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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.