Preserving Food When You Have No Money

Sharon July 29th, 2008

Several people have expressed frustration recently that there are so many things to buy when you are preserving food.  They are experiencing what many of us probably will experience sooner or later – no money.  So while some people are using what they have while they have it to get good equipment, others are already priced out of these options, and it is hard for them.

So let’s go over the lowest cost ways to store food, and the best strategies for getting ahold of equipment cheaply.

- Ok, the cheapest technique is definitely root cellaring. That will be the subject of Thursday’s posts, so I won’t be emphasizing it here, but the cooler you keep your house (a characteristic of low income folks) the more you can keep things. 

First, squash and pumpkins like cool house temperatures, and garlic and onions do pretty well at those temps too.  Most other storable crops, including roots and apples require colder temps – but if you have natural cold and can close off a room, throw a cooler outside, or bury an old fridge in your yard (or a barrel) you are golden, and get all the potatoes, onions, beets, carrots, etc… preserved in their natural state.  You can also use the “dig a hole” (or use an existing hole like a basement) method for refrigeration, saving you money, and extending the life if your kimchi and sauerkraut. 

 How do you get root cellarable vegetables if you are struggling?  Well, pumpkins are pretty easy – I’d be willing to bet you can get as many as you want the day or two after halloween if you go to a farmstand or any venue that sells them – better yet, make the arrangement first.  I’ve gotten 100 for $5 – and they make good people food, not to mention chicken, goat, sheep, etc…

Many places have gleaning programs – I’ve mentioned them before, but if your area doesn’t have one, you might talk to a farmer about whether you and a friend could glean their fields after they harvest. 

Talk to farmers – they may be selling the potatoes for $2 a lb, but they probably aren’t using that price if you can buy 50lbs at a time – last year our local farm sold potatoes at $12 for 50lbs and “horse” carrots for $6 for 25lbs.  You don’t have to tell anyone you don’t have a horse.  If you are willing to take whatever they have leftover at the end of the day, or to buy their weird surplus of beets, it might be even cheaper.

It isn’t too late in many places to plant some root crops – winter radishes, daikon, turnips, some rutabagas, beets and some carrots will still mature. 

Lots of people don’t harvest their fruit – ask if you can collect apple drops.  Or visit a farm and ask if you can have them – the damaged ones can be sauced or dried.

 - Ok, next cheapest method – lactofermentation.  All you need is salt and water and vegetables.  This is a great way to use wild greens that you harvest from your yard or a public park (just make sure they don’t spray) – dandelion, plantain, lambs quarters – all can be fermented and flavored with a few pennies worth of hot pepper or caraway or other spices.  If you want to keep it a  long time, don’t have a cold cellar or a fridge, bury it in the ground.  Cabbage is generally inexpensive, and again, it isn’t at all too late to plant some greens for fall that can be fermented when it gets cooler.

- Season extension probably comes in next in terms of cheapness.  Depending on where you live it might need a fair bit of stuff, or you might be able to just scrape up some leaves from the ground (or grab a bag someone leaves out on their lawn, and mulch stuff deeply.

I’m going to do a whole post on this tomorrow, but generally speaking, south of the mason dixon line or in the pacific northwest, you can probably overwinter with just mulch and the right crops, north of there you might need to scavenge some old windows to put on top of a few bales of hay or straw (for this you can get the ones that were rained on in the field, or ones that have started to rot, or last year’s dusty ones – you might be able to get them free – or try after harvest festivals and halloween asking about the decorative ones) over your crops.  Plastic sheeting will work too. 

Root crops can often be heavily mulched and survive – parsnips especially, but other crops might manage if you are in a moderately mild climate.

And again, in my lattitude, a lot of season extended crops are being planted right now – it isn’t too late!

- Next is dehydration.  If you live in a dry climate, you can lay things out on a hot day in the sun, or hang apple rings and green beans under the eaves of your attic.  If you live in a humid one, and have a car or can get your hands on a junker, try doing it in the car.  If you heat with wood, hanging things behind or near the woodstove will work. With a pilot light oven you should be able to dry in that.  And dehydrators are commonly for sale cheap – but it might take a while to find one at your price.  Consider posting a request on Craigslist.

- Preservation in salt requires just an awful lot of salt.  This is not yet expensive, but can’t usually be scavenged and does require an initial purchase.

- Preservation in alcohol is kind of pricey, unless you can make your own wine and preserve fruit or cheese in it.  Most of the equipment for winemaking can be scavenged, however.

