Thursday, September 30, 2010

Maize Maze!

So, I've lived in Iowa now for over 13 years and I have to admit that before yesterday I'd never been to a corn maze. (A maize maze, get it?) hahaha
Yesterday was a particularly pretty fall day and my little family took a break from our routine and went to visit one.
The farm we visited has 2 mazes, one small (free) and a bigger one that's 6$ to go through and requires at least 1 hour, sometimes 2. Needless to say, we stuck with the smaller one, and even then we only saw the first 3rd of it.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, the maze part is usually secondary to the cool picture that the maze forms when viewed from above. Even so, they are pretty easy to get turned around in, as the corn is well over 7 feet high.

To make things more fun, there are scavenger hunts inside the maze, and you can arrange to go through after dark.
This particular farm sold tons of pumpkins and squash to visitors and offered a petting zoo for kids, with goats and kittens and chickens and such. We got a pumpkin to carve and a pie pumpkin to eat and a giant Hubbard squash. I've never eaten a Hubbard, but some of my online buddies say it's pretty good. I'll report back.
Rowen ran around and had a great time.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Winter Food Storage Experiment

Hmm... I need a catchier name than, "Winter Food Storage Experiment." Something like "Root Cellar Survival" or "The Art of Winter Storage." lol I'm open to reader submissions. :-D

So, I want to try an experiment. As such, the dates I choose are mostly arbitrary. In the past Americans would store from the end of their growing season to the beginning of the next. Most didn't choose to live in zone 4 Iowa though. :-D :-D If i was to use those dates for my experiment I'd need to go from Oct 11-April 20th. Waaay too long for my first trial run. (While searching for those growing season dates I stumbled across this tidbit: "Your frost-free growing season is around 148 days." Wow, so short. I've seen it though, the squash I planted didn't even have time to set fruit and it's already dieing back from the cold nights we had last week.)
So, since I'm going with arbitrary dates anyway, I've decided to run this experiment from Nov 1st through the end of March. 5 months, roughly 20 weeks.

I'm going to pick 5 items to stock in the root cellar and try to store enough of those things to last us through the winter. I will be trying to get storage conditions right so they'll last through March and amounts right so we don't run out too soon.

What's my goal here, some of you may be asking, what's the point? Well, as I hinted above, Americans used to do this as a matter of course. (Let's not be ethnocentric here, many peoples back to the dawn of time have done this; NOT storing winter food is the oddity, historically speaking.) Unless they lived in one of the more prosperous cities on the east coast, supplies came when the weather was good and very little moved during the winter. A family that didn't store enough or store it properly went hungry in the spring. Fast forward a hundred years and during WWII, victory gardens and canning/storing pushes were seen as a way to feed families back home and thus allow as much as possible to be sent to the troops fighting overseas. The prosperity following WWII saw much of that get pushed to the back burner. Cheap oil, the green revolution and just-in-time delivery networks encouraged Americans to trust their local grocer to have every possible fruit and veggie, fresh dairy and baked goods all year round. The danger is that grocers don't store food anymore either. It's now estimated that grocery stores carry an average of 3 days worth of food. If anything shuts down the JIT delivery network, lots of shelves will be bare, rather quickly. You've probably already seen this, ever tried to find milk and bread on the 2nd day of what's forecasted to be a 3 day blizzard? That's a localized example of the distribution network shutting down. Massive earthquake, flooding, blizzards, ice storms, etc, any of these could happen and cause trucks to halt delivery and then the clock starts ticking. On a national scale, it would take something like a flu pandemic or a massive spike in oil prices or some sort of attack either nuclear or biological. None of these are likely options, but at the same time, they are all possibilities.
My purpose with this experiment is to explore the food needs of my family over a winter. I realize that our needs will never be stable, kids grow and need more food, an empty nest will need less, but a rough idea will be more valuable than the complete question mark I have now. Knowing those food needs will allow me to store food every winter to cover any emergencies that halt the JIT delivery network. (In the summer my garden serves that role) Knowing our food needs will help me more accurately plan the crops that I grow, and help me invest in bulk food purchases with more precision and confidence. Practicing the storing, and approaching it in an intentional way means I can record successes and failures and learn more quickly from them, lessening the losses in subsequent years.

Here are my calculated-guesses for amounts I'd like to store. As this is my first year, I can only guess at our usage of these. Some guesses will be more accurate than others, but that's what this is about.

Apples --5/week x 20 weeks = 100

Onions -- 4/week x 20 weeks = 80

Garlic -- 1 head/week x 20 weeks = 20 heads

Potatoes -- 4/week x 20 weeks = 80

Sweet Potatoes -- 2/week x 20 weeks = 40

What I have stored as of today:
Apples: 51
Onions: 58
Garlic: 30 heads
Potatoes: 65 + 10 pounds of Reds + whatever I get from my red potato harvest
Sweet Potatoes: 8

So, I need another 50 apples, (wow) and another 20 onions and 30 more sweet potatoes. Apples I think are very doable, there are still good deals on new crops, onions are probably doable, we'll see. Sweet potatoes might be short, it's hard to find them, and we can certainly survive without them if we run out halfway through the experiment.

