Framing Fancy Floating Farms for Futuristic Food

Two recent stories about future milk sources have passed through the lens here at GP… one brought to my attention by a son, and the other through the serendipity of some online source which assumed I might be interested.

Battle of the plant milks.

The Guardian published a piece1 looking at the various ‘milk’ products available, the sustainability of each, making their cases based on some science and lots of opinion about what constitutes a healthy product for us and for the environment. Cows and almonds did not fare well. Cows for their farting and belching; almonds for their supposed bee genocide. Way too simplistic on both fronts. As a soybean person though I was more interested in what they had to say about the only legume on their list. Second place. Pride of place went to oats. A cereal… an ancient grain (though ancientness vs. soy might be worth a separate debate) … and they suggested oats are not detrimental to Brazilian forest cover.

To demonstrate their logic bona fides they dissed soy for being “grown in massive quantities around the world to feed livestock…” and then turn around and praise oats by quoting Liz Specht: “Right now, 50 to 90% of global oat production goes into animal feed… so there’s a huge existing acreage that we can safely steal share from without moving the needle at all on total production”. If you are undecided on the matter of whether oats or soy has the greater “huge existing acreage” – I can offer a hint, it’s not even close.

While acknowledging I’m hardly unbiased, I will offer that oat is a reasonable compliment to soy. The two can easily be grown in rotation with each benefiting the other. Along the same path though, barley can also be grown in rotation with soy… and you can make milk from barley. Wait, barley… isn’t that used to make beer? Wouldn’t want to lose any beer production! No worries. Beer is made from barley malt, and once the brewer is done with the carbohydrate fraction one can use the dry grains to make milk. Call that “upcycling”, and Sarah Pool is all over that2. This makes barley a double threat. Further, as a rotational companion to soy and as a winter annual it will mature early enough in the season to allow a double crop of soy (at least at latitudes like that of Central Ohio).  Oats can’t do that – paint them disappointed. Now imagine the trophy ripped from an oat groat and presented to a barley kernel. But our poor Guardian milk maestri (plural of maestro, I looked it up) didn’t even consider barley. I’m hoping Sarah Pool is all over that one too. Perhaps one can’t have their cake and eat it too, but it appears you can have your beer and a glass of milk (at another time of course).

Before I leave our poor dairy milk crying over a spilled glass, I do want to point out that all the plant milks must be fortified with vitamin B12 if you want that in your diet… but the gut microbes in the cow will happily make B12 and let Bossy pass it on to you. The matter of using the grass we can’t digest to feed the cows was too easily dismissed in the rush to vilify Bossy and her kin for farting and belching. But this allows me to segue on to our next story…

Floating dairy.

Cows have you in a tizzy? One could suggest you put them out to pasture. Not good enough? What if we put them out to sea? The Dutch have already done just that3. They’re keeping them in the harbor for now, but who knows, at some point they may set the floating farm loose. Free range would take on a whole new meaning. The harbor bovines dine on potato peels and hay from the city’s football stadium and a golf course. Beer brewery waste is also fed to these celebrity cows – so yep, barley can make milk the old-fashioned way as well.

Rotterdam floating cow

Screen shot from the article… cuter than an oat groat.

The harbor cows get kudos for being so accessible to the city (Rotterdam) so that food miles are mere food feet… and city folk can stroll out to the pier and peer at the cows. Bossy’s star power on display – udderly satisfying. If you should go, be prepared for the random belch or fart. No one’s perfect.

[not to be outdone on the floating farm front, New York is considering this as well5]

But let’s back up a bit and look at milk from a broader perspective. A couple years ago now Kimberly Decker published a piece at Nutritional Outlook which can serve as a nice backgrounder4. She points to the marketing conflict over what can be called ‘milk’ in the marketplace (though cows really don’t deserve a special place here either – all reproductive female mammals make milk). There is much more than the marketing mess here, and she provides lots of references for further reading.

All this talk of milk and I’ve not mentioned goats. Maybe next time… (just kidding).

  1. The Guardian’s feeble attempt at milk shaming:   [or as Bart Simpson would say, “Don’t have a cow man.”]

  1. Sarah Pool’s upcycling of brewery left overs:

  1. Rotterdam harbor’s dairy flotilla:

  1. A nicely balanced backgrounder on milk:

  1. Aqua Ark in New York:

Photo credits: both are from the Rotterdam floating dairy story3.


  1. Thanks for the Nutritional Outlook link, interesting. We are all so retrograde with our B12 addiction!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Unlike with oats, I would guess it’s the GMO aspect of soy that gets some people’s backs up.
    In Europe I understand that, while growing GM crops may be banned in many places, feeding imported GM soy to cattle in Europe is OK.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a very fine point Simon. But not all soy is GMO, and I still have to admit some bias here, but if someone who should know better is going to belittle a species because some members are GMO I think it reflects more on their sincerity and capacity than they appreciate.

