Thoughts on homesteading: cost-effectiveness

We’re in the midst of canning season right now. During our first two years on the homestead we did some amount of canning, trying to keep in mind that the transition from store-bought to home-grown involved much more than just putting the food we like into jars for later eating. Some things are much easier to can than others, and our diet needed to shift so as to emphasize those foods. Some of those foods were things we weren’t yet growing, so putting them up required that we buy the produce. And canning is hot, tedious work that can easily become discouraging if you don’t have a clear understanding of its value for the family economy. So we took it slow, putting up things we thought we’d enjoy the most, and learning to appreciate the fruits of those efforts over the winter.

This year Debbie decided that we were ready to can as if we meant it, so beginning with two posts that Granny Miller made describing her 2007 and 2008 plans for stocking her pantry, she began to develop her own goals for the year’s canning, taking into account our larger family, depending heavily on the two-week menu plans we write out and then save after using. The first result of that was a list of the number and types of canning jars we would need to buy in order to hold it all; several hundred, which required multiple trips to the Wal-Mart to obtain (and, for what it’s worth, the Wal-Mart canning aisle is much, much bigger and better stocked these days than in years past).

Here’s roughly what has been put up for the year, as it happened:

  • We don’t have any cherry trees, but our neighbors do. In June one gave us enough to make two cherry pies with, which we ate right away. Another invited the kids to come and pick as many cherries as they wanted once he had enough for himself; they spend a couple of mornings and brought home enough for eight pie fillings (which we froze), 2 pints of cherry amaretto jam, and a pie that we sent back to him as a thank you.

  • When it came time to snap scapes off the garlic in late June, we saved some to make five pints of pesto, which we froze.

  • A pint jar of dried oregano.

  • We bought a fancy fermenting crock, designed so that no scum forms during the process, and used it to make six quarts of sauerkraut, which we refrigerated. Boy, is it good. One quart went into the freezer as an experiment.

  • Two gallon bags of broccoli from the garden, in the freezer.

  • 1 quart dried yellow squash chips, 2 quarts canned.

  • 2 pints tomatillo-serrano salsa.

  • 12 quarts pickles.

  • 5 quarts kale.

  • 17 pints of basil pesto, frozen.

  • We have a field full of wild blackberry bushes. The kids don’t look forward to picking them because of the chiggers, but they picked enough for us to make 51 half-pints of preserves. We use Dutch Gel lite to make them, using a bare amount of sugar. The result is a wonderfully fresh taste, and we spread it thick on bread and biscuits with no regrets.

  • Two pints of herbal vinegars, using tarragon and marjoram from the garden.

  • We don’t have bearing peach trees yet, but in season out-of-state peaches are plentiful and cheap. Ours usually come from South Carolina, and this year they were excellent. We bought two bushels, about $50 worth, and canned 50 quarts of peach halves.

  • Our green bean of choice right now is Fortex, stringless but with a very green-beany flavor. We also grew some half-runners, the bean of choice in Kentucky but with a string, thinking that we might sell some (we didn’t). We had a lot of green beans left from last year, so we didn’t put up too many, 10 quarts canned and 10 pounds frozen. As far as Peter is concerned they make great finger food for babies, so a lot of them get served to him cold, straight from the jar.

  • Our pastor Roger Murrell introduced us to purple-hulled peas, which taste to us just like black-eyed peas (which we love) but don’t attract wasps in the garden like black-eyed peas. It takes time to shell a decent amount of them, but we managed to get three quart bags in the freezer, plus a bunch that we dried on the vine that will either be seed or more food for us. Next year we want to plant maybe five times as many.

  • A neighbor had a bountiful plum harvest, and brought us enough to make six pints of jam.

  • When we harvested potatoes, we canned eight quarts of the smallest ones. The rest are in the basement, maybe 300lbs or so.

  • Chicken broth, 21 pints.

  • When the onions came in, we chopped and froze 15 quart bags.

  • Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. One hundred eighty quarts in various forms.

  • Okra, one quart of dried slices.

  • One gallon bag of tomatillos, frozen.

  • Fourteen quart bags of bell peppers, frozen.

