On freedom from the grocery store

The new greenhouse at dawn:  it’s a fun in-between season in here.  New lettuces transplanted from outdoors in the foreground beds, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes in the back yet to be harvested, and hot peppers, beans and corn hung from the purlin to dry

Another October 1st is here:  2010 makes it six years since we purchased our house and started down the road of food self-sufficiency.  A seventh growing season, likewise, has come and (nearly) gone.

Would I say that complete freedom from the grocery store was my goal way back when we bought the farm?  I would say no, it was not:  I had the small goal of simply having a big garden and (eventually) eggs.  Let’s just say we’ve come a long way from my initial modest goals.*  But last Thursday morning, after dropping my daughter off at school, I could be found…trolling the aisles of a grocery store!   What’s up with that?

Listen, I am not what anyone would consider “an average American food consumer,” and never have been.  Sure, I love to cook, and I love to eat good food.  I have never, however, been a fan of what clogs the shelves of your average grocery store.  For most of my adult life, I was a car-less vegetarian city dweller who shopped at walkable specialty food stores, food co-ops, and, later, got my vegetables from a CSA.  I also loved to garden and spent part of each season canning big purchases from the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market.   I am not saying this to toot my own horn but instead to point out the obvious:  if anyone, I was probably more prone to the Grow Your Own (name your item of choice) than not.

But fast-forward to last Thursday morning.  Yes, we do use the grocery store on occasion, for cow milk, butter, and the occasional bag of sugar (and indeed, local sugar and canning lids were my reason for stopping).  If we don’t grow it, we buy it in bulk (coffee, tea, fish, beef/pork, flour, grain, oil, etc.)…and truth be told, it’s Tom who does the non-bulk shopping.  As I zipped through the huge long aisles, I thought about all the sections of that store that I have completely written off over these last six years, and it’s here that I think my experience will be relevant to you who endeavor to do the same.

Perhaps, next year, you can try to make one or two items home-produced ones too.  And after six years of adding one or two more home-produced items, you might have whole sections of the grocery store that are worthless to you too!

  • It’s fall, even though I am in denial:  fall is a perfect time to get new garden beds made. If you do it now, you will have all winter to read up on tomato varieties so you can make as much salsa, say, or ketchup/barbecue sauce, or just plain tomato paste, to last you a year.
  • It’s fall:  if you own land, why not plant a few fruit trees?  Some larger trees, though you’ll pay more for them, will reward you with a harvest in just a year or two.  Raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries likewise can be transplanted in the fall.
  • If you build a greenhouse, or even a low tunnel, you can easily be self-sufficient year-round in salad stuff.  Plant some herbs and a couple of rows of shallots and onion plants next spring, you can be self-sufficient in the basics for salad dressing.  (But as I have repeatedly said, greenhouses are wonderful for more than just salads.)
  • If you build a coop, you can easily have three hens to supply you with at least a dozen eggs a week.
  • If you buy a milk goat and make cheese, my goodness, you will make a lot of new friends.  Even if you only make yogurt and kefir, believe me, you will have more than you can consume…thus, more for those friends.  You’ll also be self-sufficient yourself in dairy, making everything from buttermilk to creme fraiche to chevre to cream- and cottage cheese:  in other words, even if you don’t like to drink straight goat milk you won’t need to.
  • If you make a very small initial investment, you can have a three-compartment hutch, a breeding doe and buck, and all the rabbit meat you can consume by this time next year…and you can feed them very inexpensively, or even free, with your garden scraps.
  • If you learn how to make decent bread, you will never be satisfied with store-bought again.
  • And if you buy a chest freezer, the world is your oyster.  You can stock it with fruits as you pick them for winter eating; you can find a local grass-fed meat farmer and buy yourself whole, halves or quarters of cow, pig, lamb or goat; you can likewise stock up on chicken by buying your yearly needs, cut them up yourself, and freeze portions and whole birds.  Freezers are also great places to stash bulk grains and flours.

Listen.  I know it’s hard to start from zero, and I also know that not everyone has the cash to just go out and make huge bulk purchases of things or buy chest freezers, fruit trees, chicken coops and the like…and land most of all!  But gardening is seriously one of the cheapest pleasures in life, one that yields the biggest returns, and fortunately you don’t always need to own land to garden it.  A shovel, a fork, a hand tool or two and a few packets of seeds…these can be had for under $100, and the library has scores of vegetable-growing-how-to books.  You don’t need a fancy compost bin; a pile on the ground will do…or put it in a pit if you’re worried about what it looks like.  And once you find a friend who gardens, you will be trading know-how and zucchini in no time.

You can do it, I know you can.  And:  I think you want to.

