Thursday, August 9, 2012

Step Away from the Panic Button

There's an article making its way around the Internet right now. The article is about the unsettled weather we've been having, specifically the worldwide drought conditions, which have resulted in crop failures all over the globe. The article warns of potential, future, food shortages, and, worstcase, of food wars.

The reality is that the type of scenario the article tells us could happen is not unlikely. In fact, when we, here in the US, were experiencing our housing bubble burst and the doubling of the cost of gasoline per gallon, and the subsequent economic collapse with the ever increasing unemployment rates, in other parts of the world, they were rioting, because the price of a loaf of bread increased by so much that many people couldn't afford bread - one of their dietary stables.

Around that same time, we had a price spike in the cost per pound of flour. I mentioned it here, on my blog, with a link to the type of flour I regularly purchased (King Arthur, at that time), and my blog was visited by a PR person from that company, who left a comment about how the price of wheat (because of a drought that affected the wheat crop that year) had tripled, and they hadn't had any choice, but to raise their prices. Flour went from about $0.69/lb to around $1.80/lb. It's since gone back down, and really, for me, it was not a big deal. It was just something I had observed and was commenting on.

But for a lot of people around the world, who depend on bread/flour as a dietary staple, it is and was a big deal.

That's what the article was saying. It's also what a lot of people around the blogosphere have been saying for the past five years. We've seen prices in all things inching upward. I hear, more and more, people complaining about the increased prices at the grocery store.

At the same time, I also hear about crazy low prices on some items. The retail price on lobster here in Maine is about $4/lb. Lobsterman, the guys who are out at oh-dark-thirty doing the back-breaking work of pulling traps, are making about $2.50/lb for their catch.

It's craziness.

Most people I know, who know lobsterman, are worried about how they can possibly be earning a living right now, because their fuel prices are what our fuel prices are, and they're barely (if at all) making enough to cover the cost of the fuel necessary to set their traps. Maine law requires that lobster traps be set from a "vehicle", and while that vehicle dosen't have to be motorized, I can't imagine a real lobsterman, with hundreds of traps, out there in a row boat.

And that's the way the market fluctuates. We have a surplus and low prices on lobster here in Maine, but come December, we may have not much of anything. We can't know, and because there is this huge unknown, the only way we can insulate ourselves against these market fluctuations, is to be ready, be vigilant all of the time.

I've heard a lot of people really panicking about the article, and so I thought the best thing to do is to talk about some alternatives to curling up in the fetal position and wishing it all away.

We're nearing the end of the growing season here in Maine (and, perhaps, the whole northern hemisphere - at least everyone north of the 40th parallel). Mind you, there are still a lot of harvests left - corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, melons, beans - but if one hasn't, yet, planted those long-growing crops (soybeans, for instance, need over 100 days from seed to harvest), there's just not enough time left - this year - to grow them, and I think that's what is making people freak out - the knowledge that this emergency is headed our way, and they didn't/couldn't get a heavily producing garden in the ground in April.

Still, I don't think it's time to panic.

In fact, I think it's never be time to panic, and even when one has not or has only minimally prepared for an emergency, keeping calm is the first requirement. In a true survival scenario, the minute one starts to lose control is the minute that person starts to die.

So, let's not freak out, but instead, let's think about the options.

First, there is time to plant some things with some assurances that there will be a harvest. Leaf lettuces (like the stuff in "spring mix" from the grocery store) and spinach can be grown in shallow containers. They are cold loving plants and will need some protection from the intense sun and will need to be kept very moist (not marshy wet, though). Kale is another one that can be planted and will actually do better as it gets colder. I was at a local farm stand in January a few years ago, and the proprietor had just harvested kale that morning. She had simply brushed the dusting of snow we'd had off the top of the plants and harvest them for the market.

Maine-resident and organic gardener, Eliot Coleman, has written a lovely book on ways to grow food year round in places like Maine. His book, Four-Season Harvest gives all sorts of information about season extension techniques, and even lists plants that can be grown in really cold places. Coleman has a second book on the same topic - The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses - but I don't have a copy of that one, yet.

The key, according to Coleman, is to keep the plants protected - not from the cold - but from the wind and snow (and just FYI, even though Coleman spends a great deal of the first book talking about his very clever greenhouse design, growing edible plants well into the dark time of the year doesn't require a walk-into greenhouse, like his).

The second step is to start thinking smart about storage food. The key here is not to try to store food for the rest of one's life, but rather to think seasonally, because, while we can't be sure of a lot in this life, we can be pretty sure that the Earth will continue to rotate on her axis and that we will continue to experience seasons that are relatively the same as we've come to know them, i.e. here in Maine July is the growing season. January is not.

So, if the garden was dismal this year or didn't happen, for whatever reason, there's still time to make sure there's food in the pantry. Concentrate on long-storage, calorie dense foods, like pumpkin (or other winter squashes), potatoes, apples, popcorn, and dried beans. With a few grocery staples, like flour, spices, and sugar, and eggs and milk, one can make a variety of wonderful foods. All of those long-storage crops are fairly versatile.