  • As far as meat goes, in the freezer we have 1.5 pigs (about 225lbs), 1.5 cows (about 500lbs), and fifty chickens about 3.5lbs apiece.

And right now it’s apples. Lots of apples. We have planted apple trees along the driveway, but it will be years if ever before they bear. I had been stalling on buying apples, since we wanted large quantities but I wasn’t excited about paying for them. And then one day Matthew decided to check on some old apple trees on the far side of the property, the remnants of a thirty-tree orchard that was mostly bulldozed by a previous owner. The remaining few trees were covered with apples. Not only that, they were delicious, crisp and sweet.

The kids spend most of the day picking the two trees that were easily accessible, and brought home twelve bushels. I haven’t checked local prices, but I figure that much would cost us between one and two hundred dollars. We’ve given some to friends, but most of it we plan to can. We’re getting about twenty quarts of applesauce to the bushel; the goal was one hundred quarts, but we may decide to do much more (especially remembering last year’s late freeze which destroyed all the local apples). Some of it we will experiment with, with our new steamer juicer or with making into cider.

It’s a joy to review all that, and to think of how bountifully God had provided for us this year, and how pleased and grateful we will be this winter as we diligently reduce our stores. But I also watched all the work that went into producing it, the long days of canning done mostly by Debbie and Maggie, and I ask myself the question that will occur to anyone looking at that list: was it worth it?

If by that question I mean, “Was it cost effective?”, then the answer is No. Just no. I can buy one hundred eighty quarts of canned tomatoes at Sam’s for about one hundred and eighty dollars, and it would have been much easier and quicker to earn one hundred and eighty dollars than to can those tomatoes. Same goes for everything else on the list. It is possible to fuzz that question up by scrambling to include intangibles like the healthiness of the food, or the joy of having done it yourself. But I am not a snob about industrial food—it feeds you at a price, and if you can’t justify paying a higher price or can’t afford to pay one, then by all means buy and eat it with a clean conscience. I would never ask anyone in my family to work as hard as they have been working merely to save the money we’ve been saving.

Which should tell you that it isn’t how we mean the question at all. True, for the longest time it was the only way I knew to understand the question, but I think now that not only was I wrong, it was such an understanding that kept me solidly trapped in a modern industrial mindset. Some of my fellow moderns dabbled in homegrown as a hobby or for health reasons, but not many; the rest of us had learned to think of time as money, and even the most gingerly experimenting would confirm that the money saved by homegrown a
nd homemade was far outweighed by the time, effort, and money that such a project cost.

And approached in a modern, industrial context I don’t think it can be otherwise. There is no denying that mass produced goods are cheaper, and in many tangible ways the quality is as good or even better. Which I think is why the conquest of agrarian America by modern industrial culture was so quick, decisive, and even effortless. When the tradeoff is portrayed as the choice between spending long hours doing the hot, tedious work of canning tomatoes, versus spending fewer hours doing the lighter work of manning a cash register or working behind a desk, the choice is a no-brainer.

But for this to be a true choice for the agrarian, there is a prerequisite: you must join the cash economy, so that your labor is transformed from an integral (and priceless) part of your life into just one more commodity that can be traded at market prices. The choice is actually an invitation to begin a journey away from the agrarian life.

It wasn’t so long ago that most of the world was not part of the cash economy. In his book Captains of Consciousness Stuart Ewen quotes a nineteenth century New England farmer who briefly describes how it was for about 90 percent of the American populace prior to 1830:

Ewen offers this great excerpt from the diary of a nineteenth century New England farmer:

My farm gave me and my whole family a good living on the produce of it and left me, one year with another, one hundred and fifty silver dollars, for I never spent more than ten dollars a year, which was for salt, nails, and the like. Nothing to eat, drink, or wear was bought, as my farm produced it all.

I’ve written before about the difference between a cash-centered family economy and one that is subsistence-centered, mostly quoting people that are wiser than me; you’ll find examples here and here. I don’t think that the two approaches to a family economy can be freely mixed, in the sense that we might favor a cash approach for some things and a subsistence approach for others, each family settling on the mixture of cash and subsistence that suits its personal preference best. Rather, the two approaches represent different mindsets, different ways of looking at the job of meeting our needs.

