Archive for November, 2008

Friday Food Storage Quickie: Holiday Sales Time!

Sharon November 21st, 2008

Well, it is time to take advantage of the holiday sales to stock up – maybe even for next holiday, when harder times are coming.  This week we’re going to focus on the deals that are out there around Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Grocery stores usually are willing to take a certain loss this time of year, on the expectation that people will spend more.  My guess is that the margins are tighter and the deals may not be as good, but they will probably still be out there.  Here are some things to look for, and some ways to use them outside the holidays:

- Baking Materials – Baking powder, the “sweet” spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, allspice, etc…), flour, cocoa,  sugar, pie cherries, etc….

Obviously, you can think of uses for flour (remember, whole grain ground flours don’t keep that long, so don’t buy more than a six month to 1 year supply) and the rest – most of this stuff doesn’t go on sale very often, so now is a good time to stock up.

- Canned Pumpkin, sweet potatoes and squash.  Skip the ones that are already sweetened and have marshmallows in them, but the ones that are just the pureed vegetable are pure gold.  Rich in vitamin A, they can replace fat in baked goods, and give them a golden color and delicious flavor, and adding a light sweetness.  We add pumpkin to bread and biscuits, to lasagna (surprisingly good), make pumpkin bread, pumpkin cake and pumpkin pudding along with pumpkin pie.  The whole vegetables are also often a good deal around now, and are even better, because they come with the delicious and highly nutritious seeds.

- Turkeys.  If you have a lot of freezer space and reasonable confidence in your power situation, or if you are handy with a pressure canner, and your grocer is offering a deal like a free turkey or dirt cheap one, now’s a good time to get an extra or two, and cut them up or can or freeze them.  I’m not a big fan of industrial meat, but for those who are worried they might not have any meat, this is a good time to get a little ahead.

- Root vegetables. Your local farmstand may well be offering good discounts right now on those veggies that most Americans eat only at the holidays – Parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, etc….  They all keep in a nice cold spot, so stock up, and look around on the net for some recipes.

- Chocolate chips.  Need I really make a case for this?  Chocolate keeps easily a year, and the occasional batch of chocolate chip cookies is the closest thing to universal comfort food on the planet.

As for a non-food item, this week, I’m going to remind you to have a couple of good quality manual can openers if you have any canned goods at all. I’ve never used an electric can opener, but I’m continually surprised by how many people don’t have one.  And manual can openers can wear down – so having a spare somewhere accessible isn’t a bad idea.  Heck, there’s a decent chance the can opener will be on sale this week too!




The Competence Project: How to Get Competent, and What You Get If You Do

Sharon November 20th, 2008

Ok, there was a lot of enthusiasm for my first post on my new project – people seemed to think I was starting a challenge.  That hadn’t occurred to me, but heck, I’m for it – a new challenge it is.  I challenge each of you to pick some area of your skill set that’s kind of weak and strengthen it.  And when you feel like you’ve gotten competent, well, pick a new skill. 

In the other thread, Dewey had the best idea (thanks Dewey!) – I’m going hand out official “Competence Project Merit Badges” (and hope various scouting organizations won’t sue me ;-) ) to people who meet their goals.  So post your first project, and I’ll have periodic threads in which people can be awarded their merit badges for whatever skill set you are trying to gain.  Merit badges are completely virtual, of course, but if someone wants to make up a spiffy visual that people can add to their blog, I’m all for it. 

Several people asked how they should go about learning their skill set, and I have a few suggestions for resources.  I’m sure the rest of you have some good ideas as well.

1. Apprentice yourself to someone – this is by far the very best way to learn a skill, and it can save you an awful lot of trial and error.  Got a neighbor who is going hunting, fixing his roof or crocheting a sweater?  Why not ask if you can help out/get some lessons from them.  Barter is a great tool here.

2. Take a class.  Local adult education courses often cover things like this – check out their offerings.  And stores that sell craft or specialty items often have classes as well – for example, Home Depot offers regular courses, knitting and quilting shops have knitting and quilting classes, etc…  Just make sure that the class you are getting works with the skill set you are trying to gain – for example, if you want to learn woodworking with hand tools, make sure that you are getting a class that teaches this.

