8 Ways To Become A Producer

Amish country is one of my favorite family day trips.  I absolutely love seeing their big, beautiful market gardens, their Clydesdales working in the fields and the family-run stores dotting the landscape.   What I admire most about the Amish is their culture of production rather than consumption.   I love that they build their own homes, sew their own clothes, educate their own children, grow their own food.  It’s hard to imagine, but only a few generations ago, America largely resembled the Amish in many respects.  We were a nation of producers.

America’s economy for its first 200-300 years was largely based on tangible, useful items produced in family-owned small businesses.  Yes, there were a few giant corporations out there but in large, skills were specialized,  handed down and produced goods that provided fair livings.  Businesses aside, homes were in the business of production too.  Families utilized skills to produce what they needed and sold and traded within their community to other families producing other goods.  Even the smallest city homes frequently had chicken coops, small gardens, and made income by selling handmade items or providing services such as sewing.  Man alive, how different we live now!   Even if we can’t go back to the days of family businesses and localized trading, we CAN shift the emphasis of our own family’s culture from consumption to production…and we can get started TODAY!  Here are 8 simple things you can do to become a producer!

Gardening is a key skill for producers!

  1. Raise your own food.  This can be as simple as a patio garden or as elaborate as large raised beds, fruit trees, berry bushes and raising livestock.  You don’t have to grow acres and acres of crops in order for raising food to be worth your while.  It’s possible to grow herbs, lettuces and greens in planters 8 months or more a year and their taste is incomparable to anything you’ll find at the grocery store.
  2. Learn to cook from scratch.  I know this is a more difficult idea for many people, but think baby steps.  Can you use fresh veggies instead of canned?  Can you attempt a loaf of bread, a pie or a batch of biscuits instead of buying them from Walmart?  Maybe try your hand at homemade condiments and salad dressings?  Just think simple; it doesn’t have to be fancy!
  3. Make your own cleaning supplies.  Vinegar, essential oils and baking soda are very effective cleaners, both non-toxic and inexpensive.  Give it a try!   
  4. Learn to fish.  You know the old saying…if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day….but I want you to eat for a lifetime!  It doesn’t take much equipment or skill to catch a fish, but it can enable you to provide your family with fresh, non-farmed protein that’s practically free after the initial investment in a fishing pole.
  5. If you’ve learned to garden, try your hand at seed saving.  When you begin to practice seed-to-seed gardening, you effectively close the consumption loop.  It’s entirely possible that you’ll never have to buy seed or plants again and that’s a valuable goal to pursue!
  6. Learn food preservation.  Again, think baby steps.  I know not everyone has the time or inclination to take up canning.  That’s fair.  But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look into freezing seasonal produce.  I have a freezer full of blackberries to turn into blackberry mead and jam later this winter.  There are bags full of herbs, sliced green tomatoes to fry up, chopped up bell peppers…and most of this produce requires nothing beyond cleaning and chopping.  Bonus!
  7. Line dry your clothes.  Take advantage of a breezy day by hanging out those items that take forever in the dryer (denim, heavy knits, towels).  They’ll smell wonderful, save hours of drying time and cut way down on electric consumption.
  8. Learn the art of foraging.  This one takes time and expert help is a huge bonus…but foraging enables you to find the freshest, in-season, wild produce….and it will cost you nothing but your time.  Depending on your location, you can find produce growing from March through November in the form of wild herbs, nuts, berries, fruits and roots.   Freeze it for later and you have a skill that will continue to provide all year long.

Becoming a producer is nothing more than a change in mindset.  I don’t expect I’ll ever reach the place where I can produce everything I need and I don’t expect you will either…but when you change your thinking about production and consumption, something funny happens:  you’ll find yourself LOOKING for more opportunities to produce.  Initially, you’ll find yourself satisfied with merely growing lettuce, but then you’ll decide it’s a real shame to dump store-bought dressing on your lovely greens so you’ll attempt a simple vinaigrette.  When that’s a success, you’ll begin to investigate other areas in the home and kitchen that you can DIY, grow yourself, repair yourself, produce yourself.  It snowballs, my sweet friends so be prepared!  If you’re a producer, I’d love to know what you produce…and if you’re a consumer, what’s the first item you’d like to learn to produce yourself?  Til next time!

