Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two Lessons in Practical Ecology

These days, the news coming out of America’s political and financial centers evokes the same sort of horrified fascination that draws onlookers to the scene of any other catastrophe. Investors spooked by the Fed’s willingness to pay for deficit spending by printing money are backing away from US debt, and the interest the US government has to pay on its bonds has accordingly gone up, gaining a full percentage point in the last month and putting pressure on other interest rates across the board.

In the teeth of this stinging vote of no confidence from the bond market, the Obama administration and its Republican allies in Congress – chew on that concept for a moment – are pushing through another round of spending increases and tax cuts that the government doesn’t have the money to pay for. The ratings agency Moody’s has warned that if the current spending bill is passed, it will have to consider downgrading the once-sacrosanct AAA rating on US government debt. Exactly how the endgame is going to be played is still anybody’s guess – runaway stagflation, a hyperinflationary currency collapse, and a flat-out default by the US government on its gargantuan public debt are all possible – but there’s no way that it’s going to end well.

All this makes the topic of this week’s post particularly timely. Across the industrial world, people have come to assume that they ought to be able to buy ripe strawberries in December and fresh oysters in May, and more generally food in vast quantity and variety on demand, irrespective of season. That assumption relies on using wildly extravagant amounts of energy to ship and process foodstuffs, and that by itself renders the eating habits of the recent past an arrangement without a future, but these same habits also depend on a baroque global financial system founded on the US dollar. As that comes unraveled, an old necessity most of our grandmothers grew up with – home processing and storage of seasonal foods – will become necessary once again, at least for those who don’t find scurvy and other dietary deficiency diseases to their taste.

Food storage is a subject that calls up strong and often contradictory emotions, and sometimes inspires actions that don’t necessarily make much sense. Rumors are flying just now in some corners of the peak oil community, for example, that the sales freeze-dried food has spiked so sharply in recent months that suppliers are unable to keep up with the demand. This may well be true, but if so, it shows a certain lack of common sense; unless you plan on living out of a backpack during a financial crash – and this is arguably not a good idea – there are many better and cheaper ways to make sure you have some food put by to cope with breaks in the supply chain.

Nor is food storage really about stashing food in a cellar in order to ride out a crisis. A century ago, nearly everybody in America processed food at home for storage if they could possibly do so, for reasons much more down to earth than expectations of catastrophe. They did it primarily because the foods available year round in a temperate climate typically don’t provide a balanced diet, much less an inviting one. Absent the energy and financial systems that make it look reasonable to fly fresh food from around the world to stock supermarkets in the United States throughout the year, good sources of vitamin C are mostly to be had in the summer and fall, meat tends to show up in a lump at slaughtering time in October and November, and so on; if you want these things the rest of the year, and you don’t have a functioning industrial economy to take care of that matter for you, you learn how to prepare foods for storage in season, and keep them safely stored until wanted later on.

The ways that this can be done, interestingly enough, make a very good lesson in practical ecology. To keep food in edible condition, you have to engage in what ecologists call competitive exclusion – that is, you have to prevent other living things from eating it before you do. Your main competitors are bacteria and other microorganisms, and you exclude them by changing the habitat provided by the food until it no longer provides the competition with the resources it needs to survive.

You can do that by changing just about every ecological variable you can think of. You can make food too cold for bacteria to survive; that’s freezing. You can make food too hot, and keep it enclosed in a container that won’t let the bacteria back in when the food cools down; that’s canning. You can make food too dry; that’s drying. You can change the chemical balance of food to make it indigestible to bacteria, but not to you; that’s salting, brining, smoking, corning, and pickling, among other things. You can get sneaky and keep food alive, so that its own immune system will prevent bacteria from getting a foothold; that’s root cellaring, and a variety of other tricks commonly used with cold-hardy vegetables. Alternatively, you can get even sneakier and beat the bacteria to the punch by deliberately infecting food with a microorganism of your choice, which will crowd out other microbes and change the food in ways that will leave it in edible condition for you; that’s fermentation.

Which of these is the best option? Wrong question. Depending on where you are, what foodstuffs and other resources you have to hand, and how long you expect it to take for various parts of the current order of things to come unraveled, almost any mix of options might be a good choice. It will almost certainly have to be a mix, since no one preservation method works best for everything, and in many cases there’s one or another method that’s the best or only option.

It’s also wise to have a mix, because methods of preserving food differ among themselves in another way: some are much more functional in a time of energy shortages than others. If your food storage plans revolve around having a working freezer, you had better hope that the electricity remains on in the area where you live, or you need to make sure you have a backup that will function over the long term – and no, a diesel generator in the basement and a tank of fuel doesn’t count, not after the first few weeks of fuel shortage. That doesn’t mean that blanching and freezing some of your homegrown garden produce is a bad idea; it means you need to have something in place to power the freezer well before the brownouts start to happen, or you need to be prepared to shift to another preservation method in a hurry, or both.

This points to a second good lesson in practical ecology that can be learned from food storage, though this one’s a lesson in practical human ecology. Technologies – all technologies, everywhere – vary in their dependence on larger systems. When comparing two technologies that do the same thing, the impact of their relative dependence on different systems needs to be included in the comparison; if technology A and B both provide a given service, and technology A is cheaper, easier, and more effective than technology B under ordinary conditions, technology B can still be the wiser choice if technology A is wholly dependent on an unstable system while technology B lacks that vulnerability.

This much should be obvious, though all too often it isn’t. It’s embarrassing, in point of fact, to see how often a brittle, complex and vulnerable technology dependent on highly questionable systems is touted as “more efficient” than some simpler, more reliable and more independent equivalent, simply because the former works somewhat better on those occasions when it can be made to work at all. Just as you don’t actually know how to use a tool until you can instantly name three ways to misuse it and three things it can’t do at all, it’s a waste of time and resources to buy into any technology unless you have a pretty good idea in advance of its vulnerabilities and the ways it tends to fail.

This sort of thinking can and should be applied throughout the green wizardry we’ve been discussing in the last five months or so of posts, but food storage is a very good place to start. Let’s say you’ve decided to blanch and freeze some of the vegetables from your backyard garden. That can be a good choice, at least if you can expect your electricity supply to remain stable for the next year or two; still, you owe it to yourself and your freezer bags of Romano beans to take a moment to work out the downside. What are the main sources of electricity in your service area, and how will they be affected by likely changes in fossil fuel prices over the next couple of years? How does electricity get to you from the grid, and is that connection vulnerable? When does your service area tend to suffer blackouts, and how long do they tend to last? Are there ways you can keep a freezer powered for the duration of a longer than average blackout? Does one of those ways seem like a sensible investment, or would it be smarter to shift to a less vulnerable method of storage?

More complexities slip in when you remember that there’s often more than one way to power the same process. You can dry food, for example, in an electric dehydrator, but in any climate that isn’t too humid, you can also dry food in a solar dehydrator. This is basically a black box with small holes in the top and bottom, covered with fine mesh to keep out insects, and trays of screen-door screening stretched on wooden frames inside, with the food spaced on the trays to allow air circulation. The sun heats the box, air flows in through the bottom and carries moisture away through the top, and the food dries with no other source of power. When you’ve got adequate and reliable electricity, an electric dehydrator is more convenient and reliable; when you have reason to think that electricity will be expensive, intermittent, or not available at all, the solar dehydrator is usually the better plan.

In many cases like this last, though, the best option of all is to have and use both – the more convenient and reliable technology while you’re still on the learning curve and the larger system that supports it is still there; the more resilient and independent system in a small way all along, so that you learn its quirks and can shift over to it full time once the more complex technology becomes nonfunctional. In the same way, it can make a good deal of sense to blanch and freeze garden produce while you’re still learning your way around using home-dried foods, or to can your pickles in a hot water bath while you’re still getting the knack of older pickling methods that don’t require airtight containers.

In a time of faltering energy supplies – not to mention the spectacular self-destruction of national finances – this sort of thinking can be applied very broadly indeed. The strategy of a staged disconnection from failing technologies, made on the basis of local conditions and personal, family, and community needs, offers a pragmatic alternative to the forced choice between total dependence on a crumbling industrial system, on the one hand, or the usually unreachable ideal of complete personal or community independence on the other. The backyard-garden methods discussed in earlier posts are founded on that strategy, and most of the energy conservation and homescale renewable energy production methods that will be central to the first few months’ worth of posts next year rely on it as well.