2. Use internet video – this isn’t an option for me or the rest of the world afflicted with dial up, but it is awfully nice for those who can take advantage.  That way, you can actually see how to take your radio apart, or how the purl stitch works.

3. Visit your local library and take out books designed for children.  Kids books have to cut the extraneous stuff out, and offer extremely clear language and direct instructions.  I finally learned how to knit by using Melanie Falick’s excellent children’s book on the subject, _Kids Knitting_ and I’ve often found books for kids and teens clearer than those for adults.

4. Find comprehensive book sources - besides the ubiquitous “Dummies” series (which varies a lot in quality), Reader’s Digest has an excellent series of how-to books that cover a wide range of skills including _The Complete Do-It Yourself Manual_ (which a builder friend noted would allow you to pretty much build a house from scratch with), _Practical Encyclopedia of Crafts_ and _Skills and Tools_.  I’m also partial to Gene Logsdon’s _Practical Skills_ book.

5. Specialize, specialize.  I’m a big fan of the personal library if you have space.  I find it really useful to have books (or material printed from the internet – never know when the service will go down, computer will be fried or the power will be out) that give detailed information and allow you to get more advanced. Honestly, we’re not all going to get really good at a lot of these things – most of us will have pretty basic skills.  Still, I think if you have the money (and these are the sorts of books that often show up quite cheaply on the internet, and frequently at yard sales) it is good to have specialized books for skills you might want or need to invest some energy in.  So, for example, I think that while a general crafts book will probably teach you to knit or purl, you might want a sock knitting book, or a mitten book if you knit a lot of them.  Basic woodworking stuff in the above books will get you fairly far, but if you dream of building outdoor structures, picking a book that focuses on building tools for farm and garden would be good.  I find it is easiest to push myself to pick up a skill if I’m doing something I really want to do – so if you can’t bear the thought of sewing the traditional pair of pajama pants as a first project, it might be worth investing in a book that will teach you to make something you really do want to make.

Ok, everyone sign up for their first merit badge project, and in a week or two, we’ll all update each other on how it is going.  My first project?  I’ve got a toilet that needs replacing.  Let’s just say that the replacement toilet has been sitting next to the defective toilet for a very, very long time. 



Sharon November 19th, 2008

Once I finally get through the holidays and the latest book, my next project is major cleaning, sorting and organizing of my home.  That is, it is time to come bang up against the real question of what I need, what I don’t, and how to manage my life.

Now I have a very ambivalent relationship to the question of stuff.  On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of consumption, and I recognize it as a major potential issue. I buy most of my possessions used, and as a consumer, well, I’m one of those people dragging the economy down ;-) .

 On the other hand, for someone who is hostile to consumption, I have, well, a lot of stuff.  You all know I live in a big old farmhouse – well, that farmhouse is full of stuff.  I’m not really sure how to resolve this contradiction, or how I feel about it.

Part of the issue is that I live in two worlds – I am living now in a high energy society, that makes use of a lot of high energy tools that cost a lot of money.  While I minimize my use of some of these, I also depend upon them – for example, my computer. In order for me to do my job, I need a computer, a phone line and the money to keep up an internet connection. 

Beyond that minimum, there are things I use because I do this other work – for example, I could hand wash all my laundry, but then I probably would have less time for the blog.  There may come a time when I think that trade off is reasonable, but for now, the washing machine is a necessity. 

Then there are things I have because for most of us, not having them is unacceptable to our society – for example, once upon a time, kids wore their playclothes for long periods, and it was not unusual to see kids rewearing fairly dirty clothes when at play.  I live in a society where dirt is perceive as a sign of neglect, so my kids need to have many more clothes than are actually essential, so that they can be seen mostly in clean clothing, while still going out and getting dirty.

