Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Costs of Local Foods

Last April I gave several talks on local eating. One person asked a question that I did not really answer at that time: how has local eating affected our food budget?

It's a complicated question, and to answer it you have to take a larger view than just what you spend at the store, farm, etc.

Organic vs Conventional
Organic food costs more, in dollar terms, at the grocery stores. It costs less, of course, if you were to take ALL costs into consideration, such as damage to the environment from genetically modified foods, herbicides, pesticides, and the loss of birds and beneficial insects. And as the long-term trend of petroleum prices is undeniably up (regardless of the little reprieve we have had), "conventional" will eventually cost more even in dollar terms.

Organic foods have more flavor and nutrition than conventional foods, and less (or no) pesticide residues. So for your extra dollars, you are giving your family better food, and helping to improve their health. Is it worth it? You have to answer.

Organic vs Local
Here is a good question: if you can't get organic AND local, which do you choose: Local, or Organic? There are points for either choice. For myself, if it is a choice between Local or imported Organic, I would choose Local every time. We don't have any way of knowing which foreign growers are truly organic; some may be, but certainly some are not, just co-opting the organic label to make a little more margin. If it is a choice between a local grower that I know or know about, I'd choose that over mega-organic from California. In addition to supporting the health of the environment, and our own personal health, we also need to support the economic health of our community by buying from local growers and ranchers.

Fresh vs Shipped/Stored
This particularly applies to fruits and vegetables. You get more nutrition and flavor from vegetables picked today or yesterday and put on your table tonight, than from "organic" vegetables picked days or weeks ago long before ripeness, coated with wax or other chemicals, and ripened by chemical means. So, what you grow in your yard is the best of all.

When I had a big garden (and the physical ability to keep it up), I would go out in the afternoon and collect a basketful of fresh vegetables and make dinner. My children grew up liking most vegetables, because they had eaten them at their best. So Fresh trumps Shipped/Stored every time. Fresh means your yard, your CSA, your farmer's market, your local growers. I'd pay more for Fresh, but often you don't have to. Your organic CSA vegetables, paid for at the beginning of the season, are almost certainly cheaper than organic vegetables bought at the grocery.

Seasonal vs Perpetual
Here is where you get some money back by buying local foods. Local foods are seasonal. What you can buy is what is harvested now. In summer, lettuce, cucumbers, green beans; in fall, tomatoes, and Colorado's second season of greens; in winter stored foods like winter squash and root veggies; in spring asparagus, peas, and tender greens. Foods in season are cheaper than foods out of season, whether hothouse-grown or shipped from another continent. Foods that ripen at particular times of year are just the kinds of foods we should be eating then. For the hot days of summer, juicy cooling raw foods and salads; for the cold days of winter, warming stews made from potatoes, onions, and other root vegetables. Eating large raw salads all year around is not good for your health, in my opinion.

We've come to have a bizarre notion: the Perpetual Summer supermarket. You can get strawberries in January (they're from Peru or somewhere). You can get apples all the year around (waxed and kept in a low-oxygen environment, tasteless and watery). You can get asparagus in the fall (from Argentina). As a nation, we've lost touch with the seasons. Food comes from the supermarket; it doesn't come from farmers; it isn't grown in the dirt somewhere; it comes in shrink-wrap film or coated with preservatives. Milk comes from a cardboard box. Meat comes shrink-wrapped from the meat department (don't even think about how it was raised or slaughtered, or how many million pounds of hamburger came in that batch).

Of course in our temperate climate, there are months that there IS no local harvest. We supplement our diet with home-preserved foods: frozen vegetables, lactofermented pickles, fruits dried or in jars. How is this different from buying cucumbers from Mexico in the winter? My cucumbers come from my CSA. One day or less from field into the brine means they're at the tip of freshness. I know exactly how my CSA grows those cucumbers; what chemicals they don't use, the compost they do use. They've traveled 15 miles to get to my house, not 2000 miles. They're a product of our local community.

Home-Cooked vs Prepared
Here is where you REALLY start to save money, and get better quality. By definition, junk food and fast food aren't local, they're anonymous. Many of them are made of the cheapest-possible ingredients, tricked out with high-fructose corn syrup and trans-fats, loaded with preservatives, artificial flavors, and MSG. Almost all are made with genetically-modified ingredients such as corn and soy, though you can find "organic" junk food too: organic toaster treats, chips, and cookies with dozens of ingredients in print too small to read.

