The Southern Agrarian

Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Tag: food (page 1 of 2)

Our Precarious Agriculture System

A lush crop of corn being grown for silage.

A lush crop of corn being grown for silage.


Last month, our family held its sixty-first annual family reunion. It’s a chance to talk with a number of my cousins who have been farmers in that area all their lives. When I remarked about how lush and beautiful the corn looked, I learned a lot about just how precarious our food supply is. It is almost entirely dependent on vast quantities of fertilizer and diesel fuel to work the land and to irrigate it.

The situation varies, of course, depending on the type of soil found in different parts of the country. The ideal combination of local climate and fertile, well-drained soil is really quite rare. The reason that the world’s farmers are able to feed a huge and rapidly growing population is the enormous input per acre of fuel, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. Much of today’s farmland is not a whole lot more than a growing medium to which water and nutrients are added – similar to hydroponics.

I will also point out here that we haven’t even touched on the complex system of transporting and delivering that food from the farm to your table. That is even more fragile than the agriculture system, with its near-total dependency on a functioning financial system, available credit, just-in-time ordering system, trucking system, and a coordinating system totally dependent upon the Internet.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but the fact remains that without the continuous flow of cheap diesel fuel, irrigation water, fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, the food available to the consumer would be a tiny fraction of what is needed. Proponents of organic farming point to that as the solution; however, there simply isn’t enough organic matter available nor is there a high enough yield for organic farming to even approach the quantity of food needed. (I’m a big fan of organic gardening, but the issue here is one of scale rather than method.)

If you’re looking for a solution to the overall problem, I’m afraid that there is none. Mankind has grown completely dependent on highly mechanized, high-input farming to feed the population. There is simply no getting around that – as a wide scale issue, anyway. On an individual scale, it is a different story. Growing and producing a portion of our own food for our own family is something that we can all do. Very few will be able to produce more than a token amount of their food to begin with, but it is a learning process. When the day comes that our complex food system no longer functions, make sure that you have the skills and the tools to feed your family.

Irrigation, powered by diesel fuel, keeping that corn growing.

Irrigation, powered by diesel fuel, keeping that corn growing.

Food Security and Social Unrest

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In a report published yesterday (06/26/2016), a FEMA contractor reported on a simulation called “Food Chain Reaction”. The scenario was to simulate a food crisis brought about by “food price and supply swings amidst burgeoning population growth, rapid urbanization, severe weather events, and social unrest.” You may want to read the full article yourself, but that’s not really our concern here.

As Southern Agrarians, our goal is to isolate and insulate ourselves from the chaos and anarchy of a world in collapse. Growing a portion of our own food – even if it is only a small portion – gives us a base from which to ramp up our food production to the point of being relatively self sufficient. Right now, I have a rather small part of our one acre being used to produce food. Every year brings new lessons in how to be more productive: what grows well and what doesn’t, learning the best time to plant, the best plant spacing for the soil in my garden, and a hundred other things to learn.

That small garden can be easily expanded by turning lawn into garden in order to multiply the amount of food being produced. Having the tools to do that is a key part of it. I recently purchased a two-wheeled walk-behind tractor made by BCS. It is an Italian company that owns Ferrari (Ferrari used to make tractors before they focused on high-end sports cars). With the roto-tiller attachment, I can quickly turn new ground into ready-to-plant garden area. I also have several high quality hoes that allow me to efficiently maintain the garden.

There is so much more involved in becoming more self-sufficient. How do you provide water for your family, your garden, and your livestock? How do you preserve what you grow for the rest of the year when the garden is not producing? How do you feed your chickens or ducks or other livestock? Those are the kinds of questions that we try to answer here in addition to the cultural and social aspects of Southern Agrarianism.

Being self-sufficient is a very comfortable feeling in these unstable times. Make sure that you can provide for your family, no matter what the future holds.

Garden Experiments

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If you’ve been growing your own food for any length of time, you already know that there is a whole lot more to it than putting seeds in the dirt and waiting for harvest time. Those who buy a can of “Survival Seeds” and set it in a closet “just in case” are going to be severely disappointed – and hungry.