Then there are parts of high energy culture that I really value - I have many thousands of books, and I read and re-read them, refer to them in my writings and enjoy having them.  I realize that the author Chaucer died with fewer than 50 books (a mammoth library by the standards of the day), but I’m simply not prepared to do without mine, at least as long as I live fairly far from a good library.  I don’t find cheap printing or the ability to get to hear long-ago recordings of classical music along with my hip hop at all bad uses of our energy abundance, and even if I should, I don’t feel terribly inclined to go down to a handful of CDs or books.

At the same time, I also live a low energy lifestyle, and am anticipating a much lower energy one.   This also requires equipment.  For example, I grind my own grain, which means finding space on the counter for a grain grinder.  I have more than 700 canning jars, which I fill with things, but then which gradually empty out and must be stored.  Besides our CD player and CDs, we have a piano and other instruments, since my husband makes acoustic music.  We have two woodstoves, which necessitate a large supply of wood and tools for the stove, wood chopping and managing wood. 

Now sometimes I can manage these two lives by choosing to prioritize one – for example, I can decide that I’m going to get rid of the food processor to make space for the grain grinder, or to replace one of our vehicles with a bike and trailer.  The clothesline has replaced the dryer, the freezer and natural cooling our fridge, solar charged batteries our old one-use kind.

But often, I’m struggling to balance the requirements of both lives.  For example, several times a year we visit family in Boston or New York City.  When we do this, it is awfully convenient to have a furnace to be kept at a very low temperature, to keep the pipes from freezing.  If we don’t do this, we have to drain the pipes and shut off the water, which means that whoever cares for our animals has to haul water from the pump outside.  So fr now, we have both a furnace and woodstoves.  We have bikes and a car.  We have a water pump and running water.  We’re trying, as best we can, to balance and compromise.

I try very hard to make sure that when I acquire a lower-energy tool, I do make use of it – that it doesn’t just sit around for an emergency that may or may not come.  Thus, we do cook quite a lot in our solar oven – but I can’t say that it has totally replaced my electric stove in summer.  

And it all adds up to a lot of stuff.  Then add in the other stuff.  The kids’s toys.  The clothes.  The tools.  The books.  The music.  The pots and pans, the furniture and books we’ve stored for other people, the stuff we inherited from Eric’s grandparents and don’t have time to get rid of….oy vey!  Even though we do try to manage it well and to limit our consumption, it adds up to well, too much.  We have fewer space constraints than most people, but maybe more chaos constraints – that is, we’re running a farm, both of us work (although I do from home and so does Eric part of the time), we homeschool, we have kids whose full time project is to create messes – generally speaking, time for management is at a premium and things get well…chaotic.

So my goal is to try and bring order to the chaos.  But that means figuring out not just what I really need now, but what I’m likely to need in a future when going out and buying things isn’t as common.  There’s a tendency, I think, to hoard uncritically – to see everything as potentially necessary, and sometimes that’s followed by a desire to get rid of things that is also uncritical, or at least has been for me – finding a graceful way to navigate through our stuff and make our life better organized and a bit smaller is going to be a project. I’ll be updating you on the chaos and whether any progress is made.

So how are you doing this?  What worlds are you living in?  How are you managing these issues?


Breaking the Fall: Building Local Safety Nets

Sharon November 18th, 2008

Well, the bad news keeps on building up, doesn’t it?  One of the most worrisome bits of bad news are the heavy burdens being placed upon already under-funded safety net programs.  Think about the statistics.

11.1% of American households regularly experienced food insecurity with hunger (32 % , or a full 1/3 of all Americans experience food insecurity, in that they don’t know if they will have enough food, but generally manage to make do – the 11.1% is the number of people who actually go to bed hungry on a regular basis) in the US in 2007, slightly up from 10.9% the year before.  That means that even before the recession hit, before food prices really spiked, we were already seeing a rise in real and serious hunger in the US.

But those statistics don’t tell the whole story.  Because between 2006 and 2007, the number of children who regularly experience hunger doubled.  Think about that.  We won’t have a full evaluation of the 2008 numbers for a year now, but they will be bad.