Many commercial meats are shot full of a solution containing MSG and other salts, in order to weigh more at point of sale. When you cook them, that extra water evaporates out, but the salts and artificial flavorings that were in it stay in the meat. What sense does that make for you?

Restaurant food has to cost more for the same quality; they have overhead, salaries for cooks, waitstaff, management, etc., and advertising. They may buy in bulk, but that won't save that much money. So, if the quality is high, the costs are high. If the costs are low, the quality MUST be low. Restaurant personnel are not magicians; they're just running a business.

We do enjoy eating restaurant meals on occasion. We noticed that when we started eating local, fresh, freshly cooked foods, the food at some restaurants no longer sits well with us. It seems somewhat flavorless and indigestible. We have a small list of restaurants that are still a pleasure for us.

And when you eat at restaurants frequently, or get carryout or prepared foods at the store, you are almost certainly getting too much sodium, too much cheap fat, too much high-fructose corn syrup, too much MSG, and servings that are too large.

You don't have to spend a lot of time cooking. I put most dinners on the table in 15 minutes or less. They are generally simple meals: some kind of meat, two vegetables fresh or cooked, fruit for dessert. You don't have to have an elaborate production every time. Sometimes I'll cook up a pot of stew or soup, which takes a couple of hours of supervision though only a few minutes of work, and feeds us for several days. Not hard.

If you don't know how to cook, there are a raft of good beginner's cookbooks out there. You can start at the public library and browse for some that look good to you. Start by following recipes until you feel that you know what you are doing, then improvise. The more you cook, the more you'll learn.

Bulk Buying vs Small Packages
Here's another way to save money on foods that are staples for you: buy in bulk. You can get higher quality for less money, for instance organic in a large bag for less than conventional in a small package. See if you can find (or start) a local food buying cooperative. The power of numbers means that you can still get the good prices without buying a 50-lb bag or 30-lb box of whatever it is. That of course leads to techniques for storing food, and incorporating those foods into your daily menu. Well-stored staple foods keep a long time: whole grains for 10-30 years, dry beans and lentils for several years, nuts for a year in the freezer. Or you can buy boxes of tomatoes, green beans, peaches, etc., and put them up.

I was buying organic tomatoes last summer at the farmer's market for $13 for 18 pounds, and canning my own tomato sauce and stewed tomatoes for a fraction of the cost of store tomatoes. Now we're using them, and they taste really fresh and flavorful as I open the jars for pizza, spaghetti, or soups.

Bought vs Bartered/Gathered
Here's another way to save money on your food. Most CSAs have barter shares, where you trade your work at the farm for some or all the cost of your vegetables. That's what I do at my CSA, so I get 36 weeks worth of vegetables in return for work I do for the farm.

If you're looking for free local fruit, keep your eyes open in your neighborhood for neglected fruit trees. When the fruit is ripe and starts falling on the sidewalk, stop and politely ask the owners if you can harvest some of it. Give them some if they're interested, as a thank-you. Or make them a jar of plum jam, grape jelly, peach roll-ups, or whatever. With some appreciation, you can probably harvest that tree year after year.

If you can, keep chickens. They'll eat your scraps, weeds, and bugs, and some chicken feed, and provide you with eggs or meat. If you can, keep bees for honey. Learn to know the local weeds and wild plants, and collect greens, chokecherries, wild plums, wild grapes, or other foods. At least half of the weeds in your garden are edible; in fact, some are as good as the vegetables they are crowding out. Get a good book, or take a class, so that you know what you are doing.

More could be said about these subjects, and other subjects as well, but let's stop for now and get to the bottom line. Will you save money by eating local foods? Wrong question, actually. Can you eat local foods and stick to your budget? Probably yes, unless your budget is very strict. Are there ways to save money eating local foods? Absolutely.

What I found was that I'm paying a little more for local meats, with much higher quality. Most of my vegetables are bartered, so there is not much change there. I either get fruits from my yard, or in bulk buying, so I save money there. I save money by buying few or no prepared foods, junk food, or fast food. We're eating out less, thus saving money. My purchases of staples are much cheaper, and of much higher quality than I was getting previously.
And we find our meals to be more satisfying, so we're actually eating less and gradually losing excess weight.