*Major steps by years:  2004, house and land, first fruit trees planted.  2005, garden, canning, first chest freezer.  2006, egg chickens, pressure canner, blog!.  2007, greenhouse, guineas.  2008, 2nd greenhouse, meat chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese.  2009, home-hatched turkeys and geese, milk goat, rabbits.  2010, home-hatched chickens, winemaking, outdoor kitchen (masonry oven/rocket stove) and mini-CSA. 2011:  who knows?

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21 responses to “On freedom from the grocery store

  1. I love what you’re doing. We’ve made some major steps as well. While we have the large garden, fruit trees(still too young to produce) and laying hens, I would love to have more. My wish list includes meat birds, turkeys, ducks, goats and rabbits. My reality will probably only include the meat birds and possibly turkeys. Every year I try to expand what we have and what we do. It’s a process and I’m getting there!

  2. Hooray! I have done a lot of the same things you have, in a three year time frame, minus the greenhouses. I will add that if you get animals, there is a pretty steep learning curve and you need to prepared for some of them to get sick or get killed by predators. Housing and feed for animals Ivan be expensive and they will tend to take up more and more of your life.

  3. You’re an inspiration. I love reading your blog but it makes me sigh too – there’s all this great stuff that you’re doing that I don’t have the time, resources, cash etc for right now or anytime soon. It helps to remember that its taken you 6 years to get where you are! Thanks for sharing what you do.

  4. Sometimes you try something new and think–that was fun, I never have to do that again. But with this…I remember distinctly looking at my first batch of jars out of the canner and thinking “I never have to buy jam again”. And since then it’s just been adding slowly to that mental list.

    There must be some kind of brain wiring for this sort of thing because apparently a fair amount of us have it.

  5. Great post! We’ve been on our quarter acre for almost two years now. The first year was spent redoing the house and painting, painting, painting, and starting a small garden in the 3X20 planter box the previous owner left. The second winter I planted 17 fruit and nut trees, and since I’d lost my job the previous September, I had plenty of time to build planter boxes and plant vegetables. I learned a lot this year- knowledge that I’ll use going forward. This winter will be the first I try growing year ’round in under covers over the planter boxes. This winter I’ll make my top bar hive and build a coop so that next spring I can start bees and chickens, all with the aim of adding to the fertility and productivity of my yard.

    The one thing I did not want to do, was bite off more than I could handle, so every year I’ll add to what I’m doing. Plus- it would be too expensive to do it all at once. This winter I’ll put in grapes to train over the pergola that runs across the back of the house. Next spring I’ll add potatoes in grow bags to the list of things to grow.

    You just have to start somewhere.

  6. I loved this post, so encouraging! I think it really is as simple as choices and priorities. This is coming from a total newbie, but I think th biggest hurdle to get over is the consumer-driven perspective. Once you overcome that you can see why to be debt free, why to live outside of the suburbs, why food makes or breaks our health, and ultimately how common sense living almost always involves raising or growing some or all of your own food.

  7. What an inspiring post. My husband and I have been making steps to be more sustainable in our living. This past year, we bought the house and established a veggie garden. I hope chicken coop will come next.

  8. As you know, this was the year of fruit and the garden expansion. I think chickens come next, though there’s some planning about where exactly they’re going to go.

    The chest freezer is filling up fast. Should have gotten a bigger one.

  9. Great post.

    Last winter I built 140 feet of privacy fence, a tool shed, and expanded my 7 raised beds to 18.

    A greenhouse is in my immediate future.

  10. I used to be the opposite of you. While I was growing up my parents had a few year stint in the 70’s (back when the world was coming to an end) in which they raised about every farm animal imaginable and even dabbled in gardening, unfortunately it was short lived and for the most part I grew up on the “television dinner” as neither parent liked to cook. Even in my early adult years I had no real clue as to the difference between nutritionally defunct food and “real” food. It took me a while but I am so glad that I eventually came around to your way of thinking. Now, I also have little use for the grocery store…it is so very empowering to be free from that system.:)

  11. One of the things that continues to amaze me is how so many of us start with such modest ambitions–grow a little food that will taste better and be cheaper than what’s at the grocery store–and how quickly we accomplish so much more. I am totally inspired and thankful to see your chronological breakdown. We try one thing, get the hang of it, and pretty soon get addicted to providing for ourselves. For many years I have eaten at restaurants and thought, how could I make this at home? Now I look at almost everything we consume and think, is there a better way? Could I provide this for myself somehow?

    I’ve just posted about how proud I am to have grown almost all of our produce for the last 4 months, and I’m hoping to be able to keep going for at least another 2. And my hub and I have been planning for next year like crazy. On the list? Chickens, ducks, and you make a pretty convincing case for a milk goat! But we’re also redoing the raised beds, digging up some flower gardens, and working on the house. So we’ll see. But the vision is emerging, and the years go by so quickly!

