by Ben Martens Bartel
About 15 years ago, around the time “The 100-Mile Diet” was gaining popularity, and documentaries and famous authors were drawing attention to our industrial food complex, our food landscape didn’t look very good. All around the world, food systems were depleting soils, mistreating workers, polluting, destroying communities, and ruining our health, while a small group of corporations were making an absolute fortune off it. It seemed that the problem was that everything was opaque—no one could possibly see or understand every part of the intricate system that got our goods and our food to us. Bringing something into the light of day always makes it clearer, but I could never do that with the global economy; the only solution seemed to be simplification, grow your own, or meet the people who produce the things you need. In a university class at the time, we covered bioregionalism, watershed ethics, and local economies, and like every idealistic 20-some-year-old, I had lots of ideas! My goal was, first, to withdraw my support from the global food system, then offer an alternative. If we took a step out into the world immediately around us and came to know the people and the land right where we were, we could learn to heal some of the problems of the modern world food industry. This was when we began our journey into food production, and to make changes to how we ate and how we lived.
In the early days, when I suggested to my friends and family that one could and should get most of what we need directly from our region and directly from the people that produced it, I was met with derision. “Who’s going to grow your bananas?” is a phrase that has stuck in my memory. There was also the budget problem. My wife and I were both students and the social pressure is always towards living and eating cheaply.
The first lesson was that this cannot happen all at once. It starts with a few small changes and slowly you make connections and begin to change your practices. I’d been raised eating food from a garden and had begun to dabble at a community garden. Today I’m a market gardener, which was unimaginable the first few years that I gardened, when we had a tiny patch of quack grass with a few anemic vegetables growing on it. We didn’t know when to water, or how to manage fertility, or tilth. It was the tomato sandwiches in fall that made the hours of sweating in the sun, feeling like a failure, worth it. Each year it got a little easier, we learned more, took on more, to get where we are today. Gardening is an activity worth doing even if it’s just a few vegetables in a raised bed in the sunniest spot you have available.
We started to shop at farmers’ markets and met producers in the area. Budget constraints were a real concern, but we quickly found local u-picks, and learned that seasonal abundances could be taken advantage of. High summer in the Prairies is the perfect time to stay away from the grocery store, as you can find plenty of local fruits and vegetables, or grow your own. There’s no need for any bananas. Fifteen years ago, we simply looked online and compiled a list of farms to contact. Today it is at least that easy; there are Facebook groups, web stores, and farmers’ co-ops (like The Farmers’ Table) besides the traditional markets.
Buying vegetables in bulk was our gateway, and we did this in several ways. First was a weekly garden subscription service, also called a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). This is typically a box of assorted fresh vegetables from a market gardener, an assortment of whatever is at its peak for the week. We took a look at the items that we eat the most often, such as sweet corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, and purchased them in bulk in season. We learned to process and preserve. My first adventure in canning was homemade salsa and I’ve never gone back. It tastes so much better than anything I can purchase. We’ve often found amazing differences in taste and quality even in simple items. Sweet corn, for instance, purchased locally has not had the long trip to lose its volatile corn flavours and sugars, so we’ve settled on an easy and delicious way to freeze it, and the quality shines through all winter in any dish. The raspberries we pick in summer, after months in the freezer, still taste like summer. They hardly resemble those grown in South America that are stocked at the grocer.
I’ll be the first to admit that processing and canning can be time-consuming and tedious. Over the years we’ve become more streamlined, found simpler ways of doing it, and picked out items that we don’t need to do ourselves. If eating in season becomes too onerous, or tedious, you’ll lose motivation to do it.
Canning often intimidates people, and for good reason: it’s a lot of work, and potentially dangerous if done wrong. We focus on canned items that are easy, that have a pH below 4.6 (like tomatoes or pickles) or that we personally value (canned crabapples are a favourite).
When we don’t have time for labour intensive canning, we change plans and simply freeze items. Last summer our apples ripened during a heat wave, so we chose to chop and freeze them instead of turning them into sauces and jams, which could be done later. I believe everyone should have a chest freezer in their home in our short summer season. The chest design makes them energy efficient, and they open up many options for food storage, and even come in apartment sizes.