I also find that my expenditures are more seasonal. I spent extra in August, September and October building up stores for the winter. Now that we're starting to use this food, our grocery bills are dropping significantly.

So yes, you can eat locally on a budget, and there are many ways to get high quality local fresh foods for less money than you're paying now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Connecting the Path: The Food Storage Year

I'm engaged in rediscovering the skills that our foremothers knew: how to store food for the winter and spring until the next harvest, and using stored food to feed their families. Very interesting. When you don't think in terms of driving to the nearest grocery store and buying foods shipped from all over the world, it requires a little more advance planning.

I've been busy "puttin up" since last summer; snap peas, English peas, green beans frozen in June; July and August lactofermented vegetables: green beans, cucumbers, various kinds of coleslaw. Then in August started the fruit: apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, prunes; canned in light honey syrup, dried in pieces or as rollups. Our early apples, very small crop, went into jars as sauce or dried. Then in September, the tomatoes! Sauce, juice, chopped, stewed. Apples and herbs dried; broccoli frozen.

And I've been gradually putting staples into half-gallon Mason jars. California brown rice in the garage (to stay cool). Beans, lentils, split peas from western U.S. growers. Wheat flour in the freezer. Wonderful Colorado millet and quinoa, buckwheat and kasha and popcorn from western U.S. A box of apples in the garage, separated by a reasonable distance from paper bags of potatoes; a case of mixed winter squash in a cool room.

Now comes the second challenge: Eat what you store. That's the food storage year:
* Store what you eat
* Eat what you store

In some ways, it's easier for me to just store and store, pack-ratting away foods that we like, feeling a sense of accomplishment looking in the freezer and into the boxes of gleaming jars. But... it's food! Precious indeed, but perishable. Whole grains keep a good long time, but beans get tired after a few years of storage. Frozen food gets freezer-burned. Canned fruit loses some of its flavor. The apples and squash and potatoes are fresh foods, good keepers, yes, but not forever.

So, now's the time to stop stocking up, and start using what I have stored. I've already gotten into the frozen snap peas; they turned out well using the vacuum bags. And I've started using the tomato sauce for pasta and pizza; very nice flavor. Muir Glen canned organic tomatoes are fine, and I've certainly used cases of them through the years, but my home-preserved sauce from Colorado tomatoes is especially good.

We've been eating the millet (me), the buckwheat, the gluten-free oats, the whole-grain wheat flour (DH), steadily. I just finished eating my way through the 50 lbs of Colorado organic millet I bought last February. Now I'm starting on the 25 lbs I bought through the coop in April. I love it, and generally eat it once a day; could be breakfast, lunch, or supper.

One secret to the successful food storage year is good record-keeping. I'm making an inventory of what I've stored, along with the date of storage. I'll make it a point to use the oldest first. (Blush: I found seven jars of applesauce from 2007; they'll go first). As I use something, I'll check it off the list. If I run out, and have to buy something before the next harvest, I'll note it.

By next summer, I'll have a much better idea of how much, and what kinds of foods we need to get through the year.

I also need to get into my cookbooks and find recipes that fit the foods we have. Oftentimes we have simple meals: meat, two veg, fruit for dessert. Now that winter is nearly here, I need to start making more soups and stews: good winter warming foods. I need to start cooking more beans. I need to motivate myself for winter squash. It's not really my favorite food; I always think it sounds good, but then just don't follow through with actually cooking and eating it. Maybe I just need better recipes. Maybe we need to eat more Pumpkin Pie!

Putting the cart before the horse, I've been discussing the hows of food storage, but not the whys. Reason 1. If you're going to eat mostly local food, you need to store for half the year, so you have something to eat the other half. Reason 2. Stored food also gives you some security in very uncertain times. Even if a family member loses their job or gets their pay cut, with a good pantry of stored foods you know that everyone will eat. As Sharon Astyk says, two important questions in hard economic times are: "Is there dinner? Do I get any?"

Long-term storage for hard times has some different aspects from seasonal storage, since you don't want to be running out of food in the summer either. I'll write some posts on this subject in the near future. Meanwhile, check out Sharon's food storage group for loads of information and experiences from real people in every part of the country. You can even see my name there once in a while.