One out of every 10 Americans needs food stamps to get to the end of the month.  One out of every TWO infants in the US requires WIC supplementation.  Subsidized school lunch program rolls are rising rapidly, as much as 4% in some localities month over month.   At these numbers, we can no longer think of these programs as safety nets for unusual numbers of hungry – these are direct, government food subsidies to a nation that can no longer feed itself.  That is, it is now normal to need state subsidies to eat.

Now the good news is that the public and private safety net programs are mostly still holding. The folks who work for these programs and administer them generally are doing their best to get everyone who needs help under the umbrella.  I come from a family of teachers and social workers, housing advocates and eldercare workers - and people who often spend their weekends at the food pantry or the shelter. I know for a fact that while some of the people who do the hands-on work of making sure people have places to stay and food to eat and a decent education are jerks, most of them are totally committed.  They usually are paid badly and do difficult, stressful work because they don’t want to see anyone go hungry or cold.  And they are trying to stem the tide of crisis – and they are failing, and in the long term, bound to fail,  because no one can stop a tidal wave with linked arms.

For example, during the biggest donation season of the year, food pantries all over the country, including these ones in Ohio are short of turkeys, as well as basic food staples.  Most charities rely on donations made between Halloween and New Years all year ’round – that is, this is when people are most opening their purses, and the charities know they have to make what they get now last during the long winter and spring, when people donate less.  So the fact that their cupboards are bare now bodes very, very badly for the days to come.

Or consider the situation with state unemployment funds.  Right now several states, including my own New York (which is disproportionally dependent on Wall Street for funds), Nevada, Ohio and California may well not be able to pay unemployment claims within a very few months - just as the great wave of unemployment hits. Meanwhile, most state subsidized social programs, including the ones that help at-risk kids, the homeless and the desperately hungry are facing budget cuts, hiring freezes and occasionally the complete axing of a program.

 It is likely that the federal aid will be brought in – and just as likely that the scale of the economic crisis may well exceed the ability to remedy the problem.  The federal government has already spent trillions bailing out Wall Street – and now comes everyone else – states, counties, social service programs, nearly every industry.  They’ll all have a hand out, and the reality is that we can’t save everyone.

That is, we are only just seeing the beginning of the wave of unemployment and the economic crisis.  What has been largely a Wall Street Crisis is only now really percolating down into most of our lives.  And the changes that are coming are huge – changes in our culture, changes in our economy, changes in our sense of ourselves.  David Brooks, a New York Times conservative commentator who often annoys the heck out of me but is sometimes really, really right, put his finger beautifully on the issue in his column yesterday:

“In times of recession, people spend more time at home. But this will be the first steep recession since the revolution in household formation. Nesting amongst an extended family rich in social capital is very different from nesting in a one-person household that is isolated from family and community bonds. People in the lower middle class have much higher divorce rates and many fewer community ties. For them, cocooning is more likely to be a perilous psychological spiral.

In this recession, maybe even more than other ones, the last ones to join the middle class will be the first ones out. And it won’t only be material deprivations that bites. It will be the loss of a social identity, the loss of social networks, the loss of the little status symbols that suggest an elevated place in the social order. These reversals are bound to produce alienation and a political response. If you want to know where the next big social movements will come from, I’d say the formerly middle class. “

I think Brooks is right on the money here – and I don’t think it will just be the former middle class.  The baby boomers, who bought the idea that security comes from affluence, that that their future was more about money than their ties to family are likely to be angry and betrayed as their pensions and retirement funds vanish.  The unemployed are coming not just from service industries and new jobs, but from old, high paying ones in finance and insurance. 

And the safety nets will break, if this is bad enough.  They’ve been undercut for decades, going back to the Reagan administration, and we’ve already allocated a lot of our wealth into the vast black hole of Wall Street.  They are already strained, and things have only just begun.  Simultaneously, people will lose first their jobs, then the benefits they expect to sustain them, and finally very basic things like food security.  And the one thing that could have mitigated some of that suffering – community ties and social capital – are precisely what growth capitalism has spent the last 60 years ripping to shreds.

