Planning and Preserving the Harvest
The pace of August is full tilt with food preservation, combined with that undeniable inward pull as the days shorten and nights become cool. Never ending activity made easier by the promise of quieter days ahead. The work of August is unlike the simpler autumnal tasks of picking winter squash, placing it in one spot to cure, then placing it in another spot for storage. August is a frenetic blur of blanching, freezing, canning, dehydrating, fermenting and infusing. I love the work, and equally, I am grateful to live in a place that affords many months of deep rest and quiet reflection.
There is a challenge I am participating in on Instagram this month that invites us to preserve one thing every day, no matter if it’s a bushel of tomatoes or a simple handful of parsley. Because, as the title of the challenge suggests, Every Bit Counts, and boy it really does add up in no time.
I’m not normally one for challenges just for the sake of a challenge, but this one spoke to me as it calls upon something I’d be doing anyway this month, so why not snap a photo and share it with the group (and for my own records). It’s been fun! It has also produced a bunch of questions from those of you wanting a little more detail. Particularly, how we plan for our food preservation needs, and why we choose certain methods. So let’s talk about that today.
A good place to start would be to share that our approach to growing and preserving food does not need to be your approach. I know it’s a little much to produce the amount of food we do, and maybe that is not the thing for you. That’s okay! Even though I reverently feel the most secure and sustainable food system is a regional food system, it is no longer the driving force behind us growing food. What may have started as a stick-it-to-the-man endeavor, has basically become a simple quest to produce the freshest, best tasting food possible. Because what they don’t tell you when you start growing food as some sort of social revolution, is that it has the inevitable side effect of ruining you for tired old grocery store produce.You just can’t compare the quality, and over the years my fist has clenched tighter and tighter around our hard earned dollars at the thought of handing them over for ethylene gassed tomatoes or spongy cucumbers from Mexico.
Now that we have that little disclaimer out of the way, a few thoughts on how we plan for harvest and preserving.
Planning for Harvest
It might seem like I am super organized about this, but really our harvest goals are more of a ballpark than something we must be crystal clear on. Because we have the space to grow and to store, we tend to shoot for some overage to cover our bases.
I make a list of every fruit and vegetable our family likes to eat, and roughly calculate how much we will consume on average each week. This includes vegetables in their as-is whole form as well as preserved things like salsa, marinara, sauerkraut, relish, etc. Again, this is an estimate. We do not expect to have winter squash in July for instance, but knowing our average weekly consumption is helpful for planning.
After I decide how much we need weekly, I just multiply that times fifty two to get an idea of what is needed yearly. Again, I know this number is an overshoot due to preferences and expectations changing with the seasons, but it is a good number as it allows us to always have plenty for sharing, entertaining, or even a buffer for loss.
If you choose to produce your own food in this way, your next step will be to have an idea of yields you should expect from each plant, which is information you can find in a good gardening book or searching online. Winter squash for example provides on average 4-6 fruits per plant. If you need 75 squash of various types to feed your family for the year, you’ll need to plant accordingly.
Worth noting: Summertime fresh eating crops like cucumber, summer squash, snow peas, and lettuce I don’t really calculate. Aside from a batch of relish and a few gallons of fermented pickles, we’re not doing much with cucumbers other than fresh eating in season. We don’t need thirty cucumber plants. Same goes for summer squash and such. I do put up a few novelty things with summer squash and freeze a bit of snow peas for winter stir-fry, but they are not our bread and butter crops and a few plants will generate more than enough.
Below is a sample list of some frequently used items in our home, with average weekly needs:
(Noted by single fruit, weight, or volume.)
- winter squash 2-3
- potatoes 3-5#
- carrots 1-2#
- beets .5#
- greens (frozen) 1#
- peas 1/2 pint
- corn 1/2 pint
- fermented veg 1 pint
- broccoli 1 quart
- cauliflower 1 quart
- green beans 1 quart
- blueberries 1 pint
- strawberries 1 quart
- apples (sauce or diced) 1-2 pints
- peaches 1 quart
- salsa 1-2 pints
- marinara sauce 1 quart
The list goes on, but this should give you an idea. Just list it all, every little fruit and vegetable, even preserved things like salsa that are consumed on a regular basis. You don’t need to conduct a detailed study; a cook has a way of observing these things over time, and having a general sense of what is needed. The reason I have peas and corn listed as 1/2 pints weekly is not because I prepare such a little amount for our meal, but because they are more or less treat veggies for us, and we really only have about one quart of each per month; I just averaged it out.
In our home, we never expect to enjoy each vegetable fifty two weeks out of the year, but having a rough estimate that maybe includes a little overage ensures we have plenty to share, trade, or absorb loss. Another thing to remember is that in our home, dinners are always cooked with enough quantity to provide lunch for the next day or two. So if my numbers seem high for a household of three, that is why. We eat at home and take meals to work. If only I had a dollar for every time I was asked “what are you going to do with all that food?” I think in general people don’t realize how much food they actually consume, because the volume is softened by a slow drip of weekly grocery shopping and a fair amount of restaurant dining; two things we don’t do much of.
Methods of Preserving the Harvest
I wanted to touch on the different methods of food preservation that we use, and why we choose them. There is a common ideology that implores anyone for canning food because it destroys nutritional content; for using freezers because they are expensive, take up space, and are high risk in the event of power outage; using a dehydrator because they require high energy usage; or fermentation because the distinct flavor makes foods less versatile.
