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Food Preservation: Freezing

Our lives and society continue to be marked by uncertainty and worry, but let’s keep talking about food preservation as one part of re-localizing and building real security.

I admit that I don’t find freezing as fun and interesting as the other preserving techniques. While natural freezing in cold climates has a long history, what we’re talking about is using a modern device that requires technology and electricity. That’s not that exciting to me and not

Homestead Grown Broccoli

necessarily sustainable. However, it works so well for a lot of foods, and makes more sense than shipping products all over the globe. So, while we have a reliable energy grid, we use it to keep eating from our own homestead much longer.

My approach is to lean more on the other preservation methods, but turn to freezing in cases where other options don’t satisfy me.

Meat is at the top of my list for freezing. I don’t enjoy dried or canned meat. Other methods of curing and storing meats are not easy for a novice to do. There is a reason “butcher” is an important specialized craft. Years ago I was a vegan. When it became clear that was detrimental to my health and I went back to animal products I vowed to try to be involved in raising them to ensure that they had good lives. The ability to freeze our harvest means I can eat almost exclusively meat from animals that we have raised and processed.

Some veggies I prefer to freeze are eggplant, broccoli, and cauliflower. None of those rehydrate well after drying in my experience. Vegetables do

Blanching and Packing to Freeze

best when blanched before freezing. Blanching deactivates the enzymes that are slowed but not stopped by freezing in their breaking down of the food which can lead to mushy veggies once they thaw. I tend more towards actually cooking the veggies before freezing them often. Otherwise I’m blanching them – which is like cooking them a little bit – then freezing, then cooking again once thawed. Why not do more of the

Eggplant Fresh in the Garden

cooking just once up front in the process? This is how I process eggplant – we pan fry them for later eggplant parmesan or cube and cook them to use in a great eggplant enchilada recipe I have.

For the broccoli & cauliflower, I go ahead with the steaming method of blanching and use them later in quiche.

Other items I put in the freezer are: pesto, chevre, salsa, and frozen berries to use later in baked goods.

I also often freeze smaller fruits over the summer as I pick them. Then I can do my canning when I have amassed all the blueberries or currants

Elderberries Headed to the Freezer

or elderberries I am going to, and even wait until it’s colder and the heat and steam in the house is a positive side effect. Fruits don’t need blanching.

Energy Efficiency

We have both an upright and a chest freezer.  Honestly, they were both given to us so I can’t say we were very purposeful in those choices. But – I have ended up liking how this works for us. Since the freezer fills over the fall then empties as we get to summer, we can consolidate and unplug one as we go along. Chest freezers are better insulated so use less energy. However, things can get lost in there and sometimes all my unpacking and digging around for an item doesn’t seem great for retaining cold. So, if it’s big and we have a lot of it, like meat after fall harvesting, I can stack it in boxes that are easy to move around. For the smaller products that I might not have much of, being well organized in the upright means that I actually find what I need quickly and nothing gets lost for years and never eaten.

Both of our freezers are manual defrost, which saves energy, and I don’t mind doing a yearly thaw and clean out of each of them.

Containers for Freezing

Freezing Pesto in Glass

One concern that came up for me was that everything was being frozen in plastic containers. When plastics are frozen there is evidence that they can leach chemicals such as BPA, PVC, and Pthaltates into the food they are touching.  So, I have been slowly transitioning to using glass. I was initially afraid of it breaking,

Another Container Safe to Freeze in

but a little research and using the right containers really works.  Straight sides and some room at the top of the jar are all that I’ve needed to avoid breakage.

I have never tried vacuum sealing, which sounds like more trouble and expense than it would be worth since I’m happy with how my system is working now.

Note that “freezer burn” is not a safety risk, but can affect taste. To avoid it, use well-sealed containers and let blanched or cooked foods cool before freezing.

Shelf Life

According to The National Center for Food Preservation, “foods are safe indefinitely while frozen“. However, most charts and information out there recommends eating frozen food within a year, so we aim to freeze only what we can use in that time period.

