I’ve not been blogging as much as I did a few months ago for a simple reason–the harvest is upon us. Starting with the black raspberries in June to seeking out wild mushrooms the start of apple and autumn olive season in early September (I will blog on both of these soon!), I’ve been harvesting and preserving food at a feverish rate. One of the things I wanted to spend time talking about today is finding the balance of time and energy to work to preserve food.
In my last post, I talked about the sacred relationship that one is able to develop when one grows one’s own food–this sacred relationship is built over time and with much effort and love. Today I want to spend more time talking about the pragmatics–the sheer work–involved in being self-sufficient, even in limited ways.
A few years ago, I went what I called “tomato independent.” This meant that, at minimum, I was going to grow and preserve all the tomato products I needed through the year. This is my third year as “tomato independent” although since a blight got a good chunk of my tomatoes this year, I did break down and buy some from local farmers to make sure I had enough. Now I’m trying to expand my independence to other foods I eat a lot (egg independence, jam independence, herb independence, and so forth). The challenge is, each time I add a new thing, I add a substantial amount of new work. Because here’s the truth–growing and preserving food is hard yet rewarding work, just as any other relationship-building is hard work. Any kind of preservation takes dedication and commitment. It can be tiring and exhausting, especially if you are trying to do it at the end of the day after you’ve worked full-time at your career (like I am). But my thinking is this–I need to learn these skills because they will be needed soon, and I need to be in a place to teach others how to do these things (again, I’ll reference John Michael Greer’s new Green Wizardry book, who argues that we need “green wizards” who can do these things to help us transition into a post-peak oil world).
This isn’t to say that the work isn’t important or valuable–it certainly is. But for someone who spent the better part of her adult life hitting the books to get advanced graduate degrees, and now, grading student writing and teaching in the classroom, its work that requires a different perspective on time.
Example: Canning Corn
I’m going to illustrate the hard work of food preservation with a recent and unexpected bounty of corn. My neighbor has a few rows of corn planted at his farm–he had way too much. Last week, he said that I was welcome to come down and pick some corn after I indicated that I was really interested in canning some of it. I went down to his house and I picked for maybe an hour, and came back with a car-load of corn.
Now, this is a LOT of corn. Probably 200+ ears. I ended up using about 1/3 of this corn for my canning, and the rest went to two other families for their own corn preservation. So I’m going to walk you through the process of canning 20 pints of fresh corn–and the time it takes!
First, I spent about an hour and a half shucking the corn and cutting it off the cob. My chickens came and ate the cobs (and I put the rest into their coop to compost). When I was done, I had a ton of corn.
Next, I spent another hour loading the canner, sterilizing the jars, setting up my towels and tools, and following my instructions to prepare the corn for adding to the jars (which involved adding 1 cup of water for every four cups corn, bringing it to a boil, and boiling it for 10 minutes).
When the jars and corn were ready, I spent 30 minutes ladling the corn into the jars, making sure they were all full, wiping the rims, sealing them back up, and adding them back to my canner.
Corn is a low-acid food, and it requires pressure canning. I was canning pints, so this was a 55 minute pressure can (10 psi, for those of you who have worked with a pressure canner before). My canner took just under an hour to reach 10 psi, and by that time, it was late and I was tired. I spent the next hour and a half monitoring the canner to make sure it stayed at or slightly above 10 psi. It was now well past 11pm, so I set my alarm for 2 hours later so that I could get up and pull the jars out after the canner was finished naturally depressurizing (which I did around 1am). Here are my 20 pints of canned corn.
So from start to finish, including my “getting up in the middle of the night” time, I probably spent 6 hours on this process. I got home from work, immediately went to the neighbors’ house, and then continued on till the wee hours of the night till I was done. All this was done for 20 pints of fresh corn (which I will enjoy IMMENSELY in the winter months and which will be much more tasty and healthy than anything I could buy in the supermarket). This is all very much worth it. But it does beg the question–how am I going to balance work with homesteading activities? I am really starting to see why (as I described in my previous post) Laura Ingalls and her family spent all their time preserving food. The work of self sufficiency is a full-time job, and holding down a full-time job to have my land/home to be self-sufficient….the math just doesn’t add up. Its a balancing act that is difficult.