I have a nice collection of books about growing food and raising small livestock. They are the starting point, not the final authority. I routinely discover that what works great for one person (or the author of one book) just doesn’t work when I try it. The answer to that is experimentation. You have to try it yourself. You have to compare different groups with only one or two variables. You have to keep careful notes. None of these things are particularly fun or easy, but the results are always worth the effort.

Do you test your soil? Do you keep notes on what you have added and how the plants react? Sometimes it is almost impossible to keep track of (What went into that last batch of compost you added?), but make notes anyway. The notes might not be used, but wouldn’t you hate to end up with that perfect season and not know what was in the soil, when the seeds went into the ground, what the variety was, and where you got the seeds?

One of the keys to effective experimentation is to reduce the number of variables to as few as possible. That’s one reason why I like to always start my seeds in individual pots. I always plant more than I anticipate using; that way, I can plant only the best seedlings and they are all relatively uniform. The ones that look weaker than the others are culled. Any that are remarkably more vigorous than the rest are tagged in the garden to see if they carry that trait through to maturity. If so, that’s a plant that I’ll save seeds from (and, of course, make a note to that effect).

Don’t just plant a garden – improve your garden. Make it your goal to have each year’s garden better than the last year. Experiment, test, take notes, and adjust.

What have you experimented with? How do you keep your notes organized? Leave a reply about something you’ve tested in your own garden.

Plan a Lee-Jackson Dinner

Robert_Edward_LeeThe Lee-Jackson Dinner is a tradition celebrated by MOS&B, SCV and UDC groups – but it need not be limited to that. Why not have your own Lee-Jackson Dinner at home? Robert E. Lee’s birthday is on January 19, and Stonewall Jackson’s is on January 21. This next year (2014), that will fall on Sunday and Tuesday.

We have scheduled this year’s dinner for Saturday, January 18. We like to serve something a bit special each year. Our original plan called for Roasted Goose, but we decided that we’ll be going with Standing Rib Roast this year. Standing Rib Roast is basically Prime Rib with the bone still on it (hence, it can “stand” up). A dinner like this is not the time to learn, so we picked up a small one from the grocery store and Laura prepared it for dinner last week. It turned out great, but we also learned a few things that will make it better for our Lee-Jackson Dinner.

Photo courtesy of A Southern Table (Facebook page)

Photo credit: A Southern Table

An occasion like this is one that calls for bringing out the silverware and fine china that usually stays closed up and unused. Make it a special occasion. It doesn’t have to be expensive – we found our set of china at the local Goodwill store several years ago.

You could do this as a family or you could invite as many guests as you can accommodate. You could invite your fellow Southerners who may already be familiar with Lee-Jackson Dinners, or you could invite your friends who are only vaguely aware of Lee and Jackson – and educate them in the process.

Why not turn this into a home school project? Assign your children to read and do reports on Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, have them research what a typical “fancy” meal would have been like in the 1860′s, have them learn what children of their ages might have worn then and dress in period clothes. There are all sorts of ways to approach this as a home school project.

What ideas do you have for a Lee-Jackson Dinner? With several weeks to go, there is still time left to plan a first-class Lee-Jackson Dinner, so mark your calendar and start planning!

If a Lee-Jackson dinner does not fit into your schedule, you can plan for a Confederate Independence Day dinner on February 22 – the date that President Jefferson Davis was inaugurated.

A Lee-Jackson Dinner by a Sons of Confederate Veterans. I am in the dark suit and red tie in front of the window. Photo © Shoin Fukui.

A Lee-Jackson Dinner by a Sons of Confederate Veterans. I am in the dark suit and red tie in front of the window. Photo © Shoin Fukui.


The following photos were provided by A Southern Table to demonstrate that you can set up for an elegant dinner worthy of honoring Lee and Jackson without spending a lot of money. All of the items shown were purchased at thrift stores such as Salvation Army and Habitat and Goodwill stores. While the colors are not appropriate for a Lee-Jackson dinner, the point here is to not let money stop you from celebrating your Southern heritage.