This is a lot of gloom and doom, but the key to mitigation is the restoration of the social and communal ties that Brooks is talking about.  There are two important reasons for this – the first is that as Brooks points out, there’s a big difference between staying home and eating beans and rice alone in your chilly house and getting together with your neighbors and sharing that meal.  The sense of loss and deprivation is very different – I know I keep mentioning this, but social scientists have confirmed what Timothy Breen the historian observes – that “rituals of non-consumption” can replace our rituals of consumption – if we come together.  That is, it can be a lot easier to bear tough times if you are working together with other people, and feel that they are in the same boat.

The second, and perhaps more urgent issue, is that our stability as a nation depends building layers of additional safety nets underneath the ones that break.  Think of poverty as a fall out a window.  Right now, there is a layer of safety net that catches a majority of people, although by no means all.  But what’s under those?  What happens if the traditional nets break?  We need those nets not only because protecting others from hunger, cold and suffering is the ethical thing to do, and not only because, as they say, the life you save may soon be your own, but because all of our personal security depends on our community security.  In hard times, crime rates go up, and people get angry.  Brooks is right to anticipate a movement of angry and frightened people, and when people are angry and frightened, we’re all vulnerable.

In a rational society, there are more layers to break your fall, and we’re going to need them.  First, there are formal structures at the community level – if your town never needed a food pantry because people could drive to the neighboring city, now is the time to propose it at your church, school or other possible site.  Think about ways you could adapt existing infrastructure – could the schools start distributing extra school lunches to the needy after the day is over?  Could your school establish a backpack program, sending food home for the weekend with the neediest kids?  Could you start a local gleaning program, or a senior lunch program?  If you have these structures, but they are struggling, what can you do to reinforce them?  Can you make another donation?  Start a fund drive?  What about setting up a bulletin-board system to bring families struggling to keep their homes together with people who need housing.  There are a thousand good ideas – yours is probably one of them. 

The next layer is the neighbor and community layer. I know we all worry about looking like busybodies, but now is the time to start looking in on your neighbors, and offering to help.  The way to do this is to talk to people, even before it looks like they need anything.  That way you’ll know if your elderly neighbor can no longer afford to drive to get her medication and you can offer to pick it up, or if a neighbor is out of work and might be glad to get a day’s pay helping a friend of yours winterize her house.  Being neighborly, and also gentle and unjudgemental is how you are going to know if someone in your neighborhood has no food in the pantry.  For every person who signs up for aid and accepts help, there are several who will rather go hungry than take institutional charity – but who will gladly come over and share a meal with their neighbor, or do you a favor and take that loaf of bread that you’ve got no where to store.

One of the most important things we can do is when we do spend money these days, spend it in our communities if at all possible. I know most of us aren’t going to be buying a lot of holiday gifts, but every dollar you can pass on to a neighbor, a local farmer or a local business that enriches your community is one that makes everyone more secure.  So maybe hire the out of work neighbor to plant and tend a garden for your sister, or give your best friend a farmstand gift certificate.

Finally, there’s family, or the people who function like one.  Those are the people who are standing there with their arms out at the base of your fall, and are prepared to risk something to catch you.  These are the people you can depend on when you have no place to go or no food in the pantry.  And as long as you have food and a place to sleep, try hard to be that person for close friends and extended family.  In fact, try hard to extend out the circle if you can a bit – there are a lot of vulnerable people out there who could use a hand up.  You don’t have to take in everyone, or treat everyone like family, but if each of us expands the category of people we will not allow to fall to the ground by one or two,  well, there’s hope for us yet.


News and Winter Classes

Sharon November 17th, 2008

Hi Folks – First, I want to apologize in advance – the next couple of weeks will be much less post-full than usual.  I’m headed off to Boston for a few days of mixed business and pleasure on Thursday, and will be posting occasionally from the road.  Eric and the kids will be coming up to join me for Thanksgiving early next week, and the tryptophan will probably get me a bit ;-) . So expect things to be a little slower than usual.  And apologies if you try to reach me and don’t hear back for a few days.  I’m not ignoring you, just in transit.

