Back to the Future – Freezing Zero-Carbon Corn

By Cam Mather

North Americans just have no idea how much energy goes into getting food on our plates. If we did, we’d all walk around in a big grateful daze saying “Thank you farmers, thank you Jolly Green Giant, thank you cheap energy….” and never get anything done.

I used the “Back to the Future” tag in my title for two reasons. The first is my obvious attempt to bring traffic to our website. It’s conniving and underhanded but I do it anyway. I can only hope that someone searching for the Michael J. Fox movies will end up on our website by accident and buy our books.

The other reason is the sustainability/homesteading/back to the land concept of “putting food up” and what an insane amount of energy it can take. Lots of hippies and homesteaders who claim to have a low carbon footprint and to be independent, are using a whack of coal-powered electricity or propane to be independent, so frankly, I don’t think it counts.

Today was CSA day and as usual, once Michelle left to do the deliveries, I stay behind and clean up. This involves getting out the snow shovel to push the assorted excess vegetable detritus out of the kitchen. Thank heavens it’s a farm kitchen. This wouldn’t work in one of those pristine suburban kitchens.

As I was harvesting corn for the boxes this week there were a lot of ears with insect damage and holes that had been pecked by birds. We usually just eat this corn ourselves, but there were more than enough for a few meals so I decided to freeze it. So I went back to the garden and picked a few more ears that I knew would be overripe before next week’s delivery.

Actually, before I went back to the garden I started to heat the water. You see, I had decided to make this corn “zero-carbon.” I decided to not use any propane. So I put some hot water in the corn pot. The hot water from our tap right now is scalding because of our solar thermal system. I also put the kettle into the solar oven to warm it up.

water-preheat

Once I had the corn ready I put the water on the electric burner. Yes, it looks like one of those tacky 2 burner hot plates you had in your first apartment (that you probably only ever cooked Kraft Dinner on) but it works fine. We do have a single burner induction stovetop but it’s not a very good one and we don’t really like the way it cooks. And my attitude at this time of year is that yes, the induction stovetop is more efficient, but we have soooo much electricity why do I care? I’m happy to just dump my excess electricity into a resistive heating coil.

3ish-dozen-corn

It probably took 20 minutes before it boiled, then each time I added corn it would take a few more minutes to come back to a boil. I cooked it for 4 or 5 minutes. Then I took it out and let it cool. I cut off the kernels as best I could, then froze them.

dekernalizting

bowl-o-corn

In the photo of the kitchen you’ll notice all our other electric appliances. Yes, I’m bragging… electric kettle, toaster, convection oven, electric ice cream maker and a Kitchenaid mixer (a Christmas/Valentine’s Day gift to Michelle!) The Heartland Oval cookstove is propane, but we rarely use in during the spring, summer and fall months when we have lots of electricity.  In the latest version of “The Renewable Energy Handbook” our friend Bill Kemp explains how he pulled the plug completely on propane. It’s very cool. We’re almost there, just not quite.

While I was cooking the corn the TV was blaring. At this time of year I use the TV for a lot of the time for music because the satellite dish has 40 galaxy music channels, with no commercials! This is no “Little House On the Prairie,” baby! Right now I’m listening to hits from the 80’s which makes me quite nostalgic and reminds me that not only did the 80s have a lot of puffy hair and shoulder pads, but a lot of saxophones in the music, a la Rob Lowe in St. Elmos Fire.

The corn took a whack of electricity to grow (when I think of how much water I pumped with the solar pump into the drip irrigation system during the drought.) Then I used a whack of electricity to heat the water to cook the corn. Then I’m going to use more electricity to freeze the corn and keep it frozen until I eat it. I think just having a freezer in an off-grid home is pretty cool. It’s the little things!

8-lbs-of-corn-to-freeze

At our Christmas/Winter Solstice dinner this year we’ll have some of this corn and it will taste amazing and remind me of the summer. And after the heat we’ve experienced this July, I won’t be longing for summer. I’ll just be relishing the cold. I hope it’s cold in December.

When I look at the final product – 8 lbs of corn, and how much energy went into it, the mind boggles. I’m sure it took more than two hours of my time, so if I added my time at $50/hour, or ($10 bucks an hour to more realistic,) this corn was probably $5 a bag for what would have cost $2 in the store. And the corn at the store has had tons of fossil fuel inputs; from the farmer’s tractor to the trucks to get it to the factory to be processed, to freeze it, package it, and then to ship it to the store. This is what boggles my mind. How can our food be so cheap?

I was left with a kitchen full of dishes to be washed. In my pursuit of never wasting anything, I did use the hot water to pour between cracks in my sidewalk to nuke the weeds that are creeping in. And the chickens love this whole process. They ended up with 36 cobs of nicely cooked sweet and delicious corncobs to peck away at for hours. Way better than exercise equipment.

chickens-with-the-leftovers

We live in amazing times. We have the luxury of spending our time earning a living which makes us enough money to purchase food that someone else has grown and processed, and we spend about 11% of our income on that food. With the drought that will probably go up.

