“The Integrated Homestead”
The hallmark of industrial food is the fact that it is processed to the last degree, and loses much of the nutrients available in the primary ingredients. I question whether we should be trying to duplicate on a home scale the excessive processing of food in the industrial model. Further, as the energy crisis deepens and the electric grid perhaps becomes less reliable, it will be important to rethink the energetics involved in storing our food. To the greatest extent possible, we should seek natural alternatives to food processing and energy-intensive storage.
We should see gardening as a year-round activity. Especially if we use season extension and sheltered gardening strategies—row covers, cold frames, and unheated greenhouses—in many climates we can enjoy fresh salad and cooking greens right through the dead of winter (or at a minimum, much earlier in the spring, and much later in the fall).
If we don’t have the space even for a small cold frame, we can maintain pots of herbs—which yield potent nutrition in small amounts—by a sunny window in the winter. Onions and garlic that have begun to sprout can also be potted up and set by a window, and their green tops cut and used to garnish soups and stir-fries until the bulbs are exhausted. Remember wild greens such as dandelion and field cress, which can provide fresh greens earlier in the spring and later in the fall than many cultivated plants.
At the animal end of the spectrum, “current account” foods like milk and eggs keep us eating fresh and healthy without processing for storage. Also, when we think of the energetics of food storage, the food value of livestock might be more sensibly stored in the live animal than in a freezer. As Dan Conine, a farmer in Wisconsin, put it: “A live animal is actually cheaper to keep than a dead one if the stored feed comes from my farm.” (From private communication.)
Root Cellar: The Cadillac of Long-Term Storage
It is surprising to most beginning gardeners just how many vegetable crops will store naturally, with absolutely no artificial processing. Ambitious homesteaders might build a walk-in root cellar to store harvests of potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, daikon, and other winter radishes, cabbages and Chinese cabbages—as well as mangels (fodder beets), for our livestock friends.
With the exception of potatoes and sweet potatoes (which do not do as well with cold storage), all these crops will store even better in a “clamp,” an old-fashioned word for what amounts to little more than a hole in the ground, with a depth below frost level, and covered by a plastic or plywood sheet to prevent standing water accumulating, and protected from freezing by a couple of bales of straw. The temperature inside the protected hole will be as cold as, or colder than, that in a refrigerator. Unlike in a refrigerator, which is dehydrating, the humidity in the earth storage remains high, keeping the vegetables from wilting for a long time—and with no addition to the electric bill.
Indeed, the best place to store dense root crops like carrots, rutabagas, and beets is—right where they grew. At the end of the growing season—after the sugars stored in the roots of these biennials have peaked, and top growth dies back—simply throw on enough mulch (about eight to ten inches in my climate) to ensure that the soil will not freeze. (If they freeze, most root crops like carrots will turn to mush.) Your harvest continues right through winter—when you need to “go shopping,” just kick aside the mulch, and maybe a layer of ice or snow, and dig carrots that are if anything sweeter than they were in the fall.
There are a few root crops—parsnips, salsify, scorzonera, skirret—which can go through any number of freeze-thaw cycles without damage, though of course we cannot dig them while the soil is frozen.
Storage for Dummies
The queens of the natural-storage vegetables are those which store well in ordinary room conditions—they don’t come any more user-friendly than that. Winter squash such as butternut, buttercup, and kobocha keep until spring in a cool closet in our guest bedroom. That’s also where we store garlic and shallots, and the longer-keeping onion varieties.
Nuts have no particular storage requirements, so long as they are protected from rodents.
Storage of Meats
In a context of the mass-marketing of meats, most of us do not live near a small local butcher from whom we can buy fresh, unprocessed meat retail. For meats from the larger animals, therefore, there may be no alternative to buying in quantity and storing in a freezer. For example, in the spring my wife Ellen and I, together with a small buying group in our village, contract with good friends in the area to buy an agreed number of lambs and kid goats at the end of the season. In mid-fall, I pick the live animals up at the farm and drive them to the abattoir. The abattoir staff slaughter and age our animals, then cut and wrap for the freezer. (Members of the buying group specify their own cutting preferences.) This strategy ensures that we get superior, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats from animals that were humanely raised, but it does require long-term freezer storage.
Those raising small animals of a size easy to butcher in the home setting, however—pigeons, poultry, rabbits, guinea pigs—can kick free from the necessity of processing (packaging and freezing) their meats, with the concomitant energy usage and creation of waste plastics. They can operate more “out of current account” as they cull their animals throughout the productive cycle.
We’re all familiar with sauerkraut, but the commercial versions available (including, God forbid, canned) cannot compete in flavor or nutrition with what we can make at home. Sauerkraut itself is made from cabbage, but there are many, many other vegetables (and fruits) we can preserve through fermenting—that is, the deliberate encouragement of bacterial growth in the shredded vegetable as a culture medium. The bacteria involved are benign and crowd out pathogenic types, enabling long-term storage without artificial processing, sometimes in refrigerator temperatures, often simply in cellar conditions. Some of these bacteria actually remain alive when we eat fermented foods raw (which is almost always preferable), joining the active and essential bacterial colonies in our intestines. They also change the properties of the foods, making them more digestible and boosting nutrients, especially enzymes. Some nutrients are present in fermented foods, which are not found in the original ingredients themselves, such as Vitamin B12.
Fruits and vegetables do not exhaust the possibilities for making fermented foods. Numerous dairy foods—yogurt, kefir, mjølk, and cheeses of all sorts—are cultured or naturally fermented foods that are even more beneficial for us and our teeming intestinal populations, and will keep better because the benign fermenting organisms have left no room for pathogens to take hold. From Asia come traditional fermented soy foods such as natto, miso, and tempeh, which are the only forms of soyfoods any thinking person should be eating (certainly not the highly manipulated ersatz soy foods so ubiquitous in the industrial food supply). We can even explore traditional ways of fermenting meats and fish.
If you have a good spring on your place, by all means, consider turning it into a springhouse to provide cool storage of perishable foods. I do not have such a spring, but I once lived in a 200-year-old house without electricity, whose “refrigerator” was a beautiful stone springhouse out back. The single stone room, maybe eight or ten feet by ten or twelve, was earth bermed (dug into the bank of a steep slope). The spring had been cased with poured concrete. The floor was also concrete, with a raceway that zigzagged from side to side rather than making a straight exit, increasing the chilling effect of the cold flowing water.
The springhouse had options for many storage needs. Leafy greens, or heads of lettuces and cabbages, could be held on shelves around the walls, kept from wilting by humidity from the flowing water, in contrast to the dehydrating effect of a refrigerator. Foods like fresh cheeses could be stored on the cool concrete floor. About four gallon jars of milk could be set down into the quite cold spring itself. If you have the chance to make a springhouse like that, go for it. And I’ll just politely turn green with envy.