For urban dwellers, sticking to a healthy, balanced diet that comprises mostly locally sourced foods gets complicated as the temperature starts to drop. All too soon, the colorful spreads of fruits and vegetables at the local farmers’ market become sparse and picked over as the season shifts to fall. Many farmers’ markets close out their seasons or are lightly populated, and community-supported agriculture providers suspend deliveries until the next spring. In most areas of the country, the farming community braces for snow, ice and indoor living.
With a mind for sustainability and a making the goods of summer last a bit longer, many enthusiastic locavores have invested in a water-bath canner and a collection of preserving jars. The age-old method of preserving and storing foods for the winter is time-consuming work. Americans once relied on preservation methods like canning or root cellaring to survive the winter season, but today many of us just preserve food to stay connected to local agriculture.
To make your efforts worthwhile, it’s important to have plenty of a single variety of vegetable or fruit at-hand at one time for processing. You’ll need bushels and 25-pound boxes of produce in order to store away a few quarts of canned food. Unlike the typical week-to-week farmers’ market visit, buying bulk at the farmers’ market products will require a few additional considerations. Here are some tips I’ve learned to help you make the process stress-free and perhaps save you a little bit of money.
1. Assess Your Needs
Sit down with your favorite recipe books and assess what vegetables you use the most in your kitchen. For me, canned tomatoes make an appearance in many of the dishes I cook, including sauces, casseroles and stews. I also love canned peaches, and I can attest that home-canned food tastes better than grocery store-bought canned food.
Pinpoint a few of the fruits and vegetables at the top of your list, and then find out the best way to preserve them—often there is more than one way, but you’ll need to choose the most practical way for your kitchen space. If you have a deep freeze, for instance, it might make sense to freeze some items rather than take the time to process in a canner. If you have plenty of dry pantry storage, you’ll want to can those appropriate foods.
For some foods low in acidity, you will need a pressure canner to preserve, while you can use your water-bath canner for high-acid foods. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions and exercise caution when using a pressure canner, never leaving it alone.
Once you have a list of what to preserve, look at a local harvest calendar specific to your region to find out when the produce is in its peak season. Vegetables good for purchasing in bulk for canning are:
- green beans and string beans (requires a pressure canner)
- peaches and nectarines
- beets (as pickles or fresh)
- cucumbers (as pickles)
- berries (strawberries, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries)
2. Plan a Canning Time
A first consideration will be timing a bulk pick-up with the time you plan to process your fruits or vegetables. Clear at least a few hours in the day for cleaning, coring, chopping, cooking and processing your produce. When possible, coordinate your bulk item pick-up early in the day so you can get started on processing the food while fresh and ripe. If you are relying on a cookbook for guidance (highly recommended for canning recipes), read recipes in their entirety before starting.
3. Research Prices
Before committing to a bulk purchase from the first farmer you meet, do a little shopping and research. Take notes of the prices different farm vendors or farmers’ markets offer. Survey the product and be sure it’s fit for canning. While blemished and bruised vegetables will work fine for canning purposes, you want to make sure they are practical. For instance, tiny Roma tomatoes are often difficult to core and seed for the canning process. English cucumbers don’t make very good pickles.
It’s a good idea to refer to a recipe available in one of many canning cookbooks to know how many pounds of a vegetable to purchase. You will also need to account for peeled skins, the cutting out of bruises and blemishes, the reduction of water volume during cook, all of which will serve to cut down the amount of your final product in the jar. The bottom line: Purchase bulk items knowing that much of your volume will be cut down in the process.
4. Negotiate When Appropriate
For many farmers, the price of their produce is negotiable. However, some farmers anticipate bulk orders and offer a set, reduced price for a bushel (about 32 pounds). Respect those farmers’ wishes in those cases. Usually these orders will require a week’s notice ahead of time and require a return visit to the market for pick-up. You should be prepared to transport your fruits and vegetables, so a couple extra hands might be handy for pick-up day.
When shopping at the market for bulk quantities, strike up a conversation with a farmer that has a vegetable of interest. Without critiquing their product, ask if you might purchase blemished or picked-over vegetables (aka seconds) before the market closes. Ask if they would be willing to sell you a larger quantity for a lesser price—and be ready to make a respectful offer. Shop the market near closing time when many farmers are looking to empty their market stand. This simple tip has allowed me to score many half-price deals.
5. Make Connections
Before buying in bulk, go to the market and talk to farmers. Find out what’s growing well, what type of season they’re having, and what vegetables are coming down the pipeline, and if they’ll have enough to spare for a bulk order. If you show enough interest in their product and share your intentions to preserve the goods for the winter, they might be more willing to cut you a deal based on the relationship you’ve built. Score extra brownie points by bringing them a sample of something creative you’ve made. I once brought a jar of blackberry jam to a farmer I frequented at the market, and he supplied me with enough berries that day so I could spare him another jar—free of charge.
6. Visit a Farm or Orchard
U-pick operations are fun activities for families or groups that can save a little bit of money if you have the time and transportation. For bulk purchases, set a few hours aside to visit a farm or market and do the picking yourself. Some farms and orchards will allow you to glean the leftovers at the end of the season, but ask and arrange your gleaning time prior to showing up. Some farmers are looking for harvest help, so you might be able to volunteer your time in exchange for a set amount of vegetables.
7. Work in Groups
Canning is time-consuming work, but like any job, it’s much more enjoyable when you have companions. If bulk orders are too expensive for your budget, consider teaming up with one or two friends to buy a shared bulk order and then host a canning day in your kitchen. Divide the goods up equally when you are finished. This takes the edge off of the canning experience and saves you a lot of money and time.
About the Author: Elizabeth Troutman Adams is a public-relations specialist and freelance writer based in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. In addition to gardening, cooking and homesteading, she loves riding horses, practicing yoga, and spending time with her French bulldog Linus and husband Shawn. She blogs at www.bluegrassgoodness.com.