Thursday, October 25, 2012

Minimalism, Simplicity, and St*ff

The first part of this post was originally posted as a comment on this blog post at Becoming Peculiar (I've made a few minor edits so it will make sense here, by itself). The second part is in response to a more recent post of Kathleen's revisiting the idea of minimalism, specifically food storage. I started to reply on her blog again, but it was getting long, so I'm putting it here.

Part One: Thoughts on Minimalism vs. Simplicity

I am striving toward simplicity, but I don’t think I’ll ever succeed at minimalism. I actually find it really frustrating because I feel like in order to live how we’d like to, especially in regards to diet (growing much of our food, whole foods, food preservation), we actually need and use quite a bit of stuff. I have 4 canners, a dehydrator, two grain mills, a super blender, a kitchen aid, a food processor, two freezers, two large stock pots, multiple smaller pots and pans, plus untold numbers of bowls/dishes/utensils/small electrics. But the thing is – I use almost all of them. I could do it with less, but I would be a lot less inclined to get it done and I would be a lot more inefficient. And that’s just in the kitchen. The garden is a whole ‘nother thing.

We keep animals and I try to keep at least a month’s worth of feed for everyone on hand all the time (given the possibility of natural and man-made disasters, the fact that we live in earthquake country, and the state and federal emergency response guidelines I think it is only responsible to do so. Animals need to eat in emergencies too.). That has to be stored. Plus equipment, bedding, first aid supplies, etc., etc., etc. This is in addition to the food storage I keep for people.

And, I am rather addicted to books. I am okay with donating non-favorite novels when I’m done with them, but books on cooking, gardening/farming, reference, faith, parenting, history, and classics are practically impossible for me to part with. A house without books is not a home in which I want to live.

So in short, in my experience so far, simplicity and minimalism are not always good dance partners. And I’m conflicted as to whether Jesus calls us to one or the other, I can see evidence of both.

Part Two: Sharing and What our Stuff Stands For

I adore the idea of sharing. I think that is a fantastic way of accessing equipment we might need infrequently or irregularly. And I think pooling resources is one of the best benefits of living in community. There are some smaller, rural communities, as well as some progressively minded more urban communities who have created opportunities for sharing in the form of equipment libraries, besides the informal peer-to-peer sharing that naturally occurs amongst like-mined individuals. I am much more inclined toward the idea of resilient communities for which Sharon Astky and Kathy Harrison advocate, as opposed to the elusive and usually unrealistic "self-sufficiency" that is so popular among preppers.

But that said, I think many of the things that Kathleen specifically mentions (especially kitchen and food preservation equipment) are things that people who are committed to from-scratch cooking and/or food preservation, with the goal of making it a significant portion of their family's diet, use regularly and nearly year-round - which makes sharing more challenging. This is compounded for many of us in that we lack a community of like-minded individuals nearby with whom to pool resources. And so a certain amount stuff feels inevitable. 

As to Kathleen's second question - "are they merely status symbols, or sources of self-validation or a sense of security? Or are they really valuable tools?" Well, yes. In all fairness, much of what we have are valuable tools, but they also contribute to a sense of security. I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing per say. That sense of security can breed generosity, if we so allow it. And some possessions, it could be argued, are also status-symbols. I think maybe the difference between just a status symbol and a tool is use. If you own a 6-quart Kitchen Aid but only use it 3 times a year to make a batch of cookies, that's a status symbol. But if you use it several times a week to make basics like bread or pasta for your family and to share with others, it's a tool. Could those things be done without the KA? Yes. But for a lot of us the extra time or strength or whatever that would be required to make the same thing by hand would dissuade us from making it in the first place. [Truth in advertising: my KA needs to be replaced, and so it is sitting unused and would therefore solidly qualify as a status symbol at the time of this writing.] I also think we need to be cautious of conflating the ideas of "status" and "quality". Bri and I do admittedly own a number of tools that would be considered high-end. However, after a lot of research (and several hard lessons in letting price be the deciding factor) the same things that some people might perceive as status symbols were a purchase decision based on long-term durability and quality. Should we automatically go for the most expensive item we can afford? No. But we also should not assume that someone made that purchase purely on status motives. 

