Sunday, December 28, 2008

Winter Thoughts for Independence Beginners

We didn't have all these jars in April. We didn't even have that
cupboard. Or the homegrown onions in the fruit basket.

Judy over at My Freezer is Full was on Week 3 of the Independence Days Challenge, and felt a little unproductive. I've been doing that challenge for something like 8 months, and boy, does that sound familiar!

She felt better once the Holiday Spirit took hold a bit. I feel better, too, after having the funeral of an old friend put me in a funk for a few days. But I got to thinking about how it would be to start this Challenge in the winter. So, I am directing this post to anyone that is just getting started.

I started the Challenge in April, and Sharon recently encouraged newer readers to join in, to get more folks to prepare for the bumpy economic times ahead for many of us. I think it is harder to do this "independence stuff" around the holidays, especially if you just started tracking it. It would be easy to feel discouraged. I found it much easier to get started in April, when local lettuce was appearing in markets, nurseries were setting out veggie plants, and the stores were stocked with seeds and canning jars. On the other hand, I very much felt the pressure to learn to can, and to store bulk food, and to expand my garden, and to transition to new energy use patterns. That's just crazy-making.

After 8 months, I am not an expert about anything. But we have made good progress, and I had a few very energetic months. I am still a beginner in my first year, and I know what that feels like, which might not be the case for someone that is a 5th-generation farmer and canner.

I have begun to wrap my head around food storage ideas - the annual cycle, the establishment of new routines, the re-organizing of the kitchen and pantry. I've found a lot of recipes that work for us, and found local sources of much of what we buy. We are working on a pattern of reasonable eating from stored food. We've made a lot of changes, as a family.

Just the other day, my DH was going out to run errands and I gave him a list of things to buy on sale. He looked at the list and raised his eyebrows, "Frozen orange juice? Really?" Puzzled, I said, "Yeah, it's good in marinades and other recipes. Why?" "Oh, I just thought you might be growing orange trees and squeezing them yourself, instead of using something as convenient as frozen concentrate!" We all laughed - even the kids got the joke. Notice, we have all come to expect that we will examine almost everything we buy, eat, and do, to see if it still makes sense from our new perspective.

But in the beginning, it all seemed so urgent, and there was so much to learn that I felt like I was not finishing any one task. It was overwhelming. You simply cannot do everything you want, not all at once. I still can't seem to bake bread that replaces all of our purchased bread. But instead of commercial brands, we now buy bread from an Amish family at the market and from local bakeries, instead of brand-name bread at supermarkets. DD12, who once thought she wanted to bake bread, now doesn't, and has a lot of trouble adjusting to the new bread regime. But that's OK for now. Not every one will adjust at the same pace.

DD12 responding to changes in our family food habits.
We call this her "angry guinea pig" look. She is normally cuter.
(She edited the photo using the tools at Picknik.)

We still eat some prepared food, and we don't have a local source for unprocessed milk, yet. We still buy too much industrial food, because local organic is often expensive and hard to find. We even eat fast food once in a while. But, we eat more local non-industrial food, make more of our own from scratch, buy less plastic packaging, and use less energy than we did 8 months ago.

What counts is that we got started on something, and are methodically taking steps in a new direction. You may change directions once in a while, but if you keep moving, you can't help but make progress. It's hard to not to compare yourself to other people, but don't. Compare yourself to who you were a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. I guarantee you will feel good about the progress.

The whole thing is about taking baby steps, one day at time. Figuring out how it will work for your own family. Whether you are involved in Riot4Austerity, a garden project, a local food challenge, retrofitting your house, or reducing your plastic output - it's all about breaking things down into small steps and making small changes your family can handle. None of the popular bloggers were where they are now, in the beginning. Fake Plastic Fish, a blog about reducing plastic waste, has been doing it for over 2 years. Over at 'Safely Gathered In,' they blog about Mormon/LDS food storage practices encouraged by church leadership. They live in a culture where food storage is expected and homes are built for it - but a recent post talked about low-income families saving rice by the handful. Even Sharon might seem like she has always been living the life she has today, but she simply started sooner than most of us. Tiny changes add up. You don't go from Chicken McNuggets to raising your own chickens overnight.

