My husband, Joe and I live at Eagle Bluff Environmental Center in rural Lanesboro, Minnesota. “Our constant goal is to do our best to minimize the demands we make on this planet and to live thoughtful, respectful and sustainable lives. For us, living local is insurance that makes good sense."
Throughout the year drying food is a constant activity. Joe hunts, so each fall we butcher deer and make jerky. We buy overripe bananas from the local grocer and dry them into special, sweet snacks. (Overripe bananas dry better than when green because the sugars have developed.) In spring, we start the season with drying watercress. Our gardening cycle begins with raking, tilling, and planting, then after tending and harvesting, we preserve our bounty.
We live in an area where there are a lot of Amish people and they are proof that we could live without electricity and many other things that we have come to believe are important.
Over the years many people have asked what I think about developing a food storage program. I believe that storing food is a good idea because it has always been and will always be a good idea. Our grandparents, many of our parents, rich or poor, regardless of where they lived, thought ahead to what they'd eat next week, next month and even next year. Long-sightedness and survival were synonymous. Food storage was commonplace and expected.
In addition to drying, we freeze, can and cold store food. We engage in various methods of food storage and preservation in such a way that it is not overwhelming. Drying is the most efficient method of food preservation and we use our dehydrator at night when there is less demand for electricity.
One season, over the course of ten days Joe and I canned 28 quarts of tomatoes, 48 pints of beets and made 10 gallons of refrigerator pickles. We then dried 100 tomatoes, the corn cut off of 72 ears of corn, 46 eggplants, 40 pounds of bananas, a lug of peaches and we made 100 packages of a dried rhubarb sauce we call “Rhubarb Lace.” To top it off, we froze 60 dozen ears of corn.
Another year, we planted 100 eggplant plants and harvested 250 eggplants. Instead of selling the fresh eggplants at market when the price was low, I dried my entire crop. Note - fresh eggplant does not can, freeze or cold store very well but dries beautifully. After the eggplant season was over I took my packaged dried eggplant to market. Each package was one medium-sized eggplant and sold for $3.00. That was better than the $1.00 price I would have received during the growing season. Dried eggplant is a good example of how growers can get a fair price for their effort and offer buyers locally grown food throughout the year.
Finding creative ways to use under-valued and under-utilized food motivates me. That’s why I decided to make and sell dried rhubarb sauce. Rhubarb is one of those giving plants that requires only planting, fertilize, keeping the seed pods pulled, picking and using. How much easier can a food crop get? With 150 rhubarb plants we harvest around 1,500 pounds every year.
Another example of underutilized and undervalued food potential comes by way of our neighbor’s, the Miehlisch’s. They raise organic fertile turkey eggs, which means their turkeys live happy lives and get to roam around enjoying their reproduction responsibilities in an immaculately clean environment without having to ingest antibiotics, growth hormones and chemicals. Clean is the essential component to minimize disease and bacteria. Clean to the point that when the Miehlisch’s cull their flock, instead of having a rendering truck pick up the turkeys and subject their facility to potential disease, they incinerate the spent birds. When I found out about this situation, I started buying their turkey breasts. This was not only wasteful it also required using fossil fuel.
My “Gobbles” are 100% pure, ground, dried turkey breast that are a natural and healthy pet treat. Marketing this product has been interesting because it’s more about what it does not contain than what it does; no gluten, grain, artificial flavors or colors, preservatives, antibiotics or sweeteners. Protein is what dogs and cats like and need. I sell a 5-ounce package that equals one pound of fresh meat for $9.
Our goal is to become 100% food sustainable. That said, we realize we need to buy food that we cannot produce ourselves or purchase locally, so to off-set what we purchase, we dry and sell our extra food at our local farmer’s market.
Whenever possible we trade food with others; for example, when Sue Ommen’s pears needed picked, she called and we filled our car, then dried the pears and gave her dried pear leather. My husband is a 5th generation beekeeper and we exchange Loni Kemp’s apple cider for our honey. Our daughter Sally shares her extra eggs and goat’s milk and treasures the dried tomatoes and canned beets we offer in exchange.
Living locally comes home to roost when we sit down for a meal with our friends and family, especially our grandkids, Hunter and Alysse. Over a supper meal, Hunter remembered the day we froze and dried corn and how proud he was of constructing a very long and very tall wall of shucked corn. Alysse, our tomato eater recalled picking, carrying and washing tomatoes to prepare for drying and canning.
My husband and I recall the first time we told our grandkids that all the food we were eating for dinner was either grown by us, members of our family or it came from our neighbors. “Only the butter, salt and pepper were bought at a store,” we said proudly. Whenever possible we link our food to a face. When we serve chicken we talk about the day we visited Sally and Duane’s chickens and how Hunter carefully picked each one up. He was aware that some day it would be served for dinner. We did not feel that making this connection for Hunter was cruel; in fact it was honest and very touching.
In early 1980 I made several visits to Central America to share the advantages of drying food. Ever since, I have collected information on drying food in various parts of the world. It is still one of my goals is to put this information and make it available to others.
For four decades I have promoted food drying throughout North and Central America. My books include; Dehydration Made Simple, Mary Bell’s Complete Dehydrator Cookbook, Just Jerky, Jerky People and the latest, Food Drying with an Attitude and soon to be released, Jerky--The Complete Guide to Making it.
Check out Eagle Bluff Environmental Center at www.eagle-bluff.org
then put it on your "to do" list and come for a visit. It is a wonderful place in the southeastern Minnesota hills.