Preserving the Harvest (so far)

We’re a bit less than a quarter through our growing season in southeastern Wisconsin. Our freezer is 90% full already, much of that from our pig purchase back in March, but there’s also some produce in it as well. The dehydrator is current humming, and I’m already pining for a second one to reduce the processing bottleneck. A pressure canner would be nice too. But what have I accomplished with the tools at hand?

Fruit

Fresh fruit is the best – when it’s fresh – but we all know there’s huge stretches of time when the only “fresh” fruit is supermarket fare trucked in from many, many miles away. Cashflow and the desire to spend on our future selves via debt and investing rather than food is going to prevent a 100% local food year, but 2015 has drastically reduced our ‘food miles’ already compared to last year.

  • Strawberries: If I had enough dehydrator space, I would have dried 100% of it. Alpha, Beta, and the Alchemist all took turns helping me lay out slices on trays. It takes roughly 2 man hours to fill an Excalibur up with ~10 pounds fresh berries and then another 12 hours or so to dry them. The nice thing about dried strawberries is that you can’t overdry them. And they’re incredibly delicious. I canned some jam but, to be honest, I hate canning and fruit stays most nutritious when frozen or dried – in which case, you can make small bath preserves at your leisure throughout the year. Next year I will aim to dry 100% and then make batches of my “strawberry sauce” as needed. Barthel’s Fruit Farm is my preferred local supplier.
  • Blueberries: The closest they’re grown is Michigan. Next year I’ll try to track down a good way to buy them in bulk. We tended to visit my grandparents in MI during the season and would regularly buy 10lb crates for a fraction of the supermarket rates. I did nab a good sale ($1/pint) a couple weeks ago and tried them in the dehydrator. I won’t do that again. They take a long time, even after you ‘check’ the skins by blanching them and they dry to a crisp, crunchy form that’s not even that yummy. Freezing, small batch canning, and fresh eating will be my plan for any future bulk purchase or supermarket sale.
  • Cherries: Tart cherries are incredible. Cherry season here is very short. The orchard we went to (Steffen’s) had a bumper crop this year and hoped to last a week before being picked clean. This year was our first year going there, and we were very impressed. We picked 2 gallon pails and had pre-ordered 7 more pails. Both the Montmorency (light) and Baloton (dark) cherries were delicious and surprisingly sweet compared to tart cherries I’ve had from other vendors. The fruit price, whether u-pick or pre-pick, was incredibly reasonable (~$1.35lb). The real kicker was the nominal fee to have them all run through an automatic picker. No way in hell am I going to pit 70 pounds of cherries! Because we’ll be leaving on vacation soon, I have elected to freeze some for jam and butter use later and drying what I can. Drying cherries for eating without reconstitution is a bit annoying. If you overdry them, they get brittle and hard, so you have to check the trays every few hours after the first ~12 hours to pick through them to remove the ones already at raisin consistency.
  • Rhubarb: I haven’t had enough harvest at once to justify running the dehydrator, so I’ve just been freezing for later use in baked goods and as small batch sauces/jams.
  • Still to come: I may not be able to get to this orchard in 2015, but there’s another semi-local place that carries more unusual things like gooseberries and currants. I’d like to try some. And of course there’s the big apple season. There are lots of apple orchards here, but Barthel’s is our favorite. Depending on the processing bottleneck, I will probably dry 100% of the preserved harvest. We don’t have a root cellar (it’s a big want of mine, not sure if we will ever do it in this house) to store them fresh, and applesauce is very easy to make from dried apples. (In fact, 19th century books like the Laura Ingalls books almost always refer to it as “dried applesauce”.)

Vegetables

  • Snap Peas: I froze nearly all of it. Dehydrating them whole takes a very long time and I’m not convinced they’ll be tasty when reconstituted.
  • Green Beans: I’m hoping dehydrated green beans are tasty when cooked, because I’m doing that for 100% of the harvest. Except for the thickest ones, they dry quickly.
  • Kale: I’ve had a few excess harvests where I tried the leaves and crumbled into powder for winter smoothies. In that use it’s okay. Some folks use kale powder as a parsley substitute in garnishes.
  • Zucchini: Dried “chips” of these are incredible. Zero seasoning required and absolutely delicious. If all I made in the dehydrator were strawberries and zucchini chips, it would still be worth the $200 price tag.
  • Still to come: Winter squash of the varieties we grow can store  up to a month in our basement after field curing before starting to lose quality. Helpfully, that 1 month window ends after apple season, so that’s when I’ll start prepping them. I’ll experiment with leathers, but I’m expecting to dry most of them in raw slices for later reconsitution in soups and puree form. And of course tomatoes. Barring disease (touch wood!) we should have an excellent crop from the garden whenever it gets hot enough to ripen. I’ll dry what I am able to (cherries for eating, paste and slicing for reconstitution or pesto duty), but the spoilage window on ‘maters is very short, so whatever can’t fit in the dryer will get canned as basic crushed tomatoes.