Thawing

It is important to properly thaw foods to keep them safe to eat. The easiest way to do this is put them in the refrigerator ahead of time. Don’t leave your frozen food at room temperature to thaw! 

Consistent Power Availability

Where we live, power outages are not unusual and there have been instances when they last for days. When that happens, my thoughts turn to my freezer full of carefully grown, harvested, prepared and stored nourishment. The CDC states that a full freezer can hold its temperature for 48 hours. So, the question is – do we buy a generator big enough to power this appliance? We haven’t yet… we’ll see what the future brings in terms of increased storms and power issues.

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2019 On the Homestead

Garden in July

We just finished up our most productive season on our homestead yet, a year that showed how abundant permacultural systems can be. The bounty also kept us very busy with picking, drying, freezing, canning, and root cellaring.

Winter in New England provides a natural space to review, reflect and plan ahead. During the rush of the growing season, it’s a struggle just to keep up with daily chores. I’m grateful for the down-time that lets me practice the first principle of permaculture: Observe and Interact and the fourth principle: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. Some of what I note I can’t necessarily plan for – such as how much rain we get – but other information will change what I do – such as I planted too many bush beans for what we need or what my back feels good about.

I’ve begun to think of our years here less as numbers and more by conditions. Like, 2018 was the Year of Rodents & Clouds and 2016 was the Year of Drought. This year, 2019, stands out to me as the Year of Enough Rain, Weird Nectar Flows & Overabundant Veggies.

Last year’s review focused on the gardens. Here I will expand that to include our animals and other projects.

Let me begin again with speaking to problems, starting with the issues I identified in my 2018 Review and how I fixed them or saw them evolve.

Seedlings in April

Starting Seedlings

Having learned from my 2018 reflections on our seedling trouble, I did go back to a commercial blend. I found a company called Organic Mechanics that has peat-free seed starting mixes, so at least I was able to address that ethical issue arising with these mixes. It still came in a plastic bag. It worked well, though, so I got off to a good start with lots of healthy new plants.

Rodents, Pests and Diseases

Fewer Chipmunks Mean More Strawberries!

Rodent pressure was SO much less this year! It’s basic population dynamics – if a group grows beyond it’s ecological limits, it will crash. After 2018’s nearly unbelievable numbers, we had our easiest year yet dealing with chipmunks, squirrels, and voles, our usual competitors. I see this with insect pests and diseases often as well. It’s why I take my time and observe carefully before reacting, especially with any kind of drastic intervention.

We did have a groundhog appear mid-season, hanging out in our lower garden. We failed to figure out how it was getting in and out of the fenced area so we had some damage – it loved my broccoli and cauliflower plants and took bites out of many of our winter squash in that section. Honestly, for a groundhog, it was well-behaved to only make that much of an impact. It just kept me holding my breath for the day I’d go down to devastation! I’ve exhaled mostly by now.

Healthy Cucumber Vines in August

The cucumber disease that I and many others were affected by in 2018 was not a problem this year. In fact, I had way more cucumbers than I felt ready for! Luckily, the chickens and goats are fans of the overgrown ones. The only change I made from previous seasons was to space the vines far from each other around the garden, making it harder for disease to spread. I’m not sure that mattered, though, as so many others reported great yields from their cukes. I think it was a problem that came and went by factors larger than we control.

Pulling Parsnips

Roots

After a few years of germination problems with carrots I seem to have found the right combination for success. First, I planted later. Although carrots, beets and parsnips as “cool season crops” are happy to grow in cool weather, they don’t necessarily germinate well in cold soil. Especially since I am a committed mulcher, seeding carrots in March meant weeks before seeing them, and keeping them consistently moist that long was tough. So, I waited for some warmth and exercised patience, which I really needed given what a cold spring we had. It was May 26 when I finally seeded the root crops. I also put up a shade cloth over the carrots to keep them from drying out as the sun strengthened. It worked! In fact, my carrots came up

Carrots for the Root Cellar

thickly, and it had been years since I had needed to thin, so my first planting had it’s share of weird twisted, multi-legged roots from being crowded. I was on top of thinning the later plantings which gave me gorgeous results and 195# just of carrots to eat and pack in the root cellar.