Saving Beans for Seed

Let’s talk about saving bean seeds. This spring, we broke ground on a large area in our pasture, an area Angus jokingly referred to as the R&D garden.   We used the area for sprawling plants such as sweet potatoes, and to isolate a few plants to save seed for next year.  Unfortunately, there was just too much shade from the tree-lined driveway for it to be a successful garden, but I’m not bitter.  Okay, I am a little bitter, but the bright spot is that the black-eyed pea seed produced enough viable plants to harvest my seed stock again.

Saving black-eyed peas for seed

 

Legumes are very possibly the easiest seed in the garden to save and I increasingly believe it’s a necessary skill; let me tell you why.  My family ALWAYS grew Kentucky Wonder white half-runners in our garden.  ALWAYS.  Back to my childhood (and beyond) that was OUR bean and we planted it with great success season after season.  Beginning 5-6 years ago, crops began failing.  Not just for me, but across our county, for both commercial growers and backyard gardeners.  It didn’t seem to matter whether it was a hot season, cool season, wet or dry, you couldn’t grow a dependable crop of half-runners to save your life.  So as I was shopping for seed this spring at our local farm store, I mentioned to the attendant that I needed to try a new variety of beans because I hadn’t had any luck recently with my old variety and she replied succinctly “They’ve been tinkering with the seeds for 10 years.  If you want a good crop, you’ll have to save seeds for yourself.” I tell you, my head whipped around like it was on a swivel.  The lady selling seeds was telling me to save my own so I didn’t need to depend on hers.  That was telling for me.  So this season, our goal is to save enough seed stock from our black-eyed peas and green beans to plant our garden next year.  Let me tell you why it’s an important goal for any backyard gardener:

  • It’s cost effective.  It costs nothing but a few minutes of your time at the end of the season to save pea or bean seeds.
  • It requires minimal-to-no labor on your part.  Just let the plants stand until the bean pods are dry and then strip the pods off as you pull up the dead plants, which is what you’d do anyway.
  • You’re protecting a dwindling resource.  It has been estimated that we’ve lost 90%+ of our seed species as a result of not saving seeds ourselves.
  • You’ll know the quality of seed you’re planting.  You don’t have to wonder about the age or condition of the seed, whether it had been treated with chemicals or tinkered with genetically.

So you can see there’s no reason NOT to save seeds.  Our grandparents did it for millennia before commercial seed production became the standard and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t pick up where they left off!  There are only a few very, very basic steps to saving bean and pea seeds.  Here we go!

  1. You have to allow the seeds to fully mature on the plant.  You can’t pick them young and count on them to mature, it won’t happen!  The pods should be brown/grey, dry and brittle and begin to split open before you pick them.
  2. Healthy plants only!  If you have a plant that looks funky, wilted or off-color, don’t harvest seed from it.  If it’s a diseased plant, it’s very possible the seed is carrying the same disease and can cause problems next season.
  3. Pick on a hot, dry day.
  4. Remove the seeds from the pods immediately.  If you keep them in the pods, you may set up mold, fungus or any number of undesirable conditions.  Discard any seeds that look off; discolored, shriveled, misshapen, bug-eaten
  5. Spread the seeds on a newspaper-lined tray or even the racks from a dehydrator.  What’s important is that you allow plenty of room for air-flow so the seeds can dry completely.  Allow a week or more for drying time.
  6. Once dry, place the seeds in a glass jar or plastic bag, label clearly and store in a cool, dark, dry environment.

That’s it, my friends.  It couldn’t get any simpler! It may be too late for many of you this year, but I’m issuing the challenge for next year to all my backyard-gardening friends:  try your hand at saving legume seeds and update us the following year.  I’d love to know how successful you are at creating your own seed stock.  Til next time—

Gardening By The Moon

To remember the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse today, we’re going to talk a little about gardening by the moon.  (See what I did there?)  I can clearly remember the first time I ever heard reference to gardening by the moon.  I had plans for a big bed of potatoes and when I mentioned it to my mother in law, she said I needed to be sure to plant by the dark of the moon.  I’d never heard that phrase in my entire life, but I DID know that I had no plans to go out and plant taters in the middle of the night, regardless of what she had to say.  Oh Lardy, I was so stinkin’ young then.

A few years later, while talking dirt with my mama, she said the Old Farmer’s Almanac suggested it would be a good weekend to plant such and such a crop, based on the moon, and that’s when things started to click for me.  This wasn’t a myth or a silly wives’ tales, but a speculative science, examining lunar cycles and the physical changes that accompany it on living organisms.  Now, I’ll freely confess that I’m still on the fence about some of this, but I think there’s enough evidence to merit its consideration.