Worse, whether or not a cash outlook has its own integrity, it appears to have a highly corrosive effect on a subsistence outlook; that is, even when introduced in small quantities into a subsistent life, it seems to quickly exert irresitable pressure towards living a cash-based life, a downward slide well-described in the little book Henry and the Great Society. At the same time, even the smallest efforts to introduce subsistence into a cash-centered life are way more difficult to sustain than one might expect, and are usually crushed when confronted with that simple question: is this cost-effective?

Given the corrosive power of that simple question, I think the only way to move successfully towards a more subsistent lifestyle is to render it irrelevant. Some people may do it by elevating their preferences above the demands of cash, simply deciding that they just like to grow their own food or make their own clothes or supply their needs directly in other ways, and they don’t care how much it costs them to do it. For those who take this route I think it is a fine thing, since they will be blessed by their efforts in many ways that can’t possibly be quantified.

Our path is a different one, because our goal is to extract ourselves as thoroughly as we can from the cash economy, in an attempt to reclaim a pre-industrial way of life for ourselves. Glancing at where we are might not always reveal that, because we are also very cautious about how and when we take particular steps toward the goal. I’ve read plenty of stories about how folks much bolder than us would plunge enthusiastically into homesteading, accomplish things we still only dream of, live life as we think it should be lived, only to abandon the project five or ten years later.

We want our agrarian-ward steps, small as they are, to be permanent ones, and so we are careful not to take them until we can view them as not only a necessary change to our lives but a beneficial one. I used to joke with Debbie that the guy’s approach to simplifying life was to replace the automatic washing machine with a manual one. But I also insisted when we moved here that our washer and dryer be used just as they had before, until we decided we wanted to do things differently. At some point Debbie began hanging some of our clothes to dry on a line that the previous owners had strung on the porch, and then this May we bought a sturdy rotary clothesline where she now hangs most of our clothes when the weather is good. But we still run the dryer when the weather is extremely humid or threatening rain, and without guilt.

One thing that has helped keep us on this path, not surprisingly, is dwindling cash. As our efforts turn ever more towards supplying our needs from the farm, less of our time is spent doing things that earn cash, and so what we do get (and what we have in savings) is increasingly precious to us. So now I’m very aware of what it costs me to drive to the different places I need to go, and how much it costs to pick up fast food on the road rather than arrange to be home or pack a meal to go with me, or to buy a drink with a meal or a cup of coffee in the afternoon; I still do all those things on occasion, but not as casually as I once did. Likewise I am diligent about comparing prices at the grocery store, and think twice about buying a book rather than getting it through the library. In other words, as cash becomes more precious we look for ways not to spend it, which not only conserves the cash we do have but pushes us further down the road to a cash-free life.

So, to return to the initial question about our long, laborious effort to put up food for the year: is it worth it? From a modern viewpoint, no, it isn’t cost-effective no matter how you spin it. But for us, yes, because we’re convinced it is the way out of modernity.

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on homesteading: cost-effectiveness

  1. I’d love to hear how your frozen sauerkraut turns out — I’m starting to lacto-ferment some stuff but it all has to be refrigerated if you want to keep the enzymes alive, so I’m trying to figure out how I could store larger amounts of lacto-fermented food without having a very cool root cellar.

    Also, I’d love your recipe for blackberry preserves.

    What a gloriously bountiful year you’ve had!

  2. Kelly,

    Also, I’d love your recipe for blackberry preserves.

    It’s simple enough: 5 cups fruit, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water, 1/3 cup Dutch Gel Lite. The Dutch Gel folks recommend 1 to 3 cups sugar, we started with one and liked it fine.

  3. Thanks for putting down in detail your thoughts about the what and why of your family’s daily food production. Somehow the details make it come to life. It just so happens that yesterday I was writing down some of my own thoughts about my past three years of learning to cook seasonally, and I was doing it probably for much the same reason as you wrote this post–I was trying to figure out not just the details of what I’d learned, but what my motives were. After reading your post, I think that my motives are of necessity more those of the mere foodie than the true agrarian, but there are bits of all the motives you mentioned mixed in.