There’s a reason for this ubiquity: the strategy of staged disconnection is the constructive alternative to catabolic collapse. A society in catabolic collapse, running short of necessary resources, cannibalizes its own productive assets to replace resource flows, and ends up consuming itself. The strategy of staged disconnection is not catabolic but metabolic; it taps into existing resource flows before shortages become severe, and uses them to bridge the gap between existing systems that are likely to fail and enduring systems that have not yet been built. At the same time, if it’s done right, it doesn’t draw heavily enough on existing systems to cause them to fail before they have to.

That’s what could have happened if the industrial world had pursued the promising initiatives of the 1970s, instead of taking a thirty-year vacation from reality that cost us the chance of a smooth transition to a sustainable future. On the collective scale, that’s water under the bridge at this point, but it can still be done on the smaller scale of individuals, families, and communities.


Food preservation and storage are among the few subsets of green wizardry where old information can land you in a world of hurt. If you intend to take up canning, in particular, you need up-to-date information; for example, the relative proportions of sugar and acid in today’s tomato varieties, as compared to those fifty years ago, are so different that recipes that were safe then can land you with botulism poisoning, i.e., quite possibly dead, if you use them today. Your county extension service can point you toward accurate information on safe canning, and so can the current edition of the Ball Blue Book.

Not all methods of food preservation are as volatile as canning. Though it’s always wise to check for updated information, some of the classics are still well worth reading. My library includes Mike and Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring, Grace Firth’s Stillroom Cookery, Phyllis Hobson’s Making and Using Dried Foods, Carol Hupping’s Stocking Up III, and Stanley Schuler and Elizabeth Meriwether Schuler’s Preserving the Fruits of the Earth.


Ryan said...
Another well crafted post. Thank you.

Please shoot a few hole through my thinking here. I have lived off grid for over 8 years utilizing a small solar array, a 1000w. wind generator, and a small battery bank. The energy mainly runs a refrigerator and an Envirolet composting toilet, along with assorted compact fluorescents, a laptop, etc. I make more energy than I consume and could charge the batteries of an electric vehicle to get myself around over short distances. If I shift to an outhouse (which I already have) and add a freezer, I would not alter the energy use pattern. I have a propane backup generator for the winter doldrums (fog and no wind), and so can skate through those times

I know that the batteries and the propane are the weak links over time. I can manufacture methane in a digester to replace the propane, but would need a compressor to put the methane under pressure, but with excess electricity, I don't see that being a problem. Is there something else that I am missing in understanding the vulnerabilities of my system?

12/15/10, 9:42 PM

Robin Datta said...
The gereral perception of ordinariness that is invoked in the descrpition that "technology A is cheaper, easier, and more effective than technology B under ordinary conditions" has been insidiously inculcated by two centuries' worth of a transition to fossil-fuel dependenc.

The " taking a thirty-year vacation from reality that cost us the chance of a smooth transition to a sustainable future" makes Transition Wizardry an imperative for transitoin at a personal scale, the scale of the Transitoin Wizard.

12/15/10, 9:55 PM

Hal said...
On these cold winter nights, when I'm bound to be using something to heat, I spend my evening hours in the kitchen and always have the oven (propane) on about 225 F with the door propped slightly open and something drying on a pan. Last couple of nights it's been sweet potatoes (bought), green tomatoes (last of the fall crop), and deer jerky (shot pretty close to here.) This way I put the heat to a dual purpose. Someday I hope to transition to wood, but as usual, there are a hundred projects in line first.

12/15/10, 10:04 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Ryan, you haven't mentioned food at all; since that's still the theme of the current set of posts, it probably ought to have been mentioned. Other than that, how's your spare parts supply and your ability to handle repairs and maintenance?

Robin, bingo. What counts as "ordinary" these days is the wildly non-ordinary situation of vast amounts of cheap abundant energy; when that goes away, and of course it's going right now, "ordinary" changes for keeps.

Hal, excellent! A solar dryer might be a good next step, if you don't have one already; that way you can dry things in the summer, when you probably don't want to be heating up the kitchen but some of the best vegetables for drying are in season.

12/15/10, 10:11 PM

Lamb said...
I do food storage. It is a reasonable action to take during precarious economic times. When I have the money to buy certain items in bulk (beans and rice, for example), I buy 100-200 pounds and repackage.
Easiest and most economical way to repackage:
2 liter bottles
Scald out bottles and let them dry completely.
Get some bay leaves and put a couple in each bottle (one in the bottom and one on top after filling). Get an appropriate sized funnel and fill those bottles with rice or beans and put the cap on tight. Store in a closet, a pantry, under your bed, where ever.
I also dehydrate foods (many of which can be stored in 2 liter bottles with O2 absorbers and bay leaves), I can foods, I use lacto-fermentation...right now have a couple of gallons of kimchi bubbling away in the pantry. I root cellar as well.
So many ways to store away food for future use!
With the economy the way it is right now, EVERYONE should have 3 months worth of food storage---just in case!

12/16/10, 1:15 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

It's December and the strawberries are doing quite well thankyou! I wouldn't want to ship them around the world though as I pick them too ripe for flavour, unlike most fruit these days and as such they wouldn't travel well.

You see cherries here in early June which always disturbs me as they're flown from who knows where in the Northern hemisphere.

Good point about using different techniques. To rely on one would be a disaster, especially when so much information and technology is available.

You put me in mind of the various systems for heating water in my house. There are three choices all linked, yet no one system is the controller, yet each will provide a different result. There is:

Roof mounted solar hot water panels which only pump water when it is warmer in the panel than the reservoir tank - Unlimited;

LPG (liquified petroleum gas) hot water booster for when it's been cloudy or I can't be bothered starting a fire - Limited to the amount stored in gas bottles (about 12 months); and

Wood for when you want to get the water really hot - Unlimited there is a lot of hardwood up here.

Much like preserving, each system has it's own quirks and hassles. None is as simple as flicking a switch to access power generated elsewhere and all have their various limitations.

People who are connected upto the mainstream systems do not realise how vulnerable they are to supply shortages.

Food is exactly the same. If it's not local, then you've got a problem. For the past few years I've tried very hard to learn what is in season and what isn't. It doesn't get that cold here that things stop growing over winter (although it slows down a lot), I can't imagine what you lot in cooler climes have to provide for.

Is there a druid presence in Australia?

Good luck!

12/16/10, 2:51 AM

gregorach said...
Everybody's library should include Mike and Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring - it's a fantastically useful reference, even if you're not homesteading and don't have a root cellar. For example, it's only from reading this book that I understand why people hang garlic by the windows - it's not to keep the vampires away, it's because that's where it keeps best. Even if you're only buying produce from the supermarket, understanding the correct storage conditions will help you reduce the amount you end up throwing out. It's one of the most useful books I own.

12/16/10, 3:49 AM

LynnHarding said...
We have been practicing alternative food storage in a very serious way for two or three years, though I have always done some canning and freezing. Root cellar has been great for potatoes - other things have not done so well. Mice are a huge problem in a root cellar. I have been thinking of trying to get an underground cat.
Fermentation in those nice german pots - takes some getting used to that food. I am afraid to eat my smelly stuff and am buying kim chi and kraut from stores where it is legal to sell (in New Hampshire.) Right now I would consider starvation as a reasonable response to my sauerkraut.
Making hard cheese from our goat's milk is surprisingly easy - but it takes some serious time and reading of the directions in the cheese books. Extensive cheesemaking will have to wait until there is no more work in the FIRE economy.
What I would like to know from all of you is: which of these methods produces the most nutritious foods? I can't imagine that much nutritious stuff survives the high heat of canning.
My guess is that lacto-fermentation (yuk) and freezing are the healthiest options. Am I right?

12/16/10, 4:55 AM

Yupped said...
We've been working through food preservation and storage decisions these last few months. For our family, a fairly typical unit of consumption until a couple of years ago, the biggest challenge has been reframing what we need to eat (as opposed to want to eat).

The "doey" projects are attractive: getting a root cellar functioning, organizing a deep pantry, learning to can, doing some drying, etc. But we pretty quickly had to get serious and stop dabbling and address a few basics: how much of our food do will we grow ourselves, how much will we store vs buy over the winter, how many months of supplies do we need on hand, and how much of all this can we realistically get three American teenagers to eat anyway?

It's more difficult to tackle these questions when we're still in this sort of interim period (something real bad's coming but we don't quite know when, meanwhile the frog is simmering along...). Necessity being the mother of invention, and all that. But we've found it helpful to set some goals, and go for them with a fair amount of focus. In earlier lives my wife and I were "management consultants" (many apologies, Universe), so we like goals and numbers and stuff. Anyway, focusing on the basic questions helped us avoid building out a too-big vanity root cellar for example...

Thanks again for all the time, tuition and inspiration!

