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For those of us who grew up in rural families where gardening, canning, and a freezer full of meat are just normal preparations for winter, 2020 has been one sucker punch after another. First came the seed shortage when so many people in lockdown decided to plant gardens. Then Covid-19 swept through large meat processors, making smaller local locker plants so popular that some are booked out well into 2021. And now, there’s a shortage of canning supplies: Canning jars are doled out in stores that can get them like toilet paper was in March and April, and lids are simply not to be found.
Normally, I would applaud any increased awareness of where food comes from and what it takes to get it to the table. But this year has tested me. I’ve had to ration jars and lids to be sure we have enough to can venison this fall — even passing up free chickens from a neighbor who raised them but didn’t have time to butcher. I’m giving up a beloved hybrid zucchini in favor of an open-pollinated variety whose seeds I can save myself. And I’m troubled by my perception that shutdown shoppers with reliable internet and higher incomes (read urban and suburban) cut the line for supplies that rural families count on every year. I want to be happy for this new woke culture of preparedness. But it’s a struggle
My family doesn’t have a bunker packed with MREs, ammunition, fuel, and whatever else Y2K preppers stockpiled in 1999 in anticipation of global havoc from a computer bug. But we do live at the end of the line where power outages are never a surprise and we’re prepared for that. We do know how to stretch our resources (income and other) over long periods of lean times. And we do like to go into winter as a household that can eat out of the freezer and the pantry for weeks — or longer, if the recent jump in Covid-19 infections in rural areas continues.
Here are some of the things we do to prepare.
We are not homesteaders who raise all our own food. I get eggs from a neighbor’s egg CSA: She delivers to my porch every other week. Last year we purchased from a local vegetable CSA a “winter share” – a one-time pick-up of items that stored well and that we (mostly) don’t grow ourselves, including potatoes, winter squash, and cabbage. This summer, we jumped at the chance for a quarter of beef when a local dairy farmer managed to get a slot for butchering, and filled the rest of the freezer with half a hog. That left just enough room to freeze the 20 pounds of blueberries we buy each year and my guilty pleasure — red bell peppers from the local farmers market: Each of those purchases took a morning of vacuum sealing to give us enough packages to enjoy once a week or so until those crops are back in season.
Grow Your Own
Planting asparagus is something we did years ago to supplement all that we gather along the fence rows near our house. We also grow lettuce, peas, carrots, onions, pac choi, chard, kale, beans, tomatoes, summer squash, herbs, and more. And we grow more than veggies: The shortage of bread yeast earlier this year didn’t impact us, because we keep yeast growing in the form of sourdough. From that, we make bread, pizza crust, noodles, the occasional pancake supper — even dog biscuits, ever since we ran out of store-bought during the lockdown. We almost ran out of yogurt, too, but just in time I saved enough to culture homemade: It’s simple to make and the milk sold in glass bottles at our village market makes better tasting yogurt than any I could buy. It also eliminates a lot of packaging and transportation costs. We homebrew beer, wine, hard cider, and soda for the same reasons and call it a hobby.
We never figure the cost-per-pound of the wild game and fish we eat. Licenses and stamps are considered recreational expenses in this household. Hunting and fishing keep my husband happy, and we eat well on wild turkey, venison, rabbits, and whatever is biting. Gathering ramps (wild onions) is a spring tradition, and nothing says summer like U-pick strawberries. Picking wild plums after visiting the dump — that’s a Northwoods date. Most of the time my husband and I work together to process what we gather on those outings so it doesn’t stop being fun before it lands on the table. For many families, it’s tradition to come together to hunt and fish and preserve the harvest, then to divide the food among themselves. In 2020, some of those families will risk spreading the virus to continue that tradition rather than risk hunger this winter.
We still cook with the same cast-iron skillet Bill bought second-hand in his bachelor days. A few years ago we were feeling flush so we bought a new cast iron Dutch oven to go with it. Both work equally well on stovetop or campfire, which is handy if the power is out. Or if you have to wait two weeks for a part for your 30-year-old gas oven and need to bake bread and make pizza. We are not a kitchen gadget coveting household, but we appreciate well-built, long-lasting tools. So last spring after we nearly ran out of flour, I shopped online for a grain grinder. I got a hand-crank model — not the deluxe style but also not the same puny thing that was given to me by a friend and that I later gave away myself. Grinding enough flour for bread with that one couldn’t be passed off as recreation. It wouldn’t even qualify as a good workout. And I don’t need another frustrating chore. So I bought a grinder that can be used to crack grains for brewing and, with a few more passes, turn that into flour.
What We Store
As long as I can buy flour, I probably will. But I keep it in a food-safe 5-gallon bucket for freshness. For grinding, I got a 50-pound bag of hard red winter wheat from my local natural foods store. That fit in a bucket sold for homebrewing: Bill plugged the hole for the airlock and I added desiccant packs to keep the contents dry. Whole wheat berries stay fresh much longer than flour and also can be cooked as a whole grain. Last time I got a 5-gallon bucket of wheat from a farmer friend it took me several years to use it up that way, but I had room for it in the freezer then. I’m storing rice and oatmeal in food-safe buckets, too. With those staples, shelves lined with home-canned foods, our cool storage items like potatoes and squash, and what’s in the freezer, there’s very little we feel we have to shop for. And most of that (coffee, tea, butter, canned milk, peanut butter) I’ve been stocking up on: I use the supermarket app to place items in my virtual cart and an employee pulls the items and delivers the order to my car. This option was available before Covid-19 hit here, but I never used it until after. I didn’t expect to love it, but I do. I can be much more frugal if I don’t walk down the ice cream aisle.
Another storage consideration is firewood. For many rural families, warmth means wood heat. In our old farmhouse, we used to burn 30 to 40 face cords of wood each year. When we built a house in 2001, we bucked the trend of high ceilings and built something we could heat efficiently with a smaller woodstove. But I have a tendency to have respiratory infections, so when we could afford it we installed hydronic baseboard heat. Now we burn wood just in fall and spring to take the chill off and of course during power outages. With liquid propane gas as our main fuel source, we do worry about both the cost and the availability. But if necessary, we can go back to burning wood all winter. It may not look like we’re prepared for that in comparison to how much wood we used to stack. But we have enough, and we’re used to dressing warmly indoors as well as outdoors.
We’ve had a couple of killing frosts already this fall, so I’m getting an early start on cleaning up the garden in readiness for spring planting. Most of the dry beans and soup peas I grow are shelled. Very soon I will start planting microgreens, which we much prefer to sprouts for fresh homegrown greens in winter. We still need to move the roof rake and a snow shovel to the porch to feel like we’re ready. And I have to get my sleeping bag and winter kit in the car, even though I really don’t expect to be going anywhere. All of my fiber art workshop teaching contracts for 2020 canceled. Both of my parents have passed away. I have nowhere else I have to be.
That’s not the case for everyone. My heart goes out to friends who work in health care, those juggling work with kids and elder care, who are trying to keep their small businesses afloat, who long to see distant grandchildren, who were stretched before Covid-19 and now are ready to snap. Adding on gardening and canning may seem impossible timewise, and then you can’t even buy the supplies.
But you don’t have to do it all at once, and you don’t have to do it alone. It was a neighbor who taught us how to butcher a deer. It was a neighbor who gave me canning jars she no longer plans to use. Both of those neighbors got home-canned venison in thanks. So they’re better prepared for at least one meal.
Whatever you can do is a step in the right direction, no matter what 2021 has in store.
Donna Kallner writes from rural Langlade County in northern Wisconsin.