Potatoes, for instance, can be baked, boiled, or fried or combined with meat or other vegetables to make a pie, soup, or a stew (in fact, if one took advantage of the lobster prices here in Maine, and stored up potatoes, there could be some really fancy lobster bisque on the winter menu). With a little flour and an egg, potatoes can even be turned into a pasta (gnocchi).

What makes many of those long-storage foods even more amazing, though, is what happens when the world is starting to warm up, when the foods are starting to get a little mushy and not quite so edible anymore, when the potatoes look a bit like something from deep in the ocean with their long, tendril-like growths. Then, those foods can be taken out into the garden and planted, and the cycle renews itself.

Three years ago in the late fall, I bought hubbard squash from the farm stand - because it looked really cool, and I wanted to try it. We put it in our cold storage (i.e. in a box on the bedroom floor), and it stayed there until March, because I didn't really know what to do with it. By March, I figured we'd better eat it, before it went bad, and I found a really awesome recipe for baked hubbard squash.

We dumped the insides of the squash into the compost pile. The "insides" of the squash are seeds.

We ended up with several "volunteer" squash plants and harvested 180 lbs of squash in the fall ... all because I'd bought a squash that looked interesting.

Depending on the source, gnarly potatoes, dried beans and popcorn can all be planted in the spring to grow new plants, which goes a very long way to ensuring food security.

The next step would be to start thinking about future crops that can/should be planted now.

Sunchokes are a good choice. They overwinter in the ground and are considered a late fall/early spring food. In fact, once the stalks die back, they can be harvested as long as the ground isn't frozen. Ones planted right now, could be harvested *next* October (and then, again in the spring). They're incredibly prolific, native to New England (they were a staple in the Native American diet and brought back to Europe, where they were given the misnomer "Jerusalem artichoke").

Garlic is another choice for planting now or in the fall for a spring crop.

Berry brambles could be planted now and harvested next summer, too.

And then, there's the looking-beyond-what's-available-at-the-grocery-store.

But that's a whole other topic in, and of, itself.

The point is that panic is not the option. Stay calm and start planning.

And if you're local, and you know a lobsterman, buy his lobsters straight from him. Offer him $4/lb, which is way cheaper than the grocery store, and a lot more than he'll make selling it to retail outlets. It's a win/win.

Oh, and if you know a local lobsterman who'll sell me a dozen lobsters, let me know. I need them by Saturday :).


  1. I couldn't agree more! Fear seems to be a sort of contagious virus spreading around. My husband always says "Be alert, not alarmed". He doesn't mean don't be CONCERNED. He means 'don't panic'. Certainly, being alert lets you know it's a good idea to take certain precautions and it motivates us to tend our gardens and/or store and preserve foods for leaner times - saving money and having a healthier diet.

    I think that supporting our local lobsterman/fisherman/farmer/small-business-owner will help keep our communities stronger so we can work together to weather tough times.

  2. The world is going to end. Buy and AR15 and await the Zombie invasion. Prepare to kiss your asparagus goodbye! :)

  3. No asparagus. We substitute Japanese knotweed ;).

    I hope the zombies don't steal the knotweed!

  4. We built ourselves another cold frame this year. We will be using this to grow our winter garden. We are planting succession crops in our , luckily, prolific garden. But it is only prudent to think about what the future could bring. It is part of our own adaptation to the current, ever changing, conditions we find ourselves in. We are lucky to have the room to grow some dry corn, "painted mountain", to turn into corn meal or fodder if we need it. But we still plan to learn to make acorn flour this year.

    I've used the term famine food in the past for those foods that are prolific but unassuming. They provide an abundant amount of food for very little effort. Now is the time to resort to those to defray the cost at the grocer.

    I was just commenting to my husband last week that it is startling how little food a 100.00 will buy these days. I do all the things I can to save money on food but still find that I can not get out of the grocer for under a hundred dollars. And we grow a lot of our own food....

  5. Thank you for this post. I'm so tired of all of the fear mongering I hear nowadays. It doesn't help anyone.

  6. Yeah see, this is the problem. Society today isn't trained or exposed to basic things like how to grow food. One of the most primal things if you think about it. That's why it's so "scary" to that percentage of the population.
    Don't get me wrong, I'm nowhere near as self-sufficent as you guys, but I'm confident that I could be. That old corny saying: knowledge is power!

  7. Here in the UK, crops - whether grown by farmers - or us in our gardens - has been a disaster this year. For us it has been so WET (and we started the spring with a draught and were not allowed to use hose pipes etc)
    We have even had potato blight in our garden - very little produce indeed.
    Despite the fact that the UK should be capable of producing far more (in a normal year)than we do, we have begun to rely heavily on imports. I knew about the flour and the impact that would have, but heard on the news that tea prices will rise by about 41%. (we are a great nation of tea drinkers)
    I live in London, near 2 of the Olympic sites - which was a big success - but did not bring in the expected income whilst business' trade suffered due to travel restrictions.
    I think all of us worldwide are in for some very hard times indeed. ( I was born a few years after the end of the war and food rationing here didn't even end until 1954! So... back to how it was! - I am prepared , but not fearful)