Kathleen's third question deals with quantity: "In terms of things like equipment, am I going beyond what I can reasonably use myself? Could someone else benefit from it more than me?" We definitely have more than we need and certainly have more than we can use of some items. I know this and have been making a concerted effort to par down recently. To get rid of the stuff I don’t use at all and to critically evaluate the need for the rest of it. Not just in the kitchen, but also clothes, books, etc. Purging crap we don't need is so cathartic.

"Stuff" has become something of a swear word in our house [proper spelling: st*ff]. I'm still struggling with wanting to have the things I need and use (and yes, enjoy) verse the frequent urge to purge it all and live in a tiny house

Friday, May 25, 2012

Independence Day Challenge and Homestead Updates for May

This month has completely gotten away from me. It's the kind of month that makes me wonder why the hell we are doing this. 

[Maybe "doing" is the wrong word. It implies some level of success. We're hobbling. Or maybe I'm just hobbling. Bri has a much higher tolerance level for the mess that makes me feel like I'm failing. And also makes me feel crazy. I hate feeling crazy. Moving on.]

We should have planted the summer garden at least a month ago. We haven't. We haven't even pulled out the winter garden. Or the tomatoes from last summer for that matter. Of course, they've started producing again, so I'm not in any rush to do so. The copious weeds should have been pulled two months ago. Instead they've mostly gone to seed. I know we'll regret that soon enough. 

But stuff is getting done. We hired some help for a couple days. I am always reluctant to do that, and I'm pretty much always glad we did after it's done. I've started reminding myself that farmers often hire seasonal labor to help with the big jobs. It's no great blow to my authenticity as a wannabe homesteader to bring in help sometimes (although, it is a blow to the pocketbook. And so it goes with both of us working more than full-time, for now.)

The lettuce is starting to bolt. We certainly have not eaten enough of it, but the ducks are not complaining. It's about the only thing that shuts them up. They're really not that loud, unless we're out back. Then they chatter incessantly. It alternates between entertaining and annoying as hell. 

If chard and kale are biennials, mine didn't get the memo. About half of them are starting to bolt.

I never got around to planting this bed after pulling out the three sisters crop from summer. Borage has taken over. At least the bees are happy. 

Grown-up quiet time.

I spent four and a half lovely days with my dear friends in Portland. It was delightful. Three-quarters of my trip was spent feeding a hoard of children. It was fun to have so many people for whom to cook. But dang it if those little people aren't hungry all the freaking time! Honestly, I admire any mom who manages to get anything else done in a day beyond feeding and cleaning up after feeding their kids. I try not to think to much about the logistics of adding kids to our mix. It gives me anxiety. I'm sure it will be fine. Just. FINE. 

Bri and I also spent five days in Berkeley/North Fork/Gilroy. We went for a memorial service, but extended the trip on either end to see some friends. And go wine tasting. 

It is becoming increasingly complicated to travel. It's not as easy as asking the neighbors to feed the cats for a couple days and dropping the dog off with my parents (if we don't take him). Nope, now there are birds to feed, eggs to collect, pots to water. Plus, as much as I try (and mostly succeed) to enjoy myself, I also spend vacations fretting about what I could be doing at home. It does suck some of the fun out of travel. 

Despite being gone so much this month and a crazy work schedule on top of that, I did manage to get a few thing preserved, and we've been much better about eating from the garden, so that is encouraging.

Plant something: nothing, but may I take credit for the volunteers that have popped up? :)
Harvest something: strawberries, eggs, lettuce, kale, swiss chard, lemons, grapefruit, tomatoes, carrots, snap peas, turnips, white nectarines, apricots, loquats. The fruit is starting to come in. YAY!