      Soy has become something of a lightning rod within the food community over the last couple decades. Genetic technologies have also received plenty of attention – though I would argue the GM tech has deserved plenty of attention (and it is still too early to turn our attention away from it). Soy offers us a great many possibilities and as a species shouldn’t inherit blame that should realistically be aimed at those humans who choose to do silly things with it.

      In the piece above I didn’t bother to make the case that soy, like barley, can be a double threat in terms of food products where milk can be one of two. Brewers can malt barley and then pass the resulting grain on to a milk producer. Soy can be crushed* to extract the oil (for use in margarine, salad dressings, and for cooking) and the crush byproduct can then be used to make milk. I’m not aware that it’s often done this way – but it could be.

      Soy is making some serious inroads in Europe. I think this is fine. The market (which is ‘us’ by the way) will choose between GM and non-GM for various applications. I’m guessing the non-GM soy will continue to provide for the human food sector.

      * when I say “crushed” the casual reader might need to realize there are a couple ways to extract oil from soy – one involving hexane which some will get excited over, and a second method (historically the first method) is to physically squeeze the oil out with an expeller. The expeller method is used to produce organic foods.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Though they’re all billed as a health food of sorts, my impression is that other types of plant milk escape the image problem soy seems lumbered with owing to its GM varieties. Though she didn’t mention GM soy, this may have swayed the journalist, if only subconsciously, to put soy second. As for the ‘winner’, last year was a good year for oats – Britain had its biggest ever oat yield. Who knows what vested interests get involved in these Guardian puff pieces?
    I once grew soy following wheat, as a green manure to turn in. Sown in July, they ripened well before the Central European winter set in. I plan to give edamame a go this year, this time for the table. I hadn’t considered them for pressing – could they outperform walnuts (which is what I’d turn to presently) for ease and productivity?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have never compared soy to walnuts before… lots of differences on the culture side. You’ve raised soy before so that part is covered. Productivity should approach 3mt per hectare if planted for a full season crop.

      On the pressing side, I have to suppose there wouldn’t be much difference in terms of pressing the seeds themselves, but shelling out seed from pods should be much easier than meats from the whole walnut. If you press for the oil, will you have a ready use for the meal? The meal is often fed to livestock, but as pointed out here it can be used to make soy milk… and there would still be a residue (okara) after making milk. Okara can be used as feed or cooked like a porridge. The nutritional value drops of course as you go from whole seed -> meal -> okara. The fiber content of the okara is quite high – so there is that.

      I do recommend threshing the soybean seed out of the pods at maturity and storing the grain in a dry place. Storing whole plants in a barn would need to be protected from mice and voles. The grain stores easily enough and will last for over a year (though for use as seed you’ll want to use the freshest seed to hand).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Simon –
        As I’ve only shelled walnuts for the whole nuts and have never pressed them for their oil, I’m curious. Are you cooking with the oil? Have you ever collected walnut sap to make syrup?

        Oil content of soybean varies with variety and growing environment, but you should expect about 20% on a dry basis (~ 17.5% for grain at 13% moisture). Thus, for a bushel of soy you should get roughly ten pounds of oil.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the further information, Clem. The yield figure sounds impressive – is that the weight for the plants, the pods or just the seeds themselves? And could an organic crop achieve similar?
    With a hand-cranked Piteba oil press I’d estimate walnuts express about 10 per cent oil at best, hence more often than not I just eat them whole (probably as nature intended). I haven’t tried pressing pepita seed yet, but soya bean sounds enticing, based on those figures. Walnut oil is best used cold for dressings, or else to oil wooden kitchen utensils as it doesn’t go rancid, though does take on a bitterness if used for stir-fries and the like. Sunflowers provide most of the cooking oil in Eastern Europe. In fact I don’t ever recall seeing soya oil on the shelves – maybe it goes under various brand names?
    As for the meal, I’d probably put it in the compost as I’d be dealing with such miniscule quantities for edamame (of which I’ve had Midori and another Japanese-sounding variety recommended to me, whose name escapes me right now).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The yield estimate is for just the seed (grain). Organic production yield should be in the same ballpark – particularly in smaller fields where hand weeding is possible. Fertilizer needs for a good soy crop are modest, no N is needed as they’ll happily work with Bradyrhizobium to fix their own.

      I should caution that a 3mt per hectare grain yield is for an environment where soy is well adapted. There are many hundreds (if not thousands) of possible varieties to try. Latitude will matter, and this will narrow the field of potential varieties more than anything else. If soy has never been grown in an area then inocula (the Bradyrhizobium) will be needed for N fixation. A well nodulated crop will leave the soil with viable bacteria so that inoculation in future years won’t be necessary. There is a growing soy trade in Germany, and I believe in Ukraine as well. The closer you get to folks with field experience the better the advice will be.

