Politicians Harming Americans. Again.

Major Issues in Farm Bill Negotiations

AmericansAfter costing the nation plenty to pointlessly shut the U.S. government down for two weeks beginning October 1st, the Republicans in the House and Senate are now back at their job of desperately seeking ways to hurt as many Americans as possible.

Seems nobody was impressed by the shutdown grandstanding, which cost my region of Western North Carolina a million dollars a day to our biggest industry – tourism – at the very height of Leaf-Looker season. The Blue Ridge Parkway was open for driving, but all amenities were shut down. Smoky Mountains National Park was closed down entirely. All so the Tea Party wing of the Republican bloc could throw their little temper tantrum over the idea that Americans might be able to obtain affordable medical care under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010. So now that they’ve cried uncle on that, they’re going after SNAP [“Food Stamps”] big time as the Congress tries to clear its slate for the year for the session before the members go home for the holidays.

SNAP benefits are already being cut on November 1st as the 2009 stimulus bill, enacted in response to the Great Recession of 2008 when a consortium of the world’s biggest banks and insurance companies crashed the economy and threw tens of millions of Americans out of work, expires. The Senate version of the Farm Bill cuts $400 million from the SNAP program, while the House version seeks $4 billion in cuts. The two versions will have to be reconciled in order to bring about a bill the President can sign into law, so hold on to your napkins!

SNAP has been part of farm legislation for many years, as it is tied in with certain farm subsidies. Now, few of us small-time producers would be very upset if ADM or other huge Agribiz outfits lost their lion’s share of subsidies, but a growing number of us understand only too well how much of a good economic stimulus the program really is as our outlets have been authorized to accept SNAP benefits for produce and value-added food products we work so hard to offer our neighbors and larger communities. Worse, some of us are only too aware of how much this is going to hurt our normal customer base as children and families are forced to do without something so vitally important as food. In America! What is wrong with these politicians?!?

There are a number of petitions circulating to denounce these cuts, and I also urge my fellow homesteaders to get in touch personally with phone calls and letters to representatives and senators in D.C. Let them know that making hungry people do without food is NOT an acceptable fall-back position after your attempt to make sick people do without health care fails. There are mid-term elections next November. Make sure all eligible voters in your household are duly registered and can jump over the voter suppression hoops Republicans in several states (including mine) have erected, then vote for some real honest-to-goodness humans who don’t see their task in life as making sick people do without medical care, and hungry children do without food.

Cider, Salsa and Peach Pie

Cider_SalsaThe photo on the left is of my 3-year old volunteer peach tree, taken just this afternoon. You can see that it’s growing right next to my recently-moved compost bin, from which it volunteered. I have no idea exactly what kind of peach it is, but it was one we ate three years ago and composted that pit. It’s really taken off, when the limbs are upright it’s nearly 20 feet tall. It tried to grow fruit last year, but they all fell off before ripening. As you can see, this year it’s making up for lost time.

The limb in the foreground isn’t broken, it’s just weighted down by its load of quickly ripening fruit. Thanks to the soggy monsoon season this year, there’s a literal ton of it. None of the limbs have actually broken off yet – like one each from my apple trees did – so I’m letting it lay in the pumpkin patch for awhile to finish ripening – the peaches are still a bit crisp and hard, not very sweet. I’m hoping it’ll do okay where it is, give me some time to finish up with the apples – which are now fully ripe and coming in by the bushel.

I gave up drying the lot of ‘em, since my solar dryer is only as big as the window I made it out of, and there’s far too many poms. So grandson and I decided to make cider instead, and then to see if we can get it to harden! Or, in lieu of good ol’ hard cider, maybe it’ll do what my grape juice usually does – turn to vinegar.

Of course, getting either hard cider or vinegar out of the bounty is going to presuppose that we’re not drinking the cider as fast as we’re making it, and so far that hasn’t proven to be the case. Do have a half-gallon un-drunk so far in a growler bottle, half another growler, and enough bottles for two more full gallons. So we might end up ahead of ourselves.

What I’ve discovered is that if you don’t have a cider press (and I don’t), making cider takes quite a bit of muscle-power. Still, we’re averaging 3 pints per gallon of apples, so that’s not a bad return. Here’s how you do it the hard way…

1. Gather and wash the apples. Quarter them, tossing out any serious bruises or bugs. Put them into gallon size freezer zip-lock bags, and toss them into the freezer for a couple of days or so.