I love growing my own food. One of the main things it does is give me a huge appreciation for what a privileged life we lead. And it makes me grateful to have lived in a time with such cheap energy that this has all been possible. Even as the global economy slides back into recession (not that I think it ever left the last one) oil remains stubbornly close to $100/barrel, five times more expensive than it was a decade ago. So apparently peak oil is upon us. I’m happy to know that I can grow and process my own food using as little fossil fuel as possible.

9 Responses to “Back to the Future – Freezing Zero-Carbon Corn”

  • Cathy:

    I enjoy looking at your pictures. They tell a good story too. I see your still dependent on plastic bags. I can my corn in jars with reusable lids. After pressure canning they need no more energy. Have you told about the solar oven before? That looks interesting. I can’t afford solar panels but a solar oven would be fun at home and on the road, car camping.

  • How timely! We were just saying we gotta bring in our corn! But I don’t want to scape it off the cob–what a messy job! I remember my mom doing that when I was a kid… Our freezer is full but maybe I can squeeze in a few cobs. You CAN freeze whole cobs, right???

  • chris seymour:

    Hi Cam,
    a thought arose about your watering and the drought this year. have you considered a grey water system? would give you lots of water and may ease your mind if it’s dry again next year.

  • Lawrence Walker:

    I enjoy your website. Fortunately, I now live in Manitoba, not far from where I was born, in a former commercial fishing village, but left with my family in 1947 . I had been living in Toronto at the time I became eligible for pension in 2001, and before I was retired visited my aged sister who still lived out here, and was astounded by the prices of homes here. I had been concerned with spending the rest of my life in a city, Toronto, in a small housekeeping room for rents which would consume most of my pension. I spotted a wonderful old 2 story house, built with the quality of earlier construction workers and materials in 1901. It needed work (I had worked on construction and restoration in Toronto and was confident of it’s potentiality) and was astounded by the price wanted by the church owners. It had been given to them as a manse by a parisioner and served as such for many years. The diminished congregation had later rented it out, but had problems with renters. They could no longer afford it’s expense and buyers were leary of the possible lawyer costs of a needed government decree because it had been deeded to a religious institution.
    I got it for four $figures. Townspeople had called it the “Glass House” because of it’s many windows, most of which were on a 2- story, enclosed porch on the east side and a “Sunroom” on the south side. I loved it. It was also on a 100x100ft. lot. Inside was much Manitoba maple panelling, and exquisite cabinet-work by the artisans of that time.
    It’s still solid central basement, accessed by stairs, has a 5’x10’x5′ cistern, as well as a 5’x10′ root cellar accessed by stairs from what I call “the prepatory kitchen” with an old cabinet with angled-out bins, for flour and possibly sugar on each side as well as one drawer lined with tin for bread, and 2 pullout hardwood cutting boards.
    Windows throughout the house have the top part partitioned into 6 panes. The builder of the house put 3x 1” layers of flooring in the central house, the top layer maple, because his wife had a piano. On the north side there is only 3 windows, one in the kitchen, one in the central room and a small one on a landing leading to the second floor.

    I had intended to write a comment on how bountiful my crop is this year, in my new garden, which I established this year on the south side in abundant sun, leaving most of my old garden sheltered by a maple grove, only to potatoes and cucumbers. Curiously tomatoes, which I’ve always had abundantly, didn’t like the weather and growth has been sparse, and only now are they starting to produce small sized and few.

    I imagine my motivation was to also inspire others approaching retirement age that away from the cities and the astronomical real estate prices, that you CAN own your own place, in a relaxed environment, grow your flowers and organic vegetables, even perhaps have a well with unadulterated water, yet still pay your bills, possibly even afford lessening cost of living using solar or other alternates, without having a large income.

  • Tim:

    I notice you put your corn in plastic bags. Did you make those yourself or how did they come about?

  • John-David:

    Another great post. I know it’s been a tough season for you guys with the drought and all, yet there’s still plenty of room in your hearts for gratitude and the recognition that, despite all of the challenges we all currently face, there is much joy to be experienced from each and every life experience, in particular the pure pleasure of enjoying food grown with our own hands. Yeah, good stuff…

  • Hi Pam! Thanks for your comments. The best book to start with would be “The Renewable Energy Handbook.” It’s the book that Cam and I WISH we’d had when we first moved in to this off-grid home. But it wasn’t available. So we published it! It’s the best book for explaining the whole “off grid/renewable energy” world and as Cam mentioned in his blog, the author William Kemp has even disconnected the propane to his house. There’s a whole chapter about that in the book!
    After you’ve read that, then our book “Little House Off the Grid” will share our experiences and perspective with you!

  • Wow! One of our best blogs/articles yet. I love it!! I have a question – which of your books would teach us what we need to know – or at least get us started in the right direction – to wean ourselves from the electricity and the propane?

    We’ve been wanting to do that and this winter would be a great time to read up on it and start making solid plans to put it in place.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and thanks in advance for the book suggestions.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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