Friday, January 10, 2014

Remote Cabins: Cost of a Food Supply

The second requirement on Maslow's hierarchy is food. Whether one lives in the city or out in the country, food acquisition requires a combination of time and money. The proportion of each is skewed by location and initiative. I have friends and relatives who eat at restaurants every single day. When nearby, as in walkable New York City, this approach saves time but costs money. Other friends and relatives drive to market(s) every day for fresh and packaged foods to prepare at home. This requires both time and money. For us, the most important element of food production and acquisition is time (and planning). Out in the boonies, one can't eat money, but with advanced planning and seasonal awareness, one can acquire a lot of food.

Our food sources fall into four categories. Each has advantages and disadvantages, which is why we incorporate a food strategy that includes them all.

A) wild foods (foraged, hunted or fished),
B) raised food (gardens and animals),
C) multi-year, long term stored foods (purchased), and 
D) supermarkets (we fly to town to shop about 3-4 times a year)

A) WILD FOODS have several advantages. They are free, fresh, and once you know where to look, you can likely find them again in the same and similar environments. The disadvantage is that they are available only at certain times of year. For me, this makes each food a special treat that I look forward to and appreciate as a short term gain.

Plants: Before moving to Alaska, I never realized what a fertile, fecund land it is. We have
An overcast happy hour
a number of delicious wild foods growing near our cabin. For example, during about 10 days in April/May, we collect birch sap which we use to flavor a seasonal beer. My husband says that it gives the beer a sweet, banana-like flavor, as well as a predictable woody undertone. (He makes beer and I make wine) In early spring, I collect spruce tips (as Capt. Cook did for his sailors, to stave off scurvy). I have cooked them in scones and added them to vinaigrette. Also, at this time of year, I gather young dandelion leaves, which I enjoy most when sauteed in butter and garlic and added to pasta. In summer, we harvest blueberries, raspberries (which pop up like weeds, everywhere), and elderberries. During raspberry season, I gather a few as I walk toward the dock to flavor the beer my husband enjoys while paddling in our kayaking happy hours. For easier harvesting, I am encouraging the growth of two, slim, 50 foot hedges. We'll see which location yields fatter harvests. In autumn, we harvest buckets full of cranberries and lingonberries, which freeze and store well for many months. I've also prepared salads with chickweed, and vegetable dishes with fiddlehead ferns, though I can't say I like them as much as my other foraged foods. Each year, I try more foods listed in various books, searching for a recipe that “grabs me.”

Animals: Our lake is full of big pike (because we are remote enough that nobody else
A few meals
fishes there). Pike is not a favored fish in Alaska, but its gentle white meat takes on any flavor ones wishes to add, so it is a very easy fish to eat often. My husband likes to fish off our dock in the morning, before breakfast, when the pike hide in the shade of the trees along the bank. With a large hook and no bait, he routinely catches fish 32-42 inches long -several meals worth! Two miles away is a creek which attracts salmon runs (and Rainbow trout and Grayling) during various weeks of the summer. When we get there at the right time, the fish are easy to catch in the narrow creek. If we miss the run, we enjoy the hike, a picnic, and a little gold panning. In addition to fishing, my husband also hunts bear in the spring and moose in the fall. I like bear meat very much (during the spring, before they start eating fish). It smells delicious while cooking. Because it is lean, I tend to prepare it as a stew in a pressure cooker. Moose is fine as a stew, too and tasty mixed with sausage for a burger, but I have never had a moose steak that I didn't find tough and boring, even when marinated.  

(We are following the studies of the impact on Pacific fish by the release of radiation into the ocean from the Fukushima, Japan nuclear debacle. ) 

Cost: Foraging for food is very satisfying. It is free and there is a delightful sense of discovery, too. Obviously, hunting and fishing involve the fees for licenses (only about $40 per year for an in-state hunting and fishing license) and the expenses for equipment. My recommendation is not to cheap out on rods, reels, clothing (especially waders), arms, and ammunition, and to make sure that you buy the right equipment for the intended use. I've had visiting friends haul fishing rods from thousands of miles away only to find that Alaska fish are bigger and heavier than their equipment is prepared to handle.