2. Remove from freezer and thaw. This gives you some pretty darned squishy apple chunks. Once thawed, empty the bag (I do this with half a bag at a time given the size of my cookware pot) into a heavy stock pot and crush the apple chunks good with a potato masher.

3. Once the softened apple chunks are good and squished, load them into a mesh food bag. Squeeze and smash the bag of chunks as much as possible with your hands. I then put the bag into a footed colander sitting in the pot. Squish juice out of the bag with fists, then I use a small pot to squish it further. The more juice you can squish out, the more cider you’ve got.

4. Pour accumulated cider into a pitcher, and from there through a strainer into your jug or jar. Compost the leavings and start the next batch.

To reliably get hard cider most sources recommend adding some sugar or honey and some brewer’s yeast. We haven’t gotten that far yet, but we’re hoping to before the refrigerator gets too full of cider. Or, it can go hard on its own, so look out for exploding bottles – don’t seal tightly until it’s done out-gassing. Will let you know how it works out for us, if we don’t drink it all first.

In between cider batches, I’m dealing with the tomato crop. Which is also coming in great guns due to the wet season, and my dryer isn’t keeping up. Have two full quarts so far of sun dried in olive oil, another quart of dry-dry that I’ll use to make tomato powder. But we’re also going to need salsa now that the salsa peppers are coming in by the dozen too, so it’s salsa time!

For this I go ahead and blanche/skin the ‘maters, de-seed and drain them. Sprinkling them with salt after they’ve been chopped and are sitting in the colander helps to make them a bit less juicy. For canning purposes you’ll want 8 cups of chopped and drained tomatoes.

My jalapenos aren’t producing yet, so I’m using the long “salsa peppers” we bought as seedlings from our local greenhouse, and some of the bells coming in. The salsa peppers are smaller than anaheims and a lot hotter, not as hot as jalapenos. They don’t have to be roasted and peeled first, just seeded and chopped finely, 2-3 cups. 4-5 cups of finely chopped onions (I’m using sweet Vidalias), two cups of vinegar or 1.5 cups of lemon juice. Salt, maybe some chili powder or hot red pepper flakes.

Put all this into a heavy sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer for about 5 minutes. Ladle into canning jars, cap and process in a water bath for 25 to 30 minutes (30 is better). I’ll be doing this out on the gas grill so as not to heat the kitchen more than it already is hot. And now that it’s August, it’s hot.

Now… about those peaches. If the limbs look to be getting so stressed they’re in real danger of breaking, I’ll have to pick them all now. Peaches will continue to ripen for awhile after picking, so hopefully they’ll finish up by the time I get around to them.

Peaches take to freezing quite well, but since our electricity isn’t all that reliable I figure I’d best can them. Quarts should be plenty to make a peach cobbler or pie with, or even just to serve as dessert with a scoop of ice cream during the fall and winter. For this I’m going to want a light syrup, which is a 1:3 ratio of one cup of sugar to three cups of water. Heated just enough to thoroughly dissolve the sugar, then kept on ‘low’ while I prep the fruit.

Given the timing of ripening, these are freestone peaches. Which are much easier to process than non-freestone (‘cling’) peaches because the pits are much easier to remove. They should be blanched like tomatoes for 30 to 45 seconds in boiling water, then cooled in ice water. The skins then slip right off. At that point they should be halved and the pit removed. From there they can be sliced or quartered. Put straight into sterile jars, fill with syrup to a half-inch from the top, then clean the edges with a paper towel and cap. Process in a water bath for 25-30 minutes.

So Happy August to all you homesteaders out there, I hope your fruit crops are coming in as abundantly as mine, but with less damage to the trees!

Useful Links:

Salsa Garden – Canning Salsas
Pick Your Own: Homemade Apple Cider
Clemson Extension: Preserving Peaches

It’s Summer: Must Be Preservation Time

PreservationBoy, oh boy – it’s hot! That means tomatoes, apples, peppers and beans are coming in as fast as I can pick in the scorching heat of late July, taxing my tolerance for dripping sweat at the counter prepping tomatoes and apples for the solar dryer, keeping the oven on low – propped slightly open – in a cabin with no air conditioning to dry pans full of shell beans, just trying to make it to the usual every evening thunderstorm to cool things down. Whew!

