In order to make our food systems more local and more resilient, we can take one of two different approaches. We can work with governments and committees, attacking the restrictions on local food production and providing broad incentives. Along these lines, we can support City Council candidates who want to diminish obstacles to raising chickens or selling produce grown in the city or who would allow higher dimensions on hoop houses (temporary greenhouses). We might serve on the Food Council, part of the city’s Homegrown Minneapolis initiative. Or it might mean working with the Food Resource Hubs of Gardening Matters, attempting to establish an infrastructure for providing low-cost seeds and starter plants to our local neighborhoods. These are the sorts of efforts I outlined in last month’s column.
A different approach might be called “Just Do It.” Although it is never as simple as just planting and harvesting. It might involve learning how to grow food, networking with fellow gardeners or foragers, practicing the art of gleaning food that might otherwise just be wasted. I have been doing a lot of that myself by attending horticulture classes at the U, seeking out permaculture mentors, attending organic farming or foraging conferences and watching YouTube videos until late at night, trying to supplement my growing library of plant books.
Lately, I have been feeling a bit tired, overwhelmed. The late winter was a tsunami of collecting about 430 gallons of maple sap and turning that watery liquid into about 11.5 gallons of maple syrup, a process that involved several cords of firewood and dozens of hours in front of sweet, boiling liquid. Spring came late, so the planting season was also hurried, as I struggled to get things into the ground. As the weather warmed up, I jumped into foraging greens and berries to such an extent that my community garden plot became overgrown with weeds and I actually got a warning letter from the garden management. Sigh. As I write this, the first hard frost of the season was only a few hours ago, and life has been a crushing list of harvest and processing tasks, especially the thousands and thousands of apples I have gleaned from neighborhood apple trees and have been struggling to turn into cider. It is a bit too much, at this point.
Thinking about tools has pointed me to a solution, I believe. In my basement, I have a nice hand-crank machine called the Davebilt Nutcracker, which is absolutely perfect for splitting acorns neatly in half, so the nutmeat can be turned into acorn flour. I have a sort of lawn-sweeper called a Nut Wizard, which picks up acorns quickly and painlessly. Except that I have so many apples to process that I just haven’t had time to collect acorns, so that investment is worthless this year. I have a very nice Weston apple shredder and cider press that have been sitting idle for days at a time, even as I process apples late into the night. I have been so busy with some of my projects that I have not had time to collect hazelnuts for nut butter or staghorn sumac for “lemonade” or dandelion roots for coffee. My sunchokes on the side yard may go unharvested for the second year in a row, simply for lack of time. I invite my friends over for maple sap boiling or apple cider pressing, but clearly I still have not found the trick to sharing the resources effectively.
What’s needed is for my little backyard projects to evolve into a cottage industry. Two examples occur to me. One involves deer hunters. Imagine how foolish it would be for a hunter to bring back a deer, yet let it spoil in the garage because there was no time to process it. Hunters know, of course, that such a waste is not necessary, since quite a number of butchers will take care of that problem for a reasonable fee, so that even the busiest hunter does not need to waste that meat. On the more vegetarian side of the food system, I have developed a tremendous respect for the folks at Beez Kneez, who use a simple bicycle-based technology for extracting honey from many local producers and getting this honey to market. Such a business is a vital link in connecting the backyard beekeeper to the possibility of a minimally-processed food to the market.
That’s what we need: a link between the completely local producers and the market that will eventually consume a product. In agricultural circles, this is called making a “value-added”product. It is the difference between honey in the hive and honey in a jar in the farmers’ market, the difference between hazelnut bushes and Nutella, the difference between acorns and a tasty non-gluten flour made from them. I can do this stuff for myself, of course. It is an interesting and hopeful hobby, and a hobby that saves me hundreds of dollars on my family food bill. It might even be a crucial skill set, if our food system devolves into chaos. But it is not enough for a city. We need a storefront for processing, or at least a few church kitchens with a staff person to show how to use the tools. Between my overwhelmed harvest and my neglected tools, it is the link we all need to grow our local food system. We need to grow some cottage industries for our local foods.