Expect to hit walls and enjoy turning points. I was very frustrated a few weeks into the Challenge. DH was not completely on board, and he was the major breadwinner. I made some headway with him by talking about buying bulk to save money, and by cooking tasty meals. Everyone likes to save money and eat well. It took a conversation with one of his family members - who wants to start keeping chickens - for him to have a real change of attitude. Hmm, maybe I wasn't such a nutty doomer building a basement bunker, after all. He agreed to buy a freezer and allocate $1000 to buying a 3-month supply of food. I was ready - I had been biding my time by looking for local sources of cheap food. Now, with the economy clearly in big trouble, he is fully on board, even if he does not think it will get as bad as I think it might. He even reads Sharon's blog, even if he doesn't always agree with her.

After I started seriously storing food, I hit several walls. One turning point for me was the realization that I had to completely re-organize my kitchen and cellar pantry to accommodate new cooking styles, new food preparation processes, and the transfer of smaller amounts of food for immediate use from my bulk stores. My kitchen had become a confusing mess. I emptied and re-organized all my cabinets, and added a lot more shelving, bins, and buckets to my cellar. I no longer needed cupboard space for prepared food, but I needed a lot more room for seasonings and the raw materials of cooking. Consider flour alone - I now use four kinds regularly: bread flour, white whole wheat, unbleached all-purpose, and local spelt. Plus, I have oatmeal, flaxseed, and wheat germ I add to things. I used to have just one flour canister.

And the labeling! You don't need to label when everything comes in a package. But when everything is in a glass jar, and the house has multiple cooks, you have to make sure no one confuses salt with sugar, and that anyone can find the chicken thighs in the freezer. I now have a little bucket with label paper, packing tape, markers and dedicated scissors, so I can label at will. (Do scissors "walk off" in your house, too?)

Another turning point came from reading Morman food storage blogs. They have a recommended minimum structure for storage: 72-hour emergency kits (which we call "bug-out bags"), 3-months of family food storage, and one-year of stored bulk staples like rice, wheat, and oats. For some reason, I suddenly felt like I understood better what I needed to buy for storage. I had been just buying a lot of whatever I found on sale. Once I had my 3-month supply, I just replace what we use, and then buy a big bag of one of the staples for longer-term storage. I can see that the next leap I want to take (storing 6 months of food) will require me to do more about air-tight storage than I do now. Lesson: You don't have to mimic the Mormons, but you need a structure and plan for your buying and storing.

At first, it seemed like I was reading a lot of conflicting advice from various sources. What to eat, how to cook, how to heat my house, how panicked I should be, whether I should plan on being able to send my kids to college - on and on. Many years ago, when I was in Al-Anon meetings after I left my alcoholic ex, they had a saying, "Take what you need, and leave the rest." It's been a useful philosophy ever since. I may not be a Mormon, but I can still admire their community systems and supports. I may not live in a refugee camp, but I can learn how they produce safe drinking water. I'm not a vegetarian, but I have gotten a lot of great frugal recipes from vegetarian sources. I am not stocking ammo and living in a bunker, but I can think about who I want in my "community" when there are challenges to face. Lesson: Don't ignore sources of info that don't completely jive with your worldview. Cherry-pick the stuff you can use, and plug it into the structure of your own plan.

If you are starting a food storage challenge now, keep in mind is that this is winter. I am already feeling a definite annual cycle in food storage. Spring is about planting, and being creative with the last of the winter food stores. Summer and fall is building your stores through preserving and canning as different crops become locally seasonal (read: cheap in bulk). Winter's focus is on cooking out of storage, managing your stores, taking advantage of sales on spices and staples at stores, and resting.

When nature rests and recharges for the next growing season, so I think it is important for me to do the same. I am not trying to store food at the same pace I was this summer. I am paying more attention to establishing family patterns, reading more, doing more relationship-building in my food community, planning for the next growing season. Sometimes I read a news article that makes me feel anxious, and I want to run out and get more food. Right now! But I try to resist the urge to buy out of season and break our budget.

Don't forget that the accumulation of knowledge - whether through research, taking classes, talking to people, reading books, or as lessons learned the hard way - all counts. In fact, since you've started in the winter, you have the luxury of working on the knowledge end of things without the spring and summer pressures of planting, harvesting, and preserving. I am planning to go to my state's Farm Show, a state Sustainable Agriculture conference, and start a food discussion group at my church.