Got 18 half-pints of apple-blackberry sauce/butter stuff from those not-yet ripe apples salvaged from the lost limb a couple of weeks ago. Very yummy and extremely useful stuff, Have enough to gift family and friends as well as use myself to sweeten plain yogurt, turn into a vinegrette dressing, dollop on pancakes and stir-fry veggies, mix into barbeque sauce, etcetera. I do NOT plan to can any more now that it’s apple-climbing harvest time. Those suckers will be dried, the lot of ‘em. Along with the peaches and pears when their time comes, of course.

My biggest dilemma right now is what to do with all those duck eggs we can’t manage to eat fast enough, mostly because it’s too darned hot to cook a breakfast this time of year. They just keep on piling up day after day, and I am unable to give them away fast enough to keep up either. It’s a good thing we didn’t go with my plan to get chickens the ducks could guard!

At any rate, I had to compost a full dozen this morning that were quickly coming up on 6 weeks of age, though in the ‘fridge they’d have been good for another couple of weeks at least, but there are two dozen newer eggs that have ‘em beat, so there’s that.

Preserving Surplus Eggs

Now, there are lots of sites out there that recommend painting sealers on eggshells or packing in sand, mud or sawdust, but the fact that eggs are bacterial havens – and salmonella isn’t fun – I’m looking for something that seems a lot safer and long-term. Regular refrigeration can preserve fresh eggs from two to five months, but they’ll need to be in air-tight containers and kept away from the door. Out of the shell eggs can only be kept for four days in the ‘fridge (and should be covered with water to prevent toughening of the white). Hard boiled eggs will keep a week in the ‘fridge, so I’m better off storing them raw.

For longer term storage freezing works. Don’t try to freeze them in the shell, as it’s likely to break during freezing and make an awful mess. You can open the eggs and whisk them thoroughly, put into those plastic food storage containers with tight lids, and they’ll keep for a year. These can later be thawed for scrambled eggs or omelets, or used for baking cookies and cakes. You could also use zip-lock freezer bags and stack them, and these will thaw faster in a pan of cold water when you decide to use them. Egg whites keep well, but if you also wish to freeze the yolks you should add some salt or sugar when whisking so they don’t turn gelatinous. Hard boiled eggs can be frozen, but they turn into rubber. Yuck.

One interesting idea I discovered from the Oregon Extension Service is to put your thoroughly mixed whole eggs into an ice tray, freeze, then remove and put into a zip-lock in the freezer. About 3 tablespoons of egg mixture is equivalent to one regular size chicken egg for recipe purposes, so this seems particularly handy. Add a 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar or 1/2 teaspoon salt to the egg mixture, depending on how you intend to use them, and do label the zip-lock so you don’t put sweet eggs in a dinner casserole or salty eggs in your pound cake.

Some people use the ice tray method, but do not blend the eggs first. This probably works, but isn’t what the extension service recommends because of the tendency for whites to become rubbery when frozen.

Another handy method is to whisk in a little whole milk or cream with the eggs, about 3 tablespoons per cup plus the half tsp. per cup of salt, put into sterile canning jars for freezing, cap with clean lids not tightened (so air can escape in the freezing process, tighten later). A jar can later be taken out of the freezer and placed in the ‘fridge to thaw and use as your basic egg-beater stuff for scrambled eggs or omelets. Do shake it up thoroughly before using. For this, half-pint jars such as those for jelly and jam are best so it doesn’t sit too long in the ‘fridge before using. Unless, of course, you have a large egg-loving family or a house full of guests to feed. In which case a pint sized jar would be optimum, to be emptied over no more than 2 or 3 days.

You can also pickle hard boiled eggs in a vinegar-brine solution, an old technique. If you do pickle, remember that the jars can’t be kept at room temperature due to botulism. Sterilize everything, and store jars in the refrigerator. Some people like to eat whole pickled eggs, but they’re also good sliced on salads. Still, they’ll only stay good for three months in the ‘fridge, and who eats THAT many pickled eggs?

You can of course add herbs and spices to pickled eggs, according to your tastes. It takes 4 to 5 days for the pickling liquid to flavor eggs the size of Pekin duck eggs, less time for chicken and smaller eggs.