Huh, now that I’ve written all of that out, I can’t believe I’ve done so much already and the growing season is only a quarter through! Besides learning the best approaches for each food, I’m learning what I want to make the process even better in the future. I think a second dehydrator is a lock, though I’ll use my personal $ to buy it, since this local food quest is really mine and I don’t mind funding it with my allowance. I’m looking at the meat stocks taking up space in my freezer and wishing I had a pressure canner, but I also don’t make many soups even in winter. I’m far more likely to get a second freezer, possibly also via personal $. When I researched sizes, 7 cuft was the best for $/cuft, and I figured we’d ultimately need a second one anyways (especially if we want to buy more variety of meat instead of just pork), so this is not surprising. The advantage of two medium sized freezers instead of one large 20+ cuft model is that we can eat them down enough to merge the two together, then defrost and turn off the empty one as our stores dwindle in late winter/early spring.

Another thing I’ve pretty much decided is that we will not do a CSA again, unless the later boxes revise our opinion. While it represents wasted money, I’m glad I at least tried it once. But there are three huge flaws with our CSA (Tipi Produce), which on research was the most price competitive option locally:

  1. Getting overwhelmed with produce that either can’t be preserved or not easily preserved. I’ve hit salad fatigue dammit! We couldn’t keep up with the greens from the CSA and gave away 25% of it, plus nearly 100% of the mesclun I grew.
  2. Receiving things I’m just not that wild about. I like experimenting, and have discovered we do like a few new things (sweet salad turnips, yum!), but I’m receiving more ‘meh’ veggies than I anticipated when I was researching their past boxes.
  3. Plain-ol’ lack of value. To my mind, a CSA share should fall in between the price of the farmer’s market and the supermarket. In my tracking spreadsheet to date, that just has not been the case. We’re actually paying a premium over the farmer’s market for produce that’s ranged from good to mediocre, and has been sloppily washed compared to the FM. It’s not particularly more convenient, either, to pick up a box rather than brave the crowds at the FM. Where we live, there are bikeable markets (two very close, one that’s further away but well worth the longer ride for larger selection and better prices) 4 days a week, so there’s lots of flexibility if I needed more veggies than what the garden was providing at a given time.

I don’t want to rag on the hard-working folks on the farm too much, but that’s just how I see it personally.


Goblin Hoard Report Card – June 2015

 

June brought the medical bills from Beta’s accident. We’re still waiting on the final insurance reimbursement verdict for the last one, but it looks like we’ll end up paying ~$1700 or so out of pocket. The largest chunk of that was put on a payment plan for cashflow reasons, but the smaller two chunks will be PIF.

Other than that, June has been a good month around here. I got a little freaked out with a cash pinch, perhaps too much, and ended up not stocking up on as many strawberries as planned. But picking and preserving 45 pounds was still a lot of work. The Alchemist, Alpha, and Beta all served as helpers for various parts of that time. We also picked 14 pounds of snap peas from the same farm, have gotten nearly 5 pounds already from our own patch, and 4 so far from our CSA boxes. Green beans have come in hard and fast as well. Fresh green beans are nearly as good a treat as fresh berries or fresh snap peas. We’re also already picking zucchini. This is high holy days for gardening, a time for me only equalled by the arrival of apples.

July is going to be fun. We’re spending a good portion of it with the Alchemist’s family in Baltimore, and also taking a short beach vacation to their traditional spot in North Wildwood, NJ. The goblins love beach vacations, and Wildwood’s mixture of kitschy carnival boardwalk and a decent beach is right up their alley. This time we’re bringing the adult bikes along, so hopefully the Alchemist and I will be up for some early morning bike tours up and down the beach. I remember thinking the bike path south of the main boardwalk looked quite inviting, but we haven’t been out there since I got into biking.

Our outflows were higher than income this month, but most of that came from already budgeted funds. In fact, I added over $300 to our cash buffer. With a raise and summer bonus season arriving in July, debt prepayment will probably resume at the end of the month, barring unforeseen events. My current plan is to get the buffer up to $3,000, which represents a single month’s expenses, then take additional cash 50/50 to buffer and debt prepayment until the buffer hits $9K, at which case 100% would go to debt until we pull the trigger on some projects, pull from the buffer, and need to replenish.