Preserve something: strawberry sauce, loquat sauce, dehydrated strawberries
Waste not: the usual - kitchen scraps to the chickens and compost, egg shells saved for birds 
Want not: 40 lbs of frozen chicken feet for stock, enough coffee beans for a couple months (I might have to move to the PNW just for their unfairly good prices and selection of ethical coffee. That, and the greenness. I <3 it.)
Eat the Food: the stuff we're harvesting, plus preserves, squash, a few dehydrated veggies
Build community food systems: nope
Skill up: nothing

We also got 8 new chicks yesterday. They should be ready to move outside about the same time the older group is ready for processing or integrating with the flock (for the one's we're keeping). We are becoming the local chick-takers for friends (or friends of friends) who hatch them out for school projects. We just make sure they know up front that all roosters and probably some hens are destined for the soup pot. We are also offering some of the hens to people who are interested in keeping chickens. On the downside, we never know how many hens or what breeds we'll get. On the upside - free birds!

How is your garden coming along? 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Independence Days Challenge for the Last Week of April

Moonglow tomato, from an over-wintered plant. I love this variety.

Plant something: nothing, but I also didn't kill any of my starts either, so that's a plus.
Harvest something: strawberries, eggs, lettuce, kale, swiss chard, lemons, tangelos, grapefruit, tomatoes
Preserve something: strawberry jam, chicken stock (from frozen bones and feet)
Waste not: kitchen scraps to the compost, egg shells saved for birds, canning scraps to chickens (plants) and cats and dog (meat)
Want not: picked up my Azure Standard order - poultry feed, bulk honey, frozen cherries, bulk dried apples, white rice
Eat the Food: preserves, kale, chard, eggs, lettuce, strawberries. I also started making a diligent effort to eat through the freezer so we also had a number of things pulled from there.
Build community food systems: continued work on the church garden and on Earth Day we planted the beneficials/pollinators flower bed as a congregation
Skill up: nothing

Look - a salad!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Mental Hurdles of Urban Homesteading

One of the biggest challenges in gardening for food and not just fun, is ironically, the food. Or at least I am finding that to be the case for me. I grew up with small gardens, and have grown something no matter where I lived as an adult. But it is only in the last year that we have really started growing FOOD. Enough that it has made a substantial difference in my shopping cart. And that has actually been really difficult for me. Until 2011, even though we have had a garden for the past few years, I still bought most of our fruits and veggies. The garden gave us enough tomatoes for fresh eating and a handful of other veggies and herbs, but never a real abundance of any one thing (except chard that one time). Now all of a sudden we have more vegetables than we can keep up with and I have on several occasions had to remind myself that I shouldn't be purchasing vegetable X, because we have more than enough of vegetable W at home that needs eating.

Part of the problem is that I’m a natural hoarder saver, so I tend to want to save things we grow for “later”. When is “later” again? Losing a basket of precious strawberries to mold less than 48 hours after picking is helping to break me of this habit (not that that is the only thing we've lost to our "later" mentality, not by far). But I’m not just fighting myself on this one. Bri is guilty of the same propensity. So learning to eat or preserve the bounty of our land as it comes is a lesson that we seem intent on learning the hard way.

Another facet that is challenging me is that, while I love most of the things we grow, I've had a complete mental block on using them, especially of late. The last time I made or ate a salad was for a potluck two weeks ago. Given that we have a bed and half of lettuce, half a bed of spinach, and a bed of chards and kales, that is ridiculous. I should be eating salad every. single. day.