So just a very brief overview for you to ponder.  Gardening by the moon isn’t a based on astrological signs but according to the lunar cycle.  The ages-old belief is that the various stages of the moon have a direct impact on seed germination and plant growth.  The gravitational forces that pull on the Earth creating high and low tides also affect the water content of the soil, so to yield the most vigorous plants and the largest crops, you should plant them during the lunar phase that will best suit them.  Weather allowing, Farmer’s Almanac says to plant annuals and plants that bear fruit above ground during the light (waxing) of the moon and perennials and root crops during the dark (waning) of the moon.  Beyond just planting, there are numerous farm-related chores that are said to be significantly impacted by the moon’s phase; chores such as timbering, fishing, hatching eggs, pruning and such.  I don’t know if that’s true or not.   As I said, lunar gardening is still new to me and I’m still firmly on the fence about it, but I CAN tell you this:  There have been numerous years that there was a significant difference in yields between my garden and my mama’s….despite the fact we lived only minutes apart, had similar soil composition, bought seed from the same source, amended our soils with the same compost, plowed in the same straw at the end of the season.  The only difference:  she planted by moon phases and I didn’t.

It’s been my observation in the past few years that unusual wisdom and what we consider old wives’ tales often have their feet firmly based in truth.   Our grandparents looked to the sky for navigation, to develop calendars and to predict weather, so why does it seem so strange that we’d also use the moon as a guide as we tend the Earth?

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.  Genesis 1:14

Anyway, I hope you have the opportunity to go out and *safely* enjoy the eclipse today.  I plan on being on the front porch with my husband’s welding mask and a glass of iced tea as this is an experience I don’t want to miss!  Til next time—

 

Save The Tomato Seeds

 

One of the skills our grandparentals practiced was seed-to-seed gardening.  It was a beautiful practice that we have unfortunately forgotten but that I’m encouraged to see gardeners beginning to practice again.  The idea behind seed-to-seed gardening is that you start your plants from your seed stock, allow the plant to mature and then save seeds from the mature plant for the following season.  It’s a simple concept that has many benefits.

1-It’s free!  After you buy or trade for your initial seed stock, you never have to buy it again.  I’m using seed from plants I bought 10 years ago and in theory, should never have to replace that seed stock.

2-You KNOW the quality of your seed.  No questioning whether the seeds were treated or whether the plants were healthy.

3-You’ll have seed perfectly adapted to your microclimate.  If you save seeds from a plant that *thrived* in your location, you can be assured that the seed from that plant will produce thriving plants next summer.

4-You’re protecting a dwindling resource.  It’s estimated that just a handful of companies OWN nearly all the seed stock available globally.  That scares me, because whoever controls the food, controls the people.  Conspiracy theories aside, we’ve lost an estimated 90% of seed species because we’ve given up saving seed.  We can’t bring those species back, but we CAN protect what remains.

So let me encourage you to try your hand at saving seeds.  Today, as we’re in the midst of tomato season, I’ll give you instructions on saving tomato seeds.  They’re one of the few plants that have special requirements in order to utilize the seeds.  Most plants just need the fruit to dry on the vine or stalk (beans, peas, corn, etc) in order to collect viable seeds, but tomatoes are just a bit different.  Not difficult, just different.  Here we go!

First, you need to choose several “perfect” examples of your favorite variety. You want the best possible genetics involved, so pick fully-ripe tomatoes from healthy plants that thrived in your region.  I used a big, homely Cherokee Purple tomato in this picture.

 

Next slice your tomatoes open to access the seedy goo. I’m sure there’s a technical name, but we’ll go with goo. The goo has chemicals in it that prevents seeds from germinating, so to have viable seeds, we need to remove the goo through fermentation.  Don’t get squeamish on me…it’s an easy process and I promise you won’t poison yourself or your family.   Use your finger or a utensil to scoop the goo from several tomatoes into a glass or pint-sized Mason jar.

 

 

Third step, fill your jar 1/2-2/3 full of warm water. You need some headspace, but you also need plenty of water for the goo to float in. Cover the jars with a baggie or plastic wrap and poke a few holes so the goo can breathe. Scared yet?! Now set the jars in a warm, sunny windowsill and leave it alone for a few days.

