So, one of the things I'm trying to do by having a tiny farm is to re-discover food: Where food comes from, what's in it, and how food is made.
I've always been a great baker and a good cook, and when our family had to switch to a diet without gluten or dairy five years ago, my cooking skill went from good to "I can cook anything!"
Now, though, the challenge is keep the food bill down -- anyone can make food taste good and eat a healthy diet if they have unlimited funds -- and to try to find ways to get food that are organic or grown with good practices, local, sustainable, or at the very least, cheap.
The best way, of course, is to grow your own. The second best is to trade something you've grown for something someone else has grown around the corner. After that, you've got to buy food, either from farmer's market's, co-ops or people who have small farms. And if you still can't find what you want, you have to go to a real store.
And you know what? Real food at real stores is damned expensive. After being here for almost a year, I'm impressed at the offerings of fabulous stores packed with organic, seasonal, local food, but turned off by the prices. I'd like to buy from local store. Honest, I would. But Costco is HALF the price of other stores. Not ten percent or twenty percent cheaper. Half.
A jar of the organic chicken bouillon I like? It's $6 at the local supermarket. It's $6 at Costco, too. For a jar that's double the size. The local supermarket had brown sugar on sale for a $1 a bag if you buy ten bags. So I stocked up! Woohoo! Ten pounds of brown sugar for $10 -- score! Until I went to Costco and saw the same brown sugar in a 15-pound bag for $7.
So, Costco's getting most of my business, and the first few months we were here, I'd go and stock up and get everything there, twice a month. I'd spend about $300 and get almost all of our essentials.
But guess what?
For the last four months, I've been canning, and pickling, and trading. I've been going to the Gleaner's Pantry, and taking tomatoes and making salsa and sauce. I've picked blackberries until my hands were bleeding, and I made pie filling and jam. I picked hundreds of apples and made 60 quarts of applesauce, and then I traded applesauce for more jam. I bought 40 pounds of cucumbers and made enough pickles to last forever, and then I got more cucumbers by trading with a friend for her garden produce, and I made relish. I made Tabasco sauce, and salsa. I froze zucchini squash and peanut butter cookie dough and veggies for stir-fry.
And this last trip to Costco looked very different than previous trips.
Here's what I DIDN'T get at Costco, this trip, that I would normally have bought:
Produce was the place I saved the biggest amount.
Normal produce purchase:
Apples: $14 ($7each)
Cuties: $12 ($6 each)
Why didn't I buy any produce? Because I get produce twice a week from the Gleaner's Pantry. I get all of those things listed above, and more, for $16 a month. Plus, I have a huge garden where all summer long I picked tomatoes and squash and peas and apples and berries and I canned them or froze them and I've got a ton of them put up for winter.
Here's what I usually get in the frozen aisle:
Green beans: $5
Hash browns: $7
I still bought the corn. You can't do better than a huge bag of organic corn for $5. Even if I got the corn for free (and you can't get organic corn for free,) it's not worth my time and effort to peel, cut and freeze huge amounts of corn if I can get a jumbo bag of corn for $5. Costco wins that one. Cherries and green beans and hashbrowns, though? I've got a freezer full of cherries and green beans. And I've got a pile of potatoes and a teenaged boy. He can grate hash browns.
Here's what I was getting for meat:
Conventional ham for sandwiches: $10
Conventional turkey for sandwiches: $12
Organic chicken drumsticks: $10 ($2 pound)
Organic chicken thighs: $14 ($3 pound)
Conventional roast chicken: $5
Ground beef, organic: $17 ($4.25 lb)
I've decided to stop bringing home conventional, factory-farmed meat. It's just too gross and irresponsible. I still eat it when I'm out, once in a while, but I don't have to bring it into the house.
So I skip the ham and turkey, and my kids and I will eat peanut butter and jelly or not eat sandwiches until we have our own pork and ham in January, when our pigs are ready.
I did buy the organic chicken. That's super cheap. And I don't know that I'll ever get it together to raise enough chickens for meat that we don't have to buy any. I might raise some meat birds. But enough to have chicken once or twice a week for a whole year? That's anywhere from 50-100 chickens. That's a lot of birds.
Which is something else to think about: Does my family really eat 100 birds a year? Or more? And should we be eating that much, especially if the meat that we eat in restaurants is factory raised?
But I don't need any beef anymore. I'm buying a fifth of a cow from a friend who has a farm down the road. I'll have 100 pounds of beef in my freezer next week, at $4 a pound.
Chips, tortilla and regular, 3 bags: $15
Guacamole: $6 (2lbs)
Salsa and dip: $6
Still bought the chips. No way I'm making my own except for a party or something.
No salsa: I have a pantry full of fresh. No guac. I bring home as many avocados as I want from the Gleaner's Pantry. And limes. And I have salsa and salt and tomatoes to mix in.
OJ: $7 (one gallon),
Rice milk $13 (12/32oz boxes)
Apple juice $12
Yep. Still had to buy all of these. I could bring home oranges and juice them. But they're not organic, and it's a pain to do it. For $7? Buy it.
Organic eggs: $14 (3.50/doz)
Chickens are not laying enough to keep up with baking and with scrambled eggs every morning. We have five people. That's ten eggs every morning, minimum, on days we have eggs. We only have six chickens laying. The math doesn't work. Clearly, we need more chickens.
Organic oil: $8
Maple syrup: $13
I bought curry sauce and crackers, because I can't make them (OK, technically I could, but not practically.)
And I can't make olive oil or maple syrup. Wrong climate for both. And I bought sugar, to make more jam. But I didn't buy jam. Or applesauce.
And I bought paper goods as well, but I'm not including them, because I'm not going to save money on toilet paper or paper towels by cutting back. I'm just not.
So, if I need all of these items on a shopping trip, and I had the money (I don't usually need everything, and I never have the money,) it would be $319.
This trip, without the things I've grown, traded, gleaned or otherwise figured out another way to get?
The grand total is: $144
So, that's $175 savings. Times twice-a-month trips, where I figure I'll be saving roughly the same amount, and we're saving about $350 per month.
Is that life-changing?
Not yet. But it's a start. And it makes me think that it's worth it to put the time and energy into what I'm doing. It's saving more than half on groceries, which is a big deal, because we were spending way too much.
And if I think about getting a part-time job making $10 an hour, it would take me 35 hours or more to make up the savings -- and though I probably spend 35 hours a month on doing the canning or cooking or gardening, I enjoy it, I'm with my family, and I'm glad that it nets out that it really is worth the time to do it.
We'll see. Can I do more? Sure. Should I? Perhaps this is the point of diminishing returns. Or perhaps as I get better at it, I can spend less time at it and cut my grocery bill down more.
I'm never going to mill my own flour from grain I grow myself. I'm not giving up maple syrup in favor of local honey just to be a locavore. My kids like rice milk, and I know there are people who make their own, but I'm not joining their ranks. So I'm figuring out a balance between making my own salsa, which is easy, and making my own crackers, which is crazy-making.
It's a work in progress. I'd welcome thoughts and ideas on what you guys do.