I'll keep you posted from time to time on our experiences with our stored food: what we wish we had more of, what we had too much of, and recipes using the foods.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

One Local Year: The Road Ahead

A year ago, I wrote a post about making the road by walking. We walked, and made a little footpath. When I started the local food buying cooperative, a few others joined us on this path. And of course there are others making similar paths in every part of the country, though other matters have come to the forefront of public consciousness now.

We plan to continue eating locally, but cutting ourselves a bit more slack. If we're going to keep this up the rest of our lives (which we plan to do), we need to pace ourselves a bit. I will buy a few little niceties, very small amounts: mustard, artichoke hearts for DH's weekly homemade pizza (about one heart per pizza), vinegar, lemon juice. I

I plan to keep narrowing the circle as possible. Can I find California artichoke hearts, instead of Peru? Can I get more Front Range fruit in place of the Western Slope fruit? Can I figure out how to put in a garden at our home that I can actually keep up? (With aging and physical problems, gardening is hard for me.) Can I keep chickens without losing them all to predators? The most-local food you can get is what you grow and raise, after all.

And that brings up another vitally important point. We, and several hundred others in Larimer and Weld counties, are eating a large percentage of local food. We buy local meats, patronize local dairies, belong to local CSAs. But there are about 287,000 people in Larimer County, and about 243,000 in Weld County. That's more than a half-million people. Although agriculture still has a significant presence, particularly in Weld County which is the highest-ranking agricultural county in the state, we're far from having enough growers and ranchers in the two counties to feed the population with diverse foods. Many of the farms are extremely large, growing government-subsidized commodity corn and soybeans which are mainly fed to cattle.

We need to think seriously about what we as a community can do to encourage more small farms, more vegetable growing, more bean growing, more pastured livestock. The soil is fertile, the climate fairly mild though dry, and much of the land is irrigated from mountain water. But farmers, especially small farmers, face tremendous challenges. The cost of their inputs keeps rising faster than the prices they can get for their produce. Loans are becoming more and more difficult to get. Some of the better land is being eaten up by country subdivisions and outlet malls at a tremendous rate.

Speaking as someone who wants to eat food in the future, I believe it is essential for us to do two things: encourage and protect small and diverse farms; and start planting our suburban lots to vegetables and fruits, with perhaps beehives and small animals where possible. This will take money and work, of course, but in particular it will take a strong commitment for us as a community to build a resilient and productive local foodshed. There is a place for everyone in this vitally important work, whatever your skills and interests. Give some thought to where you might want to help in this effort.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

One Local Year: Surprises

We had some real surprises during the 100-mile diet year (Nov 2007 through Oct 2008).

The first is that eating high-quality home-cooked local food really ruined our taste buds for fast food, junk food, and cheap restaurants. Ugggh! I used to eat That? This used to taste good, now it upsets my stomach. Home-cooked foods are made from ingredients, in other words, real foods. No fillers, no artificial colors or flavors, no hidden MSG; no high-fructose corn sweeteners, no transfats, no preservatives, no modified food starch. We also tried to buy organic as much as possible, which has better flavor and nutritional value.

The second surprise is that I lost interest in buying standard grocery-store produce, so pretty looking, so tasteless. The Western Slope fruits are so far superior to the fruits shipped in from California or Washington state. I'm sure fruits bought ripe locally IN California or Washington for local consumption are perfectly fine. It's the whole industrial food system, picking chemicalized and water-bloated produce way ahead of ripeness, shipping it across the country, then "ripening" it with chemicals. Have you wondered how you have U.S. apples year round? Or consider the long path for produce from China, Argentina, New Zealand? How far before ripening must they have been picked?

Now I am a bit of an enthusiast for Western Slope fruits, actually, since I think the best Colorado pear or peach, apple or nectarine, is better than the best California peach, or the best Washington apple, but my comparison is unfair, since I've never eaten a tree-ripe California peach.

