Winter is approaching here in the southern Willamette Valley. The trees have turned from the verdant beckoning of summer, through the fiery torch of autumnal oranges and yellows to the spindly fingers of winter reaching up to the grey, matte sky. Though, I shouldn’t discount the lush promise of a Pacific Northwest winter. As the deciduous among us lose their foliage, the fields turn greener and greener with the rise in precipitation. The rains come down and the fields yield green again, now after crops are pulled from their depths. I personally feel like the fields of our fair valley look more alive when the winter cover crops spread lush green, dark purple, and deep red clover than they do with the orderly rows of onion tops and potato plants. If not more alive, than at least more actualized. Those poor ruts in between the intended plants had for so long been scolded and hoed for breaking forth with any greenery. Now is their chance and the rains help them push up into the light. But no matter my personal feelings on the vitality of a field at any given time, it must be said that the growing season for most crops is coming to a close.
So what is there to be done now? Storage crops, of course! Pumpkins and potatoes and beans, oh my! We have reached the end of many farmer’s market seasons, many folks are packing up for the winter and nesting for the holidays. But what are we to do, those of us who moved here at the wrong time of year and have no crops of our own? As always, Eugene provides. And this time I do not mean my illustrious partner, but the city we chose to orbit. Each year at this time, the Willamette Food and Farm Coalition, with fiscal support from Hummingbird Wholesale, puts on a massive Fill your Pantry Event! This is a space for farmers to bring their winter storage crops to market to the people looking to keep them this winter. We perused the wares of the ~20 vendors and compared prices and qualities of innumerable squash, potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, celeriac, and all the hearty winter crops that dot a farmers field and Instagram feed. This was not an event catered to me, a millennial finding my footing in the farming world. This was a true community event. As we walked down the aisles of vendors, I took in the crowd and realized these people were here for the folks that never stopped storing.
I often think about the flight from the farm land that occurred in this country over the last century. Starting in the 20s more people lived in urban areas than rural for the first time in our country’s history. This flight continued as opportunities in small town dried up and cities grew further into their role as the promised land. But when we think of this urban flight, there is an assumption (at least in my mind) that the customs and trappings of a rural existence were left fallow in the fields as these would-be city folk packed up the car or cart or wagon or what have you to leave the homestead (or more likely tenant farm) for the last time. Smaller cities, communities like Eugene, prove me wrong. The fill your pantry event was held in the county fair grounds. It occupied two large halls and shared a parking lot with the ComiCon event in the next building over. Pre-teens in anime costumes knocked elbows with earth toned eco-folk as they waded through the lines of parked cars toward their respective destinations. The storage of food for the winter occupies a real, large, and visible space in this community. It is not a fringe event but one held in the most ubiquitous venue in town alongside similarly fringe-made-mainstream events like the comic convention. The people I saw here at the event were not all old folks looking to preserve what they could in homage to a farmer parent or grandparent who left the farm in the depression era exodus. There were folks of all ages and backgrounds pushing through potatoes and onions on the vendor tables. This event wasn’t about remembering the old days or trying something new, it was about doing what has always needed to be done. All these folks were here for the organic storage crops so they could eat them through the winter.
My heart warmed at the thought of so many like minded folk in one room. After the election I was doubting the validity of my false consensus bias but this event made me see that I am not wrong, I just truly live in a special pocket of America. The Oregon State University Extension School, which has programming on all things food, had information set up on all things storage. I took every bit of literature I could get my hands on and soaked it all in. The most helpful thing I learned was this diagram:
Since why bother to write about food storage without telling you how to store food for the winter, here are the other most useful things I learned:
- Flour and grain products have naturally occurring flour moth eggs in them (see! it’s not your fault!), which must be addressed for long term storage. Add a bay leaf to your flour to keep them from hatching or freeze the flour in a sub zero freezer for two weeks to kill the eggs.
- Long Term Winter squash storage should be 50-55 degrees and 50-70% humidity. These are coincidentally the conditions in most garages in Western Oregon during Winter. Wipe them down with white vinegar when you bring them home to prevent molding and parasites.
- Potatoes need cold, dark storage conditions to prevent sprouting. Darkness, 40-50 degrees, and higher than average humidity are recommended. Do not store with apples or pears, they emit the ethylene gas that will shorten the shelf life of food around them
- You can store roots like carrots or parsnips in buckets filled with sawdust or damp sand. Just fill up the buckets and stick them in like they would be in the ground! These can be stored in un-heated basements, sheds, under porches, you name it. They must be kept cold though, 32-40 degrees.
With all this learning and watching, I was not aware that I was being watched. But as soon as you think you are alone, the universe sends you company. One of the volunteers from the Vote campaign I have been working on at the University of Oregon appeared at my side pushing a cart full of recent purchases. Adriann and her mother (and their dog Toasty) were there to do exactly what we were doing; fill the store room for winter. Their arrival reminded me that Joey and I are building a place for ourselves in this community and we are making progress in finding our life. We bought 3 20-pound boxes of squash with them and mixed them up so we each got a wonderful variety of delicata, kabocha, and butternut to take home. After saying our farewells, we walked on over to our friendly neighborhood Dartmouth Alum farmers, Katie and Kevin. They were the ones that turned us on to this event, when they told us they wouldn’t be having their farm stand that week in favor of their booth here in the hall. We went over to say hi, but mostly we were able to watch from afar as they catered to their throngs of customers. We got a few words in with Kevin in a lull and learned it was their third year at the even. Building the community you want to live in at its finest.
Katie and Kevin, working the crowd
So laden down with 10 lbs of potatoes, 30 lbs of squash, 5 lbs of colorful carrots, one cabbage, the biggest leek you’ve ever seen, a 20 lb box of onions to share with Bonnie and Erin, and a 20 lb box of potatoes just for them (they couldn’t make it so we shopped for them) we went back home to clean dry and store this newly bought harvest. Now no matter what happens in the other facets of our lives, at least we know we’ll survive the winter.