What Will I Eat this Winter?

Sharon October 5th, 2011

Several readers wanted to know what my family will be eating, given the destruction of our garden and of local crops in the valleys.  I’ve delayed answering this question because I’ve been waiting to see some of what emerges in the month after Irene and Lee.  As you know, the Schoharie Valley, historically our primary produce source, was horribly flooded during the hurricanes, wiping out the crops of most of the farms I’ve relied on.  Other farmers had lesser damage, but it has been a tough year.

In some ways, the last month has been further disappointing - nearly non-stop rain has meant that even farms that didn’t lose crops to the tropical storms have lost some of their usual produce - for example, my usual source for fall raspberries in quantity lost everything.  Another source has had so much mold and mildew due to the rain that they aren’t picking either, so it looks like no raspberry jam this year.  Fortunately, we had a great year for blackberries and peaches, but raspberry was everyone’s favorite.

In other ways, there have been some heartening developments.  Several local farms have done the work of sourcing fairly local produce from farms in the region.  While the prices are up (they have to buy it), I can get bulk peppers, sweet potatoes and onions.  Some of the farms did have some crops in for the year before Irene and Lee, so while they lost all their field crops, they do have carrots, potatoes and garlic in some quantity - so one answer is more of what they do have.  Another is that in a minor crisis (and this is not minor here, but it isn’t a region-wide food failure without the capacity to transport food around either), I can rely on my local farms to source food for the customers from other farms in the larger region.  So I can add to my pantry most fall staples.

There will be some major gaps in my pantry this year - very few tomato products, and no salsa at all (Next year I’ll remember to mix it up more - I had decided I’d do all the whole tomatoes and sauce first and then the salsa when the hot peppers were riper, but that wasn’t such a terrific plan,  Definitely one of those live and learn things.

Despite being under 3 feet of water, the one really flood proof warm weather crop I did have were the tomatillos - astonishingly (given that they are more adapted to heat and drought), they’ve continued to grow unabated, where pretty much everything else but the greens drowned, rotted, succumbed to fungal disease, burned down or fell into the swamp (there is something Monty Pythonish about the ways that plants succumbed).  So along with some greens, we’ll have a lot of salsa verde and carmelized tomatillo jam.  This will definitely take up a larger role in our diets this year.

Turnips mostly survived, so we’ll eat more of those as well.  We had a good quince year, our best ever, and many local farms do have apples, so apple-quince sauce and quince jam and paste will also take center stage instead of standing towards the back.

We’ve fortunately got hay put aside, but no corn for our livestock or for us. I have some pop and grinding corn left over, and the corn stalks have fed goats and rabbits so it isn’t a total loss, but still, we’ll be buying more feed this winter than I like.

There are two implicit questions here - what will I eat this winter, and what would I eat in a disaster that meant we couldn’t bring in what we had.  The answer to both is “more of what there is” - but it would be vastly harder to adapt to in the case of an inability to bring in crops from further away.  We keep enough stored food to be able to eat all winter, but we’d grieve the lack of many of our usual root cellared staples that make that diet more appealing, and to the preserved foods that give brightness, spice and pleasure.  Still, we would eat.

To me, this emphasizes the central importance of both food production and food storage - any of us may see crop or even whole garden/farm failures in any given year, and none of us can be 100% sure that we will be able to replace what we have lost.  Food storage gives us leeway, and the option of keeping everyone fed.  Food preservation allows us to take what is abundant (and something is always abundant in even the worst years) and use it to supplement and rebuild food stores, in case not everything is abundant.\

The other thing I have learned to this is to assume less - I did not rush when the cucumber became available because ordinarily, I have another month of pickling.  I could have canned more tomatoes, put up more of the rhubarb, harvested some of the corn before the storm and dried it indoors.  Hindsight, of course, is always clear - but it will remind me next year, and as I fill my root cellar not to take for granted the idea that next month’s gleanings will be there.

I think my family has never had such an acute lesson on the importance of food storage, of keeping up with the preservation and making good use of all we have, and of appreciation of what is ordinarily available.  We are lucky - we can replace some of what is lost.  People in my region benefit both from the networks of farms that allow us to reach out a bit further from our local circle and also from the fact that we don’t, as yet, HAVE to rely on local food.  It gives us time to strengthen and build for a day when we may.