Useful Links:

Oregon Extension Service (pdf)
Backyard Poultry: Preserving Eggs
How to Freeze or Dehydrate Eggs

How ‘Food Security’ Killed the Farm Bill

The grand rivalry of political philosophies and established systems of government known as the good ol’ Cold War offered for many years the stark differences between Communist-style 5-year plans for food production, and Capitalist-style Big Agribiz dominated mega-farming. Sure, Big Agribiz has long been subsidized directly by public money (taxes paid by average citizens) just as in the old Soviet bloc, but the high profits accruing to those who control production and trade in food commodities goes to the corporation (which pays little to no taxes) and/or its shareholders through Wall Street and the commodity exchanges.

Food_Security

The United States won the good old Cold War some time ago, with most historians placing the actual surrender in 1991. I mention this because farm policy in the United States began including in the 1930s a government program designed to distribute the vast excess production of already-subsidized foodstuffs to the many in this country who were going hungry – thus belying (for practical propaganda purposes of our ‘enemies’ in the Green Revolution… er, War) our wondrous ability to produce far, far more food than Americans alone could ever consume. Not even expanding export markets managed to dent the surplus significantly, so the government again stepped in as final purchaser – at discount price – for bulk commodities like excess grain, milk, cheese and such. Which became the original generics with those plain black and white labels stamped with USDA generic descriptions and portioned out at the county extension level to community members who wanted or needed it.

That program morphed during the Cold War 1970s into the subsidy being switched from the farmers to the people, who were issued a sort of play money called “Food Stamps” [SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], which could only be redeemed for food. Now there’s debit cards, same restrictions. So that the poor, the working poor, people in temporary straits, etc. could at least eat and feed their children. Republicans of course don’t like the program, any more than they liked anything that became policy known as the “New Deal” back during the last Great Depression, or any later extensions of the “Great Society” that came later in Lyndon Johnson’s time. So the allotment in food stamps has been going down steadily in purchasing power as well as necessary funding over the past 15 years or so. Still, it’s something. With nearly half the population unemployed or underemployed, losing their homes and life’s savings, going hungry has become endemic even as the funding for the program has gone nowhere but down.

Thus has the issue of SNAP become a major stumbling block to Congressional passage of a workable Omnibus Agricultural Bill, in a Congress fatally crippled by partisan bickering to the point that its general approval rating is somewhere south of 20%. Every time a Congressional session fails to pass a new Ag bill, that entire section of our economy must remain funded at the last Ag bill’s level. Minus the cuts to SNAP they’ve included as riders on unrelated legislation in the last 4+ years, and the portion of USDA/FDA budget cut by the current Republican-caused “Sequester.”

People are going hungry in this nation. While that has always been true, the situation since the economic collapse in 2008 has grown much worse. Thirty Million More are now in the SNAP program than were there just ten years ago. 30 million MORE. Conservatives don’t like it one bit. The House of Representatives passed a farm bill earlier this month that removed the SNAP program entirely.

The Senate is entirely unlikely to approve the House’s bill. Its own version passed earlier contains $4 billion in cuts to the program, but doesn’t remove it from the agricultural end of things entirely. So for another year at least SNAP will be funded at current levels.

Time Magazine published an excellent in-depth blow-by-blow article on the situation, entitled How Food Stamps Killed the Farm Bill that is well worth a read if you are keeping track of things affecting the agricultural portion of our individual homesteading experiences.

It seems to me that our government can always find money to finance endless (and sometimes illegal) wars, to bail out the wealthiest segment of society and their business concerns (banks, Wall Street, insurers), and Big Brother spying operations hoovering up every bit and byte of our digital and telephonic lives. If they’re really so worried about the debt, there are a good many extremely expensive budget items that could be slashed in half or more without materially affecting the average American’s lifestyle and/or relative ‘security’. Taking food out of the mouths of hungry children and adults who would love to have a good job if there were any is mean-spirited enough to cause serious consternation. Shame, shame, shame.

It almost seems like since we don’t have the old Soviet Union to kick around anymore, all public-spirited programs designed to make life in the US of A look preferable are on the chopping block so that War, Inc. can maintain its global hegemony.