 

 

So now the magic happens. After you add the water and allow everything to be still, the goo will float. After a few days, you’ll notice white, moldy spunk on top of the water. That’s good news, my friends! After a few more days, you’ll begin to notice seeds dropping out of the goo and laying on the bottom of the jar….those are your viable seeds. Give your jar a little swish, allow the seeds to settle and then carefully pour the yucky water out.  Carefully, friends.  You don’t want to lose viable seed AND you don’t want fermented tomato goo to spill on your clothes!  Trust me!   What you should have left in the bottom of the jar is individual, clean seeds. Carefully pour them onto a sheet of parchment paper or a paper plate and allow the seeds to dry completely.  This could take a few days, so don’t rush it.  If you package damp seeds, you’ll have moldy sprouts in no time.   Once they’re dry and ready to store, put the seeds in an airtight package like a sandwich baggie.  I love the little seed bead bags you can purchase in the craft section at Walmart, but baggies are fine too.  Now label your package and store it in a cool, dark place.

That’s it, my friends!  You’ve successfully saved seed stock for the next growing season.  Now wasn’t that fun?!  Til next time….

Filling The Pantry

We’re in the height of food production season here in central Ohio and already the pantry in my old farmhouse is beginning to fill and fill quickly.  We’ve finished with pickles and jams for the year, and green beans and tomatoes are just beginning to pick up.  Within the next 2-3 weeks, my kitchen will be filled with the constant humming, splashing, clattering, hissing and pinging of full-scale food preservation and I must tell you—I rarely feel more productive than I do during that time span!  There is nothing more satisfying to me than to see my grandmother’s old Mason jars filled with fruits and veggies that will nourish my children through the long, gray winter.  You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy Mason jars—and that’s almost the same thing!

In a normal year, I put up an average of 500-600 quarts of food and in an exceptional year, 800-1000.  It will vary greatly based on what’s left in the pantry from the previous year, which crops my garden grows in abundance and whether I’m able to trade, barter or buy with other local gardeners and farmers.  But that hasn’t always been the case.  I remember very clearly my first pantry; I was 20, living in my little second story apartment and I canned strawberry preserves.  I was never so proud of a dozen Mason jars in my life!  Now with a husband and 2 tweens in the house, those dozen Mason jars of jam wouldn’t last us more than a few weeks, but it set me on a path of planning ahead and using what was available during one season to supply the rest of the year.

And that’s all it comes down to, friends; planning.

There’s exactly one generation between me and family members who survived World War II, the Great Depression, coal miner’s strikes, joblessness, devastating weather…and they survived by planning ahead and practicing common-sense preparedness.  Blessedly, we don’t have to worry about those things so much now.  Now we wonder about rioting, hacking that can wipe out bank accounts, contaminated food and nation-wide recalls.  Having a full pantry of local or homegrown food provides a necessary layer of security in what was, is, and will always be, a topsy-turvy world.  And practicality aside, our grandmothers understood the value of taking a raw ingredient and turning it into a quality, wholesome product that nourished both body and spirit.  We’ve lost that understanding, but we can learn it again!

If you’re new to the ideas of gardening and food preservation and you’re considering taking the plunge in 2018, let me give you a word of advice:  Start thinking about it NOW.

Look at your eating and spending habits and determine where you could make the biggest impact.  Are tomatoes a staple in your home?  Jams?  Pickles?  Does your family eat green beans 3X/week?  Those are excellent places to start your food preservation adventure.  But don’t stop there.  Do you LOVE specialty salsas?  Make your own.  Are food allergies a concern in your home?  Make your own products and eat with confidence!  Do you love giving handmade gifts during the holidays?  No one is going to refuse a jar of your homemade apple butter!  (I once traded homemade apple butter for a treadle sewing machine, but that’s a different story!)

This is also prime time to consider the necessary equipment and education.  There’s a yard sale on every corner this time of the year and Mason jars can be found for little to nothing.  (I pay no more than $3/dozen and frequently far less.)  Farm stores such as Rural King and Tractor Supply will be clearancing their canning supplies to make room for holiday items, so take advantage of those discounts!  Local extension offices and farm stands frequently offer food preservation classes at low cost -or free- and this is also a perfect opportunity to visit your local farmer’s markets to get to know the people growing food around you.  Check the discard bins at your local library for inexpensive canning books.  Order online catalogs to familiarize yourself with the various types of tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers and herbs.  And if you’re going to try your hand at gardening, begin preparing your garden spot by killing off the grass and enriching the soil with compost.  This is no time to be idle, my sweet friends!

I know this may seem like daunting first steps to those who have no experience in gardening and food preservation, but we’re going to take this one little bite at a time.  In the coming weeks, we’ll break each of those bullet points down so you can confidently look ahead to the 2018 growing/canning season.  Til next time!