The next surprise was how much I did not know about harvest times in Colorado. I realized that fresh produce would be pretty much unavailable in March and April, but it was still unavailable in May, and only in June did a significant harvest of fresh vegetables show up in the farmers' markets. We had the early season vegetables: peas, beans, spinach, early lettuce. Then everything took the month of July off, pretty much. The lettuce and spinach bolted, the peas burned up, and it was slim pickings until August. August through October is the cornucopia time in Colorado. We were up to our ears in a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. Inventorying my stocks, I was a very busy person during those three months, canning, drying, and freezing the produce. (I dated all the containers--always a good idea with home-preserved foods.)

The fourth surprise was that home fruit trees and home gardens, especially with season extenders, can provide a great many items that are practically unavailable commercially in the area. Commercial Colorado fruit is from the Western Slope (and wonderful stuff it is), but our yards are full of apples, pie cherries, plums, peaches, and even pears; also raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, elderberries, Nanking cherries, serviceberries, and chokecherries. Anyone with a small garden in Colorado can grow strawberries, but they are commercially unavailable from this state. If you have a yard, plant some fruit trees and shrubs, some strawberries.

I've grown celery at home, muskmelon and watermelon, and garlic. You can even grow okra and small sweet potatoes here. Some of the CSAs in the area grow melons very successfully, which are distributed to members and sold at farmers' markets. You never see Northern Colorado melons in the stores.

What's more, with a hoop house, small greenhouse, or even coldframes, you can keep hardy greens and carrots living and ready for harvest all winter long. Our winters are not as harsh as they were 50 years ago, so the rules of thumb we learned as children, or from older gardeners, are no longer entirely valid. Our plant hardiness zone has moved from 4 bordering on 5, to 5 bordering on 6. This makes season extenders even more practical. Eliot Coleman's book "Four Season Harvest" is a useful resource. Anyway, the upshot is that if you keep your own garden, you can extend that three months of Colorado bounty to at least nine months, and you can get a lot of fruits from your yard or your neighborhood.

Another surprise was that I lost weight slowly and effortlessly, just by not eating junk. And my diet was not that bad to start with. I did not go hungry, and did not feel deprived. Real foods, cooked at home, are just more satisfying. I wouldn't mind losing some more weight, and perhaps that will happen over the coming year. My husband has been on a moderately low-carb diet for the last six months, which we were able to work out with the local foods, and has lost a lot of weight.

A surprise for me was the things I did not miss. I have not had citrus fruits except for a small amount of lemon juice in a year, or a banana or mango or other tropical fruit, and I really don't miss them. I don't miss sweet potatoes. Tapioca, especially tapioca flour, was a little harder to give up, since it's very useful in gluten-free baking. I didn't miss out-of-season foods like strawberries in January, apples in March, asparagus in winter. I'm willing to wait for them to be in season.

It was interesting learning the things that we really didn't want to do without. When I planned the 100-mile diet, I planned in ten exceptions, five to be chosen by each of us. My first was salt. No way I'm doing without salt. The next three were beverages: coffee, black/green tea, and herbal teas. The herbal teas can mostly be grown here, with a little advance planning (maybe next year!). I was not prepared to cook without olives and olive oil, but I was able to find them from California. I made an exception for the tropical spices that really are impossible to find in a temperate climate: pepper, cinnamon, etc.

Our only seafood has been Alaskan wild-caught salmon, and very little of that. My sons each said, "Mom, you could get a fishing license..." and I could have, and added Colorado trout to my diet, but I didn't do it. For years I have been gradually reducing the seafood content of our diet, due to concerns about overfishing and environmental effects of farmed seafood. So it was not too much of a stretch to just stop everything except the sustainably harvested salmon.

It didn't take DH long to put raw nuts on his list, which we restricted to U.S.-grown. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and pistachios are on the list.

Finally, we used two vegetable exceptions to make it through the winter limitations: California canned tomato products, and U.S.-grown peas, frozen, fresh or dried. When the crops came in, we dropped them.

Now, looking back on the year, there were a few other things we missed. Basically they fall into the category of "condiments"--mustard (DH Loves Mustard), vinegar, lemon juice, coconut milk, herbs and spices, all in small amounts (except for mustard). Also, I had lots of herbs and spices on hand, but when they're gone, I'll either grow or buy some more. Maybe some day I'll figure out how to make local mustard, but for now, mustard in a jar is the way to go.