Photo credit – A Southern Table (Facebook page)

Seminole Pumpkin Follow-up

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This is a followup to a post from July 4, 2012. I’ll start with the relevant text from the original post:

Experimentation is the key to successful gardening. What grows in your area? What part of your area is best for a specific variety? Because variety-X will grow in your USDA Plant Hardiness zone, does that mean that it will grow in your county? in your own garden? in different places in your yard?

On June 28, I planted some Seminole Pumpkin seeds in soil blocks. One week later, they were well-sprouted and had roots extending from the blocks. They were ready to plant. That is about the fastest seed-to-transplant time I have seen.

My objective is to be able to grow Seminole Pumpkin in marginal areas where my primary crops won’t grow. Seminole Pumpkin is a spreading vine that takes up a lot of room. On the other hand, it has some characteristics that make it an ideal plant for gardening when it counts – when you depend on what you can grow to feed your family 1:

  • The fruit can be picked and stored without refrigeration for almost a full year.
  • It was a mainstay of the Florida Indians and early settlers.
  • It will spread over the ground, cover fences, and climb trees.
  • Needs to be fertilized only at planting and requires no protection from insects.
  • Is excellent baked, steamed, or made into a pie.
  • The young fruit is delicious boiled and mashed.
  • The male flowers can be dipped in batter and fried as fritters.
  • It produces continually and roots at the nodes.

For this test [2012], I planted groups of three plants in three different areas. They will be given a single dose of fertilizer and then water as needed. My goal is to find a place that I could plant Seminole Pumpkin and let it take over a large part of otherwise-unproductive land. Since this is an excellent subsistence crop that requires a large area, the ideal would be for it to grow over what is now bare areas and lawn grass.

This is quite late in the year to start Seminole Pumpkin, but it will suffice for this experiment. If this is successful, I will be planting them in the Spring.

Follow up:

The 2012 planting did not do well at all. While the Seminole Pumpkin can do without fertilizer once it is well established, it needs a rich place to get off to a good start. Simply planting them in sand with a little fertilizer added will result in plants that probably aren’t going to die right away, but they won’t grow either. In my next post, I’ll show how I planted the 2013 crop of Seminole Pumpkin. The difference was incredible.

For this post, we’ll look at the long term storage properties of the Seminole Pumpkin.

The pumpkins were picked when fully ripe. They were washed off, then placed on shelves in our garage. Basically, they were stored at the same temperature and humidity as the outside air. Out of all the pumpkins that I harvested in 2012 and 2013, probably less than a half-dozen went bad. I would have a shelf full of pumpkins that looked like they were picked yesterday, and one that shriveled into an unidentifiable rotting mass. What starts the process, I have no idea.

We have cooked several of them, and they were good – not something that gourmet chefs will be anxious to use, but they have a good taste (very similar to a regular pumpkin or winter squash), are nutritious and satisfying, and they are easy to prepare. Since this year’s experiment has to do with how well they store, we didn’t want to eat up the test subjects. We’ll experiment with preparing the harvest from the 2014 crop.

Harvested in July and August 2013. Photo taken December 27, 2013.

Harvested in July and August 2013. Photo taken December 27, 2013.

Harvested in July or August 2013. Photo taken December 27, 2013. What caused this one to rot while those next to it are just fine? I have no idea.

Harvested in July or August 2013. Photo taken December 27, 2013. What caused this one to rot while those next to it are just fine? I have no idea.


Conclusions:

  1. Seminole Pumpkins require good rich organic soil to start off with. Once established, they can do OK with not much else.
  2. Long term storage in typical Florida temperatures and humidity is excellent. Some will rot, so it it important that they be stored with adequate air space between them and on something absorbent, like newspaper, in case they start to rot and leak.
  3. They are an excellent crop to grow as an emergency food source should refrigeration and other means of preserving food become unavailable.

PDF Doc – “The Sturdy Seminole Pumpkin Provides Much Food with Little Effort”, by Julia F. Morton; Pages 137-142; Florida State Horticultural Society, 1975.

