Food preservation: Reviving a lost art (Part 1 of 2)

The following magazine clipping hung on the door of our kitchen cabinet at the apprentice house all season.

The caption reads, “In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration assigned photographer Dorothea Lange to travel around Oregon documenting agricultural communities at the height of the Great Depression.   Here we see Mrs. Botner of Nyssa Heights in Eastern Oregon tidying her storage cellar, where she had placed 800 quarts of home-canned food to sustain her family through the winter.”

Mrs. Botner looks like a sturdy farm wife, but I enjoy her outfit: she’s wearing some stylish leather heels with her plain summer housedress.  She’s been working in the field and in the kitchen all day, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be lookin’ good while putting by some provisions in her root cellar!

Last January, I had the pleasure of taking a class on food preservation at a farmer conference in Stanwood, WA.  The instructor of the class, Mrs. Vivian Smallwood, was of the right age to have been this Mrs. Botner’s daughter.   White-haired and in her 70’s, Vivian came into class using a walker to teach us the canning methods and recipes she had learned from her female relatives of this bygone era.   Vivian is a “certified master food preserver” with the WSU extension agency.  She explained that she is the only one left with this title; there used to be others but they have retired and for a long time young people were never interested in achieving the certification.  Just recently, though, she pointed out, there is a resurgence of interest in her area of expertise.  In the past few years, the demand for her classes has increased to where she can’t keep up with it.   She told us that she’s pleased to know that people are coming back to an interest in preserving their own food, and she’s eager to share her knowledge.   “Feel free to call me on the phone,” she offered sweetly, giving out her home number in case we had any questions come up while we were doing our own canning.

I think this is such a telling example of the cultural shifts that have happened around food over the last century in America.  In 1939, people were still preserving their own food because they needed to do so to survive.  They raised their own meats, grains, fruits and vegetables and ate them fresh when they could; then they used preservation techniques so they could continue eating the rest of the year.  Packaged foods,  freezing, and even refrigeration were either unavailable  or too expensive to depend on.   Over the next several decades, the entire food system changed dramatically.  For my grandparents and parents, packaged and shipped foods became the norm, and why wouldn’t they?  Who would want to spend time harvesting and processing their own food when so much variety was cheaply available at the grocery store?

There have always been those that did canning at home.  Growing up, I remember seeing the jars of peaches and pears entered into competition for a blue ribbon in the community fair.   My mom made the YUMMIEST freezer jams and tried making cucumber pickles once.  But overall the practice of, and knowledge about, food preservation has been decreasing steadily over the generations.  Until, perhaps, now.

Based on Vivian’s experience and my own observations of happenings around Seattle, people are getting back into canning in a big way.  It makes sense for this to go hand in hand with the current upsurge of interest in local & sustainable food.  An increased number of people are growing their own gardens; similarly, home canning is gaining popularity.  Even more people have switched to buying  produce at a farmers’ market over a grocery store.  These folks are also discovering that delicious, small-batch, artisan products like jam, honey, pickles, and sauerkraut can be had at many farmers’ markets.  These are a much higher quality, more “real” product than the Smuckers, etc, from the supermarket.  It seems to me that we can have the luxury of all that grocery-store surplus and still crave a more authentic taste and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing the origin of our food.  We’ve hit a point where we are starting to realize that the extra effort that goes into making your own can be worth it.

I tried my own first forays into canning last fall with a jam project and some green bean pickles.  They turned out well enough to give me confidence to try a bunch more this year with farm produce.  Unfortunately, the time of year when all the extra produce is available for canning is the same time of year when you have zero time to do any canning because you’re so busy harvesting and selling all that produce.  But I managed to get some stuff into cans:

Pickled green beans, pickled cucumbers, pickled carrots, mixed-vegetable pickles. Raspberry jam, peach jam, plum jam. Tomato sauce, sauerkraut, and one can of chanterelle mushrooms.

 

I planned to write this post about my actual experience with canning, what I learned, and some recipes.  But I got a little wrapped up in some historical analysis and now I’ve written enough for one day!  So in part 2, I will share some canning basics so that we can all help carry on Mrs. Botner’s tradition and see our families through the winter with home-canned goodies.  In the meantime, here are some essential items for your canning Christmas wishlist.  Stay tuned!


Advertisements

A city season

I’m on the Seattle light-rail train, rumbling through the industrial area south of the city on my way to the airport. There is snow on the ground and more falling from the sky.