15 Responses to “What Will I Eat this Winter?”

  1. Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife says:

    Hardwon lessons there, Sharon. I’m glad the picture is not dire for your family. And I appreciate the chance to learn from lessons that others have learned more painfully. I will try to be mindful of the lesson you took away from this year: not to count on the crop being there next week or next month. It’s a valuable lesson any year, and in some year to come much may hang on that lesson.

  2. Silvia says:

    My MIL always warned me to put up what I can when it is available as next month or next year it may not be. Hard lessons to learn.

    I am glad to hear you have a plan for the winter and you will be ok.


  3. Shirley says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I recently returned from working for just over 3 weeks on the disaster relief operations in New York. The devastation in Schoharie and surrounding counties is the worst that I have seen since Katrina. I wish your family and communities the very best in recovering. The people from the area that I met were wonderful despite the challenges they were facing. It has been a hard year for so many between the droughts in the south and the flooding in many places. It is scary to think that this might be the new normal.

  4. kathy says:

    I have had a very similar experience. We had less loss from Irene but our tomatoes and winter squash were really impacted by a severe hailstorm. I salvaged enough tomatoes to make maybe 30 jars of sauce, far short of the necessary 70 quarts and the squash will not store at all. I’ve been cooking it and drying in in sheets rather than face 50 rotting squash in November. We also lost the potatoes to a severe scab. Fortunately, I can source those locally. The berries held up well but the peaches rotted before I got more that a dozen quarts canned. Out litter of pigs died and getting a good quality butchering hog is costing me a small fortune. It is a lesson to be sure. Thank goodness for a deep larder and local farms that have an abundance of things I’m short on. I am looking at this as a practice run for tougher times.

  5. Earl Mardle says:

    I’m one of those wondering so thanks for this.

    I have long worried about what “surplus:” actually is and I’m still figuring it out. However, since we first started growing good quantities of food, our practise has always been to preserve first and eat fresh second for exactly those reasons.

    Once that stuff is laid down I feel so much better. And like a bee, there is no such thing as having too much aside (OK, we are still eating the plum jam from 3 years ago so there ARE limits)

    That doesn’t mean we don’t eat anything fresh, in a reasonable year just keeping up with preserving the produce is a task and inevitably there will be stuff that we HAVE to eat fresh or lose; but I’d so much prefer it that way than to risk leaving the preserving till last and lose it. Your experience has just locked that in good and hard.

    Thanks again for being out there on the edge and for bringing back the lessons.

  6. Brad K. says:


    In addition to what you will eat this winter — what will you plant next spring? Did the flood and other trauma cost you any of the varieties you had been saving seed for?

  7. Sharon says:

    Brad, yes, actually, they did, and it sucks ;-) . I never plant all my seed of any one variety, but I did lose my seed potato crop that I had saved for quite a number of years and will be starting over this year. I also lost a couple of squash varieties I was trialing from small quantities of saved seed that others had given me.

    I’m hoping I’ll be able to reconstitute all, but the potatoe particularly are a major loss - not only are seed potatoes expensive but we’ve lost all the years of adaptation.


  8. Claire says:

    Sharon, thanks from me too for posting this. And best wishes to you and everyone else in your area on your recovery efforts.

    Like the others above, I am glad to hear more about what you have been able to obtain locally and how you are adapting to what you have this year. I, too, am taking it as a lesson as I endeavor to grow a wider variety of crops and source more from local farmers.