Plants: Over the years, we have built several raised bed gardens and a greenhouse. I have written elsewhere on this blog (see article in 2013 called” Inexpensive Window Sill Gardening”) about the ease of starting seeds for about 17 plants inside my tiny cabin in March, and then transplanting them outside when the climate warms up.  Also, a September, 2015 article identifies 65 different plants (and some animals) we raise/forage/eat. So I won't belabor the details here, except to list the edible plants that even I have found easy to grow from seed: herbs: basil, cilantro, thyme, oregano, and chives (perennials), vegetables, tubers, and fruits: potatoes (from eyes), carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, various squash, various beans and peas, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, rhubarb (perennials), and strawberries (perennials). I also grow calendula and nasturtiums, which are edible, beautiful flowers.  I am a BIG fan of planting perennials and encouraging the spread of desirable wild berries.  Why not?  Year after year?  What's not to like? Low work, high yield.  Asparagus, rhubarb, chives, and strawberries are all cultivated plants that can thrive and produce delectable edibles for years. Fresh strawberry/rhubarb pie anyone?   

Cost: The cost for seeds is minimal: $1.00 – 2.50/packet containing dozens or hundreds of seeds, depending on the type. University of Fairbanks offers excellent, free recommended varieties for each region of Alaska (as do other universities through out the country). Soil analysis (absolutely essential) costs about $40 in Palmer, AK and I recommend doing so every year as one works to improve the soil or add another garden. I killed a lot of plants in bad soil before doing so.  (For me the “do it yourself” kits at Home Depot, etc, were worthless.)  I buy Miracle Gro potting soil to start my seeds inside, some plant vitamin products, and, because my forest land is so highly acidic, a lot of lime. For free, I add to my gardens useful garbage such as egg shells (calcium), coffee grounds and wood ash (nitrogen), banana peels (potassium) and various other gunky vegetables that my animals won't eat.

The cost of time varies with the season, but is not excessive. I spritz (mist) my indoor seedlings twice a day. Around the last frost date, I spend the mornings of a week preparing the soil and planting, and after that I enjoy checking them every evening and watering and weeding as needed during the summer. Gardening in Alaska's summer is much more pleasant than in TX; far, far fewer pests. In the fall, I have a busy week of harvesting and mulching just before frost. All in all, it isn't hard, but it is time dependent. The earliest harvestable plants I raise (other than sprouts) take 50 days and some take as long as 110 days. So for my veggies, I rely on the supermarket in the meantime.

Nellie and Esther outside their coop/run
Animals: We also raise several animals for food. We have laying chickens (different than roasters) who are wonderful not only for their eggs but also for their yard work, such as eradicating mosquitoes and flies (in the outhouse). We don't keep a rooster (which I usually see as loud and mean) so “the girls” are nice and quiet. We also raise rabbits, not only for their meat, but for their manure in the gardens. During the summer, the poultry free range and the rabbits eat lots of left over house vegetables and garden weeds. (You can read more on the 2013 two part blog entries about raising these animals) . This year, we plan to expand our menagerie with ducks, honeybees, and some roaster chickens.

Five hutches: males have to be separated
from males, and males from females
Cost: Make no mistake: it is cheaper to buy meat from Costco than to raise your own animals for meat in small quantities, especially in a climate like Alaska's. Even initial gardening has high start up costs, such as a greenhouse. I know my costs better for the animals, though.  If I divide all our costs to build the coop and and feed chickens by the number of eggs I got in the first two years, each egg was worth about $15! The rabbit meat our first season cost about $10/lb. Obviously as I amortize the cost of new construction over many years, that cost will drop. Someone who houses chickens and rabbits in an existing barn, for example, will avoid those costs but will still pay about $1/lb of food for each species (50 lbs/mo for eight rabbits - you can harvest them at 3-5 months).  Free ranging chickens are virtually free in the summer, but costly during the winter, since we need heated water dispensers and an insulated coop. We harvest our own hay and straw, but other owners may have to buy it. It all adds up to more expensive "home" chickens in Alaska than in warmer climates.  But we like knowing our food chain, and running to the store for a sale on chicken thighs is not an option. 