I’ve been in Seattle for the past week, catching up with friends and taking care of errands in between moving off the farm and heading back east for the Thanksgiving holiday. It feels appropriate that my transition off the farm was marked by a very obvious transition of the season. It rarely ever snows in Seattle, so a visible blanketing in mid November is enough of an event to make for a lot of “it’s a winter wonderland!” facebook status updates. It’s cold. The leaves are gone from the trees. It gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. So it makes sense, I keep telling myself, that I’m waking up in Seattle instead of on Bainbridge. I miss the farms, but there’s no farming to do right now! So it’s time to change it up and settle into a winter routine.

After Thanksgiving, I’ll be spending the winter working a software job in Seattle. I decided that I want to farm again for sure next season, and I lucked out – with this short term contract job I should be able to save up enough money to make it possible. I could see myself doing this dual life thing for awhile: working and living in the city December thru March and then spending the rest of the year farming. A transitory lifestyle clearly has its drawbacks — the post office’s forwarding address system is probably going to short circuit itself trying to keep up with all my recent moves — but being in new places and meeting new people also keeps life interesting.

So as much as I miss the daily life on the farm, I am really looking forward to a Seattle winter. I miss the farm “family” (Betsey, Brian, and the girls). But this week reminded me that I also have an awesome Seattle “family” of really dear friends who I can spend more time with now. This week was great as so many of my friends are unemployed or underemployed right now that I was never at a loss for friends to hang out with, even during the day on weekdays! A big goal for my winter is to spend tons of quality time with these people… you know who you are :-). I also want to log lots of miles on my bike, build something, re-learn Lindy Hop, and learn how to drive stick finally. (This last being a very necessary farming skill that it would behoove me to pick up before next season!)

Of course, when I started the internship I was looking at it more as a temporary break from “regular life” rather than a permanent shift in lifestyle. There are some important issues I’ve been putting off addressing that I’ll need to deal with soon if I intend to keep farming. For instance, I have a cavity I need to get filled, and I need new tires on my car. Questions to think about: Will I ever be able to resume adding money to my retirement accounts? Does that matter? How much private health insurance coverage do I need versus how much can I afford?

I didn’t fully appreciate how cushy my former job as a salaried software engineer was when I had it, with its high salary and great benefits. I could have been saving more. Now, though, it feels good to be making more conscious decisions about the amount and type of work that I do, how much time I take off, and how much money I really need to spend on “stuff.” Paying for healthcare out of pocket makes me appreciate it more. Trying to look on the bright side here. What I really love is the feeling of being a producer of something tangible. As an engineer I got used to a steady paycheck that didn’t depend at all on what I actually did that week. As a farmer, there’s a more direct relationship between work and reward: I make money by creating (growing) a product through my own effort & skill and then finding a way to sell it directly to a consumer. The amount I make feels a lot more tied to my own ability to work hard and work smart. Of course the regular paycheck is great, and I couldn’t argue with you if you pointed out how dumb it seems to purposefully walk away from a career with that kind of security. But I feel excited about growing food in a way I never felt about computers, and I feel like I’m reaching for the “work to live, not live to work” ideal. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

To that end, I’m visiting a few farms in the Puget Sound area to “interview” for a position for next year. There are two that I’m really excited about at the moment and I would be thrilled if either of them worked out. I feel sad when I think about not spending another season with Brian and Betsey after how much I loved being there this year. What if I don’t love my next farm as much? But I know that I’ll learn much, much more by moving on to a new place. Everyone has their own ways of dong things and it’s best for me to see several so that I have more information going into my own potential future farming endeavors. I’m looking for a slightly larger-scale farm for next year, growing a wide variety of crops and selling through a wide variety of market channels. I’m looking for a new community of people and a new piece of earth to get to know.

Ok that’s about enough. Kudos to you if you made it through all of that. Happy Holiday to all — let’s enjoy winter as we look forward to spring!

Thoughts on being done

So, October is over and the end of the season has come. It’s been a good fall as it was a good summer and a good spring. Looking back over the whole seven months, it’s one of those things where somehow all at the same time it feels like it’s been forever and it has also flown by.

The last few weeks of the apprenticeship were great — it was such a treat to relax a bit and enjoy the fall days as things on the farms were winding down. We finished digging all Betsey’s potatoes and sweet potatoes and put them into storage. We went through the piles of onions, throwing out the mushy ones (there were a lot) and cleaning up the good ones for sale through the winter. We were able to spend *half* days harvesting for Brian’s CSA instead of *all* day Tuesdays and Thursdays. The CSA members are still getting a lot of good hardy veggies — collards, kale, chard, beets, carrots, squash, broccoli. But since we’re done harvesting tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, etc, we have all this luxurious extra time to do things like PLANTING again! It felt so good to sow Brian’s cover crop and let the fields go to rest for the winter. The rye/vetch mix that we planted is grown in Seqim by Nash’s farm and it will do what any good cover crop should: 1) fix nitrogen in the soil so it will be available to the veggies next year, and 2) grow into a nice tall grass that will act as a “green manure” adding lots of good organic matter when it is tilled in next April. That cover crop really wants to grow; the seed sprouted within a couple days of planting and by now it is looking like a lush green blanket in the fields.