Notes:

  1. Florida State Horticultural Society, 1975, page137.

Food Storage Wisdom

IMG_6492_640x480A generation or two ago, families had the good sense to always maintain a good food storage program because they understood that bad things can happen to food supplies. At some point, America became complacent and assumed that there would never be a time when we couldn’t get in the car, drive to the grocery store or restaurant, and find exactly what we wanted in bountiful quantities at cheap prices. That is not a good assumption. Now things are starting to return to a more sane idea that every family should have their own secure food storage plan. Food storage is still viewed as a somewhat quirky, semi-paranoid idea, but anyone reading The Southern Agrarian understands that it is a very wise move.

These are some notes compiled by a relative who spent forty days living entirely off of stored food supplies. I have known him for my entire life. He is a physician, and looks at this from a very analytical and physiological standpoint. I found myself modifying our family’s own food storage program after following his experience during those forty days.

  • CANNED GOODS—Canned goods have a limited shelf life and should not be part of a survival food program unless they are rotated as part of one’s regular eating. Older foods may not make a person sick, but they taste funny and stress the digestion.
  • FREEZE-DRIED FOODS—Freeze-dried foods have a very long shelf life and are quite palatable and satisfying, both the vegetables and the meats.
  • OILS—Oils are not sold as part of a survival package. They must be acquired separately. They are needed for cooking, palatability, and calories. Vegetable oils probably have important essential fatty acid nutrients, too.
  • NUTS—Easy to store, and a satisfying supplement to many foods.
  • GRAINS—RICE, RICE, RICE. Easy to prepare, easy to store, goes well with other foods. More palatable than freeze-dried potatoes, easier to prepare than breads. (If I had it to do over, I would have bought more rice and less wheat. THIS WAS ONE OF THE BIG LESSONS OF MY EXPERIENCE.)
  • LEGUMES—Easy to store, easy to cook, satisfying. (Legumes, along with rice, became the staples to which I added other things.)
  • SEASONINGS—Seasonings are critical to making legumes palatable. They are sold as packets in grocery stores next to the legumes (dried beans).
  • DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS—Fish oil caps, and hard-coat (i.e. oxygenation-resistant) vitamin pills. Just in case something is missing from the other foods.
  • BULK SUPPLEMENTS—Fiber supplements and perhaps mag citrate. Under survival conditions they can make it so you have one less thing to worry about.
  • PRESERVATION—Many foods come in large containers and once opened, unused portions are susceptible to spoilage unless properly stored. I use mason jars and evacuate air with a vacuum pump. (Completely filling the mason jar is another way to minimize the amount of oxygen in the jar, too.) Weevils can destroy grain supplies if grains are exposed to oxygen.
  • MISC—Salt; sugar; anything you use for cooking. Tincture of iodine, to make drinking water safe. (Think of other supplies.)
  • PRACTICE—If you are not experienced, you will neglect supplies that are important and overstock supplies that are unimportant.
  • PRESERVATION II—Light, heat, moisture, oxygen. To maximize shelf-life, keep these to a minimum.

MISCELLANEOUS LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Old canned goods may taste alright, but leave me feeling slightly queasy for hours.
  • Freeze-dried meats and vegetables can be sprinkled onto moist foods and eaten with no additional preparation. This is convenient, and they are more palatable dry than reconstituted.
  • Ketchup, mayonnaise, and salad dressings are wonderful for dressing up foods. They have limited shelf life, probably about a year, but they are so good and so familiar it is worth keeping a fresh supply.
  • Some freeze-dried fruits are more suitable than others. Raisins are substantial and flavorful, whereas strawberries and blueberries are puffed-up and acidic. The raisins would be more of a staple, and the other berries serve as part of a treat recipe.
  • Powdered milk can be sprinkled onto foods (like oatmeal) and taste quite good (add peanut butter and raisins, please) and avoid the nuisance of reconstituting to an insipid, fat-free drink that must be protected from spoilage.
  • Beverages will be limited. Coffee, tea, grog, crystallized drinks can be properly stored indefinitely. Liquid concentrates do not have indefinite shelf lives. I favor the fortified orange drink from my supplier.
  • #10 cans are much more convenient than 5-gallon pails, unless one has carefully thought out his usage patterns.
  • Lots and lots of mason jars will be needed in order to have opened a variety of foods without losing the balance to spoilage.
  • The moist, hot, recently prepared rice and legume combo made me feel like I was eating fresh, rather than off-the-shelf survival foods.
  • Many “combo-recipe packs” (e.g. beef stroganoff, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.) are very salty and should probably be “cut” with a bowl of rice.
  • Pan breads (pancakes, waffles, cornbread) are more practical than firing up an oven to cook loaves or biscuits. Under survival conditions, baked bread will become a luxury item.