You can see the setup I'm working with in the picture above. (not bad if I do say so myself)
There's a little thermometer on the top shelf that still reads 60 degrees, and I need to work this weekend on getting some cool air flow down to that little room. Ideally the apples and potatoes need temperatures in the 30's. Ideally I need to seperate my apples and potatoes too, as the potatoes will give off a gas that will quicken the spoilage of my apples.

I also need to get all my jars of food counted and a list hung up in the kitchen for reference.

More on all of that as it progresses. Lots to do, but I'm please with the progress so far.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Updates on the Summer To-Do list

I thought I'd take a moment to update y'all on my projects. Progress has been made on some, with all the snags and setbacks that come with the territory.
Here's the original post, in case you missed it and get confused about what I'm talking about.

GOAL: Cool storage, away from sunlight, for my canning jars full of food
A lot of progress has been made on this one. Dave and I canned a lot of great stuff this summer. There was no way all the goodness could fit in our kitchen or pantry, plus those places weren't cool enough or dark enough for ideal storage. I needed space set up in the basement. Dave came to the rescue and set up the last of the scavenged shelving, plastic but pretty heavy duty.
We got all the jars off the kitchen counter :-D and down onto shelves, organized and looking good. It was hovering around 70°, so we've been trying to blow cold air down the stairs at night. This has brought things down to 60°, but I need to work on getting it below 50°. I think the problem is that I don't have an exhaust hole for the warm air to escape out of, so the cool air isn't making it down to where I need it. Not sure how I can make a hole without destroying my rented house.

GOAL: Cold storage of veggies, like onions/turnips/carrots/garlic/apples/potatoes
The bottom shelf of the can shelving is where I'm putting my boxes of veggies right now. I don't have cool wooden crates yet, what I do have is small cardboard boxes. :-D I've been stocking up on cheap root-cellar items as I see them at farmer's markets and grocery store. Much easier than canning, the surplus items are simply placed in my chilly basement to await their tasty dinner fate.
What I have so far:
Apples: 2 dozen of little green ones, 1 dozen of assorted reds.
Squash: 4 butternut and 2 acorn
Onions: 40-50
Potatoes: roughly 10 pounds
Sweet Potatoes: roughly 3 pounds

This still isn't enough to really do my winter experiment. I still need a lot more apples and potatoes. More on that another day though. (I'm still calculating how many weeks I want to experiment for)

GOAL: Rain barrel in place and downspout adjusted accordingly.
The Rain barrel is in place, with downspout trimmed properly and it has filled with water a couple of times now! Sadly, poor construction of the tube-connection-thing has led to all the water leaking out over the course of a few days. :-( I'm hoping this winter I can fix that problem, and I'm glad I set it up this fall and found the problem. Dave thinks a clamp around the hose might fix the problem. If not, I might cut out the whole thing and install a nice new spigot with rubber rings and a proper seal. It'll be great to have 55 gallons of stored water next summer.

GOAL: organize and pile neatly the fire wood I've collected.
I'm a couple of steps closer on this goal. I bought an axe, and I took it to a neighbor's house to sharpen on his bench grinder. I'm not a stranger to fast moving equipment, but the bench grinder was a new one for me. It showered me with white-hot sparks and made a really loud noise. :-D I did find it fun though. He says I can come back to sharpen it as often as I need to. Hopefully the sunny weather this week will allow me to tame the pile and get it stored properly before winter hits.

Of course, as I make progress on this round of To-Do's a whole new round is cropping up, related to weatherizing the house for our first winter here. We're a zone colder and in a bigger house than we're used to. It's going to take a lot of work to make sure we don't spend a fortune keeping things warm enough for baby boy. I'll do a post in a few days outlining what I'm planning to do. Dave and I ordered some of the things we'll need last night, but there's a lot to do before the end of Oct.

What's on your to-do list? Did you get everything done this summer? :-D

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Winter Storage

I've thought of a few fun experiments I'd like to try this winter.

I've mentioned the cold frames before. I have one, but I'd like to build another 1 or 2 and try growing more variety than just greens. Sadly I think time and finances might not allow this one to happen this year, but I'll cross my fingers.

Another one I've thought of that involves less buying of wood: storing everything I'll need for my family for winter. Now, first addendum, not EVERYTHING. :-D I know, that immediately makes it less impressive, but lets be realistic here, I'd never convince hubby to do that. What I'm thinking is trying to store everything I'll need of cold cellar stuff. Apples/squash/potatoes/garlic/onions, those sorts of things. They are cheap right now and it makes sense to stock up and store properly to enjoy after the prices go back up. I'd like to try to get amounts needed right, so we don't run out halfway through winter. I'd like to try to get storage right so things last all winter. This experiment could be expanded to strategically include dry goods and canned goods, strategically meaning those that aren't financially burdensome. I will evaluate on a case by case basis. Expect to see at least a couple more planning posts on this one, :-) that's my favorite phase anyway, then a couple posts over Winter detailing progress and pitfalls, then a post or two with lessons learned in Spring. I want to define start and stop dates so I have a discrete number of weeks to plan for, list the specific things I'm storing and tracking and do some rough calculations on current consumptions.

Finally, I want to try and push hubby into drying some of our clothes on racks indoors this winter. We are just now buying a dryer after a nice summer of line drying everything. It would be tempting to use the dryer all winter for everything, but I think judicious use of our nice drying racks could cut our utility bill and maybe ease the dry air issue that plagues us when the heaters come on.

More on all of these later. I'll flesh them out some more and set some goals.