It was fun to plant cover crop because we’ve been doing very little planting at this time of year. Spring is for planting, fall is mostly for harvesting. With a noticeable exception: garlic! Garlic seed gets planted in Oct/Nov and grows over the winter so that it will size up for an early harvest next year in July. So this past week or so, whenever there was a break in the rain, Betsey would rush us all out there to get the garlic in the ground. 9000 garlic seeds to plant… it takes a little while. It is repetitious work but it felt *great* to be hands-in-the-dirt planting vegetables again, and this time with the perspective of the whole season behind us — I know what those little garlics are going to look like as they grow and how they are going to be harvested and processed next year. Betsey saves all of her own garlic seed, so we got to help with the seed selection process. What do garlic seeds look like, you may ask? Well they aren’t the type of seeds you might be picturing… you grow garlic by splitting apart a head and planting each clove. So you can get up to 10 or 12 new garlics from each head if you plant every clove. But Betsey’s process is a little more involved: you select the largest heads of each variety and then break the heads apart and save only the largest cloves from each for replanting. It’s fun to think about how we are helping nature out with a little natural selection of our own! Betsey has been able to significantly grow the size of her garlic heads by following this method for many years. She really is the garlic queen! In fact she dressed up as garlic for our final farmers market on Oct 30:

Goofy Halloween market: Betsey (garlic), Erin (farmin' Carmen Miranda), Renee (eggplant), Becky (cowgirl). Stacy is absent because she got roped into chicken processing at Brian's farm that morning.

I’m going to get sappy now, but I need to say that this apprenticeship experience has truly been one of the most transformative and wonderful times in my life, right up there with study abroad as an intense suck-out-the-marrow, taste every breath, feel fully alive and in the right place life experience. I have learned a lot about the hows and whys of farming; I have also learned a lot about myself and how to be in the world. I hope everybody can have such an experience in one way or another – obviously it’s not going to be growing vegetables for everyone, but I feel like there are a lot of people who are going along in comfortable but unfulfilled lives like I was who could use a radical life shift like I found, a kick in the head that says, this is your one life to live; get out there and make the most of it.

Some things that I have gained from farming. The obvious: The confidence that I can plant a seed and it will grow. That I can tell when a vegetable is ready for harvest. That I can make choices about how to grow food to maximize yield and quality while still using resources sustainably. Knowledge of the layout of chicken internals. The ability to confidently reverse an enormous van with no windows into a parking space. The not so obvious: An uncanny ability to estimate 8 oz and 1 lb of things without weighing. A newfound comfort level with spiders on my person and in my living environment. Inspiration on how to be a contributing member of a community where each person has a useful skill and trade/gifts are the norm. Inspiration on how to be true to oneself and still be a great boss and mentor. A little toughening up (Hands dirty? Wipe them on your pants and eat your lunch. Cut yourself? Slap some duct tape on it) in the face of new and interesting challenges (there are mouse turds in the kitchen… Okay, now there’s a dead mouse in a mousetrap to deal with.) An addiction to spending my days outdoors doing physical work and the realization that I can’t go back to life as I used to know it.

It is looking like I will have a computery-type job and a place to live in Seattle this winter. The pieces for both are kind of falling into place in the sort of effortless way that the universe sometimes hands you with a gentle nudge saying “this is the right thing to do…” I’m hoping that the job and the place to live in Seattle will be for Jan/Feb/March, and that next farm season will find me back to the land — if not here on Bainbridge then on some farm and doing this again.

Thanks for reading my blog. Here’s a little photo summary of the season, following a few of our crops from beginning to end. I took a million and a half pictures. I bet my colleagues got a little tired of all the camera-ing around! But it was great to look back through all the images and remember the phases of the farm season. Enjoy!

Weeding young garlic - April

Harvesting garlic - July

Garlic for sale - July

Garlic braided for sale - September

Starting brassica seeds in Brian's greenhouse - April

Transplanting seedlings - May

Harvested greens ready to be prepped for market -August

Beautiful vegetables for sale - September

Laying down drip tape on tomato seedlings - May

Tomato plants growing up stakes - July

Tomato harvest - September

Ripping out tomato plants & stakes at the end of the season - October

Planting potatoes - April

Potato plants beginning to grow - May

Digging potatoes - August

Potatoes front and center in Betsey's market display - August

Potatoes getting boxed up for storage - October