Last night after putting up these 12 pints of rhubarb-ginger-orange preserves (9 pounds rhubarb, 6 pounds sugar, zest and juice of 4 oranges, one thumb of ginger chopped very fine) I settled in on the couch and flipped open my laptop and found this slightly annoying article over on Salon: Can It. The tag line reads: “I leapt on the new pickling and preserving. Is it a money saver in a busted economy, or a luxury craft?” I was annoyed because the author makes the somewhat specious argument that because she made very expensive jam with fruit from the greenmarket, that canning doesn’t save money, and hence is a “luxury” hobby for hipsters, not a useful skill for thrifty householders. Clearly this is one of those pieces that claim to “debunk” the “myth” that growing your own or canning your own or making your own will “save you money.” Like anything else, it will only save you money if you’re paying attention, and if you’re trying to save some money.
This is a subject that’s been much on our minds around here this week. We had a long discussion yesterday while deciding whether and how to dog-proof the chicken yard. Would it be worth it? Chuck thinks we need at least 6 chickens to justify the work and materials that have gone into the chicken coop — I’m personally leaning more toward 4, but considering the mortality we’ve been experiencing, well, 6 probably makes more sense. My Milk Lady will sell me some hens, and I found some others on CraigsList, so I think we can be back in business pretty soon, but it was a real discussion. We haven’t bought any materials thus far — the coop is made from a packing crate, the fence is recycled from my friend Sabrina’s house remodel — but Chuck’s put two solid afternoons of work into it, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to keep the chickens alive. At what point does it make sense and at what point is it just a trendy hobby? We eat a lot of eggs, so six chickens would pay for themselves, but nonetheless, as Chuck keeps pointing out, the economies of scale are against us. There’s a reason most people would rather buy eggs in the store, instead of feed and put the hens in every night and clean out the volumes of chicken poop. I like that part. I like taking care of animals, just like I like watering the garden, but if economy is the sole justification then you can see how most farmers no longer keep chickens or gardens. As my grandmother told me when I was ten, “it’s cheaper to go to the store.”
While start-up costs can be daunting if one decides you have to go in whole hog, they don’t have to be. I grew tomatoes for years in crappy rental apartments — in Salt Lake City during grad school I used old recycling buckets to grow cherry tomatoes in the alley, and in California I just dug holes in the tiny yard. But once I bought my house, I wanted raised beds, and so the first year or two, there were some start-up costs. The thing is though, I was in it for the long haul, and this year I can see that starting to pay off. I didn’t have to order much in the way of seeds. I saved some seed last year. I have the starting mix and heat mats. I know how my beds work and there was enough compost in my own pile to top dress them. After five years, I know how to farm my yard. I assume that it will be similar with the chickens. We’ll probably always have some losses, but as we get the system down, and I get better at chicken farming, I expect we’ll see some savings (especially since we’re going through almost 2 dozen eggs a week right now, and since I buy them from my Milk Lady, they’re about five bucks a dozen. Here’s the essay I wrote for Culinate about why I think the expense is worth it.)
Part of the reason I found the Salon article so annoying was that I’d put up all that rhubarb because Chuck showed up at my house with a big box saying “this was growing at my house — can you do something with it?” (We won’t mention that I’d been ignoring my own rhubarb patch.) Rhubarb is not my favorite thing, but there it was, and I have my fabulous French Jam Pot that hadn’t been broken out yet, and the remains of a 25 pound bag of sugar I bought on sale last summer. I have canning jars by the dozen, and there were some oranges drying up in the fruit basket, as well as a big thumb of ginger in the fridge. I had everything I needed to “do something” with the rhubarb, and so I did. It wasn’t that big a deal — chop it up, put it in the huge pot, put the jars on to sterilize, cook until done then hot pack in the jars. In the meantime we looked at the chicken house problem, cooked some dinner, read the paper and ranted about what a terrible job our Senator Max Baucus is doing on health care reform, and then I put up preserves. Like any cooking that you do for thrift, it requires that you use what you have, not go out and buy a bunch of stuff. My dozen pints cost me a couple of hours work, but they’ll be good in my beloved French Yogurt Cake, or on ice cream, or as gifts in Christmas boxes.
I guess that’s what I found so annoying about the Salon article — it seemed like a straw man argument. No, canning won’t save you money in and of itself if you’re not paying attention to your inputs. Yes, learning these old skills, gardening, canning, perhaps even raising chickens, can save one some money if you’re in it for the long haul, and if you pay attention. For me, the pleasure in learning these things also stems from my desire to know how to do things for myself. I’m no Peak Oiler, but I do think that we’d all do well to dial back the consumption a little bit, and to make sure we know how to feed and clothe ourselves, and who knows? there might come a time when having some basic food preservation skills could come in handy. I also like knowing where my food comes from — in this case, the back yard. I know what went on it, or into it in the case of the chickens. I know who touched it. I know how it was processed. Is it a fad? Perhaps in some places, but the nice thing about living in a small town in a rural area, is that all this stuff is pretty normal. People never really stopped canning here, and while chickens in town haven’t been common in recent years, all it takes is a little dog walking up and down the alleys to notice how many chicken coops there are around here. It’s not the skills themselves that will save you money, it’s what you do with them — I guess that was the gap in logic that bugged me as I sat on my couch last night after putting up rhubarb preserves. If you can expensive stuff, you won’t save money. If you can what you have, you might. Common sense, really.