    There was a time (especially when my husband was in school ten years ago) when I would have listed frugality as a chief motive, but these days who would I be kidding? I spend a lot more on fresh homemade food than I ever did ten years ago on industrial food–partly because of inflation and prices in Manhattan, but also because of quality. I just hope that perhaps since we eat out less and buy less prepared food than we did about five years ago, it balances out the price of fresher ingredients. And hopefully it’s healthier as well.

    I agree with your thoughts about the corrosive power of a cash economy, even though our family is probably even more entrenched in it than we were during our frugal school days when we mostly ate cheap, industrial food. (Perhaps we are less so than five years ago, however.) Mine are only tiny steps out of the abyss of my own ignorance ;-), and I’m sure I’m not nearly as knowledgeable or capable as Debbie and Maggie, but I’ve learned a lot about the modern economy, about myself and my habits, and about plain good food, in the process. And that’s encouraging at the moment!

  4. Thanks.

    We’re canning pears this week — a friend of mine passes an abandoned house every day that has several pear trees out front that are just loaded with fruit. She’s been stopping by dropping off the pears she’s picked. We’ll can them and give her her some jars, too.

  5. Our screensaver is our 2 year old shelling out purple hull peas, her baby brother asleep beside her. Now five and three, these two will be shelling peas together tomorrow, after the morning picking. They will also be arranging apples on trays for drying, as older siblings core and slice. My wife often reads to our children as they prep food, before she blanches and cans. W. Berry notes the necessity of meaningful work for children, that they know their contribution to the household community.

    Our thanks at mealtime are offered to God and one another for the shared bounty. We could buy frozen peas and various apple products at Sam’s Club, but my children would not learn expressed gratitude toward Sam Walton. And my wife and I would be forsaking our own family traditions of shared food preservation, and our responsibility to prepare our children to bless their own home economies in these areas.

    The full accounting, more than above, includes enough debits accrued to the industrial food system that food preservation for our family is indeed cost effective.

    Suggested lit for family food preservation:
    Primers: ‘Blueberries for Sal’ and ‘Oxcart Man’
    Both the Little House and Ralph Moody series
    Omnivore’s Dilemma, where Pollan describes his mother’s beach plum jam, opened in winter, as ‘August on toast’.
    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where Kingsolver entices the modern mind to follow summer’s bounty, once preserved in one’s kitchen, into shared winter meals.
    Others?

  6. Rick –
    For me the costs of putting up my own food is reckon in terms of freedom, security, food safety, ethics, and federal reserve notes (aka CASH) :-)
    I relish the freedom of not being held captive and practically forced fed whatever big agri business puts in or on my food.

    Whether it’s e.coli, corn syrup, GMO soy products or dead flies in the Bird’s Eye chopped spinach, when I produce & process my own food I’m not held hostage to what’s on the store shelf or freezer case.
    If something nasty is in my frozen spinach or broccoli , it’s my fault and no one else’s.

    What’s more, shopping Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, Piggly Wiggly, Giant Eagle, Grand Union, Shop & Save or any other retail outlet is predicated on the notion of a safe and uninterrupted supply of food.
    But how about food that is imported from the 3rd world?
    Is it safe?
    Who are the suppliers for Sam’s Club anyway?

    And what happens if America’s food supply is interrupted by an economic collapse, crop failure, pandemic or act of terrorism?
    And how many families are financially prepared for long term unemployment or an extended illness?
    When food is in the cupboard, it’s one less thing to worry about.
    Storing at least 4 months of food (preferably more) is good old fashion common sense and insurance for unforeseen events.
    Even rodents & insects have the God given sense to store safe food for lean times.

    By producing & processing most of my own food, I’ve opted out and do not participate (for the most part) in so called Factory Farming or large corporate agriculture.
    Factory Farming is a corrupted and evil system that exploits human beings, animals and is destroying our land and water.

