“So, what number soybeans are these?” asks a fourth-grade student in a class I presented to this fall. I had come to his school to teach about agriculture. More specifically, I came to teach about the life cycle of a soybean plant. I gathered mature soybean plants from fields and delivered them to local classrooms to be “harvested”. Students then planted the harvested soybeans in a mini green house with grow lamps to help the beans sprout quickly. During my second classroom visit they examined the new spouts and labeled each plant part.
After being stumped by a nine-year-old, I paused for a moment. He was putting my agricultural knowledge to the test. I was hesitant to tell him that I didn’t know, but mostly I was impressed. This young man knew there were different soybeans with different numbers. Fewer and fewer students are growing up on the farm. But, this student reminded me that there are still a few tried and true farmers in most of the classrooms I visit.
“I am not sure.” I told him, “but I can sure find out.”
One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received was that if you don’t know the answer, make sure you keep asking until you do. Go find out. So that is what I did. I went to my husband, a third-generation farmer, and asked him. He went to his seed dealer and asked him “What number soybeans did we put on the homeplace?” Our seed dealer was able to tell us because of an identification system used by seed companies. Types of seed are labeled with numbers that identify the characteristics of the seed that is to be planted. That way if a farmer is satisfied with the performance of the seed they could choose to replant that same seed next year. An example of a seed number could look like this:
• X would indicate the brand or company that produced the seed
• The first two numbers could indicate the maturity of the seed, that is, how long it takes to plant to be ready for harvest
• The next two numbers would be for more specific identification
• And lastly, the letters on the end could indicate what types of traits that seed possesses
Seed numbers provide more information about what a farmer is planting. Farmers have a lot of choices when it comes time to plant. Because not every field is the same, specific seed choices allow farmers to pinpoint exactly what they want grown on the field and where. Say you are headed to the grocery store for a warm winter meal. As you enter the soup aisle the cans don’t all just say “soup”. You know what kind of soup you are getting by reading the label. You identify what type you are looking for and choose one that fits your requirements. Clam chowder might be a good choice, but not if you are hungry for tomato.
With the limited amount of space that farmers can grow food for ourselves and our animals, it is important that we do the best we can with the space that we do have. The cost of raising a crop is substantial. It is very important for farmers to make the best use of every soybean seed and every kernel of seed corn that comes out of a bag – all 80,000 of them in the case of seed corn. Farmers map out each specific area, utilizing every acre to its maximum potential.
As a kid, I used to love the paint-by-number artwork. Each section had a corresponding color and if you got the numbers right… success! In some ways, successful farming can be “by the numbers” too. Farmers work with agronomists to test the soil in different areas of their farms. By using the results of these soil maps and by working closely with their seed dealers, a farmer can put the corresponding seed number in the appropriate soil types…success!
As I continue to visit classrooms in the area, students are using their young minds to expand my own knowledge. They ask questions and want to know more. No matter how prepared I think that I am for a classroom presentation, there is always an unexpected question (or two or three).
“Why do these soybean pods have little hairs on them?”
“How come your grow lamp has red and blue lights?”
“Can we eat the soybeans?”
Teaching for Loess Hills Agriculture in the Classroom is a job that will never get boring. If students continue to have questions about agriculture, then I will continue to answer them or seek out someone who is familiar with farming by numbers.