 

Labor

The one big problem we experienced this year was a labor shortage. This should not have surprised me, as it is a very common problem on farms. When you are putting a lot of work into a product that is comparatively undervalued financially, there are going to be problems, even with the many labor-saving techniques used in permacultural systems. Steve needed to take more off-farm work this summer, leaving me to do more than I expected and than I was really up for. Any real solution to this needs to be addressed at a societal level, but, meanwhile, I am going to have to rethink some of my choices and be more realistic about my time. I am a great solar-powered, renewable resource, but have my energy limits!

Good Soil, Big Plants

Success in the Gardens

At this point we have about one acre out of our 7 in garden beds full of organic matter, built from the countless truckloads of reclaimed resources we have brought in since we moved here in 2008 (seaweed, coffee grounds, manure, hay and wood chips). The majority of the beds are planted in perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus, berries and fruit trees, most still too young to be very productive. Between the young trees, and in our 3,300 square foot sheet mulched main garden, we plant our annual crops.

Peaches!

With the regular rain, low rodent numbers, and the soil we’ve built, it was a great year for growing. The trees are also becoming mature enough to begin to bear and we had our first real harvest of peaches, 219#, juicy and delicious.

Here are the veggie and fruit numbers, hopefully presented in an useful way (feedback on that welcome!):

Alliums – garlic – 165 hds; garlic tops – 161; leeks – 96#

Beans & Peas – 96.75# snap beans; 17.5# dry beans; sugar snap peas – 11.5#

Brassicas – broccoli – 3.75#; brussels sprouts – 12.5#; cauliflower – 3#; kale/collard – 29#

Celery – 1.5 #

Corn, popcorn – 9#

Cucumber – 195.5# (ack!)

Eggplant – 70.25#

Greens – lettuce – 9#; nettles – 3#, beet greens – 1#

Herbs – basil – 6.25#; dill – 1#

Melon – 21.5#

Potatoes – 166.5# (from 22# seed potatoes, a solid 1 to 7.5 ratio)

Roots – beets – 30.25#; carrots – 195.25#; parsnips – 38#; radishes – 82

Squash – summer – 53.75#; winter = 686#

Tomato – 55.75#

Fruit:  beach plums – 1#; crabapples – 12#; currants, clove – 16.75#; currants, red & white – 21.5#; elderberry – 1#; grapes – 12#; honeyberry – 3 ½ cups; jostaberry – 3.25#, nanking cherry 1/4#; peaches – 219#; rhubarb – 15#; strawberry – 20.5#

This bounty kept us eating well and was preserved to last for months to come.

Bees Making Honey in June

Bees

My two hives from 2018 came through the winter strong, ready to take off in the spring. It was a slow start with the chilly weather, but once they had the opportunity they were wonderfully productive. Usually we have a dearth (lack of nectar) in July, but this year that did not happen. Instead, they just kept on filling their combs, to the point that we pulled honey in order to avoid towering hives toppling over, or late season swarms. I also split the overwintered hives to create two more, plus a small nucleus hive. Strangely, though, the fall nectar flow never came. I have no idea why. I gave them back some of the honey frames I’d pulled plus some sugar syrup and hope they were able to build up enough of a population to survive the winter.

We were able to take 165# of honey, so despite the weird season, I consider it a good one.

Goats

Goat Kids: Zan & Jayna

We had another year of healthy, happy goats, including two successful births in the spring. All four kids were sold to other homesteads with natural goatkeeping practices. We helped Gagnons Mountain Homestead start their herd with Luna’s little girl, Jayna, and her whethered brother to keep her company. We love helping others get started, especially folks we resonate with on animal keeping.

I have been milking three animals since the spring, this year’s moms, Cocoa and Luna, and 2018 mom, Lily. We brought in 107 gallons of milk over the course of the year, most of which I turned into yogurt, chevre cheese, and mozzarella.