    Anyone who has ever seen the inside of a mega chicken factory farm or confinement hog operation has looked through a window into Hell.
    The daily suffering and misuse of animals for corporate and economic gain is literally sinful.
    Factory farms destroy and degrade more than just animal lives.
    They leave a permanent mark on the souls of humans who take part in it all.
    In terms of cash, well I actually save big $$$$ by canning & producing my own food.
    Here’s why:
    Where I live the best “job” I could hope to get would pay about $8 or $9 an hour.
    If I was lucky I could work a 38 – 40 hr week & gross $360.
    That would maybe net me $298.80.
    My “job” would probably entail serious transportation costs .
    Gas is $3.69 at present.
    My truck gets 22 miles to the gallon.
    I would have to travel between 16 – 45 miles round trip to said “job”.
    I would also incur the cost of pantyhose, shoes, hair do, dress clothes etc.
    Not to mention the cost of NOT BEING at home.
    I would have to buy fuel oil for my furnace to heat the house since I’m not home to load the wood stoves.
    My absence from home would make me too tired to cook on many nights when I got home, so I would buy & eat more “convenience food” or fast food.
    That would make me part of the factory farming system which I want no part off.
    Not to mention that kind of food brings it’s own problems with added costs in dollars and in health at the grocery store, drive thru window and in the doctor’s office.

    I don’t have hard numbers to back me up but I believe I save $1000’s by putting up my own food.
    My meat & poultry production costs at least 3X more than the comparable store product.
    But that said, my eggs are the same cost as the store eggs and sometimes much cheaper.
    My vegetables are a mere fraction of the cost.
    I planted 18 broccoli plants at a cost of less than $4 this spring.
    I ended up with 63 quarts of frozen broccoli in the freezer, plus we ate fresh broccoli for 3 months during the summer.

    At present 1 package of generic frozen broccoli is .89 cents and a good brand (Bird’s Eye) is $1.09.
    It takes 3 packages of frozen broccoli to equal 1 quart of home grown & frozen broccoli.
    So in my freezer at present I have the equivalent of 189 packages of frozen broccoli.
    If I had bought the broccoli at the store, it would have cost $168.21 for generic and $206.01 for the better brand.
    Not bad for a $4 investment and about 4 hours work.
    I would have had to work at my “job” for about 22 hours to have made the cash to buy the store bought broccoli.

    Just this weekend I priced apple butter & pumpkin butter to see what my efforts 2 Sunday’s ago would have cost if I bought the products retail.
    I had about 8 hours total time in both products.

    Apple butter retail at the farm stand is $5 a quart.
    I put up 18 quarts, so that’s $90.
    Pumpkin butter is $3.69 a pint at the farm stand
    I put up 6 1/2 pints, so that’s $27.23.
    My efforts 2 weeks ago would have cost $177.23 retail.
    The true costs are minus $3 in sugar and the maybe $4 in LP gas for energy.
    My efforts are 8 hours working for myself ($170) or 8 hours working for someone else ($72).
    So by working for myself and canning my own apple & pumpkin butter I came out ahead $100.
    We all have to work at something and producing my own food is work – lots of it.
    But I’d rather work for myself any day and enjoy the freedom,security, and I think EXTRA cash that comes from true home economics.

  7. Granny Miller,

    Almost thou persuadest me ….

    Seriously, I am in agreement with all your specific points (and very happy that you took the trouble to supply so many numbers to back them up), as well as your overall point that putting up one’s own food is more than cost effective, provided that you not only count all the costs (financial and otherwise) but weight them properly.

    Still, I think that proponents of self-sufficiency usually lose this argument with the modern industrial culture because that culture has taught us to either ignore or discount many important costs. If you’ve been taught, say, to value television or movies or pop music or professional sports or world affairs or the opinion of others more than you value growing, preparing, and eating healthy food, then you are grateful to the folks who free up your time by putting something resembling spaghetti sauce into affordable, easy-dispense containers.

    I think the key insight for us was that it is impossible to pay anyone enough to care enough to supply your needs properly. We first learned this when we put our oldest son in an expensive private school, only to have him do poorly. Rather than fuss about the job his teacher was doing, we thought about exactly how much it ought to cost us to have someone teach him with the proper amounts of attention, concern, and love. We concluded that no hireling we could afford (and, really, no hireling at any price) would do the job the way we wanted it done—but that we were perfectly capable of doing the job to our own satisfaction.

  8. Thanks for the very enjoyable (and long!) post. I like the mindset of trying to separate oneself from the ratrace. Those crunchy apples sound yummy!
    God Bless and cYa later…
    – Chip

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