I think, in part, our schedules are depressing me. Bri and I both work night shift right now and on top of that we work different days, so that we only have one day off every other week together (if one of us is not called in for overtime). This brings up two obstacles. First, while I love food, I love it more when I can share it with other people, especially Bri. So eating half my meals at work and then most of the rest at home by myself is less than fully inspiring. And secondly, while I don’t mind night shift as far as work is concerned, I’m beginning to loath it on a life basis. It jacks up my sleep schedule, but more to the point, it jacks up my awake schedule, which means I don't work around the homestead as I’d prefer on my days off. I can get away with vacuuming at two in the morning (although we’re pretty sure the neighbors probably suspect us of being on some sort of illicit substance…), but gardening is less enjoyable when you have to wear a headlamp (I’ve done it, I’m just saying it’s not really ideal). Plus, there are things to be done that are approximately 1000 times easier to accomplish with two people, rather than alone.

I’m not writing this for the purpose of complaining or making excuses. Rather, I wanted to articulate some of the challenges I am facing so that I can better address them. I also want some accountability. As such, I am going to start participating in Sharon Astyk’s Independence Days Challenge. I am also challenging myself to eat something from the garden every day, which I’ll post to twitter (you can see my feed on my sidebar). My first IDC is below.

Independence Days Challenge

Plant something: I transplanted pepper starts this past week, but nothing new from seed.

Harvest something: strawberries, oranges, eggs, turnips

Preserve something: strawberry jam, kiwi jam, loquat jam, froze meyer lemon juice, growing kombucha

Waste not: kitchen scraps to the compost, egg shells saved for birds, old oats fed to chickens

Want not: stocked up on organic sugar (found for $1.3/lb) and maple syrup

Eat the Food: we do an okay job eating preserves (mostly in yogurt), but a severe lack of this is what this post has mostly been about…

Build community food systems: I graduated from my Master Food Preserver class this week. The skills were not really new to me, which is why I didn’t put this in the next section, but it is a great way to get more involved in the local food community.

Skill up: I have several things that I have started learning, but at which I am not currently working and that needs to change.

What mental hurdles are you facing in your quest for a more sustainable life?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Plea for Critical Thinking

I am in the middle of a Master Food Preserver (MFP) course through the County Extension office (actually, through one county over from mine, since mine does not offer this course at this time). I have been looking forward to this course for well over a year. I think my expectations were a bit too high, given that I have been using, dabbling in, and reading about most of the techniques covered for quite some time. As a result, there is not a great deal of new information for me. I will say that it finally gave me the confidence to use my pressure canner, so that was a fantastic help.

However, I am a little frustrated with some of our instructors. If you have never ever canned before you should absolutely follow a tested recipe to the letter the first few times, or any time you are trying a new technique. This is especially important for things like pickling wherein adding the appropriate amount of a specific acidic ingredient can be the difference between safe and dead. But this does not mean you cannot use your brain, which some of the instructors seem reluctant to allow us to do.

If you arm yourself with knowledge, there is no reason you cannot, for example, make your own fruit jam. If you are using fruits that are acidic enough to safely water bath can by themselves, then mixing them into your own personal concoction is not dangerous. Lowering the sugar content is not dangerous, but will affect the set of your jam and how long it holds in the refrigerator after you open it; if you know this, you can compensate for it. You do not need to use commercial lemon juice (which I find vile) if it is only being used as a flavoring agent and is not necessary to render the product safe for that preservation method. [Commercial lemon juice has a standardized acidity, therefore it is important to use it, or an equivalent citric acid solution, if the recipe specifies commercial lemon juice or you are doing something like making pickles. Again, use your brain.] The same goes for substituting vinegars in a recipe. If the vinegar you wish to use has the same, or higher, percentage of acid than what the recipe calls for, it is safe to make the switch. If it is a lower acidity or unknown, as is often the case in homemade vinegars, then you should not presume it is safe to use in place of what is called for in the recipe.

In the same vein, you should not presume that just because a recipe is printed in a published book it is automatically safe. There are books that you can make that assumption, such as the Ball® books and publications by Cooperative Extension offices, but there are a lot of books that have come out in the last few years which have recipes that have not been rigorously tested. I have some canning books that have recipes that I would not feel comfortable canning as is written.

God gave us a really big brain, let's use it. (And when in doubt, stick to a tested recipe!)