12/16/10, 6:18 AM

hawlkeye said...
Bravo for this celebration of the Pantry Arts! For all the re-skilling needed in the garden, there's equal need in the kitchen, as so many eaters are simply no longer cookers.

I came across an excellent book called Kitchen Literacy lamenting the inability to even boil beans among the microwaving masses. Seasonal food storage must seem like graduate school to kitchen drop-outs who cannot prepare a single meal, store-bought or otherwise.

I can't imagine too many of them reading here, but Wizards of any color could do a lot worse than begin to inhabit this chasm between "growing" and "eating" now filled with refrigerated trucks and warehouses of cold storage. They are the same thing, after all.

The implications of this post do not bode well for supermarket vegetarians in the temperate climates. It'll be an even tougher row to hoe for the raw foodists without industrial refrigeration.

An entirely plant-based diet might be appropriate nearer the equator, but above the frost line, it seems the protein gets concentrated into critters for the winter. Perhaps appropriate vegetarianism is a function of latitude?

This post explains why my face crinkles into a bent expression of cognitive dissonance whenever I'm required to bring a vegetarian meal to a Transition-type meeting hosted by my more PC friends...argh.

12/16/10, 6:20 AM

Evan said...
Vitamin C ought not be an issue for most anyone who's got their head out of the sand. It is readily available all year in most any temperate climate, and with a little forethought many sources can be kept available even in the midst of winter.

Most notably, all the members of the Pine family, which includes Spruces, Firs, Hemlocks as well as the various Pines, contain Vitamin C in their needles. This is most concentrated in new shoots in the spring... I quite enjoyed nibbling on hemlock (I should note this is the tree Tsuga spp. and has nothing to do with the poisonous herbaceous plant of the same name) this past spring and look forward to doing so again in the spring. But even today, as it ices away outside and barely gets above 20, I could (and probably will) go gather a bundle of pine needles and cold steep a tea for some Vitamin C.

Countless wild foods contain vitamin C and in most any season some source can be collected from the wild -- right now Rosehips, Chickweed, Pine Needles for me -- which isn't to say folks should not store foods and herbs for this purpose, only to know that there are often backups if you cultivate the ability to read the landscape.

And count me among those who use a freezer. Since I live alone and am new to putting up food, it's really easy to get in from a few hours of picking blackberries and just throw them in the freezer and deal with them later. But I do see the day when I unplug it (from a useless outlet perhaps) and move it down to the root cellar to use as a rodent-proof seed storage/stratification box.

Banging together a solar food dehydrator is on the winter to-do based on the design from a nearby university that has a concentration in "Appropriate Technology" (!) of all things, and yet I sigh when I see how that has translated into work primarily focused on utility-scale wind research, biodiesel, and other nonsense. Occasionally it seems they do something that actually fits within my understanding of Appropriate Tech, but goodness if only they gave that subject more care and attention, what a resource they could be. Alas...

12/16/10, 6:26 AM

DIYer said...
One interesting bit of food storage chemistry, which I have learned by doing:

When you put food in the freezer in those polyethylene bags, it continues to absorb oxygen from the air. Even though the oxidation is slowed, it does not stop, and anything with unsaturated fat (fish for example) will become rancid even if frozen solid. Oxygen can slowly diffuse through most plastics.

On the other hand anything which has been canned, and properly sterilized, in glass containers, will keep for quite a long time without oxygen damage.

12/16/10, 6:26 AM

Harry J. Lerwill said...
The one thing I notice most about the lack of seasonal variation in produce today is potatoes.

I can remember my mother eagerly awaiting the first new potatoes our of our allotment (victory garden) each spring. Tiny ones you can rub the skin off rather than peel. We'd switch from mashed potatoes with Sunday lunch to boiled new potatoes.

I used to look forward too it too. I had to peel the potatoes when they were the ones from the pantry; larger, slightly rubbery, perhaps a little green where light had got to them. The old potatoes made better
chips (Fries) though.

As a child, our lives pulsed with the rhythm of the seasons. As I get older I find I miss that. With life being hectic and moving at a digital pace, I like the slow, steady beat of the seasons.

This weekend we have our circle of friends over for dinner before everyone heads off to family for the holidays. We're having lamb, hand reared by our eight year old niece.

She would not appreciate it if she knew we were eating her school project. I'm over the moon; to have meat on our table that was raised and slaughtered with dignity in our own family is such a delight. We'll keep a leg for new years eve. As the old year rolls into the new, it will be a potent symbol to us of the sustainable practices which lie in that uncertain future.

12/16/10, 8:12 AM

Lance Michael Foster said...
I've been learning lactofermentation for a year or two now, and recommend Katz' "Wild Fermentation."

A good use for junk cars is as food dehydrators, if parked in full sun, as you can roll the windows up and keep bugs away pretty well and dry in large quantities of you rig the racks right.

By the way, JMG, why is it that the older recipes are so dangerous now? Has the technology changed that much (read: lousier equipment) or that we have become so much more sensitive/weaker? I ate stuff in Africa that took time for my body to adjust to (also: chili peppers and alcohol help :-)

12/16/10, 8:26 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Hello to JMG and all:

Lately, I've come to a truer appreciation of and thankfulness for the ability to turn on the lights, freeze my herb harvest and stay warm in winter: the gas furnace is running now. We live in the north, in an urban area, so are inevitably linked, though we use much less energy than our neighbors (based on quantifiable data). We've added insulation and caulked but haven't quite figured out what to do about alternative heat sources, though investigating solar.

Community is key, one reason I like JMG's idea of staged disconnection. Our town is making a sustainability plan (independent of the transition town movement), which includes community gardens, local food-processing centers for residents to access and renewable energy on a community basis. No woodlots around here. I've been maintaining friendships with people who have different practical skill sets than my own.

I agree with hawkleye about cooking, which, without "convenience" foods takes a lot of time. I started to take baby steps into food storage and preservation through the cooking and gardening portal. Also because the farmer I buy produce from brought me so much winter squash--which I discovered by accident keeps really well in my chilly kitchen area, no special storage needed.

No one has mentioned water yet: do readers know where theirs comes from and what to do if the electrical pumps fail?

12/16/10, 8:27 AM

Lance Michael Foster said...
If a person is planning on eating stuff they grow, I've read that the backyard gardener needs to keep something in mind: calories.

While tomatoes, radishes, carrots, greens are great for taste and vitamins/minerals, the more you depend on your garden, the more to keep calories in mind. We live in a society where we have to worry the opposite, since food is everywhere and we want to cut calories.

But if TSHTF, you need to think about calories, to help stay warm and to fuel all that manual labor. Most veggies just aren't that loaded with them and most of us don't have room for sufficient grains. So keep things like potatoes, squash, and yams/sweet potatoes in mind too. They supply calories in bad times.

By the same reasoning, if TSHTF, you will be doing a 180 on fats too: animal/bird/fish, and the few veggies that have some, like avocado, nuts/seeds (not many grow here in Montana), or get yourself an oil press set-up for flax, etc. A guy on JMG's cultural conserver group made a homemade hydraulic press. Fats also serve for salves and medicines, fuel for small lamps, etc. We dis fats because we have a lot of food and eat too much, but in bad times, they are gold. Once I got dumped in an icy river when my canoe overturned, all my clothes got wet and I lost my fire stuff (temporarily) so I wrapped myself in plastic and had a tin of sardines in oil (I was shivering too hard to get the fire started). I drank the oil and it warmed me up so I could wade out and get my fire stuff from the canoe.

12/16/10, 8:38 AM

Orange Sky said...
Ah, food - a topic close to everyone! Lamb, thanks for posting your method of storage. I'll try bay leaves. I would like to encourage the gardeners to experiment with winter crops. We tried just two 3' high tunnels over a couple of raised beds made from pvc pipe and good old vizqueen. We have had temps below 20o for a few weeks, and last weekend I picked fresh kale, spinach and some sweet little white turnips. I haven't been out to check in the last few days of under 5o temps(because it would be bad to open up the flaps I tell myself.)I am encouraged - maybe I can talk my husband into a bigger structure next year. Question - can anyone recommend a rose bush that produces nice hips? I tried a few years ago and got little brown nubs. Thanks.

12/16/10, 8:54 AM

Hal said...
John, a solar drier has been on my to-do list for a couple of years. Last summer I made some very good deer jerky (if I do say so myself) by cutting some metal rack material I had down to size, sticking them in the bottom of some soft drink crates (the stackable kind you find in abundance behind convenience stores), placing the strips on the racks, and then wrapping it all up in some plastic screem material I had salvaged from who knows where. Only took a few hours on one of our hottest days of the year. It's actually slower in the oven, unless you risk cooking the meat instead of jerking it.