 I do want to let you all know that I do plan to run a series of classes this winter, and I thought I’d let you know the schedule and open the first one for registration (unless you are registering simultaneously for one or both of the later classes, I’d ask that you not send in payment/registration for the later two classes quite yet, since I get confused easily – I promise, I’ll announce registration for those very soon). 

All classes are taught online, and you don’t have to be online at any particular time.  While there are “class days” when I’m devoting myself to the class, you are free to read material and ask questions/participate whenever it is convenient for you.  All classes include one 15 minute scheduled personal phone call (assuming you want one – some people elect not to have one) to explore any questions you don’t want to ask in the group, or just to get to know one another.  Phone calls usually take place in the evenings (EST) on the class days, but things can be worked out for those who can’t do those times or who are many time zones away. 

Ok, class schedules and information. In January, I’ll be teaching “Food Storage and Preservation” a class I’ve taught several times before, and the subject of my current book project _Independence Days_.  This time, the class will cover all the usual materials – building up a reserve of foods, managing and organizing it, preserving of all types, special dietary needs, etc…  but will also have as an emphasis community level food security – ways you can make not just yourself, but your community more food secure.  Half of each week will focus on setting up your personal reserves and getting comfortable with different methods of food preservation, while the second half of each week will take the approach that all of us become more secure if other people besides us have food.  We’ll talk about how to talk to our neighbors about food security and introduce the topics into our community, how we might make use of existing resources like coops and facility kitchens, ideas for teaching food storage and security in your community, handouts and resources, and how to integrate food preservation and storage into the idea of local eating.  This class will be useful to people who are just beginning to set up their food storage, those who don’t have a lot of room for food storage, and will rely on community food security, and those who want to take a next step and make their locality more food secure. 

Class will meet every Tuesday and Thursday from January 6-29.  Cost is $125, and I do have a few spots for low income folks, so email me if you would like one.  In the past a few kind souls have donated additional spots for those in need – if you’d like to offer a scholarship, email me.  Enrollment is limited to 30.  You can send payment to me through paypal at [email protected] or by check to Sharon Astyk PO Box 342 Delanson, NY 12053.

There are two more forthcoming classes, and I’m very excited about these.  Both will be a new structure and format and I think offer some really exciting new material.  I’m going to be teaching two classes with Aaron Newton, and Aaron will be bringing his design skills, his knowledge and his sense of humor to the project in ways that will be deeply enriching and wonderful.

 In February, Aaron and I will be teaching “Garden Planning and Design” as everyone starts thinking seriously about planting season.  Aaron is a landscape architect by profession, as well as my co-author of _A Nation of Farmers_ and also lives in North Carolina, so he’ll have a perspective on warm climate gardening and design issues that I don’t.  Our collaborations have always been very fruitful, and I think this class is going to be straight out wonderful.  Our goal is to help people make maximum use of the space they have, whether small city lot or rooftop or as Monty Python put it “huge tracts of land” ;-) .  We’ll consult on what to grow, where to grow it, and how to create gardens that aren’t reliant on garden centers and unsustainable resources.  I’m very excited about this class.  We’ll start taking reservations for this class shortly.

And in March, I’m going to teach “Adapting In Place” again, only this time, Aaron will again bring his astounding design and architectural skills to the project of making do with what you have, where you are.  I think the class will be richer and better for it – Aaron and I have both been working on making our respective places into the right places to adapt and weather coming changes, and we think that our combined experience will be really helpful to people now coming up against the reality that a lot of us are going to stay where we are.  Again, I think both classes will be wonderful – I learned a lot when I taught the AIP class this summer, and it was literally a life-changing experience for me and for some of my students.  With Aaron participating, I think it can only be better.

I’m really looking forward to teaching again this spring, and I hope some of you will be able to participate.  And, as always, if you don’t want to participate in the classes, don’t worry – each class will include several blog posts that allow people to follow along here as well. 

 You can register for the food storage class by sending me an email to [email protected].  If you do plan to take more than one of the classes, you can let me know about that when you email – otherwise, I’m taking reservations for just food storage at this point, but will open all the other classes for registration in early December.



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