  12. Awesome post! We long to have a place with land one day. Until then I am working on things I can do now. Tomorrow is my first attempt at making yogurt. After I master that I am moving on to replacing store bought sour cream.Oh and I have a bee hive on lay away. Baby steps, baby steps. Each one feels great! 🙂

  13. Hi Heather! Laudable goals (hah!)! I think you’ll find a lot of these steps fairly easy to tackle…it seems so darned daunting when you look at it head-on but taking little bites each year? Sure. And yeah, ducks. I would do ducks again, as they mature really quickly. They are, however, messy! Makes chickens look so clean in comparison.

    Aimee, indeed, death being a part of the animal-owning picture, certainly. It’s quite a knock when you lose your first one, or if someone gets sick. But I love the good with the bad; I can’t imagine life without goats now, for example…or goat cheese…

    Hey, Den, thanks. Again I had no crystal ball, and really didn’t have a goal to have, say, all these critters, but gardens, chickens and greenhouses? Yeah, that was a dream, back when I was still a city girl. And yeah, it’s certainly taken me a long time to get here…hope you can find some comfort in that.

    Sara, I do wonder about how many of us truly do have it. I still feel like a freak, especially when I am hanging out with other mothers of small children, and see the crap these kids “get” to eat. It’s like, what’s wrong with you? And they in turn look at me with my muddy pantcuffs, flour on my cheek, and yeah. I am a freak. But at least we eat really well.

    Paula, indeed: you gotta start at zero. Lucky you with at least one or two things on your property before you began! And yeah, sigh, work on the house did factor in heavily with our first year here too…but we’ve been on a tear since, as have you! We’re going back and forth about top-bar hives; it might get too cold here for them so we might go conventional. I am excited for you about winter greens though! YUM.

    Shannon, I *know*! For some, consumerism sure has a strong hold…there’s so much gratification built into the system. Here, well, here you have to wait to get satisfaction. And maybe that’s the key to most of it. It’s a slow process, pulling back yet charging ahead.

    Meems! Congratulations!! You are SO on your way…getting visions of greenhouses and coops dancing in your head yet?

    Peter, you can be like me and get a 2nd freezer. Now, one’s meat and one’s every other little thing. But: make sure you site your brick oven near the kitchen door, okay? And they don’t take up too much real estate…

    Cohutt, yay greenhouse yay! I think you’ll LOVE it. 🙂

    And Mike goodness knows you have a fabulous partner in the planting and planning. That surely helps. Another generation to guide is also a huge motivational factor. But yeah, with all this work and good food, we’re going to live to be 100!

    Hi Toni! Congrats on all that you’ve accomplished only this season. Wow. That’s inspiring, and you’re right: it’s one foot in front of the other and whammo you have a whole lot accomplished; be proud of your sweat and research and weeding! Chickens are loads of fun, and ducks love to eat everything green you throw at them; both are great options. Have fun planning your next moves!

    JoAnn, you’ll never go back. Trust me. And: you’ll be so spoiled by “my own fill-in-the-blank” that it’s reason enough to continue making, doing, being. And as you can see you’re in great company!

  14. Thank you for this post! I have been kind of struggling with the failure of this years vegetable garden and am trying to muster up the courage to do some fall planting. But this reminds me why I want to do this. I may be really far from grocery store freedom, but every little bit helps and maybe someday I will be free from the store. And even if I never am, well like I said above every little bit helps!

  15. The yogurt was a success! I am on cloud 9…..I wonder if excitement over home made yogurt means I need to get out more? LOL

    • YAY JoAnn! Remember to do the exact same thing next time!

      Reculturing the same yogurt over and over again…let’s say it works for about 4 times and then it gets a touch too tart. So what I do is, with this first batch, freeze an icecube tray’s worth of yogurt…three cubes is enough to culture half a gallon (2 quarts) for next time. Which reminds me, I need to make more yogurt today!

  16. That’s a fantastically helpful, insightful essay, El. It’s so true, that you don’t have to make it an all-or-nothing, ironclad ultimatum sort of thing, to get out of the grocery store. It can happen one herb plant, one row of salad at a time.

    I would also say that, if you have access to Great Nature’s garden, adding a few wild edibles–ramps, fiddleheads, the easy-ID mushrooms like morels, hen of the woods–to your larder will speed that move from grocery aisles to self sufficiency.

    Brett

  17. I’m in the process of putting up a 16×24 polytunnel. I’m trying to decide how to lay out the raised beds and paths inside. Do you like the layout of yours? Anything you’d do differently? Any tips? Thank you!

  18. Did you put plastic down between the rows under the woodchips?

  19. El this makes me warm and fuzzy. Heart you!

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