What I'm not sure of is what to do with the product. So far, I haven't made enough in a batch to have the problem, but I noticed that jerky collects a lot of moisture in the frige. Vacuum sealing with a desiccant pkg is the commercial norm, but that sounds like more technology than I want to deal with.

Canning meat is something I want to try, but I know it's not nearly as easy as fruits and vegetables. Right now, the freezer gets me through from one deer season to the next.

12/16/10, 8:55 AM

dragonfly said...
Many of the comments mention the use of oxygen absorbers. I used to purchase these commercially, but recently discovered a do-it-yourself version.

Basically, you rub salt on 0000 fine steel wool bit, and staple it in a paper towel. The salt causes the steel wool to rust (oxidation, hence the removal of oxygen for the process).

Thought this was worth passing on.

Here is one link - others can be found by googling it.

12/16/10, 9:17 AM

GHung said...
Thanks for another great post. In my discussions with the mainstream, it is telling how few people take food security seriously.

I was fortunate enough to build my own house and one priority was a modernized root cellar/food safe. Whe built it from poured concrete off of the back of the kitchen utility area which is below grade. It is functioning as a root cellar should, and is rodent proof (unless a little buggar sneaks in while the door is open). Its steal door is hidden behind a set of movable shelves, more for space utilization than out of paranoia.

When my mother died I inherited hundreds of canning jars and all of the equipment. Thanks, Mom! I can often, even off-season (leftover soups and stews, etc.)

One preservation method not mentioned is vacuum packing. I found a nice vacuum packer with the hose attachment that had a bad motor. I replaced the small motor with a 12DC brushless that works well and can be run solar direct from a 75 watt panel. Another find was a box of 100 small tire valves. I drilled holes in regular canning lids and installed the valves (upside down). We fill jars with dried fruits, veggies and grains, then pull a vacuum on them. This extends the storage life dramatically. Those "As Seen on TV" vacuum storage bags (for clothes, etc.) work well for storing large bags of flour and grain, as well as bags of salt and sugar. They should last for years and can be evacuated using a hand pump.

Anything that can be run PV direct is a plus. Water pumps and brushless DC fans are examples. Many computer fans are 12VDC and can be powered directly from a PV panel. Adding a small fan to a solar dehydrator can cut drying time alot. A little techy, I know, but I always look for small advantages that might make a difference. Another use for a small fan like this is to ventilate a root cellar on cold sunny days, get the temp down earlier in the fall.

My next project is a larger smoker built from an old water heater. Being able to smoke large quanities of meats and sausages in less time seems important. Get'em smoked and hanging in the root cellar.

I've discovered that time management is critical when foods are ready for preservation. Be prepared before you harvest. Stockpile jar lids, salt, sugar, citric acid and vinegar for use until you can find local sources. Reusable canning lids are available.

Just some JMG inspired thoughts. Thanks!

12/16/10, 9:37 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Lamb, good. Are you teaching what you know to others?

Cherokee, I know, I was thinking in northern hemisphere terms. Gotta remember I have readers on your side of the planet, where the seasons stand on their heads.

There are quite a few Druids in Australia -- only a few members of the order I head, but some of the other orders have a large presence.

Gregorach, I bet you haven't been bothered by vampires since you started hanging garlic in the windows, either, now have you?

Lynn, there again, it depends on the food, and on the particular nutrients.

Yupped, that's exactly the kind of thinking you need to be doing! Excellent.

Hawlkeye, I'll be talking about a lot of the points you raise in next week's post. Major issues...

Evan, wild foods are good if you're in a place where you can harvest them without harming the local ecosystem; a lot of my readers are in towns and cities, where this isn't the case. As usual, there ain't no one right way.

DIYer, an excellent point. We tend to use a lot of glass can-freeze jars with good tight lids.

Harry, new potatoes -- really new, as in right out of the garden -- are one of the gods' real gifts. Enjoy that leg of lamb!

Lance, neither one -- it's the change in the chemistry of the vegetables themselves, many of which have been bred to have much more sugar and less acid. Canning tomatoes in a hot water bath was safe when tomatoes were a high-acid food, but a lot of tomatoes these days are so sweet that bacteria can thrive in them that couldn't touch them in the old days.

Adrian, I'll be talking quite a bit about cooking soon. The short version is that it doesn't have to take a lot of time, even if you're cooking from raw materials. As for water, we'll be getting to that in the not too distant future.

12/16/10, 9:51 AM

blue sun said...
"Which of these is the best option? Wrong question."

I love it! What marvelous prose.

Don't they still dry beans down there in Appalachia by hanging them from the attic rafters?

12/16/10, 9:58 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Lance, good. The reason people eat tiny portions of rabbit food these days -- well, aside from the stark gibbering terror of fat that obsesses so many people nowadays -- is that most of us have completely sedentary lives. Start working with your muscles and walking a couple of miles a day, and those old-fashioned farmhouse breakfasts -- steak and eggs, pancakes, fried apples, hash browns, and toast with plenty of butter, and yes, this is all one meal -- start to make a lot more sense.

Orange Sky, we've got a cold frame going for the first time this winter, with kale, radishes, turnips, and snow peas -- definitely a pleasant thing. As for rose hips, you want one of the old varieties, dog rose, sweetbriar, or apothecary rose -- we've got two of the latter in the back yard, and plan on harvesting hips as well as making our own rose water.

Hal, I'd try putting it in glass canning jars on a dry day and then fridging it.

Dragonfly, thank you! This is clever.

Ghung, thank you also! These are excellent points, and of course vacuum sealing just extends the ecological principle in a different direction -- excluding bacteria by keeping them from getting oxygen. I'll have to try the trick with the tire valves and the canning jars; it'll make good practice for homebuilt vacuum tubes, too.

12/16/10, 9:59 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Blue Sun, I don't know anybody here in town that does that, but then Cumberland's got a reputation to uphold as the local center of culture and sophistication -- live theater, art galleries, that sort of thing, so people dry their beans out of sight in the basement. Back up in the hills, you bet.

12/16/10, 10:02 AM

Don Plummer said...
An interesting thing happened to me this year. I grew some Thai peppers; they're really small, they're orange, and they're moderately hot (on the order of jalapeños). I was going to dry them in an electric food dryer, but by the time I got to them, they had dried themselves on the kitchen counter! They're still in good shape; I've been using them whenever I want to spice things up a bit.

12/16/10, 10:27 AM

Sarah said...
I also recommend Katz's "Wild Fermentation" but my favorite fermentation book is "Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation" by The Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante. Long title, excellent book, and (this to Lynn Harding) delicious recipes!

Also, I have been canning for many years, and my mother canned when I was growing up - I have never had a problem with the "old" recipes and books. My go-to canning bible is "Putting Food By" (Greene) But then again, I only grow and can heirloom varieties.

Lance Michael Foster is correct about calories and fat also. Winter in cold climates demands (it doesn't ask politely) extra calories - meat and fat, milk (cheese, butter) and eggs, and higher-calorie foods such as berries (jam), honey, nuts, fish oils and starches will all become critically important once you can no longer drive down to the local store. Most of us have no idea what it means to become truly hungry, and when the temperature drops, fat for the brain is essential for proper decision-making as well. The indigenous populations well knew the value and life-saving properties of fat. There is a term, "rabbit starvation" that illustrates perfectly the dietary disaster of eating too much protein (low-fat rabbits) without the fat necessary for our biology. More here:

Orange Sky: Rosa Rugosa?

12/16/10, 10:29 AM

jewishfarmer said...
Two comments on a fine a post on a subject dear to my heart. First, it is possible even in the most humid climates to build a solar food dehydrator that will get you dry, rather than moldy food. There's a great model at in their homesteading section. I have one like it and it works extraordinarily well, even during the summer we had 40+ inches of rain.

Second, there are actually two answers to Lance's question. First, we have bred some borderline fruits into lower acidity, which raises the risk of botulism, particularly in tomatoes. But that's not the only reason. The other reason is that we know more about the chemistry of food preservation, and we know, for example, that tiny bits of mold in an imperfect seal, say under a lid that had some food on the rim, for example, can lower the acidity of marginal products to unsafe levels. The reality is that once upon a time, now and again someone dropped dead horribly from botulism. They still do, although frankly more infrequently, mostly when using older canning techniques on the "Well, Grandma didn't die" reasoning" but it can be avoided, and it is one of those things there's no upside to, so why court it?


12/16/10, 10:47 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
"Cumberland's got a reputation to uphold as the local center of culture and sophistication"

Reputations can be dangerous things... just so long as they don't start trying to outlaw things like clotheslines, front-yard vegetable gardens, and unmowed lawns as "trashy"...

