A Taste of Reality

One of the interesting parts of experimental farming is trying new foods. “Interesting” is a pretty neutral term and I would definitely not use exciting to describe the job these days. A large proportion of the crops that I trial grow reasonably well but fail to produce any product I consider worth eating. A lot of tropical leaf vegetables fall into this category for me and I wonder how many of the permaculturalists promoting them actually eat them in any amount on a regular basis (then again I am fairly oxalate sensitive so I understand people’s palates vary enormously).

As lunchtime rolled around today after a morning spent weeding I decided to put something on the menu I haven’t tried before. Pigeon pea is a commonly promoted plant in permaculture circles. It is predominantly used as a staple legume crop that is most commonly encountered in its dehulled form as split pea, commonly used in soups and curries. The whole seed has a bit of a tough skin on it but I found it quite acceptable in this form in stews provided the beans were soaked, cooked, skimmed and drained before incorporating in the main meal, much like any legume. I was very hopeful this plant would become a staple legume for me since the 2-3 m tall bushes are quite capable of growing through weedy pastures and in orchards. They establish quite nicely from direct seeding as well provided the conditions are right, usually just as the dry season ends so the competition is low at germination. They even self sow in a few locations.

The problems occur when it comes to harvesting. The plant flowers a few times a year but suffers near total loss of seed to a native bug that pierces the developing pods with its proboscis. Spraying bushes of this size would be a complete waste of time, and the bugs are highly mobile so would simply fly away a while. Chickens reject them even when hand fed. The only time I can get a decent harvest is from the winter flowering, but only if the winter is cold enough to kill off most of the bugs yet warm enough that the flowers and young pods aren’t damaged by frost. Based on recent experience these factors only line up about once every 3-5 years. So the plant makes a nice low input bonus crop from time to time, but it is nowhere near reliable enough to be a significant part of my diet. Even trialling a half dozen distinct varieties made no difference to the bug issue.

One variety of pigeon pea always stood out from the others. It is a much larger plant, getting close to 4 m tall under protected conditions. The seed are also larger and pure white, with the flowers also being very pale compared to the common forms. It is difficult to be sure but I suspect this is more akin to the forms of pigeon pea grown throughout the Caribbean islands. There it is not used as a dry legume but instead for its green beans that are added to various dishes. This fact had been rattling around in my brain for years but the final decimation of my winter snow peas by parrots spurred me into giving the green seeds a go. Today for lunch on top of spring onions, Ethiopian kale, a little coriander leaf and some remnant  drying tomatoes I spent another five minutes gathering pods of green pigeon pea to add to the mix.

Trialling a new ingredient requires a bit of balance. I usually cook in bulk so that I can dip back into the pot over a few days. Making a big batch of food with a new ingredient is usually a bad idea since if it turns out to be horrible (as it usually does) then you are left with the choice of forcing it all down or wasting the food. Sometimes a new ingredient will grow on you with time, or takes a few tries to get the preparation right, but forcing yourself to eat something disagreeable is a quick way to ensure you will never eat it again. So I opted to make a simple stir fry for one to try them out.

The peas were podded and vegetables chopped and fried in a little oil in my cast iron pan. Once they softened I added some left over brown rice, warmed it through, then pushed the ingredients aside to cook a couple of eggs in the hottest part of the pan. A little salt and a small avocado finished off the meal. I fished out a couple of the pigeon peas to try first. A little mealy, a little musty (much like the bushes themselves), but a nice texture and so far no signs of indigestion. Given that each bush only had a few pods at the right stage with filled out seeds that were still green, and it took a bit of fiddling to find them, I don’t think I can say this ingredient is a winner. It is nice to know it is edible enough, but I won’t be going out of my way in a hurry to make it again.

