Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More homestead ramblings

TennZenn recently made two great posts regarding potatoes in the home garden. Specifically, I found the most recent post about whether it really does pay to garden interesting. This is one of those questions that's sort of like the cloth diapering debate to me. Is cloth diapering really cheaper? Well, not the way some people do it. Gardening is the same way. It CAN be cheaper (lots cheaper), but it takes a little planning, some elbow grease and some common sense. If you pour hundreds of dollars into a small raised bed, it might take you years to make that money back. If you're gardening solely for the financial benefit, that's a bad plan. Some ways we've made gardening pay:

1) We pay attention to what we're spending and how it compares to what we'd pay in the store. Every time we spend more money, I'm mentally figuring how many pounds of produce we need to harvest to make that money back.

2) We've learned to plant what we'll eat. There's no sense in wasting time, energy and resources for something you won't eat.

3) We're getting better at eating from the garden. Not only does this mean trying to make some of our meals "garden only", but also reducing the grocery budget during harvest months. I'll admit, our grocery budget is so low to begin with ($150/month for a family of 4) that sometimes we keep it the same and just enjoy our fresh tomatoes, but that cheap budget is partly because we've been using our own canned goods for several years.

4) We've learned food preservation skills. What isn't eaten, is put up for the coming year. We've gotten comfortable with freezing, drying and canning. We've had missteps along the way and that's okay, it's how you learn!

5) We're thrilled with second-hand when it's available. We have a large stockpile of canning jars and most of them came from my great-grandmother and grandmother. These jars have been in nearly continuous use since the 50's, they've paid for themselves!! Each year, they're inspected for any damage (especially chips around the rim), but aside from human carelessness, they've held up great!

6) We trade when we can. We started freely giving eggs and produce to the neighbor in a show of good will. In return, pears from their tree and meat from their hunts has made it our way.

7) We plan not just for the growing season, but for the year. For instance, one of our goals each year is to not need to buy tomato products for an entire year. Last year we fell short. The best we've done is putting up 10 months worth of diced tomatoes, whole tomatoes, spaghetti sauce and salsa. With over 125 plants, I think this year is the year we succeed ;-) In 2007, we canned so many pickles that we were still inundated the next spring, so the 2008 garden did not include any cucumbers and we used the space for other goodies.

8) We stock up on needed supplies during sales. I know it's not especially healthy, but I like good ol' high sugar content jam, so when bags of sugar go on sale for $1 each, I buy 20-30 bags (I do a lot of baking too, I have a very out of control sweet tooth). When I have coupons for pectin, I go ahead and get it before the coupon expires. On the rare occasion that I see canning lids for sale, I buy a lot. Once, I happened to get a coupon for lids AND they went on sale (neither of which happens on any sort of regular basis)--I bought all I could at the reduced price.

9) Elbow grease. It's a vital part to gardening. If you've put the money in, be sure the plants are taken care of. Water them, cover them, pick off bugs, pull weeds, watch for disease. There's no point in letting something steal away your yield.

10) Write down what works and what doesn't. We all make mistakes and it's important to learn from them. Trust me, the bigger your garden gets, the harder it is to remember what worked for what plant or area of the garden and what needs to change.

And always remember...gardening is not all about the money. It's also about healthier food ("fresh" produce at the store is often very short on nutrients by the time you get it home) and about security.

Which brings me to my next thought of the day. Fair warning, I might get a little "hidey hole back in the woods"-ish here. I recently received a letter concerning some money I have invested in a 403(b). It's a small amount of money from a job I only worked at for a year. The letter informed me that since my account has been dormant for 5 years, it will no longer earn interest. I have to decide whether to leave it there anyway, roll it over to another account or withdraw the money and take a penalty. This has got me thinking. I have to admit, I'm only in my 20's and aside from employer sponsored plans and living frugally, I haven't put a ton of thought into specific retirement plans. This choice (and the fact that it's come up in the current economic climate) has made me more aware of my homesteading mindset. I'm a person who is very adverse to financial risk. I've never been a fan of the stock market. When's it up, I'm just waiting for it to come down. When it's down, I just think, "I told you so". I understand the argument that risk-free investing actually loses money because the interest rate is lower than the rate of inflation. But I just can't get around the very real fact that that reasoning is completely and absolutely bogus when (not if, WHEN) an economic down turn comes along. Anybody who had their money in CDs or savings accounts or even under the mattress when all this started at least still has their money. Technically flawed economic thinking, but that's how risk adverse I am. So I got to thinking, why have we all been fed this line that we need to build up MONEY anyway? It's paper with pretty pictures on it. We only need MONEY so we'll be able to buy STUFF. And the reason we need lots of money is because the stuff will be more expensive in the future. Okay then....instead of risking the money in the market (to get the growth necessary to keep up with inflation), why don't we just buy the stuff now? Why not focus on stuff savings instead of money savings? Food storage supplies, seed collection, equipment for solar, wind and/or water power, rainwater collection (for household and garden use), fabric and sewing supplies, woodworking equipment. I could go on and on. Why not accumulate the STUFF so you're self sufficient and don't need the money any more? Then you have actual goods for barter, which will always have value regardless of what the paper with pretty pictures is worth. Josh pointed out that most people cringe in horror at the idea of working indefinitely and view retirement as being on beach with a drink in hand and that takes MONEY and lots of it. Fair enough. I don't know what I'll do with my 403(b).

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