The energy-intensity and ultimate long-term sustainability of different food preservation methods is pretty easy to judge from how long they have been around. Drying, salting, fermentation, cellaring, etc, go back forever (for all practical purposes), canning is relatively recent, home freezers are quite new historically speaking. Canning and freezing will likely remain practical for quite some time to come; but they do require more infrastructure, maintenance, and energy.

12/16/10, 12:14 PM

sofistek said...
The start to this week's post is appropriate to a discussion I've been having with someone (who happens to be a member or supporter of our Green party) about food trade. Long distance food trade strikes me as unsustainable. However, the other guy doesn't see it that way, though acknowledging that fresh foods is out of the question. With sailing ships and wind energy (both on and off deck) to support the trade, and with wind energy for electricity generation having a quite good EROEI, he sees no reason why long distance food trade cannot be part of a sustainable society or civilisation.

I'd have to concede that, in itself, long distance food trade might be sustainable (if the total resources required to support it are sustainable) but that a society that was trying to live sustainably would not see such trade as part of the mix of behaviours that could be sustainably supported. The net energy available to that society can't support anything that might be desirable - we have that society now, at an EROEI of 20-40; society has to prioritise.

Any thoughts?

12/16/10, 12:36 PM

SweaterMan said...

After reading your post a few minutes ago, I stepped out to the stacks and checked out a copy of "The Solar Food Dryer" by Eben Fodor.

Have your interested readers check their local public library; they can probably always get it through interlibrary loan if they don't own a copy themselves.

It looks like it has some great plans inside, so I'll work on that for a winter project as it's been snowing all day and I'll need something to keep me busy for the next few months!

12/16/10, 1:37 PM

William Hunter Duncan said...

I canned tomatoes this season. Not many, but all were heirloom. Should I be worried about Botulism? I simply crushed the tomatoes, boiled them, and poured them into a mason jar that had been in boiling water.

Also, I published a post on housing, in a series I'm calling Real Wealth, on my blog. I'd be curious to hear what you think. Blessings,

William Hunter Duncan

12/16/10, 1:38 PM

Mark said...
It's very refreshing to read such, literally, down to earth writings -- so eloquently written and concise. Thank you for providing this resource!

I've become very addicted to lacto-fermentation, dehydration, and root cellaring as my main storage methods.

I have a few books to throw into the mix that I've found invaluable along my journey.

-Wild Fermentation by Sandor Elix Katz

-Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation by The Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante (Basically a rural french village community!)

-Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (Not exclusively preservation techniques, but loaded with them and a heavy focus on traditional food preparation and nutrition -- another invaluable green wizard food resource)

12/16/10, 1:55 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Don, that'll happen with some vegetables!

Sarah, many thanks for the references and links; I'll check them out.

Sharon, that's good to know about the solar dehydrator. My experience with one was in Bellingham, WA, which gets a fair amount of rain but has decently hot summers; this was also a souped-up model with a flat plate collector preheating the air, and had to be tended carefully so it didn't get too hot and cook the vegetables!

Bill, pigs can legally be raised inside the Cumberland city limits, so I don't think I have much to worry about.

Sofistek, your friend -- like most people these days -- has never thought through the extent to which limited energy impacts the sphere of economics. Without fossil fuels, shipping foodstuffs over long distances only makes sense for those things that have a lot of value but little volume or weight -- spices, for example, or coffee beans. Bulk grains can be an option if you've got really good sailing technology, but only if the people who are buying it have something very valuable to trade for it and little arable land locally. For almost everything else, it's more economical to produce food locally.

(BTW, you posted something on food preservation to a post from a couple of weeks ago -- was that deliberate?)

SweaterMan, thanks for the reference! I'll check it out.

William, I'd talk to somebody from your local extension office before you eat any of them. If you didn't even heat them after they'd been sealed, I'd be worried about bacteria.

12/16/10, 2:00 PM

Don Plummer said...
Orange Sky, the roses of the Rosa rugosa species are good sources for hips. They are easy to grow, too, but give them room--they like to sucker. And they are quite prickly, too.

12/16/10, 2:17 PM

sgage said...

Let me second what JMG said.

If you didn't give your tomatoes at least 10 minutes of a boiling bath after canning (that's 10 minutes of boiling, not 10 minutes in hot water), I'd be a bit concerned.

12/16/10, 3:21 PM

Petro said...
Thanks for your continuing work, JMG.

In the spirit of this post, I bring you the Pot-in-pot refrigerator.

(In case my HTML doesn't take, here's the link URL:

12/16/10, 4:07 PM

rakesprogress said...
I always enjoy your blog, but this time I wanted to comment on something. You've really hit on a wonderful point, one so anethema to modernism that one rarely encounters it. The essence of your post is to emphasize the importance of plurality, in a practical but also a philosophical sense.

This opens an important door. A great number of people recognize the predicament our civilization is in but can't convincingly visualize a way forward. That visualization is really important, because without it, our situation is a desparate combination of psychological stress and functional paralysis. A breeding ground for despair, violence, and disease.

The way forward, though, is not a single way but rather many ways in concert.

The modern intellectual approach is not at all about plurality. It is monolithic, and this goes a long way toward explaining both its astounding successes and its fragility. Within the confines of its definition, a monolithic, focused system can achieve potent results such as putting a man on the moon, splitting the atom, or near instantaneous global communications. The ultimate apology for modernism is look at all the wonderful things that would not have been otherwise possible.

However, this focus and power has come at a cost. These achievements have required defining narrower bounds for operations than those presented by the natural world at large. Within an artificially closed system, energy can be made practically free as long as we define the system's boundary to keep out the "externalities" of environmental degradation and don't look so far into the future that sustainability rears its ugly head. With nearly free energy, of course, come our civilization's crowning achievments.

Another way of looking at this is that the monolithic system is intriniscally wasteful. The economists won't tell you this, but the common word for their externalities is waste. (I believe this will sound familiar to those versed in the exemplary writings of Wendell Berry.)

By contrast, a system sufficiently pluralistic to encompass the entire natural reality is traditional rather than modern. It has no wastes, since each output is also an input, and it is manifest in a network of adaptations to specific local circumstances rather than a single homegenous procedure applied at all levels.

It's no wonder the plural arrangement is the one that emerged from the physical conditions on this planet. Modernism is clearly exceptional.

I'm not setting up my own hard and fast dichotomy. The focused and monolithic activity has always had a place in human enterprise; the only new and truly dysfunctional thing is the idea that it can totally replace the plural, the custom-fit, and the compromise that are an essential part of connected natural systems. One day we'll be able to let go of that prejudice, and return to a healthy flexibility.

12/16/10, 4:19 PM

sofistek said...
My focus would, and will, be on food preservation techniques that don't require an energy source other than the sun, and don't require energy storage such as batteries. The only resources we can count on in the future is what nature provides, day to day.

So I think drying and fermentation will be the main techniques I plan to develop skills in.

[Sorry, JMG, I posted this to the wrong discussion earlier. I've no idea how that happened.]

12/16/10, 5:46 PM

Sarah said...
The important thing with canning is the cleanliness of your operation - this is why I love the book, Putting Food By, as it discusses in detail how to make sure you are canning properly and safely. As for tomatoes that are less acidic, if you are worried about it, simply pressure-can them instead of water-bath. I prefer to lacto-ferment as much as possible, as it is easy to tell if something is bad just by the smell of it. Your nose is a very good guide - if something doesn't smell "right" then listen to it.

12/16/10, 6:04 PM

SophieGale said...
No one has brought up the ice house as a replacement for refrigeration. If you have a pond that will freeze 8" deep, you can cut ice,layer with sawdust, and cover with tarp. There are also plans on the 'net for solar powered ice makers, which use ammonia for a coolant. Ammonia-based technology is not for the clumsy or careless, but if you are good at it, you might might consider ice-making as a sideline job.

This week I found a web page on Viking food, and while it's not a how-to, I was surprised to learn that salted butter can last for years--and I'd never heard of skyr, which is something like yogurt.

12/16/10, 8:42 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Ryan,

Living on off grid solar, I can't see how you'd be able to generate enough excess power for an electric vehicle - unless you are speaking about an electric bicycle.

Dude, stop smoking and get on and do something.

What gave you away was the reference to a small battery bank. You have it the wrong way around. You need a large battery bank as the life of the battery bank can only be extended when you don't draw down on them very much. If you have all that generating capacity and no where to store it, it's a pointless system. Even worse, batteries being a chemical reaction, they don't store energy the same way a water tank stores water which will keep filling up at maximum supply until it is full. What I mean, is that as you near or exceed 85% capacity of stored energy in the batteries the systems charge controllers do not accept anywhere near the full generating capacity of the system to reduce the possibility of off gassing hydrogen (and I use sealed lead acid gel batteries which recombine the gas into the mixture).