“Take Home” Income: $3,350 (HSA contributions factored into the HSA category below)

Total Outflows: $3,756

Total Non-Mortgage, Non-Debt “Burn Rate”: $1,957

Spending June 2015

Note: I’ve reorganized some of the categories, partly so this graphic has more clarity. If something is not clear enough for you financial voyeurs out there (I tease!), please comment.

Health and Wellness

  • Life Insurance: $79 <–USAA sometimes skips a month, then double bills me on 1st/30th of the following month.
  • Health – HSA: $177 outflow after contributions factored
  • Health – non-HSA: $194

Food Related

  • Groceries: $330 (Detailed spreadsheet viewable here)
  • Bulk Food: $125
  • Garden: $0
  • Note: our food costs are partially offset by what’s harvested from the garden and from the CSA share purchased earlier in the year. Details about what’s come from both are available to view in this spreadsheet, though I occasionally forget to record a CSA box or a day’s harvest.

General Spending

  • Discretionary: $146
  • Personal – Chief: net inflow $16 (Forward balance: -$37)
  • Personal – Alchemist: $159 (Forward balance: -$120)
  • Alchemist webhosting: $10
  • Cash buffer: $2,479

House

  • Mortgage PITI: $1,076
  • Chief cell phone: $0
  • Internet: $59
  • Gas/Electric: $135
  • Water: $0 (quarterly bill)
  • Netflix: $9.49 –> cancelling this next month, as the kids’ spend their screen time tokens almost exclusively on PC games now, and neither of us watch TV right now. It’s easy enough to renew it should we want it again.
  • House Savings: $31

Transportation

  • Insurance: $68
  • Fuel: $164 –>More driving than usual this month. Blame good weather, farms to visit, and the Alchemist having a sprained ankle that required chauffeur duty for part of a week.
  • Maint/Replacement: $111 –>Mostly annual vehicle registration

Kids

  • First Bank of Mom and Dad: $0
  • Note: I’m not going to bother reporting my individual kids’ spending, but I do track it in YNAB and it’s reflected in the graphic above.

Travel (moved to its own category)

  • Travel: $0

Student Loan Debt

  • Required Payments: $724
  • Extra Payments: $0

Goblin Hoard: Net Worth Q2 2015

The stock market must have gone backwards a bit this quarter. Nor have we done any debt prepayment lately. And we have new (medical) debt. So, not a stellar quarter from a net worth perspective.

Mr. Market will do what Mr. Market does, but we’ll be back on an offensive footing in Q3 unless more unfortunate life events happen. Hopefully I can report a lot more progress on September 30th :)

Assets

  • Home (Estimated Market Value): $80,000
  • 401(k): $55,044
  • tIRA: $17,109
  • Non-Earmarked Cash: $2,508
  • HSA: we do have some HSA savings, but at this point I’m counting it as “spent” money already. Once the balance gets sufficiently large (who knows when?) I’ll factor this in with NW.
  • Total: $154,661

Liabilities

  • Home Mortgage: 103,598 @6.5% –> PMI makes it effectively ~7.1%
  • Student Loan (Chief A): 1,481 @0.1%
  • Student Loan (Chief B): 5,317 @6.5%
  • Student Loan (Alchemist A): $1,991 @0.1%
  • Student Loan (Alchemist B): $24,273 @3.9%
  • (New) Medical Debt @0%: $788
  • Total: $137,448

Net Worth: $17,213

For an explanation of the FI possibility spaces, see this post.

Net Worth Q2 2015


Mid-June 2015 Mini Garden Update

We’ve been picking small amounts of snap peas for about a week now. I don’t think the current patch is big enough to ever overload us but I will gladly take that if it does. I will likely pick peas when we go strawberry picking (same farm) to get enough to freeze and/or dehydrate.

Spinach has all bolted now. My family’s spinach lasagna recipe is a great way to use up what we did get from the garden (not much) and the CSA. Lettuce is overwhelming us between CSA and the garden. Only so much salad you can make. Lettuce wraps/cups are enjoyable but again can only dent it so much. We’ll see if we do a CSA share again next year; if we do, I’ll plant much less lettuce, if at all. I’ve also picked some of our kale, and some of our kale/broccoli hybrid. The chard probably won’t be usable at all this year – looks awful between wind, insect, and animal damage.

That’s all we’ve been eating so far but I spied quite a few neat things in the garden today while weeding, and had to run in to grab the camera.


June Reader Meetup

It’s been a while since the last meetup, so the Alchemist and I would like to extend an invitation to those in the Milwaukee area interested in coming and having a chat about topics ranging from frugal living to early retirement to gardening.

When: Saturday June 27th at 5PM.

