Ithacans are turning to home-preserving home-grown food
By Stacey Shackford | Ithaca Journal
They are skills our grandparents took for granted, but ones that seem to have slipped through the collective consciousness of an increasingly consumer society: canning, cellaring, freezing and fermenting.
Now a new generation of self-sufficiency seekers is turning to the Internet for some old-fashioned tricks of the trade.
"The Web can't pickle, can or brew, but it can link you with folks who do," writes Katie Quinn-Jacobs on her site, IthaCan.ning.com.
The founder of Prepared Tompkins started the social networking site at the end of March.
It has already attracted 142 members with varying levels of experience, many of whom meet regularly in each other's homes to share knowledge and equipment. Others lurk on the message boards, which are bustling with activity as members ask questions and share advice about everything from paw-paw freezing to persimmon foraging. Members can opt in to feeds about special topics of interest, including livestock, cheesemaking and wild edibles.
Quinn-Jacobs said home food preservation is important because it is critical to the development of the local foodshed, builds community resiliency, encourages household self-reliance and contributes significantly to individual efforts to lower carbon footprints.
It's also become increasingly popular, with jar companies reporting that sales nationally are up by nearly 50 percent. A run on supplies last year nearly led to a county canning crisis, with local shops running out of stock, but Prepared Tompkins members got together to collect 100 cases of jars between them, Quinn-Jacobs said.
Two $200 canning classes run by Cornell Cooperative Extension earlier this year completely sold out, and a Prepared Tompkins workshop that was expected to attract about 20 participants had to turn people away after 120 showed up.
"We were really surprised," Quinn-Jacobs said. "That's when we realized we had really identified a need in our community."
Some are driven by the economy, others by concerns about the environment and origin of the food they eat, she said.
About a dozen people gathered recently at her Dryden homestead to use her large wooden cider press. They brought their own organic apples and took turns at the grinding wheel and jarring station, exchanging baking banter and pasteurization pointers along the way.
One of them was Alison Fromme, of Ithaca, who joined the IthaCan group in the spring and became an administrator last month. The author of the Ithaca's Food Web blog, Fromme said her interest in local food was always there, but her experience was lacking, and the group provided a great way to learn.
"There are only so many You Tube videos you can watch," she said.
The self-sufficiency aspect most appealed to yurt dweller Louis Johnson, who said he was surprised at how easy and satisfying it was to make his own jam. Although he had to buy some of the fruit, he said it felt good to support local farmers.
Monika Roth, of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, said the group's popularity is indicative of a rising interest in all aspects of local food, from production and preparation to preservation and distribution.
There was an overwhelming interest in gardening this spring, although wet weather and blight dampened some of that enthusiasm by the end of summer, she said.
"Homesteading" has also become popular, with more people asking about how to keep poultry and livestock in their backyards.
And those who are not doing for themselves are certainly supporting others who are, Roth said.
More than 2,000 households are now involved in CSAs, and a program to subsidize 40 percent of the cost of a CSA share for low-income households has grown leaps and bounds. Started four years ago with 16 households it now supports 120 families, Roth said.
Local farmers markets have been popping up all over the place, with Lansing and Dryden the latest to follow the successful models in Ithaca and Trumansburg. A pilot effort to extend the Ithaca Farmers Market season by moving it indoors to the Women's Community Building last winter was so successful it will be repeated, and expanded, this year. Likewise, recent farm tours, cheese trails and a meat fair drew huge crowds.
"This just shows the community's support and desire for local products," Roth said. "As a community, I think we do a great job supporting our local farmers. Farmer numbers are growing and hopefully customer numbers are growing too. We have got to grow the two together, or else there will be a disconnect."
Quinn-Jacobs said local food preservation could help complete the cycle. In an area with a four-month growing window, putting away food for the other eight months is vital, Quinn-Jacobs said.
Although Quinn-Jacobs grows most of her own food, she barters for some of the rest in what she describes as a natural collaboration. In exchange for some surplus onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers from a local CSA, she makes salsa, half of which she gives back to the CSA for distribution among its members.
"That can be done on a larger scale," she said. "But there's no commercial processing unit for food locally, so that means that all of this extra produce is going to be processed in homes. Getting people access to proper information is important."