A 1,000w wind turbine will also require a dump load to absorb all of the excess generating capacity that your batteries charge controller rejects. If you do not have this, the turbine may self destruct - this is not such a problem with a smaller capacity wind turbine generator.

Any off grid electrical system comes at the end of a long and technical industrial process. It can't be muddled through. The whole system is vulnerable from the regulators, to the fuses, to the inverter - not to mention the batteries themselves.

An electric vehicle consumes 300w of energy to travel 1km (apologies for the metric units). A sealed lead acid battery containing enough energy to travel 10km weighs around 100kg. The batteries I use in my house have 30,000w of energy (about 10 days supply for me) and weigh 1,200kg. This weight is more than the weight of either of my petrol driven vehicles. With this power and not taking the weight into consideration, I could only travel 100km. The most efficient vehicle I have uses 6 litres of petrol to perform the same magic of travelling 100km.

We use 240 volt wiring in Australia. My understanding of the commercially available electric vehicles here is that they require a 15amp socket and take upwards of 8 hours to charge (or I think about 1 to 2 hours for an 80% charge). My off grid system which is considered to be pretty good, could only power this for about half an hour before shutting down due to overload.

Given the price of electricity (and it's cheap here because of the use of brown coal), it still makes very little sense to have an electric vehicle.

Electric vehicles are not a good idea for the sort of commuting that people do on a daily basis.

I'd stick to growing fruit and vegetables as a sensible precaution.

Good luck!

12/16/10, 11:02 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Adrian Ayres Fisher,

About the water and pumps. What people used to do was have a small water tank on either a stand above the house, on the roof, or in the roof. The small tank would supply water at some pressure for the whole house. It was pumped up there by either hand or a wind driven pump. The main water supply was collected in large water tanks sitting on the ground. The tanks are either made out of galvanised iron or reinforced concrete. Nowdays, they are made from plastic.

If you want to get mains type pressure, the small water tank needs to be at least 70 metres (about 210+ foot) higher than the tap.

We use an electric pump and storage pressure tank to generate the pressure for the house here.

Good luck!

12/16/10, 11:26 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

In the spirit of cheekiness I thought that I might mention to most of you and your northern hemisphere readers that I have my first batch of ripe white peaches today (Anzac variety which is a local variety with an interesting history). Not to mention the cherries. mmmm yum!

I'm actually starting to select for fruit varieties that do well here, even trying seedlings contrary to popular advice and opinion.

Food preserving is definitely on the list. Much respect to all that are practising it.

Good luck!

12/17/10, 12:23 AM

hawlkeye said...
It seems to me the predicament of long-distance transport of foodstuffs isn't in the economics of the energy required, but the security. Without reliable protection of the route, there would be tons of risk and little dependability.

Running gauntlets of piracy has barely begun on the high seas, and when it becomes common in the hinterlands, trade loops will shrink drastically.

But when a new pair of sails breaks the horizon, I'll be down at the dock to welcome it with everyone else. What amazing cargo might miraculously appear? Ah, lemons, ginger root, real coffee to spike the chickory tea!

Must be the sugarplums dancing in my dreams...

12/17/10, 5:06 AM

blue sun said...
Just for the record, I think it should be clearly stated that it is not necessary to eat meat, even in a cold climate. Living without meat can be done and it has been done. Helen and Scott Nearing lived this way for over 50 years in rural Vermont, then Maine. And they worked outside with their hands---building stone houses, chopping wood, etc. You can read about it in their book "The Good Life."

They ate some dairy and traded long-distance for things like olive oil and avocados, and they remained quite healthy, all within a low energy context, off-the-grid. I'm sure there are some out there who would argue endlessly about how living entirely without meat is unsustainable, uneconomical, or undesirable for a number of reasons, and I wouldn't disagree with them, on many points. Meat has great utility, to be sure. My point is not that eliminating meat *should* be done, but merely that it *can* be done, even in a cold-climate, heavy-manual-labor, low-fossil-fuel context.

Anyone who's read The Good Life would be quick to point out that the Nearings were fanatics, and didn't even own pets because they considered it exploitation. But hey, I'm sure this blog's readership has its fair share of fanatics, too. A couple readers have cited sources from Sally Fallon of the--arguably fanatical anti-soy and anti-vegetarian--Weston A. Price movement. I would say this: please be wary of anyone who says "you have to eat meat." (For that matter, be wary of anyone who says you "have" to do anything.)

12/17/10, 7:34 AM

Ric said...
Another video that has little relevance to the original post, but I thought would interest some here:

Lego Antikythera Mechanism

The ability to predict the seemingly unpredictable has lead to influence in the past.

12/17/10, 8:42 AM

Matt and Jess said...
Great post. Right now I'm trying to figure out how to keep my potatoes from sprouting after only one week in storage. We're currently (temporarily) in a 3rd floor apartment with little storage space so they go in a dark, dry drawer. I'll have to get the root cellar book and figure out what conditions potatoes need to be stored.

As one of the (probably) few followers of your blog that does follow a plant-based diet (which won't be changing anytime soon, since I'm disgusted by the thought of animal products), I find it interesting to read about some vegan sports people, like Scott Jurek, an ultrarunner, and how they get enough calories. Of course it's hard to say how much of their diet depends on foods local to their environment. I think that whenever we end up getting our home I'll need to make the root cellar a priority to house all of the starchy products we'll need to survive.

Adding a twist to the discussion of canning recent vs. older varieties of tomatoes: so what if you're canning heirloom varieties? Can you use more modern recipes or must you use older recipes? I just got a couple newer canning books, and I'm wondering if they would work with heirloom varieties of tomatoes or if you must use recent breeds.

12/17/10, 11:42 AM

DIYer said...
dragonfly's comment just triggered a synthesis -- your homemade oxygen absorber can be a small polyethylene bag with a watertight seal. Since the plastic is porous to oxygen, it can go either way.

Put your rusting steel wool into the little plastic bag, squish out as much air as you can, and seal it. Then drop it into the glass container prior to sterilization.

The plastic bag makes it possible to fish out the absorber from most any food material.

12/17/10, 1:17 PM

Sarah said...
blue sun, while I do recognize that there are some human beings who appear able to live for many years on a vegetarian diet, please do not minimize the fact that most people cannot. Our species evolved on a meat-and-fat-eating diet, and our evolved-large brains are directly attributed to such. There is a reason that vegetarians must take vitamin B12 pills in order to remain healthy - because it is a critical vitamin for human bodies that cannot be found in a non-meat diet.

Sally Fallon is in no way anti vegetables. She is anti-soy products, as they are produced in the United States. She clearly differentiates between eating "soy" products and eating soy that has been properly fermented, as the asian cultures traditionally did.

No one is making you do anything - but I AM telling you that human beings need critical nutrients. Please see these rebuttals to your post:

There is nothing fanatical about eating the way our ancestors did for thousands of years.

12/17/10, 3:02 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Tomato and other canning --

Present-day "hierloom" varieties vary enormously in their acid and sugar content; without a pH meter it is impossible to judge. There is little cost and great benefit to "over-canning." Recommended times and pressures are minima for safe canning. I always pressure can tomatoes, even though boiling water is still considered safe in some circles. The cost: a bit of extra fuel, a bit more excess heat in the house (though this can be nice at the end of the season when the big pre-freeze harvest comes in just before the first good cold snap!), perhaps a very slight additional loss of color and texture. The benefit: vastly greater peace of mind whenever you use your canned goods.

When canning mixed foods (e.g. salsa), can to the longest requirement of anything in the mix. So if your salsa has peppers and onions in it, pressure can it for the longest time recommended for any individual ingredient, even thought it might be 90% tomatoes.

There is no reason to skimp on canning. If you can't afford the fuel to run the pressure canner, better to solar dry the food than take an elevated risk of poisoning. Dried home-grown tomatoes are also fantastically delicious!

12/17/10, 3:24 PM

Mary said...
On storage, the timing couldn't be better. Last week my Johnny's catalog arrived. Perusing the squash and potato secions I noticed an emphasis on long-storing varieties. And then saw a brief sidebar on storage: what can be stored and for how long. And environments,which range from cold/humid, cool/humid, cold/dry and warm/dry. Possible locations the listed: cooler, root cellar, unheated shed or porch and basement. And then a link to more detailed vegetable storage info:

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to researching solar driers. Thank you all for the inspiriation and direction!