- Canning can be cheap or expensive.  If you can find free or very cheap canning jars (and they are common where I am), already have a big pot and something to put on the bottom of it (cake rack, canning jar rings laid flat, anything that makes a rack that will elevate the jars), the only cost is the heating energy and the jar lid.  Still, it isn’t totally cheap.

 Pressure canning can be cheap, again if you have a source for jars, and can find a cheap used pressure canner, but again, it is probably the hardest method.

- Freezing is the most expensive method, and one we haven’t talked about much here, because I think for most of us, the rising price of electricity will make it inefficient.  On the other hand, this gets me into one thing that I do want to talk about – sharing.  While I think that for many people, a large home freezer may not be financially doable, there are a lot of such freezers out there, and people could reasonable rent/barter space in them, and share them.

Which brings me to the other point – what’s the best strategy if you can’t afford a piece of equipment?  Find someone to share – maybe get to know a local home canner, and ask if you can borrow their pressure canner in exchange for cutting some wood or watching their daughter.  Talk to the guy with the dehydrator about whether you could trade something for a few hours of dehydration a year.  Now this is tough stuff in our culture – we don’t do this. But it is time, and past time to start – if we don’t share if we don’t learn to share, we’re not going to get very far in a lower energy future.

 I’ve written before that I don’t think there should be any conflict between the people who are prepping like mad and can buy stuff and those who can’t. Those of us who can are getting ready for the same world those who can’t are – and the odds are good that we’re going to need each other – even if it is just someone willing to help cut five zillion strawberry hulls out in exchange for a chance to use the dehydrator next.  The person who owns enough food preservation equipment to feed India is going to have a labor shortage in many cases – the person who has no money often has some time they can share. 

Some one on a list I was on once referred to it as “building the village before the villagers are ready” – the truth is that if you’ve got money, spending it on useful tools is a good thing.  If you haven’t, get knowledge, a little practice, and share what you can – because you are bringing something to village too – something absolutely essential – time, energy and ability.


20 Responses to “Preserving Food When You Have No Money”

  1. Green Bean says:

    My friends and I are definitely starting to do the borrowing thing. I invested in a canner and dehydrator last year and have been lending them out. It is such a great way to go about it. Honestly, I’m not canning every day. Maybe once a week so there’s a lot of down time when that giant pot and all its accoutrements is just sitting on my counter.

    Thanks for the information about the root cellar. I’ll need to look into that for this year.

  2. Verde says:

    I do talk to my neighbors about sharing equipment. Sometimes they look at me funny and at other times they take me up on it. It just doesn’t seem necessary that we each own a mountain of stuff that we use seasonally.

    Last night I pickled 14 1/2 pints of pickling cucumbers from our neighborhood garden. I took the elderly land owners 2 1/2 pints. We’ve never talked about what is enought to give back to them but I’m figuring 10% to 20% of finished product.

  3. I’m borrowing my brother’s massive dehydrator. Right now I’m dehydrating tomatoes and hoo doggie! the house smells like baked tomatoes. I think I may pass out in delight :)

  4. Meadowlark says:

    This post has motivated me to put out some ads to find others who want to work together. I don’t care how “hip and trendy” our community is… dangit, I can’t be the only one who’s thinking this way.

    Thanks for being the impetus behind this.

  5. MEA says:

    I have always found that while people are more than willing to lend things, they have a harder time borrowing things, and when ever I have suggested that we go together on buying something with a neighbor, 9 times out of 10 I get and ans, don’t worry, I’ll buy it and you can borrow it. And while I am greatful for the offers, I feel very bad about borrowing it (to the point where I often don’t) because I didn’t put to buy it.

    Hmm, do I need to shift my thinking here? You think?

  6. Greenpa says:

    A quick and cheap “root cellar” I’ve used:

    If you don’t have the resources to dig a whole cellar; sink a 55 gallon drum, or even a big steel garbage can into the ground, almost all the way. Leave a bit of lip above ground, to keep water out. This is rodent proof; and you cover it with a pile of straw bales, or even just a pile of leaves 2 feet thick, to keep it from freezing. Access is kinda crappy- but it works. Need more space? Dig in another can. If you quit using them; fill them up, so they don’t turn into traps.

  7. Jesus, Greenpa. Now I have visions of you head first in the ground with just your feet sticking out as you reach in to grab some taters. Maybe I’m thinking of a 550 gallon drum…

  8. Fern says:

    If you have Mormon friends, even if they don’t store food themselves they will be able to help you get into any local LDS cannery. Again, not cheapest method, but one option to consider. If you have Mormon friends who do store food, or at least use local LDS farms, you might also be able to get fruits and veggies from those farms.

