Monday, August 18, 2014

Local food year round

An abundant harvest shouldn't be a bad thing, but at times it can be overwhelming. I was just reading a blog post by Gene Logsdon where he passed on the wisdom of years that taught him not to overdo things by planting more than you can deal with. I've given up on my pickling cucumber bed in the vineyard because I can't handle the amount of food coming out of it. Next year I'll plant far less. This was an experimental year in large scale farming and although I was cautious, I didn't anticipate the level of productivity a little bit of manure could yield. Even the sweet corn is getting overwhelming and I only planted two 30 ft beds of it. I've canned about 25 pints already! And after so many jars of salsa (fireroasted is the best kind), pickled cucumbers, corn, sauerkraut, and tomato sauce, I'm sick of canning.

This is the time when I start fantasizing about having a couple pigs to feed all the oversized summer squash, cucumbers I can't sell, and rotting, rain-cracked tomatoes. I could also feed them all the byproducts of my canning projects, grape pressing, and crop waste. I really want to make that a reality one of these days.  On top of that, there's the tons of whey from cheesemaking I could be feeding them; nothing like turning food waste into more food.
But isn't it nice that there are crops you don't have to eat fresh that store easily without any canning and the associated energy consumption and hassle? I have really grown to appreciate crops like flour corn, popcorn, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, winter squash and dry beans.  Winter squash, garlic, onions, and sweet potatoes just need a dry place to be stored.  I was using last year's garlic all the way up until I started to get the first harvest of this year's crop. Storing it at room temperature hanging up in braids or in a mesh bag keeps it halfway through the winter until it starts to get drier, then I move it to the root cellar so that it can retain moisture and experience cold temps to keep it dormant.

Canned Sweet Corn
Then there are the dry storage crops, that don't require much work to process and take up very little space. These are the crops that civilization was built on. I finished up my popcorn from last year a while ago, and I have yet to get my crop from this season. That's what having a good supply of nutritional yeast on hand for flavoring will do to your popcorn stash. I planted more popcorn this year, hopefully enough to last year round. Flour corn provides great masa for tamales and tortillas and is so easy to grow and store. I've been experimenting with different varieties the last few years to see which one grows best and produces the most in our area. So far I've liked the Oaxacan Green best. It also makes a beautiful presentation on the cob, in the jar, or on the plate. Someday I want to produce enough dry beans to supply me for the entire year. I'd have to plant them on a large scale, but last year the deer and rabbits ate all the beans I tried to plant in the vineyard area, which makes me doubt the potential. Those were cowpeas though, so maybe the deer won't like the phaseolus beans as much.

Strubbes Orange Flour Corn
Giant Butternut Squash
The fresh and perishable vegetables and fruit, though delicious because they are so fresh, can be overwhelming for the gardener.  They have to be eaten right away or they turn into something only good for pig food or the compost bin. Many modern varieties have the only industrially applicable trait of uniform ripening, so all the plants mature at the same time.  Gardeners get around this by planting smaller successions of a crop. 
I love eggplant, but really, what can you do with a ten pounds of eggplant? I've made a lot of baba ganoush and frozen it, which works really well. But I don't need that much baba. I just wish eggplant could produce a small amount year round. Fortunately, many crops can produce, or at least be produced out of the storage jar or root cellar, year round. That's why this year I did a canning and storage CSA here, so that I could produce things people can deal with a lot of at once. 100 pounds of tomatoes means you can put up many quarts of sauce, salsa, or juice for the year. Some fresh crops can be stored, but others, like lettuce, just have to be eaten fresh, or they will quickly degrade.
Many fresh foods can also be dehydrated or pickled to extend their edible life.  The leather britches talked about in the previous post are an example of dehydration of a normally fresh eaten food. With the right ambient temperature, such as that in a root cellar, pickles can last months or years, often improving in flavor with age, and in this way preserving your harvest even longer.

Cowpeas supply a dry bean and fix nitrogen in the soil
I'm learning, after the many days of canning, how much I prefer the crops that don't require any effort to store for long periods of time.  They may still require time in preparation and cooking on the back end, just before you want to eat them, while canned goods are pretty much ready to eat out of the jar, but they probably require less time and energy overall. 
Hopefully, as we acquire more tractor implements, we'll be able to start growing our own grains on a larger scale. I would like to grow durum wheat for pasta and of course, regular wheat for bread products. Rice will never be a possibility here, so that might have to be phased out in favor of staples that can be grown here.
A Swahili Dry Bean from the Seed Saver's Exchange
A local diet is a more sustainable diet.  Food most Americans eat has crossed the country, if not the globe, many times on the long and convoluted industrial journey from field to mouth.  Food we grow ourselves or buy from a local farmer has negligible food miles and processing.  Not only is it more sustainable, it's more nutritious and, most important, it invariably tastes better.



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