Where: 78th and Auer in Milwaukee, WI. Our house is right on the corner with the massive garden. Hard to miss!

I’ll have a meal ready at 5 or shortly thereafter. Come eat, and stay to chat. Past meetups have seen folks stay anywhere from an hour to four hours. If attending, drink or food to share is always appreciated.

Questions or to RSVP: please email me at davidhughes117 [at] gmail [dot] com.


I Believe

Erica from NWEdible wrote a fantastic post that I just read, had to stop eating breakfast, come here and share. Called “What I Believe” it’s well worth your time to go read. My favorite quote is this one:

I believe we are in control of far, far more than we typically act on, and far, far less than we typically worry about.

This is so true, and really speaks to the crux of my personal transformation since jumping on the early retirement/sustainability/lifestyle design train almost two years ago now. I’ve written in the past about the power of aligning circles of control/influence with circles of concern, but it’s something we need to be reminded of frequently. My latest thoughts about Antifragility are definitely all about putting myself in control of more than what I was acting on, and withdrawing my worry from things I couldn’t.

I want to do more than just post a link and a reaction to Erica’s post, however. Go read it if you haven’t already. Back? Now here’s my riff on it:

  • I believe there are some things we can never know, and we have to embrace the mystery.
  • I believe we can never, ever truly know someone, and that is the beauty of interacting with others. They are mysteries, other, and should always be able to surprise us.
  • I believe in raising the children we have, not the children we wish we had.
  • I believe too much comfort is a dangerous thing.
  • I believe living your life according to other people’s opinion of you is a subtly tyranny, but a tyranny nonetheless.
  • I believe in trying to be as healthy as you can, and no healthier.
  • I believe life without being creative in some form is a life I don’t want to live.
  • I believe in finding a piece of the earth that is yours, and leaving it better than you found it.
  • I believe in the power of designing (and redesigning, and redesigning…) one’s life, and designing (if possible) the way one’s life ends.
  • I also believe in embracing the beautiful chaos of life’s surprises absolutely destroying one’s lifestyle design.

Here’s a few I like and want to borrow from Meliad’s comment on Erica’s post:

  • I believe that being a chatelaine [Editor note: chatelaine is interchangeable with my concept of a steward] is, for real, a 20hrs/week job all by itself.
  • I believe that MANY people would be happier if they had the option of working half-time for above-minimum wage and dedicating the other 20 hours/work-week to creative/family/joy-inducing activities.
  • I believe in glass and metal and wood and wool and leather; I believe in things that are made to last (but that will, in general, also rot given enough time and neglect)
  • I believe in feeding people
  • I believe in DIY, even though I’m not that good at a lot of DIY
  • I believe in walking places
  • I believe a good book is a great escape and, frequently, a great teacher.

What are some of your beliefs?


June 2015 Garden Tour

I’m a bit past due for a garden update. We’ve gotten good rain up until the past week, which is the first I’ve had to irrigate except for seedling trays. Weeding has kept me somewhat busy, but the one-two punch of a collinear hoe to shave weed seedlings and a Dutch hand hoe for the more recalcitrant weeds like grass has proven very time efficient.

Harvest has been mostly limited to spinach and a few cuttings of mesclun mix. I think I took a few nips of the rhubarb as well. Just today, however, I spotted our first snap pea pods! Snap peas are one of my absolute favorite vegetables, especially hand-to-mouth raw from the garden. Hoping for a good crop this year, as I devoted quite a bit of space to them. Depending on how fast they size up, we should get some kohlrabi soon as well.

I’ve made a few apparent failures this year. Our peach sapling died back after (I think) getting too dry, but is now fighting back with new non-sucker growth. A few of my purchased rhubarb crowns have not thrived at all, I think because of poor siting on my part. Despite rhubarb’s reputation as an unkillable plant, it is somewhat fragile until getting established. One of the beds I picked for squash is getting more shade than I anticipated now that our massive maple tree has leafed out. I’ve got fingers crossed that the bed will be productive. If not, I’ll try something more shade tolerant next year.

As far as successes go, it’s too early to tell, but I think a few of the varieties I’ve picked seem very well suited to this climate. Judging by plant vigor, Cosmonaut Volkov and SunGold tomatoes both seem very happy here. Arcadia broccoli continues to impress from last year. I’ll obviously have more thoughts as the season progresses.

Many people ask about animal damage. The fence helps a lot. In the non-fenced areas, we had some minimal nibbling on the snap pea vines, quite a bit of nibbling on the strawberries I couldn’t fit within the fence. That’s about it. Despite their reputation, the rabbits have not nibbled on my unprotected salad greens or carrots. Yet.

More comments in the gallery below.


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