We who have chosen to live on this beautiful land, we who maintain and caretake it and those of us who try to make their living by living this way, have a stake in the ideals that made this country great and allows us to live where we live and do what we do. Everything this nation wanted so badly to be, and tried so hard to accomplish back in the days where getting rich involved imagination, skill and industry instead of just money-changing and unbridled greed.

Homesteaders are among the few in this modern world who still value the land and water, who caretake the wider nation and its beautiful places, who conserve and often practice skills and industry drawn from imagining that it can be done. And doing it. This country needs us, it needs us to care. And to sound alarms when alarms are necessary. Ex-President Jimmy Carter told Germany’s Der Speigel this week in an interview that asked his opinion of the NSA spying scandal, that “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.” He’s right.

We homesteaders are rural dwellers by choice, members of extended rural communities of like-minded people as well as the local old-timers who have always lived on and worked the land. Our thoughts and contributions are important in those communities, even if we’re ‘just’ artists. There’s a mid-term election coming up that is more than just your local Sheriff and Registrar of Deeds. There’s also a congresscritter who represents you in D.C. on the ballot, and maybe a Senator as well. And he/she/it only draws the loyalty of about half the voting population. Some concerted on-the-ground effort on our parts locally could help a lot to change the current gridlock situation in Washington. We must get rid of the stonewallers, get some representatives who will actually represent us.

At any rate, that’s my political rant for the quarter, and a heads-up about the political maneuvering in the nation’s capital that will end up directly affecting rural dwellers to a significant degree. There will have to be workable farm legislation soon. It’s going to have an impact on our lives, our environment and our plans for the future, one way or another. So please, my homesteading friends, don’t forget to vote – every chance you get!

Resources:

How Food Stamps Killed the Farm Bill
GOP Fumbles Farm Bill
Holy cow! A farm bill about farming

Finishing Up Last Year’s Food

Waiting for ‘Spring Enough’ to spend real time outdoors to clear and dig beds for this year’s spring crops can be maddening. I’ve folded up dozens and dozens of newspaper seedling pots, have some of them filled halfway in preparation for planting – which can be done as soon as the local garden supply outlets get their annual allotments of potting soil. They’re not used to doing that before Valentine’s day, I’m guessing the USDA’s recent re-figuring of our planting zone took them by surprise.

I’ve gone through the seed basket to see what I’ve got, what needs planting first, and what I need to order. I’ve pulled the crispy brown leavings of last fall’s crops, and turned the compost. I’ve dug several 5-gallon buckets full of old compost out for adding to the beds and covering the perennials (asparagus, strawberries, artichokes). And I’ve planned what will go where while trimming the dry stalks of last year’s herbs and splitting root systems to spread them out a bit.

But it got cold again, and too rainy to ignore. So I figured it was a good time to do what I’ve been putting off all winter long – finishing up the processing of last year’s crops.

Sure, most has been eaten by now, though there’s still a pumpkin (MUST bake that thing soon for stew!) and some potatoes I’ll cull through for this year’s crop. But it’s the frozen and dried bounty that now needs to be finished up so I can clean out the ‘fridge and freezer in preparation for the coming bounty. That’s the jars, strings and coffee cans full of dried celery/celeriac, beets, kale, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and leeks, plus the many more jars of dried herbs and flowers. All of these were dried hard in my solar dryer last summer/fall and have been kept refrigerated until I got around to “the rest of the work.”

Once dried, these foods take up very little room. For instance, I still had what amounts to more than a bushel of tomatoes that only half filled a single 2 pound coffee container. Pounds and pounds of beets, carrots, celery, onions, leeks and garlic filled just three quart-size canning jars. But unless you’re making some serious soup or stew from dried ingredients, the food isn’t very palatable in that very brittle form. So for the past week I’ve been doing what needs doing to get all of it into easily consumable form – the way my family likes it, and will serve to add lots of extra tasty oomph to all sorts of foods we’ll be consuming this year from the garden and farmer’s market.