Believe me, there is a learning curve in starting animal husbandry. Some of the chickens we first bought were males, others were killed by a weasel, others “decided” for periods of time not to lay eggs. One rabbit had to grow up a bit to get pregnant, delaying our expectations, and what we thought was a “spare” adolescent female turned out to be a male. A female had a healthy kindling of 5 kits, outside the nesting box and let them all die, even after we moved them to the nest!  The things that you think may be obvious are not, at least not at first. But, of course, each year gets easier.

We store about six months worth of freeze dried and other long term foods. Auguson Farms is a company I like. I use to buy paint size containers (#10 cans) from them when I was in Houston, for hurricane season (June – November). I don't believe they ship to Alaska addresses, but I found that the Sam's Club or Walmart in Anchorage carries a whole aisle of their products, especially in the autumn, so people can stock up for winter. Products that I won't buy again include an alleged dry cheese sauce and tiny, diced red and green peppers (which added color but not a whit of flavor). However, the freeze dried fruit (try the raspberries!!!) and dried mushrooms are very flavorful, and powdered eggs are great for baking. In my mind, these foods are not for every day use, but for times when we are stranded, during Freeze Up, Break Up, or those three week periods in August/September when rain keeps our plane grounded while our larder gets bare. I pick and choose foods, but you can choose to buy prepared “kits” such as “one month's worth of balanced meals for four people.” I recommend these products for anyone whose food source could be interrupted, to great inconvenience. In Alaska, land of frequent earthquakes, that means anyone who is dependent on the Anchorage port for food. I read that the supermarkets around the country have only enough inventory for about 3 days. Those bags of beans, rice, and a propane stove will seem like luxuries on day 4.

Cost: These products are pricey. You are paying for something so well packaged that it will last for decades, unopened, and maybe up to a year, if opened (add a desiccant). The paint sized cans routinely run about $30. The small, paint quart size cans cost about $15. I recommend buying some of the small cans to try out the quality before you invest in large quantities of any product.

I maintain an accurate inventory of our spices, condiments, and other foods, because when we fly, infrequently, to a supermarket, I buy months and months of packaged foods (like coffee and flour). These shopping sprees run hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Most special to me are fresh produce that are not native to Alaska, such as bananas and avocados and my personal favorite, fresh peaches. Sadly, all are difficult to transport by plane to our home without bruising.  Also, to date, our cold hole (two 55 gallon drums sunk in the ground with a polystyrene top) is too humid to store vegetables well, so I use it just for unopened dairy products. For other produce purchases, I have learned by trial and error. For example, cherry and jewel tomatoes seem to last longer than larger ones. Before citrus fruit starts to dry and shrink, I grate the zest from the peel and freeze the whole fruits. I can also freeze peeled garlic before it gets woody.  Winter squash and cabbages last well for many weeks. 

As a result of our remoteness, and the vagaries of supply and demand and transportation, I believe that I have become a more creative cook, and more appreciative of the whole journey from seed or egg to table. For example, I consider, “what can I make with these remaining dates, bacon, kale, and nuts” rather than, as in the past, running to the store or saying to my husband, “Honey, there's nothing in the fridge. Let's eat out.”  Now it is, "The bread is almost ready for dinner!  I'll get some dandelion leaves, while you catch a fish." 

Mother Earth News has been a great source of information for us as it relates to food-related issues.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to post it or a link to your favorite social media website, with attribution to Laura Emerson.

If you have any suggestions for future topics on this blog, or future places to post this sort of content, I appreciate your recommendations.

Note: I am pleased to say that I am now a monthly columnist for Alaska Adventure Media publications. The column is titled, “Off the Grid.” -----------------------


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