I don't feel the depth of winter at the same level as someone that suffers from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Some people think that SAD maybe an adaptation to winter, a natural urge to sleep away the dark days. But I have never liked winter in the Northeast US. It means shoveling, heating bills, dry skin. My joints ache, and I have a strong fear falling on icy pavement and getting hurt. The new bifocals I got this summer don't help at all - they make my vision blurry at the edges. My thyroid problem makes me more sensitive to cold. Seriously, I would stay indoors all winter, if I could, only going outside if the temperature was over 40F. I'd be reading, writing, cooking, sewing, taking online classes, watching movies, planning my gardening year, working on scrapbooks and art projects. I'd need some kind of indoor gym and room to do tai chi. I really envy all the bloggers that are posting about wood stoves, as I huddle around my oil-filled radiator. I used to dream of being a snow bird - leaving the Northeast for some temperate place in December and coming back at the end of March. I have books about retiring to Belize.

But the economic future makes this region look better to me, now. Whether climate change makes my region a little colder or a little hotter, both are workable. Water is good here. We are in the middle of a rail, road, and water nexuus. My particular town is surrounded by rich farmland full of frugal, practical Pennsylvania German farmers and Hispanic immigrants with good, simple food traditions. Instead of wishing I was someplace else, I'd better start thinking of winter as a welcome break from frantic food storage. I better switch to dreams of wood stoves, instead of tropical beaches. Most of the Independence Challenge seems to be in my head, not my pantry.


pelenaka said...

Sometimes I too an my own worst enemy.
Congradulations to going with the flow.

fullfreezer said...

Thanks for the encouragement for all of us 'newbies', although I don't really feel like I'm that new at this business. It's good to have a fresh perspective on Winter. It's so easy to only see the downsides and not look at the opportunities it holds for planning and preparation.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post! Thank you so much for taking a deep look at your experience and presenting it so thoughtfully. I have been reading Sharon's blog for a little while, now--and have spiraled off into the online community that surrounds peak oil and food storage, etc--but I am really just starting to take a hard look at how I am organizing my food storage and working out a reasonable, organized approach (I hope!). Right now I am kind of at the point where I buy lots of dried beans and pasta! :)

Stephany said...

This is a great post. I think it is good to mention that we are all at varying stages in our lives. I bought my first 10 pound bag of organic brown rice fifteen years ago now and have been working forward little by little ever since.

d.a. said...

Terrific post - will keep this in mind as I start Sharon's food storage class in January!

Gina said...

Great post!

IDC has been great for me in that it has organized my random thinking in this area. I've been thinking and acting this way for years too, but I've not had the insight to neatly categorize my actions and progress to becoming more Independent. It has helped allieviate the frustration of the "one step forward, two steps back" way of life.

Danielle said...

I think this is a great reminder to folks just starting out that Rome wasn't built in a day.

My grandmother once cross-stitched a silly little saying, "I feel more like I do now than I did when I got here." It never made much sense to me until I thought of it in terms of life changes and growth. Some things can seem so hard or so alien when you first start out, but soon they become second nature, and it's hard to imagine yourself any other way.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post! I've actually printed it out, so many good thoughts and references here for a relative newbie like me. I am doing ok on the only-local food thing I think, but always appreciate storage help :-) And your thoughts on taking it one step at a time in the learning process helps so much when I feel that I have so much to learn. I started the Independence Challenge, but haven't been brave enough to share on my blog - this is the jumpstart I needed.

The part I loved most about this post? "Don't ignore sources of info that don't completely jive with your worldview. Cherry-pick the stuff you can use, and plug it into the structure of your own plan." So true, and I think they are wise words for any area of life.

Maureen said...

Great post...lots of good ideas for us new to the process. Tho we have gardened for 20years I haven't done much preserving...we just ate what we grew, froze a bit, and gave away the rest. Now we are getting serious about canning and storing, as well as eventually becoming self-sufficient. Thanks for the help and encouragement. (funny too, cause I was just preparing a blog post with pics of my 'before' pantry....hope to see lots of changes by the end of the year :)

Becca said...

Wise words my dear! I too learned a lot this year. I feel like I finally "got" the vision--though I know I still have a long way to go I feel like the pieces are finally coming together! Cherry picking is great advice!