Young Dominique Chickens

Poultry

All went smoothly with our Dominique chickens. From the incubator and one broody hen we raised 41 chicks, some of which we added to our own flock, some of which we sold, and some of which we harvested to eat. We added to our number of move-able chicken houses and yards to keep the growing birds protected but rotating pasture. It is tricky to make the structures strong enough to withstand predators but light enough to actually move.

Day Old Ducklings

Our Indian Runner duck flock had some turnover this year. We still had our “old grey duck” from the first batch we brought home back in 2012 but she was showing her age. Over the winter she had seemed arthritic, walking stiffly at times. I thought it kinder not to ask her to go through another cold season. We really liked her and her big blue eggs and wanted to keep those genetics in our flock. So, I put her and our drake together by themselves for a week, took her seven eggs, and put them in the incubator. We find duck eggs much harder to hatch successfully so were delighted when six of them hatched out 28 days later! And, in a poignant, bittersweet coincidence, Old Grey curled up in the pasture the following day and peacefully died, probably not – but maybe on some level – knowing that she had

Our Current Duck Flock

completed her basic biological imperative to pass on her genes to a new generation. Four of those ducklings did turn out to be female and are now part of the flock!

At that point, though, our drake became too related to everyone else in the flock to breed from, so we are ordering some spring ducklings from Sand Hill Preservation Center to add new genetics to our operation.

Our poultry harvest came to: 1,683 (140.25 dozen) chicken eggs; 593 (49.4 dozen) duck eggs; chicken meat about 100#; duck meat about 5#.

Other Homestead Projects

Packing Parsnips for the Root Cellar

The root cellar is up and running after about 7 years of intermittent work! This is a free-standing cellar since our house doesn’t have one. Lots of rock moving and masonry was involved, slow and heavy work. We also continued to expand the orchard and garden areas enough that I can order about 10 more trees for spring planting.

Looking Ahead

And now it’s time for me to do an inventory of our seeds and send in my order to Fedco, as well as orders for trees, bees, and ducklings. Now is also the season to find new and interesting ways to cook and bake all the food we have put up from this abundant year, and thus enjoy eating what’s still fresh and completely local. Watch for me to get back to the topic of food preservation in coming posts.

Happy 2020 – it’s a year of auspicious anniversaries including the 100th year of US Women’s Suffrage and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day… we’ll see what it brings for us all, on the homestead and beyond!

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September At Living Land

The Garden in September

Early September continued to feel like July here in NH, which kept us busy picking produce, especially beans and squash. When the temperatures finally dropped, I was both relieved and sad. On the one hand – enough of picking beans! On the other – I miss all those beans!

The month brought plenty of rain, with NH almost entirely drought-free by mid-month. Ideally, we would have seen more of the sun and fewer storm clouds, but given the floods elsewhere, I won’t complain too much.

By the end of September, there was still no frost. I guess that’s our new normal. It allows for a little longer growing season, although with the daylight waning we don’t get as much out of an extra month of growth as one might expect.

Our Work in September

September is another busy month, with harvests coming in, and some of my off-farm activities picking back up. Finding time to sit down and write this was certainly challenging!

Plants

Beans Climbing

Bringing in the harvest was on the top of this month’s list. Some plants were continuing to produce, like string beans, kale, celery and summer squash, while others ripened up this month, especially the winter squash. As they came in, many needed attention to preserve: freezing, lactofermenting and drying, plus making room for curing then storing the winter squash. We made pesto for the freezer and started hanging bags of beans up to finish drying. I have become fascinated with the great variety of dry beans that I can grow myself. I especially love the climbing varieties, which are so much easier on my back when it comes to picking!

We dug the rest of the potatoes mid-month. We ended up with disappointing numbers due to the extreme rodent pressure this year.  I averaged 4 or 5 pounds yield for every pound I planted – in the past I’ve seen up to a 15 to 1 return.  So, I am changing my potato planting strategy. The past few years I have planted very late – May 23 this year – in order to avoid the Colorado potato bugs. It has worked great at thwarting the bugs, but it has meant that we hit drier times when the plants are trying to get established, then the late summer rodent explosion comes along before they are ready. The plants look beautiful, but I don’t get as high a yield. Next year, I will plant early again, and see how that goes.