      I have no experience with a Piteba oil press, but do imagine it could do the job.

      As for soy oil on Eastern European store shelves – my sense is there isn’t that much soy grown in the region and with a well established sunflower industry there may not be enough competitive advantage for soy. As for brand names, here in the States the term ‘vegetable oil’ is used for various salad oils that are not a single type (eg., mixtures of cotton seed and soy, sunflower or canola).

      Thanks for the walnut information.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ooops, forgot to mention that edamame is a whole seed dish. No left over meal. Edamame can be made from any variety of soy, but in Japan they do have special varieties bred for this dish. The edamame is made from immature soybean seeds, somewhat like garden peas that are shelled and eaten as a vegetable. As a soybean pod begins to ripen it goes from green to yellow and finally dries to a gray or brown dry pod. Edamame is best picked when pods are fat and just begin to show some yellow. Seed will be very high in moisture and easily chewed when raw. Most folks I know will boil whole pods just like you might boil a green bean. You can eat the whole bean pod (I tend to do this myself) or like most folks you pop the seed from the pod and eat it. The pods will have trichomes (little hair like cells) which some find unappetizing – but they’re a great source of fiber. If you do pop seed from pod, keep the empty pods for compost or chicken/hog feed. They’re still full of good nutrients.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks again Clem… plus I forgot to mention that I’ve never tried to utilise walnut sap, though they do ‘weep’ freely when cut, for several hours, like a dripping tap, and the sap is not sweet exactly, but does hint at it. I’ve read of birch sap being used for wine in the UK. Haven’t yet tapped in to that adventure. When it comes to trees as a crop, I’m more tempted by the few types (oak, hazlenut, maybe beech and one or two others) whose roots come innoculated to possibly produce truffles if the soil PH is suitable. There’s a six- to ten-year wait, but what’s not to like about anticipation? I’m not a big fan of truffles, not their hefty price tag, but that underground world of fungal life – now you’re talking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My father was a big fan of walnut meats. He’d grown up in Southern Missouri where pecans were planted all around and were quite plentiful. And comparatively, the pecan is far easier to get at than a feral walnut from Southern Illinois were I was raised. We would gather a bushel of walnuts in the fall and spread them on the drive – running over them for a week or more before regathering and storing until needed. Breaking into a walnut seemed more work than it was worth… except for Dad – it was as though he enjoyed them even more for the challenge they presented.

      I asked about the sap because I’d only recently come across a text discussing sweeteners made on a homestead. I’d always thought one could only use a sugar maple. There’s actually quite a nice list of potential trees to tap. The walnut made the list, and I know where there are a few I might have a go at.

      And the underground world of fungal life – yes indeed! The natural world is full of delightful surprises. It saddens me to see so many pass by their chances to avail themselves of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Walnuts and sweeteners – funny, I’d got one old walnut with sufficient girth but a steadily failing fruitfulness, pencilled in for a tree hive excavation (basically, creating the kind of cavity wild bees might colonise, within the tree’s trunk, then either bating it with comb and waiting, or introducing a colony. Apparently it invigorates the tree. Would honey be no use?
    There are subtle differences with walnuts themselves – folk round here prize a tree that produces an easily cracked large shell just as much if not more than the sublime taste of the meat within. Where were we? Oh yes, soy!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bee hives invigorating the tree – I like it, hope it’s not an old wives tale. In the case of apples, almonds, and other trees requiring insect pollination I can see the advantage. With the walnut being wind pollinated I’m less hopeful… but if the tree is deep within a larger canopy where the wind might be suspect then I suppose it could work.

      Honey would always be of use for me. I don’t keep hives myself, but one of my brothers did when we were growing up.

      In these parts the lumber from a senior walnut would be so valuable it isn’t likely anyone would think twice about harvesting the tree. Of the few folks I’ve spoken to who have deliberately planted walnuts all have been motivated by the long term prospect of very valuable walnut logs. And I have to admit that the few wild ones I’ve come across in my wood have been looked upon and sized up with a view to keep them healthy and straight so that they might be pretty valuable some day. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The tree needs a girth of 80cm or more, ideally a few metres above the more humid ground. Pines older than 150 years were traditionally used, centuries ago. Larch, lime, oak, fir and spruce were also sometimes used. It was believed that making the cavity invigorated the tree not from the benefits of pollination, as I understand it, but from the prior pruning attention the tree beekeeper would give to the tree (the crown might initially be lopped to get the trunk to increase its girth over the following decades). The cavity would become lined with propolis once the bees take up residence. I guess the practitioners had a totally different take on time, and (wood)land use, compared with nowadays, when it’s rare to find trees of around 150 years of age, most likely for the reason you cite (particularly with walnut).

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Check out this study Clem. Oat “milk” has little more nutrition than water, and since we consume foods for nutrients, the climate impact relative to nutrients is outrageous.

    Dairy wins!

    Liked by 1 person

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