    Our biggest problem at home was a combination of excessive heat and humidity in the first half of summer that spread disease to most of my sweet and hot peppers, seriously lowering yield on them, followed by squirrel predation on practically every kind of fruit and nut crop that I grow. I haven’t gotten a single ripe tomato since early August; the squirrels first started eating the almost-ripe tomatoes, then the large green ones, then the small green ones. This was during the excessive heat and dryness of the second half of the summer. Maybe the squirrels just wanted water - but maybe it was something else. For the squirrels then proceeded to eat every jujube fruit on our two trees (they didn’t touch them last year). Of course they’d already eaten every peach, apple, and hazelnut I had, but they usually do that. A few weeks back, the squirrels began to do serious predation on my flint corn crop; I had to pick the ears early, before they’d dried down, just to get something from them. I still had chestnuts as late as the beginning of this week. The chestnuts are enclosed in a very prickly husk that hurts me to get into. Last year the squirrels ignored them. But yesterday, I looked and found no chestnuts any longer. There are no acorns anywhere; I think the squirrels have eaten every one of them already. I can only hope that the squirrels are in an overpopulation phase and that they suffer a die-off next year, leading to at least a year or two when I can harvest some tree fruits and nuts.

    The good news? Excellent potatoes and spring greens, and because of a cool spell in late August and most of September, it looks like I’ll have a good fall greens and roots crop. Also it looks like I’ll have a good yield of butternut squash and dry beans.

    So besides weather, consider animal predation among the things that affect what we get to eat, and be ready to adapt to them. Apparently area farms have less trouble with squirrels than I do, because we purchased excellent local peaches and I was able to dry a decent quantity of them. And the local apples are good right now.

  9. Thrivalista says:

    Thanks, Sharon, that was both illuminating and reassuring.

    And thanks to Claire, too. Claire, if I remember correctly, you’re vegetarian (as are we), but man it looks like time to find or develop some squirrel recipes! ::makes ugh! face::

  10. Sharon says:

    Claire, we have almost no squirrels, here, mostly because we have a healthy mid-sized predator population. We see a few, but they are kept in balance. Would you consider a small dog to help run the squirrels off?


  11. Emily says:

    Just when you think one year food storage is enough, you start seeing good reason to plan two years out! I had a bumper squash year (like, 600 pounds) and I think instead of donating it all, I will can a fair bit for use in pies and such. It’s not the same as fresh, for roasting, but it will meet my needs for plain cooked pumpkin. (For the curious, you can can squash cubes in a pressure canner, then mash them when you open the jar, but you’re not supposed to can puree.)

  12. EngineerChic says:

    Claire - I second Sharon’s suggestion of a smallish dog. We have a 30 pound mix (Spitz & something else that might be terrier) and there is no rest for any squirrels in our yard. He eats 1/2 cup kibble twice a day plus a bite or two of whatever I’m eating, so he doesn’t cost much to keep fed. And he keeps the bed warm at night.

    However, he does have a strong hatred of all vermin & will dig a good size hole to find & destroy any mole he can get to. This size dog seems large enough to run off everything from possums to woodchucks and smaller, but I don’t know if he’s capable of killing anything bigger than a squirrel.

  13. reebok football jerseys says:

    You could be right. It’s been so long since I signed up that I don’t recall how I got here! I’ll check. Thanks for the tip.

  14. Nicole says:

    @Claire - IME, putting out a source of water as soon as it gets dry helps a lot with bird and squirrel predation. Once they learn the bad habits, though, you can’t reverse it for quite a while.

    Hobby orchardists also say that squirrels don’t like to cross high weeds on the ground, so a strip of unmowed area around their trees helps. I haven’t tried that one, but the squirrels sure do like it when I mow my orchard..

  15. Claire says:

    Thanks for the ideas! We don’t have a dog. Maybe we should consider getting one, although I think we’d have to fence the yard to allow the dog to chase squirrels off. That would be a lot of fence (we have an acre lot). I’ll put that on my list of ideas to ponder over during the next year or two, while I am considering possibilities for garden redesign. Maybe we’d only fence part of the yard and keep fruit trees in that part. I’m planning to try coating fruits with hot pepper wax next year. I understand other mammals share our reaction to hot pepper. It would be just my luck to have Cajun squirrels, though. ;-)

    Most of the meals we eat are vegetarian, but my DH has gotten his hunting license, is practicing archery, and has taken and will take more classes on shooting. We are planning on crock-potted squirrel this fall if he manages to get any. I’m quite willing to take the role of mid-sized predator. Those squirrels should taste pretty good, given what they’ve been eating.

Leave a Reply