In the scheme of things, be it an edible lawn in the suburbs, a five-acre homestead, or a hobby-sized container garden, none of us set off growing food in the hopes of producing too little. We aim to feed ourselves. Many of us strive for more. We want over-abundance, more food than we know what to do with, breakfasts literally falling from the trees and lunches sprouting up from the ground. Believe it or not, sometimes that happens.
For those of us who have not set off with the purpose of agriculture as our livelihood, when…if…fingers crossed we are so successful as to encounter the problem of over-abundance, we need not panic. Take a moment, relish it (mentally, culinarily, however you choose), and realize that a huge harvest doesn’t equate to eating mangoes or tomatoes thrice daily for the foreseeable future. Well, some of us might like that, but that’s beside the point.
Two great things, with several subcategories, occur with these states of abundance. We can find ways to save it for later, when perhaps our supplies aren’t so plentiful. In doing so, we can open the doors to great new flavors and uses for our crops, not to mention health benefits that even fresh food couldn’t accomplish. Otherwise, we can practice our third permaculture ethic, fair share, which has the potential of making us very popular amongst friends and neighbors, earning us a bit of bonus cash (if we so choose), or offering free nutritious food to folks who really need it.
Preserving food is part and parcel to cultivating it. In truth, once the whole production train gets rolling, the system cycling fertility and seed, it’s hard not to grow more of some things than is necessary. What family can eat four trees worth of apples in a season (10 bushels are possible from just one semi-dwarf tree)? Or, how much fresh basil—a great culinary herb and companion plant—does a household really need, as compared to how often we might have it in the garden? That isn’t to say we don’t want to have several apple trees in the food forest or basil throughout our kitchen beds. Wise growers embrace these states of profusion by storing some for leaner times. There are many ways to peel this potato.
Fermenting is one of the oldest and healthiest ways to preserve fruits, vegetables, milk and even meat. Fermentation can come in the form of pickles, beverages (alcoholic and otherwise), breads, cheeses, yogurts, and cured meats. In short, it’s a preservation workhorse. Even better, fermentation provides probiotics that keeps our gut and, consequently, our immune system healthy, which means fermented versions of our food actually provide more nutritive benefits than the fresh.
Pickling is sometimes confused with fermenting, but they are not always the same. Pickling is based on preserving food in an acidic medium, often vinegar. While vinegar is a product of fermentation, store-bought versions of vinegar have usually been heated and/or filtered to get rid of the bacterial, i.e. probiotic, elements. What’s left is a solution too acidic for things to live in, which means food can sit in the solution without spoiling.
Canning is what fills pantry shelves with all of those jars. Essentially, it’s based on “bathing” food in an airtight jar in boiling water, which sterilizes the bacterial elements in it, resulting in food that can be stored for long time. This is the water method and works for acidic food, like tomatoes and jam. Other, less acidic food, say vegetables, should also be pressurized to avoid botulism. Some people make pickles this way. Some people cook up large batches of sauce and store them this way. Some simply put vegetables in brine and seal it up for use later.
Dehydrating is another popular form of preservation and revolves around reducing the moisture content of food. Again, this works well with fruit, vegetables, meat and mushrooms. Because bacteria, mold, and yeast require moisture to grow, taking it out of the food extends the shelf life, as well as eliminates the need for refrigeration. It also provides really concentrated bursts of flavor and nutrients, such as we find in sundried tomatoes, and it makes the food, some of which can be rehydrated later, easier to carry for hiking and the like.
Freezing is a simple method of preservation, though it does require electricity. On the other hand, of all these methods, freezing food keeps it closer to its fresh version than any of the others. The process is easy. Wash whatever is meant to be frozen, put it in an airtight container, and freeze away. Unfortunately, frozen food does not last as long as some of the other preservation methods. But, it’ll easily get us through the winter.
Food and community are inextricably tied. Traditional meals and local produce (upon which traditional meals are usually centered) explain a lot about our history as people, the climate to which we are accustomed, the landscape of our playgrounds, and the food over which we have constructed our families and festivals and fraternizing. Be it tabbouleh, tacos, or taro, food—our knowledge of it, our taste for it—bonds us, and in times of plenty as well as struggle, communally partaking builds a sense of comradery between those involved. There are few things so kindhearted and, in turn, so appreciated as feeding someone (or something). It only makes sense that our over-abundance be shared.
Donating is a noble way to deal with extra food. Get in touch with local soup kitchens or homeless shelters and provide what will inevitably go bad or unused from the garden. In some places (Go France!), there are now laws requiring supermarkets to send there expired food off to good use. As individual producers, we can’t make the same drastic impact, but an apple is apple, right? Well, maybe. As rule of thumb, try to make sure the amount donated distributes well amongst the amount of people meant to receive it.
Gifting is a great way to get in good with neighbors or remind the family who the favorite niece, son-in-law, or uncle is. Give a favorite store clerk a bag of greens or fellow seller at the market stall some fresh peaches. Whatever it is, people love getting free food, and even better, they love the people giving them free food. Gifting a bit of the excess can be great for building better bonds or smoothing things over with the neighbors, who weren’t so sure about the next door front yard turning into a food garden.
Trading is a throwback to the old ways and, in theory, how communities might work best. Rather than basing exchanges on magical pieces of paper money, we can exchange goods by trading what we’ve got. The guy down the road grows apples, so he trades some for manure from the dairy cows that belong to the milk lady, whose been getting straw of the guy whose using her milk to make his own yogurt. And, on it goes. When we rely on one another, we care about one another. Good stuff.
Selling is an option, though, when something is not in regular supply, this can require some hustling. However, the effort of selling produce as is often not as profitable as we’d hoped for, which is why many experienced farmers suggest going the product route. Take the bundles of basil and make pesto sauce, or use the excess strawberries to produce an artisanal jam or dehydrated snacks. People are more apt to pay more for the effort of making carrot-apple juice than they are a bag of carrots and apples.
Partying might be the most fun and self-rewarding means of celebrating a bountiful take, and that shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s long been a part of human culture to throw massive feasts to appreciate seasonal harvests, eating and fraternizing in excess. In this case, it also means that the successful grower gets plenty of thumbs up for the productive gardening and will likely be invited to parties in return. Plus, it just feels so good to eat and share fresh food that comes from the very soil we’ve worked.
So, we should all be growing more, and after the shelves are sufficiently stocked, we can share the rest with our friends, the neighbors, shoppers at the farmer’s market, those in need, or even the plants and animals that we live alongside. They might like a piece of the pie as well, and they deserve it. We all do.
Feature Image: Autumn Abundance (Courtesy of Alan Bruce)