Who can resist a fresh pear from an orchard just outside of town? A ripe tomato from our neighbor's vines? A wildly crunchy green bean from a favorite Farmers Market vendor?
Or, perhaps best of all -- an impossibly juicy red strawberry from our own back yard?
The answer -- almost no one can.
Yet during these autumn days when our gardens are giving us their bounty and the temperatures are dropping, we're aware that this fresh feast won't last much longer.
It does not have to be that way. With a little knowledge and planning, a few inexpensive tools, and some elbow grease, we can hang on to many of these locally-grown foods well into the next year. Emily Dietzman of Welcome Table Farms in Walla Walla says, "We have such an abundance of local food available to us here in Walla Walla. By putting food away in our freezers and pantries we are able to extend the good practice of eating locally year round."
According to Lizann Powers-Hammond, a WSU Extension faculty member in Tri-Cities who specializes in teaching food preservation techniques, more Eastern Washington residents are learning how to preserve their fresh food, most frequently by freezing and canning, but also by drying and use of root cellars.
While food preservation is not difficult, it is not an "anything goes" process, either. Lizann points out that people who are getting into food preservation need to understand there is a science to food and certain rules to follow. She says, "All those cans and jars of food you see in the grocery store -- they've all had scientists who have researched that particular food and figured out the best way to keep it for the customer."
Yet, we don't need to be scientists to enjoy that farmers market peach in December. There's a lot of information available in print and online. Lizann recommends either educational materials from WSU Extension, which have met strict USDA approval, or those from a major canning company (such as the Ball Blue Book Guide to Canning). She said that we should be cautious about using information from blogs and other online personal stories.
In effect, home food preservation tries to mimic a highly regulated process. Not only do we want the food to maintain its quality but we also want it to be safe.
Preserving food has many benefits for creating a sustainable local economy. When we make our fresh food last further into the year, we are in effect lengthening the growing season. That "extended harvest" supports the local economy, and keeps more dollars circulating locally. Food systems expert Mark Winne has found that food is the second most important economic driver after health care in many communities. Thus, how we choose to spend our food dollars -- on fresh local produce or on imported, store-bought goods produced elsewhere -- has a wide-ranging effect on our economic health in the Valley.
Yet, even with the benefits for creating a more sustainable lifestyle and supporting local growers, the best part of utilizing sound food preservation techniques may be the sheer joy of having our own local food available when we want it, nearly any time of the year. As Lizann quips, "This approach does take work and time, but the end product is always worth it. Think how great it will be in January, with snow on the ground, eating that fresh tasting pear from your backyard! What could be better than that?"
Noah Leavitt is a member of Faith Communities for Sustainability, and is proud of his family's back yard garden.
Handy resources about food preservation
Lizann Powers-Hammond teaches a Master Food Preserver course through WSU and can be contacted at 509-735-3551 if you have specific questions about how to get started, or how to expand your repertoire and skills in preserving your food.
The support staff in the WSU Extension office, 328 W. Poplar St., are trained to answer food preservation questions. They have been through the MFP training.
Our local office also has all the WSU printed materials about food preservation. These publications can also be found on this website: pubs.wsu.edu/Default.aspx
Lizanne especially recommends www.Homefoodpreservation.com as a great starting place (National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia.)