In the next post, I will talk about the future: the second year of local eating. We will be continuing local eating; it's pretty hard to conceive of NOT doing so, but we will allow a few more little niceties in our diet.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

One Local Year: Learnings

We've been on our local eating plan for one year now, and it's time to look back on our successes, failures, learnings, ideas, and impressions.

Q. Is it possible to eat a 100-mile diet in Northern Colorado
Yes, allowing a few exceptions, but there are significant difficulties. You certainly won't starve. What helps: having a CSA, having your own garden, cooking, belonging to a food buying cooperative, preserving food yourself.

Difficulty 1: If you plan to buy all your food at the grocery stores, you will last just long enough to run out of the food you have on hand. Even at Whole Foods, states of origin are marked only on fresh produce. In other food stores, information is practically unavailable. How to cope: The secret is to find local sources and/or grow your own. There are a number of local dairies, local farmers producing meat, and CSAs.

Difficulty 2: Colorado fruits and vegetables are only available from roughly June through November. If you have a garden, you can stretch the season a little by using cold frames, hoop house or other season extender. Going to the farmers market in May looking for fresh produce just didn't work. How to cope: Go back to what our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did as a matter of course: put up food. During the summer and fall bounty, they canned and dried, pickled and fermented, made jellies, jams, and conserves. They stored food for the winter in unheated areas such as cellars. (We now have the option of freezing produce also.) They went into winter with shelves groaning with a rainbow collection of jars of fruits and vegetables.

Difficulty 3: Some of the small items that we enjoy in our daily life are just not available within 100 miles. This includes coffee and tea, spices and some herbs, olives and olive oil. For example: We just couldn't find mustard that was truly local. Some is made in Northern Colorado, but not from local ingredients. A friend made some vinegar and gave me some, but unless you want to start a project, vinegar is not local. Coping technique 1: call them exceptions and use them. Coping technique 2: Find local alternatives, change your tastes, grow your own in some cases.

Techniques on exceptions: Pick a few that are important to you and your family, and try to get them as close as possible. For example, olives and olive oil are available from California. Nuts are available from the west coast. Just say no to food items from China, except possibly green or black tea. Items like tea and spices don't weigh much for the amount of flavor and enjoyment they bring. Barbara Kingsolver just didn't sweat the small stuff: herbs and spices didn't count in her local eating plan.

Techniques on finding alternatives: Depending on the item, you may be able to grow it (like herbal tea), make your own (like vinegar), use pioneer techniques (coffee from roasted roots like chicory), or just substitute what you do have (local honey for non-local sugar). It's interesting to read through old cookbooks and pioneer diaries to see what they ate, what they made, the substitutions they used, and finally, what they bought, usually at high expense. You can also read about what the Indians living in this region ate, pretty much strictly local except that trade routes brought sea salt well into the interior of the country.

Q. Didn't you have a restricted diet?
No, not at all. Most of the things we couldn't get we didn't miss: tropical fruits for one example. We ate high-quality local beef, pork, buffalo, lamb, chicken, turkey, and eggs. We used high-quality local dairy products. Given a good effort at putting up fruits and vegetables, from year to year, there is no lack of excellent organic fruits and vegetables. You do need to get salt; the closest is RealSalt from Utah, but I didn't worry that much about it; it's a necessity of life, and we don't live near the ocean.

The staple foods were what turned our 100-mile diet in what's termed a bullseye diet. I was able to find 100-mile pinto and anasazi beans, whole wheat flour, and millet. That's pretty restrictive unless you are eating a paleo diet (no grains, no beans). So we stretched our limits, first to the rest of Colorado, picking up quinoa and the Western Slope fruits, and more beans from the San Luis Valley area. Then, as I started the food cooperative, we stretched the limit for grains, beans, and nuts to the western U.S. I'm relying mainly on millet and pintos, and wheat flour for my husband (I can't eat it), but I have a variety of staples now, all organic, all from the western U.S.

I mentioned the Bullseye diet in posts nearly a year ago. First, you get as much as you can from your own yard (the inner circle); next you move out to your neighborhood, such as community gardens, neglected fruit trees that can be gleaned. Next is the community and surrounding farms. This is where most of our food comes from: CSAs, farmers markets, local livestock producers and dairies, local eggs. There is no reason why grains and beans couldn't be grown that close to us, it just hasn't happened yet. Here is where we need to make the market, and suppliers will arise to fill it.