So I got my old Braun coffee grinder out from under the cabinet, cleaned it up good, and put it to work. Washed and removed labels from the many 3 and 5 ounce spice jars I’ve saved (always buy in bulk, glass jars). Some of those have been reused year after year, kind of like Ball jars – they can always be relabeled using paper and Scotch tape. My spice race is full of home-packed and labeled goodies. With my trusty grinder, a strainer and my favorite Japanese lacquer rice bowl I do the time consuming but satisfying job of grinding all those dried goodies into fine powder. I have some nice 8-ounce Tupperware cup things with tight lids I picked up at a yard sale a few years ago, put the powders into these as they’re ground. Tomato powder, beet powder, leek powder, carrot & celery powder, onion and garlic powder, pepper powder (for that I need to wear a kerchief over my mouth and nose, as the powder is quite irritating if you breathe it), greens and herbs powders. These make fine flakes for general use so I save some for that, but for a good table salt, bullion or soup stock, or sprinkle blend they need to be as powdered as the rest of the ingredients. Then from these I concoct my ‘blends’.

People are actually getting quite used to flavoring blends, I see them at the store and these have helped to give me some ideas for my own blends. Sometimes I go ahead and buy some powders if I don’t have enough to round out the collection. You might be surprised by some of the good deals at places like Dollar General or the Family Dollar Store on things like garlic and onion powder, kosher and sea salts, white pepper and whole black peppercorns in quantities larger than what’s along the spice aisle (and outrageously priced) at the grocery store.

The whole trick is to get all the ingredients to the same consistency so they will truly blend together instead of separating into layers. The strainer helps to ensure that. I pour what I’ve ground into the strainer and shake it over the bowl so the finest powder comes through. What’s left goes back to the grinder for more. Eventually just about everything is fine powder (this takes awhile, so be patient), including the salts. I also powdered some dried kelp flakes, and use that in some blends where I don’t really want straight salts (as for a salt substitute table blend) because it is naturally salty because it’s a sea vegetable.

Finally, when everything’s been carefully powdered and sifted into its container, it line up the jars, funnel, measuring spoons, paper, Sharpie pen and Scotch tape for labeling. I like to label ingredients in order of appearance, which gives me a quick idea of what each blend is good for and what else might be added to a dish to round out the flavor I’m going for when cooking.

Had enough tomato powder to bottle 6 ounces into a jar of its own. It will end up going faster than any of the blends, as it adds a very nice tomato punch to just about anything. Straight tomato powder is powerful stuff, you don’t need much to sprinkle on a casserole or salad or dip. Experimentation is a good idea before you go hog wild on this very concentrated powder. The rest has been divvied up. Most as the base powder for my veggie soup broth blend. Which also includes beet, carrot, celery, onion, kale, kelp and basil powders plus salt, black pepper and a bit of red pepper powders. A tablespoon of this blend in boiling water makes a fine vegetable and/or bean soup broth, more for straight beans, or a teaspoonful in a cup of hot water for bullion. I’ll usually add another teaspoon of straight tomato powder, but again you’ll have to experiment.

Leek and garlic salt powders are nice for the table, good on most cooked veggie dishes or cream soups. Tomato with salt and basil flower powder is tasty on any kind of pasta or salad. Tomato with garlic, onion, red and black pepper, lemon rind, tarragon, kelp and salt powder is a must for shaking onto grilled, baked or broiled fish before cooking and at the table. A hot blend of peppers, tomato and salt powder is a great flavoring base for a good barbecue sauce, just shake a spoonful in a jar with a little olive oil and a jigger of vinegar and an equal amount of water, let it sit for a couple of hours before brushing onto what’s being grilled. Some people like a sweet barbecue sauce, you can always add a spoon of brown sugar or blackstrap molasses. Another good additive when you’re barbecuing is a spoonful of mustard, or a half a teaspoon of mustard powder. Barbecue is a strange thing – everybody’s got their favorite sauces and some are definitely way better than others. Again, this is something to practice with. Don’t worry, friends, family and neighbors will invariably be impressed when you brag that the primary base ingredients came from your own garden!

I put off this last step in the dry processing of last year’s bounty because it is quite a lot of work, but when I finally get around to it I enjoy it almost more than I enjoy any other stage of food preservation. It’s fun to feel like a sort of mad scientist or old-timey apothecary mixing up blends and tasting them and adding a little of this or that and then being happy with it. The best part of all is that all this bounty that you took the trouble to grow and dry and grind and mix adds real, honest to goodness nutritional value to anything you use it for, in a much more significant way than commercially processed powders and table blends can boast. And it’s always a good feeling to know that all your work to plant and grow and preserve the food pays off – the nutritional value for you and your family doesn’t go to waste.