12/17/10, 5:37 PM

Joan said...
Speaking of oxygen removal, here's the Quick Root Cellar formula; I think it's from Gene Logsdon (whose books, btw, are entirely worth owning):

Start with a weathertight dirt-floored space and a refrigerator that has failed mechanically but still seals tight. To be totally PC, you should have all the hardware from the back of the fridge carefully removed, with special attention to bleeding out the coolant. Clean and disinfect the inside of the fridge. Dig a hole in the dirt floor and bury the fridge on its back so that the level of the dirt comes to within an inch or two of the doors. Now start piling in the root vegies. At the end, you need a candle with its wick trimmed good and short so when you light it you get a small not-too-hot flame. Ideally it should be inside an old tin can or glass jar to prevent it touching something or dripping wax on the produce. Last thing before you close up your new root cellar, light the candle and set it inside. It will use up all the oxygen in the sealed space and then go out harmlessly. Every time you get something out of the root cellar, light the candle last thing, just like the first time.

This arrangement works great for beets and cabbage family roots. I have not tried it for other roots (such as potatoes or sunchokes) or above-ground storage vegies such as cabbage.

12/17/10, 6:12 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Don, thanks for the info.

Sgage, that's my sense as well!

Petro, seriously cool. This is the kind of appropriate tech we need more people to know and use.

Rake's Progress, excellent. You get tonight's gold star, for getting the core of the dissensus argument.

Sofistek, good. It's better to have a vast knowledge of a few things than a half-vast knowledge of many...

Sarah, thanks for the book recommendation -- I'll check it out.

Sophie, depending on where you live and what resources you have, an icehouse could be a very useful thing. For that matter, I'd be willing to bet that some form of refrigeration technology is either kept going or reinvented early, if only so that people can get cold beer on hot summer days!

Cherokee, enjoy those peaches. Here fresh local produce consists of radishes, turnips, kale, and snow peas from the cold frame.

Hawlkeye, security's also an issue -- it's amused me to watch how fast the people who mocked Jim Kunstler for warning of piracy in The Long Emergency shut up when Somali pirates hit the news. Still, if transportation costs mean that a dinner made from imported food costs twice (or fifteen times) as much as one made from local produce, there isn't going to be much of a market for anything but the things you plan to get off the boat. (Me, I want good tea from China!)

Blue Sun, if eating a vegetarian diet works for you, great. It certainly doesn't work for everyone, but then neither does any other diet.

Ric, you need to talk to some old-fashioned astrologers -- the kind who casts charts by hand instead of using a computer program. They don't need Legos to predict eclipses and tell you when the evening star is going to appear next! Mind you, the Antikythera mechanism is a lovely bit of technology, and hand-cranked, too, but Legos may be in short supply in a deindustrial future...

Matt and Jess, you can certainly use modern methods to can heirloom vegetables -- my spouse and I have done it with good results, and so have most of the other home canners we know.

DIYer, hmm -- you'd want to make sure the plastic wouldn't leach anything unwelcome into your food, just to start with. Still, an interesting concept.

Sarah, I agree with you in general -- I don't do at all well on a vegetarian diet, and I know people who have ruined their health trying to follow one -- but I'm going to draw a line at this point beneath the whole topic of meat vs. meatless diets, because it very quickly tends to degenerate into anger on both sides. Darwin will settle who's right!

Bill, I certainly agree about drying. We can pickles, jams, and other high-acid foods that can be done in a boiling water bath, but that's about it -- all the extra tomatoes from this year's harvest went into the food dryer, and we'll be enjoying the results all winter long.

Mary, thanks for the link!

Joan, nice. Another very clever bit of technological repurposing.

12/17/10, 7:51 PM

DIYer said...
More on the topic of oxygen removal -- it is good to know whether the thing you are preserving is alive or dead.

For example, a potato is a living thing. If you completely exclude oxygen from it, it will die and rot. A live potato, if stored in a cool location, has mechanisms shared by other living things to protect it from oxygen damage. Of course its storage life is limited, and it's best if kept cool and dry, but not too dry.

A can of tomatoes is not alive, and oxygen can only degrade it.

Oh, and thanks to Sharon and others for mentioning botulism -- no laughing matter. You want to make sure your dead food is completely dead, including the microbes.

12/18/10, 7:12 AM

Laney said...
Two things:

1. Drying peppers: I string small peppers (rooster spur, chili) with a needle and thread through the stem, then hang them in my pantry to dry.

2. Root cellaring in the American South: Does root cellaring work in climates where the ground does not freeze for extended periods? I've always been hesitant to try root cellaring because of my mother's advice that "cellars don't work here."

12/18/10, 8:24 AM

Brad K. said...
@ yupped,

Experienced horse owners know the frustration of watching a new horse owner look for a first horse.

The advice offered is usually along the lines of "buy only the horse you need today. Don't overbuy." Too often, the new owner will look for an experienced and talented hunter-jumper, racer, and rodeo star. At a cheap price.

The reality is - don't buy a horse suited to do what you will take a year or two learning. First, by the time you reach that skill level, your interests will have developed as well - and that 'perfect' horse won't likely be what you need at that time. Second, if the horse is a highly skilled performer - the new owner doesn't have the skill to keep the horse in productive discipline or how to even ride the horse safely, since the horse expects professional skill levels from his rider. And, lastly, spending too much for the horse often means that there isn't enough money left to provide adequate care.

The most important tool is one that you know how to use well.

Rather than buy or build your destination setup, start with what you are ready to use now. Plan your garden with what you know how to grow, harvest, process, and store. Add a few things that you plan to learn to process. Once you master canning (you can use grocery store produce to practice, so it doesn't take years to get started), then incorporate what you know into your garden plan.

Just one possible kink in your plans. You can use the Mormon calculators to estimate the staples needed for any number of people for a year (a year's complete pantry is a standard practice for the LDS). But - what happens when you need to care for a family that loses their home? A neighbor that suffers a loss? You end up hosting a friend's wedding?

Expanding your 'family' to include others, related or not, may be as important as getting the beans planted.

And what you need once you start should be expected to change as you find new interests and joy in your work.

12/18/10, 10:05 AM

Katie said...
Hmm. My family recently got involved in CERT (community emergency response team), and my mother's actually on the board of directors for their county. It's really intended for short term emergencies, but I wonder if I could convince her to suggest some longer-term preparedness plans? I could probably sell the benefits of a solar food dryer at least to my immediate family...

Thanks once again for the excellent post!

12/18/10, 11:02 AM

DIYer said...
Oh, and one other note on the oxygen absorbers -- I see that the referenced article suggests storing them in freezer (plastic) bags. And it states that commecial oxygen absorbers are in polymer (plastic) packaging. Furthermore, it suggests putting the iron wool oxygen scavenger in a paper towel (paper that could have been bleached with chlorine or sulfur dioxide). Also note that steel wool you buy from the hardware store is probably treated with a bit of machine oil to slow down the rusting process. So you'll run into traces of various chemicals everywhere.

In fact, I see a flaw in storing the absorbers in freezer bags. As I mentioned in my first post, oxygen will be pulled right through the bag and the steel will continue to rust in that environment.

As for the novel idea of using oxygen absorbers in canning, it probably does have some details to be ironed out. In pressure-canning, the air should be driven out by steam anyway, so residual oxygen isn't a big problem.

I see from a web search that these absorbers are typically used for dry foods. Might be an interesting exercise to calculate how much iron you need to remove all residual oxygen from a glass jar of dry nuts sealed in air at room temperature. Sometimes stoichiometry can hold surprises (not always unpleasant ones I might add).

12/18/10, 11:03 AM

sofistek said...
On potatoes; I've been surprised (probably because ALL of this is new to me) at how long potatoes last in the soil. I've often missed a few when I've dug up plants and found them months later, in perfect condition. I haven't explored this, or documented it, so I can't tell under what conditions this works but I've often read that many root vegetables keep best by leaving them in the soil, if you can.

12/18/10, 12:45 PM

Apple Jack Creek said...
Regarding squash & it's "keepability": 2 summers ago, I grew some spaghetti squash from the seeds of one I bought at the grocery store (scraped the seeds out before I cooked the thing, dried them, and planted them in the garden the next spring - got lots of squash, too!)

I put several of the resulting yellow gourds in a styrofoam cooler in the coolest room in the house (not all THAT cool, but the door is often shut and the heat doesn't get in there as much as everywhere else). Long story short - more than a year later, I remembered they were there (oops) and found that one had gotten too soft (so it went outside to chickens/sheep), but the others were still fine.