Eat What You Grow

This Black Beauty eggplant is a reliable producer here in The South.

This Black Beauty eggplant is a reliable producer here in The South.


Most of us tend to plan our gardens, at some point, by leafing through a seed catalog and picking what we like to eat. While “Grow what you like” is certainly a good way to start, a more realistic plan is to “Like what you grow”.

I have heard it said that there are places where one can grow just about anything. Unfortunately, I have never lived in such a place, so the best plan for me is to find what grows well here and focus on that. Once I find what grows well here, the focus then shifts to finding ways to prepare it so that we enjoy eating it.

I was never really fond of eggplant, but in the hottest part of the summer, eggplant is one of the very few things that thrives in the heat. I have never had any problems growing eggplant. It seems to repel bugs and I’ve never seen any disease. Aside from very mild heat wilt in the hottest part of the day, the heat doesn’t bother it. In addition, it produces a lot of fruit with just a few plants. Another plant with similar characteristics is okra. Since that is what grows well here, our focus then shifted to finding ways to make the best use of those crops.

Laura always seems to find a way to prepare a meal that I am sure to love. With eggplant, she slices it into thin slices, coats it with flour, then dips it in egg, then in seasoned bread crumbs. She then fries it in a cast iron skillet (cast iron is a requirement for any Southern kitchen worthy of the name) until the outside is nice and crispy. Add a bit of coarse-ground sea salt and serve. It is delicious.

Okra is even simpler – she cuts it into sections, fries it in oil, then salt and serve. Fried and breaded okra is, of course, one of the classics, but this is such a simple and delicious way to prepare it that it has become our standard. For a bit of variety, try okra gumbo – the acid in the tomato cuts the “slime” that makes many folks turn away from okra.

The key here is to shift the focus from trying to grow “favorites” that don’t do well where you are, to finding ways to really enjoy what does grow well at your location. Our next experiment will be Seminole Pumpkin – a staple of the early Seminole Indians here in Florida.

The Six Item Grocery List

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This past Saturday, our family had our 58th annual family reunion. The last remaining member of “The First Generation” (my father’s siblings) is my Aunt Evelyn. One thing she mentioned really caught my attention. She said that there were only six things that her mother bought from the grocery store:

  • Sugar
  • Flour
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Coffee
  • Rice

Everything else needed to sustain their family of mother, father, and ten children came from their farm in Newberry, Florida.

How Long Will Canned Foods Last?

How long will canned foods last? A very long time, according to this article that was printed in FDA Consumer magazine. The original article is no longer available as a current web page, but the archive of the entire article can be found here.


The Canning Process:Old Preservation Technique Goes Modern

by Dale Blumenthal

The steamboat Bertrand was heavily laden with provisions when it set out on the Missouri River in 1865, destined for the gold mining camps in Fort Benton, Mont. The boat snagged and swamped under the weight, sinking to the bottom of the river. It was found a century later, under 30 feet of silt a little north of Omaha, Neb.

Among the canned food items retrieved from the Bertrand in 1968 were brandied peaches, oysters, plum tomatoes, honey, and mixed vegetables. In 1974, chemists at the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) analyzed the products for bacterial contamination and nutrient value. Although the food had lost its fresh smell and appearance, the NFPA chemists detected no microbial growth and determined that the foods were as safe to eat as they had been when canned more than 100 years earlier.

The nutrient values varied depending upon the product and nutrient. NFPA chemists Janet Dudek and Edgar Elkins report that significant amounts of vitamins C and A were lost. But protein levels remained high, and all calcium values “were comparable to today’s products.”

NFPA chemists also analyzed a 40-year-old can of corn found in the basement of a home in California. Again, the canning process had kept the corn safe from contaminants and from much nutrient loss. In addition, Dudek says, the kernels looked and smelled like recently canned corn.