  9. Rosa says:

    I keep having to remind myself about borrowing. I actually think the wanting to buy things is a negative part of reading so many blogs, for me. A couple weeks ago I was really wanting stuff -first Beth Terry reviewed a machine that makes soda water, then the crunchmeister reviewed a soymilk maker and, and I failed at another batch of yogurt and was wishing I had my old roomate back with his vintage electric yogurt maker instead of my makeshift water bath cooler setup that clearly is not hacking it.

    So I was whining to my friend (as we walked our babies to the farmer’s market) about feeling all wanty and consumery. And she said “Do you want a yogurt maker? I think I have one.” And now I have one! Ta da! I guess if she starts wanting to use it again some day she’ll want it back.

  10. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Preserving Food When You Have No Money Several people have expressed frustration recently that there are so many things to buy when you are preserving food. They are experiencing what many of us probably will experience sooner or later – no money. So while some people are using what they have while they have it to get good equipment, others are already priced out of these options, and it is hard for them. [...]

  11. What about a community canning center. Pool the resources of your local neighbors and set up a canning center. Someones garage or back room of a community center where everyone takes their produce. Ask for a small donation to cover the costs and add equipment.

  12. valereee says:

    We’re putting on a screened porch addition to our house this year. The current plan is for it to be on a slab. I’m wondering if there’s some way to do a root cellar while we’re doing this. I tried to cellar apples and butternut squash in our always 65-degrees basement last year. The squash did well, but the apples went soft very quickly.

  13. Nita says:

    We use freezer space for high value items, like meat, because that is our farm business. The best freezers we own, our our old 1950′s chest models. They run less, have better insulation, and the most important thing – they are painted metal inside, so there is no freezer burn taste. The plastic is what causes the smell and taste after some time. No matter how clean we get the newer ones, the plastic just hold an “old” smell. I found some special berries I had been hiding and just waiting for the right time to use. This really probably goes on the next post, but they were 7 years old. I had forgotten that I had hid them. I didn’t cook them, we ate them on yogurt after they thawed. They were fine. I’m not recommending keeping stuff in the freezer for that long, just wanted to pass on this tip, because people give away these old freezers, they think they are no good, and some may not be, but ours work well.

    If you are buying a new freezer, buy a manual defrost, they run less, and won’t dry out the food.

  14. Eva says:

    Beware if buying used canning jars that they really are canning jars and not just old mayo jars. Real canning jars have a flat surface on the rim- others are rounder. Look at jars you have at home to learn to tell the difference.

  15. kethry says:

    regarding root vegetable storage, if you don’t have a cellar, a popular way of storing them in the UK (at least, in the days before freezers and fridges) is something called “clamping”: basically storing your veg in a big box of sand.. has the info. might be handy for someone who doesn’t have a cellar/basement – a lot of places in the UK don’t.


  16. greenSearcher says:

    This year I have been researching root cellaring and fermentation for storing foodstuffs. I have the canning equipment and if I can get food in bulk I can, but for most things I tend to dehydrate the foods. Living in North Texas, having a consistently cold area for storage can be a challenge, but at least I have two growing seasons that with careful planning can feed the family year round.
    Rosa, if you have access to a dehydrator it can be used to make yogurt. I verified the thermostat in the dryer was accurate before my first batch, and what I do is place the quart jars of yogurt in a preheated dehydrator, wrapped in bath towels and run it at 115F until the yogurt is set, it generally takes less than 6 hours. Once it is ready, I pop it is the fridge.

  17. greenSearcher says:

    Using a dehydrator one can store most of the garden produce over the winter. I have dried herbs, fruit and leather which is the norm. I have also dried onions, leeks and swiss chard when I had more than I could use. I then added the crumbled chard to soups, rice or beans; and the leeks cooked up into soups as good as the fresh ones. I want to dry more odds and ends from the garden, in thin slices or fine dice. These veges can be used as is in soups and casseroles or powdered and used to make vegetable broth. In the winter we cook alot more, so using rehydrated foods is easy. Also, one can dry the foods from the root cellar when they are beginning to be pasty their prime, giving your another 6 weeks or so of food that otherwise might go to the compost pile or the chickens.

  18. NM says:

    A thermos makes perfect yogurt. If it’s too much to fit in one thermos, I use two.

  19. joe says:

    heeeelp food is a fake it is poisones on this planet… my planit is sooooo much beter then earth ughhh

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