soymilk is very nutritious and protein rich, but the
byproduct from making soymilk is “okara” (the leftover bean pulp) and it too is nutritious and high in protein and fiber. We use it in baking. Now you can take a portion of the soymilk and quickly turn it into tofu (nearly the same process as making cheese from milk). Once the tofu is pressed you have still another byproduct, the whey. It contains some protein and can be used in cooking, baking, or as a coagulant for the next batch of tofu. That is one crop, that can be processed into four, distinct foods, from the same initial volume of dried beans.
This post is somewhat of a follow-up to a previous one entitled “Millets and Multi-Cropping”. Multi-cropping is a farming system where more than one crop is grown together in the same bed space. A familiar version of this would be the Three Sisters method practiced by some Native American farmers. This involved the growing of corn, beans, and squash together as beneficial companions. From one space they harvested the basics for a near, nutritionally perfect diet. In India, traditional millet farming usually
involved some form of multi-cropping. In some instances 12 to 20 distinct crops are grown together in the same field or bed space as beneficial companions. These systems are intended to maximize growing space, but even more importantly, to preserve and sustain precious soil health, with minimal inputs of water and fertilizers. If you take this farming system of “multi-cropping” and combine it with “multi-purpose crops” (I believe most of the crops I have listed will work wonderfully in a multi-crop system) you can see the possibility of the vast diversity of uses and distinct foods emerging from one, low-input, self-sustaining, and resiliant plot of ground. That is a huge paradigm shift in my thinking about how I currently farm, and where I would like to be in the near future.