Managing Time for Food Preservation
I guess if I have any words of advice it would be this–if you have to make decisions about what you will be preserving, think carefully and make sure you get the most out of your limited time. So let’s look at the options:
1) Freezing is much quicker than canning, but it does require that one have a continuous supply of electricity (and out here on the edges of Metro Detroit, that isn’t always the case). I don’t do much freezing at all because its depending on the system, and the system, more and more frequently, can’t handle the strain and we go for 2-3 days several times a year without power.
2) Canning is my go-to food preservation method. It takes a lot of time, so I limit my canning usually to only a few low-acid foods, or find ways to can low-acid foods in high acid environments (like say, pickles). Canned foods will keep for years and everything but the lids are reusable (apparently there are completely reusable lids out there too, but they are quite expensive and I have already invested a ton of $$ in jars this year!)
3) Drying is my other go-to food preservation method. I like to make fruit leathers, dry kale chips, and do dried tomatoes/herbs/fruits. Right now, I’m using a little electric dehydrator, but next year, its my plan to build a solar dehydrator so I can stop using the electricity to preserve these foods. I store my dried foods in canning jars because that keeps the moisture out!
4) Fermenting is another area that I’m just starting to explore. I made some dandelion wine, which is still in process, and I’ve also got a batch of sauerkraut that finally worked out (after 4-5 failed attempts). So these are small steps into the world of fermentation…I want to try making my own miso next.
All of these methods take varying degrees of work–and finding the balance of being able to preserve your foods and do some homesteading/self-sufficency and still hold down a career (all while being single) is a really tough thing indeed!
The Importance of Time Investment
I want to close by discussing the value of time. My canned corn took no less than 5 hours of time–and I believe that’s time well spent. Could I just got to the store and buy mechanically canned corn for less than $1 per can? Sure, but that changes my relationship with my food quite a bit. It means that I’m purchasing and supporting a system that I no longer have faith in. So, like everything else, how we spend our time is an important thing–by spending this time on corn, I’m making the clear choice of what has value to me. This is no different than taking the time to support one’s spiritual path, and develop good relationships with our communities and landscapes. What we value is reflected in how we spend our time.
Corn is one item we prefer to freeze, largely because of the time factor. My sweetie a d I can shuck, blanch, cut off the cob, and freeze a year’s worth of corn (3 doz ears/10qt bags) in under 2 hours. But I hear you about the power failures – that is, and will continue to be a big concern. Three days with no power in the winter is no worry (happened to us s couple years ago), but 24 hours in the summer and the whole freezer could be lost.
Yeah, that’s why I’m trying to do mostly canning. Out here, nearly everyone owns a generator (all but me, I’m trying to opt for more sustainable solutions). We regularly lose power 3-4 days a year (usually all of those days happen at once). So I’ve used those as growing experiences, realizing that they may be more frequent as time passes….
I admit I’m a bit shocked to hear that you don’t have reliable power (even though I read JMG’s blog every week and this is exactly the kind of thing he predicts). I thoroughly applaud all the work you’re doing. Most people who produce their own food don’t also have demanding cash-paying jobs.
Karen: I live in a metro region in serious industrial decline (when JMG was here back in April, he was “impressed” with the decline, lol). I’m not shocked at all that our power goes out for days on end. I wonder when the last time the power grid was updated? It goes out in the coldest and hottest times, when there is the most demand, or when we have serious storms. But 2-3 days without power is a fairly typical thing.
A HUGE tip I learned from my Amish friends…..work days planned around food preservation. For years I canned food for myself and my four young children entirely by myself. 400 to 500 jars a year. Not only did I have the entire summer invested in my quarter acre garden, but through late summer and the entire fall, whole days from sun-up to sun down were spent cleaning out the garden, canning, freezing, dehydrating and fermenting. From these Amish ladies, I have learned the value of “many hands make light the work”. Everyone shows up early on the appointed day with their pressure canners, aprons and a food dish to share for lunch. The day passes quickly while the blanching, peeling,sterilizing and so on progresses. Lunch happens while the canners are whistleing. No one leaves until the kitchen is clean! I have been to work days with as few as 3 of us, and as many as 8. When 60 qts of squash had been processed, one young mother with 4 children in tow stated “well, now that that’s done and as long as we’re here, why don’t we start on those potatoes?” Wish I could have met these ladies 20 years earlier!
Wow! I wish I had a bigger kitchen, lol. I did pull in a friend’s help for a few days. I think I’m probably doing about 300-400 jars a year, but I only have me (and right now, a friend staying with me). And I’m doing mostly pints. But I LOVE this idea! 🙂