Back when we began to change how we eat, I was able to get beef from my family farm, but generally we didn’t know a good way to support local producers and stay within our budget. Pasture-raised local meats are often cited as an elitist food, fine for those who can afford it. There is perhaps some truth to this, but when my budget was tight, I simply ate less meat. If I’d had a chest freezer at that time, it would have been a game changer. In the last 10 years an ever-increasing number of livestock farmers have been working to streamline the process of bulk meat purchasing, as with vegetables. Meat CSAs are available; several webstores offer high quality Saskatchewan pasture-raised meats, and there are many farms that are happy to speak to you directly and help find what you need. Eating at the peak of the season applies not only to produce but to meats also, especially pasture-raised meats. There is a kind of nutritional magic that occurs when animals are able to eat live plants with volatile nutritional and flavour compounds still intact, sugars at their peak, and are able to browse through a wide variety of possible foodstuffs. An animal harvested in late summer and fall is simply better eating in every way.
Buying in bulk, and in season, are the absolute best options for eating local year-round if you aren’t harvesting it yourself.
Our industrial globalized food system is incredibly productive and does things that would have been previously unimaginable, like eating asparagus in winter, or mangos in Saskatchewan. The ease and convenience of getting whatever you want whenever you want is not something that is easy to give up. Becoming aware of where my food comes from and sourcing local has been an enriching experience in my life. The trick is to take a step, even a small one, out into your community, find out what is grown or made near you, and make relationships. Local foodways are all around us and need our participation.
Here are a few practical hints for taking advantage of your local abundance.
Corn for Freezing
(This is the simplest method we have found—no handling hot cobs or endless boiling—which also means all the corn’s nutrients stay inside and aren’t dumped out with the boiling water.)
Husk corn and cut corn off fresh cobs (a job best done on the deck as it’s a little messy).
For every 10 cups of corn:
Add 1 cup water
1/4 cup butter
1 tbsp salt
Place in roaster (I do 30 cups in one roaster). Bake at 350ºF till bubbling, uncovered.
Cover. Cool overnight (I just turn off the oven, and leave it till the morning).
Once cool, put in small bags in a serving size of your preference.
(This recipe is for a 1 gallon pail of pickles or 6 pints, but can easily be sized down to make less jars.)
3 medium onions, sliced in rings
12 cups sliced cucumbers
Fill pail with a mix of onions and cucumbers.
3 cups vinegar
1 cup water
1/2 cup pickling salt
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp celery seed
1 1/2 tsp mustard seed
Mix brine and pour over cucumbers. This is cold brine. (Do not heat.)
Refrigerate 5 days before eating. Keeps for 10 months in the fridge (if you could keep yourself from eating them all before then!)
Basil or Cilantro Pesto: Basil and cilantro are flavours that taste like summer but can be easily saved for other seasons.
1 cup packed basil leaves and tender stems
1–3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup pine nuts or sunflower seeds
3–6 tbsp Parmesan cheese (optional)
2 sprigs of parsley (optional)
2 cups packed fresh cilantro
1–3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 tsp cumin (optional)
2 tbsp lime juice
Place either recipe into food processor, and slowly add 1/4–1/2 cup olive oil until it is the consistency you prefer.
Place spoonfuls of pesto on wax paper in freezer, like little green cookies. When frozen, remove from paper and store in an airtight bag, and add to dishes year-round for great summer flavour.
Blanching means heating vegetables briefly in boiling water to slow enzyme activity that degrades flavour or colour. Vegetables are then quickly cooled in cold water before freezing.
Unless you plan to eat your frozen vegetables within 2 months of freezing them, blanching them first is well worth your time.
Tomatoes, peppers, celery, shredded zucchini need no blanching, just chop and freeze.
I know some people prefer not to use a microwave, but for those that do, there are some veggies that are easier to blanch in the microwave and skip all the steps involving water.
This method works great for peas and all greens. Just wilt veggies in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time, until colour of veggies has darkened. Bag and place in the freezer.
For denser veggies like green beans or broccoli, water blanching is best.
Place washed, prepped (chopped) veggies in a wire basket or strainer (or straight into a pot with a slotted spoon can work in a pinch.) Place into vigorously boiling water and begin counting time immediately.
As soon as time is up, plunge veggies into cold water to stop the cooking process.
Drain, bag, and freeze.
Green Beans 3 minutes
Broccoli/Cauliflower 3–4 minutes (depending on size)
Snap peas (in the pod) 2 minutes
Ben Martens Bartel farms at Grovenland Farm near Lanigan, SK, alongside his wife Lisa and 3 boys, and his parents, John and Denise Bartel. Since 2011, they have been raising pastured chickens, pastured pigs, and grass-finished cattle, along with growing a chemical-free market garden and CSA (Community Shared Agriculture). For more information
call (306) 365-3037, or visit www.grovenlandfarm.ca. Their products are also available through The Farmers’ Table (see display ad on page 9 of the 28.1 May/June issue of the WHOLifE Journal.