It is worth also considering the economics and sustainability of the meal as a whole as well as an interesting mental exercise. The shallots, tomatoes, kale and coriander probably weighed about 200 g in total. Store bought equivalents would cost about $3 at most. I used about two cups of cooked brown rice bought from the store, about 100 g worth of dried rice costing about 30 cents. I have grown rice before and while it surprisingly withstood our birds the processing was too complex for me to figure out on the scale of the trial, and with it costing so little in the shops why would I bother? The two eggs were also store bought, costing about $1.50 and weighing about 100 g in total. The avocado weighed about 100 g and cost $0.60 from the local farmers market. It was cooked on an old electric stove for about 20 minutes, consuming about 1200 Watts, or 0.4 kWh, costing less than 20 cents. So of the total cost of the meal of $5.60, of which about half was derived from the vegetable garden. It is difficult to account for all the time I spent getting the vegetable garden going, but just allowing for the 10 minutes spent harvesting before the meal the time for that unavoidable task on its own rewarded me with $3 per ten minutes, or $18 per hour. I would estimate I spent about as long on establishing the crops, so the real rate for vegetable gardening is more like $9 per hour. Given my inputs are minimal this estimate does not need to fall further but if I was investing in irrigation and imported fertility it would be lower, but yields could also be higher. Either way this rates tell you why so few people garden if they can find work. Under the current economic conditions it makes much more sense to work a job and simply buy vegetables. The pigeon peas took a lot less time to establish and grow but much more time to harvest and process, a common pattern across different crops.

Analysis from an energetic standpoint is also interesting. The home grown vegetables consistent mainly of spring onion and tomato, so those 200 g contained about 90 kJ. By contrast the rice contained 2500 kJ, the eggs 400 kJ and the avocado 900 kJ. I am also ignoring the little rice bran oil used. So from an energetic stand point the vegetables contributed 90 kJ out of a total of 3890 kJ. For reference this total is about 45% of the daily minimum energy intake for an adult, but my intake is probably a bit higher since I am fairly physically active. Those vegetables only contributed 2% of the energy in the meal and a measly 1 % of a daily minimum energy need. Hopefully these calculations reveal how vegetable growing is marginal economically and irrelevant to actual survival from an energetic perspective. All they offer is a way to make a diet reliant on a few bland staples more palatable, and provide some fibre, minerals and vitamins. Depending on the staple crop and how it is processed it should be able to provide adequate levels of all these as well, though in recent times industrially processed staples tend to be deficient in these vital ingredients, stripped away to make the products easier to store and transport.

Some regular readers might be thinking back to my recent post on winged yam. To be honest the tuber is still sitting on the verandah waiting processing. I might put some into dinner tonight, but if I had peeled and prepared it for lunch it would have added about 30-40 minutes more to preparation time (plus I already had the left over rice waiting in the fridge). Traditional agricultural societies had a minimum group size with at least one person dedicated to food preparation for a reason as managing the demands of cooking from scratch is a full time job with a natural scale of about one cook for every 3-6 eaters, especially in the absence of refrigeration. Taking the extra time to prepare the yam would have meant no time to write a post today. I think I will stop now before I am tempted to analyse the economics and energetics of that particular habit.

An old pigeon pea bush nearing the end of its life
Mixed dried pigeon peas from the last decent crop a few years ago
A quick harvest from the unirrigated vegetable garden
The finished meal, complete with musty green pigeon peas

2 thoughts on “A Taste of Reality

  1. Very interesting points. Copious cultivated vegetables are a luxury of the modern world. Maybe without the modern inputs that make them easier to produce, they are not an economical use of time. But for the home gardener, there are other benefits beside the strict dollar and cents value of producing one’s own vegetables. For example, I enjoy it and feel it’s good for my health, both mental and physical. Even ornamental plants are valued by humans, and I value my garden’s looks around my house, the organic vegetables I get from it, the exercise, and the satisfaction from spending time outdoors in greenery doing something productive. But your point is very interesting, too.

    BTW, Do you mean shallots (a bulbing onion, Allium ascalonicum) or scallions (non-bulbing Allium fistulosum)?


    1. The common name of Allium fistulosum are a mess, so yes I meant the non bulbing scallion.
      Vegetables are definitely a luxury, and the types suited to intensive industrialised production even more so. Simply changing the varieties you grow can radically change the intensity of the growing conditions needed to get a yield while reducing or eliminating inputs. As for ornamentals, the xeriscaping movement in the drier parts of the USA is a great example about how changing plant choice and design can completely change gardening. I don’t water any of my ornamental gardens and if a new species dies I simply plant something else that actually enjoys the conditions without constant watering.


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