They are excellent keepers! And they make great soup: just cut in half, scoop out seeds (to plant, of course!), bake in the oven in a dish of water, then scrape the cooked squash into the food mill, puree, and reheat with a bit of milk and some spices. Cream of squash soup - delicious!

I'll definitely be growing more of these, they pretty much preserve themselves! :)

12/18/10, 8:59 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

I've been thinking about last weeks post and it's occurred to me that should the peak oil community join the mainstream, then the only outcome can be, well, nothing.

The reason for my opinion is that the powers to be won't actively acknowledge and communicate the concept of peak oil and all it's ramifications. The problem with doing this is that the population may in turn, ask for something to be done about it.

The difficulty comes when the reality is that for anything constructive to be achieved, the standard of living must (for the general population itself) be reduced. The political backlash for such a response would be somewhat severe (maybe). This threatens the positions of the powers that be. Worst of all is that energy from the political class maybe expended on activities promoting the status quo right up to the final end game. If however, there is a general decline then they'll simply fade away, which is a nicer outcome for all concerned.

So, it seems to me that any activism in relation to peak oil will be a waste of time.

Anyone for a committee?

People are social creatures so will resist the facts beyond the point at which they are incontrovertible. You only need to look at the difficulties we have here when a major fire threatens my part of the world (in February 2009, 173 people died here over the course of a few days - despite repeated and loud government warnings – people afterwards still argued that there weren't enough warnings)

Having the knowledge and resources to be able to assist others post collapse will be the ticket to a future. Plus maybe learning how to make a good alcoholic cider (mmm more apple trees) and having some stashed away commodities...

What do you think?

Good luck!

12/19/10, 1:03 AM

hawlkeye said...
Seems to me a root cellar would be more required where the soil freezes solid in the winter, otherwise, why not just leave the roots in the ground?

This season in southern Oregon, the fall was so wet, I never got in to the muck to dig up the potatoes and carrots. So before the first freeze, I just mulched them deep (more than a foot) with straw mulch. So far, so delicious, like digging up a treasure of red and orange coins.

I know Eliot Coleman and other hardy New Englanders have some great tricks like this; all his books deserve shelf-space.

I'm pretty sure the "longer storage" varieties do better in the ground as well as a cellar; especially lucky to have an heirloom spud named 'Dottie Todd' and she lasts forever underground, very prolific.

That's the great thing about some of the older kinds, you can't lose them! Precious...

12/19/10, 4:57 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Laney -- cellaring in the South:

Jeff Poppen a.k.a. The Barefoot Farmer has a "root cave" here in Tennessee that he uses with good results. I'm curious to see it in person (I believe it is constructed, not a natural cave). Our mean annual soil temperature here is around 60F. So it works in the mid south. Don't know about the deep south. I do know in the tropics live roots can be stored well on open shelves, at least for months. Remember also the farther south you go the shorter the winter is, so with staggered plantings you can lengthen the growing season and have less need for long-term storage.

One simple way to preserve root crops alive in climates where the soil frosts are shallow or non-existent is to simply leave them in the ground! If you protect them from rodents and remember to dig them before they start to sprout in spring, many can be overwintered this way just fine.

12/19/10, 6:05 AM

Ric said...
"Mind you, the Antikythera mechanism is a lovely bit of technology, and hand-cranked, too, but Legos may be in short supply in a deindustrial future..."

I refuse to believe in a future without Legos... :-)

Having a bit of experience working with cast bronze, what struck me while watching the video was the amount of craftsmanship that must have gone into the original device. Simply amazing.

12/19/10, 8:24 AM

Lance Michael Foster said...
Calories can be tough to get in a less foody world. As for all those people who think they are going to get what they need from foraging wild plants, this is a sobering read:

12/19/10, 9:14 AM

DIYer said...
I'm back with that stoichiometry report.

I decided to calculate how much iron is required to remove all the oxygen from one liter of air at standard conditions. The assumptions are:
1. The air will be in a perfectly sealed container, no stray oxygen sneaking in. So, a glass or metal container.
2. The iron is pure iron, no rust to begin with.
3. It will end up as Fe2O3, or rust. A little water may be used to start the rusting process.

The answer is 0.67 grams of iron or about 1/60th of a teaspoon. In the form of filings or iron wool it will take up a lot more space, of course.

So it isn't unreasonable for a small homebrew or commercial oxygen absorber to remove -all- the oxygen from a properly sealed container. (and remember that a plastic container can never be perfectly sealed against oxygen)

12/19/10, 1:19 PM

Hal said...
On the subject of ways to evacuate a small jar, here's a system that always impressed me. I saw it demonstrated at a fair several years ago, and it definitely works.

They have a lot of very ingenious appropriate tech devices at their main link. I may have given this one before, pardon if so.

(Laney) As far as root cellaring in the deep south, I don't know why it wouldn't work to at least keep things at a cooler temperature. I have stood in a two-foot hole in my barefeet in the hottest time of the summer on the MS gulf coast and had to get out of it because it was too cold. It was very close to an area that is always wet, probably an old creek that got filled in and not completely successfully culverted when the city was developed.

On the general subject of food preservation, it occurred to me as I was taking a deer to the processor this week, that some forms of food processing have long been specializations that some people do in a community. Not all divisions of labor are bad, and "butcher, baker, candlestick maker" goes back a long way. What specifically occurred to me is that food preservation in many forms might be a viable cottage industry in the future.

Specialization works when it has a organic place in the life of a community. Most of us are not going to be Laura Ingalls Wilder's father in the Little House books, nor is there any reason we should want to be.

When I take an animal to the processor, I stick around and chat with the people there, so I can collect the heart and liver for my dog. That gives me an opportunity make connections and watch them at work. They can do a far better and probably safer job than I could: what would take me all day is done in a short time by them, and the product I get is a lot better than I've ever done. Sausages and other products I could never replicate.

Well, we have some folks at our Farmer's Market who are great at canning and pickling. Why not a niche occupation for people like that? Hmmm, this is a concept I might try to promote. Custom canning.

12/19/10, 6:04 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
I'm not sure I quite understand the point of the oxygen absorbers per se, in that there are a few gazillion species of microbes that live just fine in the complete absence of oxygen (many, in fact, are poisoned by the presence of oxygen). If your food is properly dried, it will keep whether the oxygen is there or not. If it is incompletely dried, it will ferment away just fine even in a completely anoxic environment. In fact, that is part of how black tea is made -- the undried green tea leaves are rolled tightly to make an anaerobic environment, where they ferment. Similarly, the real way that canning works is by sterilizing the food and sealing it to keep microbes out, not so much by keeping the oxygen out. Again, if the food is sterile but there is still oxygen in the sealed jar, it won't spoil (it might brown a bit as the residual oxygen reacts with the food until it is used up, but that is not dangerous). But if the food is not sterilized, even if it is completely anoxic it will still spoil and possibly grow a big fat crop of botulism.

Given this, where exactly do the oxygen absorbers fit in to this picture?

12/20/10, 6:28 AM

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...
An older neighbor lady taught me about a simple root cellar that they have been using on their farm for many years.

Dig a hole in a convienient spot. Make it about 2 feet in diameter and a little deeper than you can reach while laying on the ground.

You can either pour your root veggies directly in the hole or bag them in burlap or the new plastic burlap bags. Fill the hole with roots until it is about 1 1/2 feet from the top.

Make a bag of dry leaves to act as a stopper and plug the hole. Lay a few boards over the top of the hole and cover with three or four hay bales set on the cut ends (not on the strings).

Here in Minnesota potatoes will keep well into spring. Turnips and beets keep into summer. We never have enough carrots to find out how long they will last. Cabbage also keeps very well. The outer leaves get slimy, but if you clean them off it is all good underneath. They will keep until at least March.

I have not found mice to be a problem in the root cellar. They are seed eaters and are only looking for a place to keep warm. A couple mouse traps baited with corn or peanut butter keeps them in check until the snow flies and they stop moving around.

Small grains, beans, and corn are easy to grow. They dry well and once dry, they store for years without trouble. You do have to keep the mice out.


12/20/10, 12:12 PM

Jim Brewster said...
@Bill, as I understand it, abiotic oxidation is the concern, not microbes. This can be a problem especially with foods high in polyunsaturated fats, where oxidation can lead to chain reactions which can cause the whole lot to go rancid. If you've smelled improperly stored peanut butter or whole wheat flour you'll understand. Also oxidation of vitamins will gradually degrade the food value. Storing grains and beans in their whole raw state slows down the process because, as others have said, the living dormant tissues have structures which protect the oils, but once cooked or ground all bets are off.

12/23/10, 5:25 AM