The things you can't get from your community, you reach out to your state and region. Colorado has a wonderful diversity of agricultural possibilities; as farms become smaller and more local (as petroleum becomes more expensive), we can expect to find nearly all our needs within the state. For now, and for some things in particular such as nuts and olives, we need to consider the western U.S., a breadbasket of lentils, split peas, grains of nearly every kind.

Finally there are a few things unavailable in the U.S., like some spices, pepper, black and green tea, and coffee. We try to buy organic and fair-trade as much as possible, and don't use a lot of these items. They are dry and light and easy to ship. Yes, if we really ran out of petroleum and they couldn't be shipped to us, we'd learn to live without them.

So, that was our journey. As we got to the scarce days of late winter and early spring, we expanded our horizons a little, and with due thought used some foods from outside the 100-mile circle. If you lived in Vancouver, San Francisco, or other areas with more year-round agriculture, it would be easier to confine yourself to 100 miles. Here, it is possible, with a lot of work and planning, but certainly not easy.

Next: the benefits we noticed.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Month 12: October--Opportunities Taken and Missed

An essential part of local eating in our climate is storing the bounty of summer and fall, so you have foods to get you through winter and spring. We were still swimming in the fall bounty in October, with apples and pears from the Western slope, winter squash coming in, the last of the tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and hardy greens.

I carried home groaning bags from my CSA pickup. I ordered boxes of fruit through the food cooperative. I bought more boxes of canning jars, and ran loads of stuff through the fruit dryer. The trays on my rather ancient fruit dryer are beginning to develop some cracks, from overuse.

But I just couldn't get to everything. We couldn't eat it fast enough. I couldn't fill the dryer trays fast enough. I filled up more cases of jars, with the last of the nectarines, and some pears. The pears got away from me, and I had to throw a few away. The last of the green beans wilted; we ate them earlier in the summer until we were both tired of them. I should have frozen or canned them when they were fresh, but they sat in the produce drawer unnoticed.

Eating local fruits and vegetables is a big change from shopping at the supermarket every week. First, the quality of the local fresh produce is absolutely superlative; we are thoroughly spoiled now and don't even want the tasteless stuff shipped from all over the world and ripened artificially.

Second, when produce comes into season, we eat it and eat it, until we can get tired of it. Then you feel, oh no, more (fill in the blank). And DH says, not again. And the reality is, that we won't get any more green beans until next June. We'll get over being tired of them long before that.

Third, by eating locally you really get in touch with the seasons of harvest in our area. Plums show up--better move quickly or they're gone. We have good lettuce in June, and great lettuce in August and September after a hot July with no lettuce at all. So, eating seasonally is great, during the seasons. But nothing is really available from December through May, so local eaters need to put food up when it's available. Not so that we can eat the same year around, but so that we can have a variety of healthy foods through the winter.

In order to make use of the bounty and provide for the winter, I need new habits. I'm part of the way there. I put up tomatoes, lots of them, but maybe not enough. I put up apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, pears, apples. I froze snap peas, snow peas, English peas, and green beans. I pickled cabbage, green beans, cucumbers, and salsa. I dried apples, pears, plums, peppers, and zucchini. But I also threw some things away. It's got to become second nature to me; I need to learn to look at the week's incoming bounty, and decide what we might eat, and what I need to plan to freeze, dry, can, etc., while they are at the peak of their quality.

This is what our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did. They had gardens, they bought or bartered from their neighbors, they picked fruit wherever they could, and put it away for the long weeks of winter and spring when little else was available.

We've sampled the first of our stored foods: some tomato sauce (fabulous), some delicious fruit canned in light honey syrup. I heated some snap peas I froze in vacuum bags, and they were just great, flavorful and with a good texture. But it's a long way till June (when we can get some more).

I'm planning to take an inventory of what I have, and keep track week by week of what we use, what we want more of, and what we don't really like. This will help me next summer and fall as I make choices of what, and how, and how much to store away.

It's also time to switch from summer-fall foods--salads, raw veggies, veggies cooked as themselves--to fall-winter foods: soups, stews, cooked vegetable medleys of various kinds.

So, October went well, and we have finished out our year of eating locally. My next post or two will be a summation of what we learned, and how our diet changed to fit the local circumstances.