Leeks, Almost Ready – green tops loved by goats!

Going into winter, I do only minimal “cleaning up” of my gardens. I want as much plant material to stay put as possible, to add to the soil and to overwinter microbes. I do take out plants that are going by, but would still be enjoyed by goats! Such as: kale or collard leaves that are too chewed up by worms for my taste, broccoli and cauliflower leaves, and bean plants that aren’t producing fruit anymore. I cut rather than pull them out – the roots stay there to feed the soil. Some of the cover crops I also cut back to share with the animals while leaving all the roots. The goats love oatstraw and this year were very excited about the millet stalks.

I did a little more planting of radishes and greens. I want to do more later season planting in upcoming years, but haven’t gotten the timing figured out. I plan to make up a more extensive planting schedule over the winter that will help me remember at the right time next year.

Animals

Dominique Pullets

The animals have grown up by now, at least into teenagers – no more babies! We had one day of poultry processing for the oldest boys, before they got too rough with each other.

This is an otherwise easy, happy time for the critters, who still have plenty of forage of plants and insects, and love the cooler temperatures. We top off food and water, open and close gates, move fences and carry some forage to them, milk the goats twice a day and collect eggs.

I did a thorough hive inspection early in the month, determining that the hives looked healthy and large enough to overwinter with great queens, but didn’t have enough honey. They were making progress with storing some, thanks to the Japanese Knotweed bloom, but I fed them to make sure they’d have enough. Altogether, from late August to the end of September, each hive got about 20# of sugar made into a syrup. I won’t be going back in, because they were already touchy at the last inspection. I don’t want to risk inciting robbing and fighting between my hives, after all this work!

Curing Winter Squash

September’s Harvest

We brought in a lot of produce this month, which I’ll try to present in a readable format:

Summer Squash: 23.5# yellow summer squash, 10.25# zucchini

Other hot weather crops: 16.75# tomatoes, 5# basil, 2.75# eggplant, 11.25# cucumbers, , 51# string beans

Brassicas: 3.75# kale & collards, 1# brussel sprouts, 4.75# broccoli

Root crops: 5.5# carrots, 4# beets, 1# parsnips, 16 radishes, 40# potatoes (not really a root, but close enough)

Winter Squash: 145.5# long pie pumpkin, 41.25# delicata, 247# butternut, 10# pumpkin, 20# Boston marrow

Plus: 1# celery, 3 leeks, 1.5# grapes and 8 large sunflower heads

I know I saw raspberries as well, but they didn’t make it to the kitchen for weighing. I also started bringing in the drying beans, but those I don’t measure until I shell them, which will happen gradually over the fall.

I brought home from local sources 10 5-gallon buckets of gleaned apples for the goats, and 25 5-gallon buckets of seaweed for the animals and gardens.

From the animals we received 204 chicken eggs, 67 duck eggs, 10.5 gallons of milk, and about 15# of meat.

We made 485 kwh from the PV solar panels.

What we are still eating from previous years: honey, canned peaches, blueberries and strawberry jelly, dried kale and beans, frozen eggplant, and pesto.

Seminole Squash Vines (see the blue of my shirt in the jungle?)

Looking Ahead

More harvesting, hopefully! I have barely touched the root crops which look promising, if the rodents don’t get them first. More dried beans will be ready soon. The Seminole squash vines continue to thrive and be impossible to see or wade through to determine if there are actually fruit ripening, so that mystery continues. We also expect 3 or 4 more days of poultry processing. I’ll plant my garlic mid to late October. That’s a task that has moved much later than when I first started gardening due to our warmer falls and later frost. Oh – and stacking wood is coming up!

We’ll also continue off-farm gathering – apple drops, seaweed, and, soon, bags of leaves packed up for us from city-dwellers. Another active month expected!

No September Frost Means Morning Glories Still Bloom

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