Not everyone will want to go to all the trouble to preserve foods this way, but drying keeps much more of the original food value than canning or freezing. Plus, well dried foods have a much longer shelf life – years as opposed to months. Oh, yeah. That brings me around to what was in the freezer that I finished up today… the last of last year’s grapes. I’d frozen them in quart size bags because I didn’t have time to properly process them into jam, thinking I’d get around to that sometime before Christmas. Which I obviously didn’t. So I took out a bag, thawed it a bit and put it into a gallon glass jar with a quarter cup of sugar and filled it with boiling beet water (water with ascorbic acid in it, in which I soaked the sliced beets I finished harvesting last week – beautiful red, slightly sweet. It’s now steeping and cooling on the counter. Tomorrow morning I’ll strain out the grapes, add a little lemon juice and more spring water in two gallon jug and have it for a refreshing iced drink for company this weekend.

Farm Bill Up for Vote (and Veto)

Here we are nearly halfway through 2008, and the 2007 farm bill is slowly but surely making its way through House and Senate disagreements on its way to the chamber floors for vote this week or next. The final compromise, USDA chair Ed Schafer bluntly informs us, will be vetoed by President Bush.

food_fight

If farm legislation doesn’t directly affect many of us rural and semi-rural homesteaders, it’s a sure bet that it will affect our neighbors who do farm on a commercial scale. Thus it’s something we should be paying attention to. According to lawmakers nearly 3/4 of the spending in this bill over the next decade will be for feeding the needy. Another 16% goes toward commodities, crop insurance and disaster relief. Increasing nutrition spending (feeding the hungry) 8+% over the previous farm bill is reasonable given the worsening food crisis both in America and world wide.

This farm bill addresses biofuels diversion of food crops (like soy and corn) by providing more than a billion dollars to expand alternate use of biomass (like switchgrass and algae) and crop by-products (cornstalks, wheat straw, etc.) rather than diverting the grain itself. It also tightens payment limits, eliminating the “three-entity rule” that the previous bill contained as justification to funneling most ag payments to huge agribusiness concerns rather than smaller farm cooperatives or family farms. It limits subsidies to anyone making more than $500,000 in non-farm adjusted gross income [AGI] per year, and entirely ending direct payments to anyone with an AGI of more than $750,000 from any source. This will effectively put Big Agribusiness in the business of actually doing business instead of simply sucking up free corporate welfare as smaller family farms disappear.

New homesteaders usually aim to grow an increasing amount of their own food, as this is part of the whole homesteading impetus in the modern world. Those who have been at it for awhile – and have managed to secure ~10 or more acres for their homestead – are increasingly producing food for local markets and even joining the CSA movement by allowing individuals and families to “buy-in” to the season’s crops. The nation’s farm bill policies (the 2002 bill expires on Friday, May 16th) usually don’t affect what homesteads of 50 acres or less produce, and nobody from the government tries to tell them what they can or can’t grow. And as long as production remains tied to the local/regional market the government isn’t likely to interfere.

So why, one might reasonably ask, has President Bush promised to veto the legislation? First, he’d wanted a $200,000 AGI cap on ALL farm subsidies, essentially getting the government fairly well out of the business of subsidizing agriculture altogether. The politicians claim their $750,000 figure is more realistic as a way of weaning farmers off support payments. Which under the present soon-to-expire bill allows an AGI of $2.5 million. Surely then the higher cap is reasonable as a step-down without throwing US agriculture into total turmoil just when food is becoming a precious commodity.

And while the amount of money American taxpayers must provide to farmers in order to have a safe and ample supply of food is certainly too much in real terms under the 2002 bill, that’s not the most controversial aspect of the 2007 bill. That would be the “commodity title” – the program through which the government tries to smooth out the financial uncertainty of farming itself. Bush wants those out altogether because they’re a sticking point in global trade deals (and, presumably, because we don’t have any money left from his oil wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). These payments usually go to the biggest farming concerns, so serious economic recession should be a factor in their continuance.

However – and most important to rural homesteaders producing or planning to produce within the next few years food for local/regional markets – this bill contains $5 million in annual mandatory funding for “Community Food Projects [CFP]” over the next 10 years. The bill also allows public school to favor local farms in bids for school food supplies, and this can significantly improve both local markets as well as school nutrition in general. It eliminates a major barrier for schools and will make Farm to School programs much easier to establish county-wide or even regionally. This will help producing homesteaders significantly.