The canning process is a product of the Napoleonic wars. Malnutrition was rampant among the 18th century French armed forces. As Napoleon prepared for his Russian campaign, he searched for a new and better means of preserving food for his troops and offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could find one. Nicolas Appert, a Parisian candy maker, was awarded the prize in 1809.

Although the causes of food spoilage were unknown at the time, Appert was an astute experimenter and observer. For instance, after noting that storing wine in airtight bottles kept it from spoiling, he filled widemouth glass bottles with food, carefully corked them, and heated them in boiling water.

The durable tin can–and the use of pottery and other metals–followed shortly afterwards, a notion of Englishman Peter Durand. Soon, these “tinned” foods were used to feed the British army and navy.

21 Billion Cans a Year

Canned foods are more than a relic dug from the past. They make up 12 percent of grocery sales in the United States. More than 1,500 food products are canned–including many that aren’t available fresh in most areas, such as elderberry, guava, mango, and about 75 different juice drinks. Consumers can buy at least 130 different canned vegetable products–from artichokes and asparagus to turnips and zucchini. More than a dozen kinds of beef are canned, including beef burgers and chopped, corned and barbecued beef.

According to a recent study cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NFPA, canned foods provide the same nutritional value as fresh grocery produce and their frozen counterparts when prepared for the table. NFPA researchers compared six vegetables in three forms: home-cooked fresh, warmed canned, and prepared frozen.

“Levels of 13 minerals, eight vitamins, and fiber in the foods were similar,” says Dudek. In fact, in some cases the canned product contained high levels of some vitamins that in fresh produce are destroyed by light or exposure to air.

The Canning Process

Food-spoiling bacteria, yeasts and molds are naturally present in foods. To grow, these microorganisms need moisture, a low-acid environment (acid prevents bacterial growth), nutrients, and an appropriate (usually room) temperature.

Dennis Dignan, Ph.D., chief of FDA’s food processing section, explains that foods are preserved from food spoilage by controlling one or more of the above factors. For instance, frozen foods are stored at temperatures too low for microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts and molds) to grow. When foods are dried, sufficient moisture is not available to promote growth.

It is the preservation process that distinguishes canned from other packaged foods. During canning, the food is placed in an airtight (hermetically sealed) container and heated to destroy microorganisms. The hermetic seal is essential to ensure that microorganisms do not contaminate the product after it is sterilized through heating, says Dignan. Properly canned foods can be stored unrefrigerated indefinitely without fear of their spoiling or becoming toxic.

Cooking With The Sun

In the previous post, I ordered a Global Sun Oven with Dehydrating and Preparedness Package. Today, we cooked our first full meal with it. We had previously cooked some beans that we had just picked from the garden, and they turned out very well. Once Laura was confident that it would work, she prepared a full dinner using the Sun Oven. Tonight’s supper was meat loaf and a rice dish – cooked by the sun.

The rice dish was cooked in the pot that was part of the package, and the meat loaf was cooked in a loaf pan that we already had but was identical to those provided as part of the package. Both worked just fine. We started cooking at 3:30 and took them out of the oven at 5:00. With this being our first real meal with the Sun Oven, I can’t say that the results were better or worse than using a conventional oven. What I can say is that it works. Plain and simple – it works.

One thing we noticed is that the food is not as hot as food just removed from a conventional oven. That’s pretty obvious, but the thought hadn’t crossed my mind until we sat down to eat. The lesson in that is that you need to be ready to eat as soon as you remove the food from the oven. If you normally wait for the food to cool down a bit, you’ll want to plan things a bit differently.

Meat loaf and rice dishes cooking in the Sun Oven. The lid is turned upside down so that the loaf pan will set level on top of it.

Removing the fully cooked food from the Sun Oven

Supper cooked by the Sun

One more little detail to mention. The instructions tell you to cook a pot of vinegar and then use it to wipe down the inside of the Sun Oven before using it. What I didn’t know is that vinegar is quite an effective herbicide. The patch of dead grass at the top of the first photo is what happens when you clean it over grass and then just dump it out. When you dump your used vinegar from cleaning, dump it on some weeds – not on your grass.

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