I’ve heard it all. I’ve considered it all! When it comes down to it, everything has its pros and cons. Rather than list those, I’ll just jump into what we do, and why we do it.
Cold Storage - We live in the north, which means we not only benefit from truly cold winters, but most homes have basements that maintain cool wintertime temps. Perfect for storing things such as winter squash, fermented vegetables, potatoes, onions, cabbages (shorter term), carrots, beets, and other root vegetables. It’s also quick, free, and easy. What’s not to love! We place high emphasis on growing foods that can be kept in our cold room (a separate room in our basement that stays around 45 degrees all winter). These foods make up the bulk of our caloric vegetable needs. If I could only store vegetables one way, this would be it.
Freezers - For vegetables such as green beans, peas, corn, greens, broccoli, and various fruits, we prefer freezing. We currently operate four freezers with another on its way from a family member. We’ve only paid for one small freezer in our life, so overall the purchase of them has not been a factor for us. We have found freezers to be a bit like canning jars: if people know you use them, they tend to force their unwanted units on you. Mostly ours have come from elder family members who are downsizing (both the freezers and our vast canning jar collection). The big caveat: we have a generator and always keep at least a one month fuel supply on hand to conservatively run the freezers. I guess we figure if something goes wrong in the world that prohibits us from having electricity or access to gasoline for more than thirty days, our problems are bigger than protecting our frozen peas. (We would however kick into high gear and can all of the meat on a portable gas range.)
Another idea worth mentioning is that because we are frozen solid for nearly six months out of the year - which perfectly coincides with our freezers being at their fullest and most valuable - we have the option of moving our freezers from the basement to an unheated outside building. We did this our first winter here and it was great! Three freezers in the barn and only one in the basement for quick access. The barn freezers pulled hardly any electricity all winter long, and when we lost power, there was no concern about protecting their contents. This was a wonderful system until summer rolled around and we learned the power running to the old rickety barn was not sufficient to run those freezers full throttle. So into the basement they all went, and have remained. It is on our list to build a freezer shed of some sort.
One more note about freezers and space: If I did not have a basement, I would still have at least one extra freezer. It might be in a second bedroom or in the corner of the living room with a tablecloth and houseplant covering it, but I would have an extra freezer. Maybe not four, but at least one. That’s just me though, which makes it a little tricky when people tell me they have “no room” for a freezer and ask me for advice... I’d literally park a freezer as my bedside table if I had to so I’m probably not the one to ask.
Fermentation - Easy to do, does not require high energy inputs, and teaming with nutrition. What’s not to love? I guess my only critique about fermented veg is lack of versatility in flavor. As much as we enjoy the tangy brine of a good ferment, we also like warm, well-cooked vegetables slathered in butter. So, a few tablespoons of something fermented on our plate, in a sandwich, or simply by the spoonful, but it’s not usually the main vegetable on our plates. But I can’t imagine not having fermented foods for their nutritional benefits and utter convenience in production.
Dehydration - Once you get beyond the initial investment of equipment and energy usage, you then have the promise of a perfectly shelf stable food with high nutrient retention that can last for years if kept in a cool, dry, dark spot. Dehydration is a remarkable way to preserve food! I’d say my favorite things to dehydrate are tomatoes, mushrooms, apples and other fruits, and herbs. Also jerky, but that is not produce related. I used to dehydrate more in the way of greens, but have since discovered the method of steam-blanching greens, then pressing them into muffins cups and freezing. Once they are frozen, pop them out and store in ziplocs in the freezer. It is astounding how many greens can fit into those small muffin cups. And they have much more body and tenderness to them than reconstituted greens when used in cooking.
Canning - This method is our emergency pantry first choice for vegetables. There isn’t a vegetable out there that we prefer canned over any of the previously mentioned methods, so it is a last resort for us. However, a few canned vegetables, beans, meat, and soups on the shelf provide incredible peace of mind during times of extended power outage (which we have a lot of). For everyday needs, canned fruit is a much enjoyed treat around here: peaches, apples, pears, strawberry sauce, fruit butters and a few jams. And of course, canning is so handy for condiments such as relish, salsa, ketchup, mustard, and BBQ sauce. We also can quite a bit of bone broth and marinara sauce (used more often in things that are not pasta than on actual pasta). While it’s not my favorite method from a nutritional and taste standpoint, canning has its place for us, and thankfully it’s something I really enjoy doing.
In the end, I think the most important thing to remember is that one size does not fit all. And even once you decide on methods you’d like to employ, no method is perfect. Getting it perfect is not my goal though. Optimum? Sure. Best possible choice for a few different scenarios? Yes. Perfect? That’s probably not going to happen. I’m just grateful we have choices to begin with.
I realize none of this is earth shattering information, but it is our approach to calculating how much we need to grow or buy from local farms, and why we choose any given preservation method for various foods. Everyone has unique circumstances, taste preferences, budgets, time available, and more to consider when putting up their family's food. I just wanted to bring you into my mindset a little bit, as I am asked quite often how I figure this all out for my household. I hope this answered some of your questions, and feel free to ask if there is something I did not cover. Wishing you the very best during this harvest and preserving season.