While schools are still limited to spending a mere 70¢ to $1.00 per day per student for food, communities could get creative with other subsidies and program funding that would pay local farmers a decent price for their produce (including meat, dairy and chicken/eggs). The Conservation Title in this bill will tend to reward small farmers and producing homesteaders for their land and water conservation efforts too, and since we’re doing it anyway it’s nice to think that we could enjoy a small stipend to maintain the practice.

There are significant boosts in funding for organic agriculture, including a quintupling of payments to cover the heavy price of organic certification, and a seven-fold increase in funding for organic research and extension. It’s not a lot (and nowhere near the cash devoted to industrial-scale agribusiness), but it’s something. Something is always better than nothing, particularly since most of us homesteaders are growing food anyway.

I’ve been encouraging homesteaders to network with their neighbors and communities in a number of ways, and food production, distribution, nutrition programs in schools and for the needy in our communities are important aspects of local governance and planning homesteaders can contribute much to. We don’t HAVE to be paid by the government to love where we live and do what we do, but if our areas can manage to lasso some help from the big guys then we should be attempting to get all we can. Farm and rural policies are important even though we are striving for independence. So keeping up with what affects farmers in our areas is very important.

Best Thanksgiving Perk: Cranberries

CranberriesThanksgiving is just over a week away, which means one of my absolute favorite fruits are now being sold fresh in bags – often on half price sale – at grocery stores everywhere. For Thanksgiving I use just one of those 12-ounce bags to make my famous Crackberry Sauce (regular whole cranberry sauce with a bag of frozen blackberries added). But I buy as many as I can afford when they go on sale so I can dry them as “craisins.”

I’ve written quite a bit about how much I like drying food from the garden rather than canning. Which is a hot and expensive way of preserving things. But this time of year my handy-dandy home-made solar dryer is fairly useless, there’s just not enough hours of sun to make it work. So I use the oven, which can also be a relatively expensive proposition. Still, good craisins are expensive from the store in those little brand name bags, so it works out fairly. Even better, if you make your own craisins at home you can do some pretty spectacular things with them flavor-wise.

This year I’m doing the “Double-Dry” method for orange flavored craisins. It’s easy enough – just dry the craisins in single layers on flat baking sheets in a barely warm oven – I use the lowest setting, 150º – and keep the door propped open a couple of inches to allow the moisture to escape in natural convection. Takes awhile, and many of the berries retain their size and shape until they’ve cooled completely and wrinkle up into the ‘usual’ raisin-like form. I put these into a glass bowl and cover them with hot orange juice. Then cover the bowl and let the berries reconstitute. Then dry them again.

You could use any type of fruit juice to flavor your craisins, even wine or brandy if you want. Just be sure to label the containers you put them in so they don’t get mixed up. They are wonderful additions to holiday cakes, breads and cookies, or just as handy snacks. If you want your craisins to be sweeter, just thoroughly dissolve a tablespoon or two of sugar or honey in the reconstituting juice, it will get absorbed.

It’s cranberries this time of year, but drying and double-drying fresh fruit works any time of year, whenever the local harvest has big lots at the farmer’s market. I haven’t yet double-dried apples, as dried apple slices go so fast as snacks around here that it seems the hoards just stand around drooling to get them as fast as they can be produced. But if ever I did happen to have dried enough for, say, a Thanksgiving pie, I’d probably reconstitute them in spiced juice (mulled cider or even wine) just before putting them into the pie crust, using leftover juice as part of the filling. Just add sugar and corn starch to thicken.

Cranberries don’t grow in my locale, but blueberries sure do. I’m planning to dedicate several terraces on the upper yard slope to the ridge to blueberries, once I find a good source of thinned bushes I can get for free. Say, 4 100-foot rows of good producers, which works out to ~25 bushes per row spaced at 4′. Good producers will return ~5 pounds of berries per bush (some will give 10, but I’m being conservative here). Once they’re producing at that level, I’ll be getting an average crop of 500 pounds a year! That’s big enough to supply my family and friends as well as the local munchy market. Besides, blueberries come in high summer, which would let me use the sun instead of expensive electricity to do the drying.