Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The $2 Lemon

Last night, Stan made dinner. We had mashed potatoes, black beans, fresh spinach, a variety of condiments… and a lemon. The amazing thing is that everything was homegrown.

     To be sure, Sandhill has a longstanding devotion to growing a high percentage of its own food, and it isn't that rare to have meals whose ingredients were all grown within walking distance of our kitchen. While that's a feat that's generally more easily accomplished during the growing season (when fresh food is abundant), now and then we can pull it off in January, as Stan did last night.
     Let's walk through the menu:
     Having one's own potatoes is not that remarkable. Potatoes are relatively easy to grow in the Midwest and they keep well through the cold months with a modicum of attention to managing ambient moisture and temperature. Most years we're self-sufficient in potatoes year round. No big deal.
Black Beans
     Black beans are bit more challenging. While all kinds of beans grow just fine here—plenty of sun, moisture, and good soil—almost no one in their right mind would attempt to grow them for dry storage in our climate. The problem is too much moisture at harvest. All beans (soybeans being the major exception) tend to set and mature their pods over a period of weeks, not at the same time. This has obvious evolutionary advantages in that there is a much longer stretch of time over which the plant has chances to successfully produce viable seed. But it makes them a bitch to harvest. 
     Ideal culture for producing dry beans is one which has dependable water during the plant's vegetative stage, followed by dependably dry conditions during maturity. You want the early maturing pods to hang around (literally) and wait for the late maturing pods to catch up before you attempt to thresh them. If you cut the beans too soon, the late pods won't be dry enough and the high-moisture beans may spoil the whole crop; if you delay cutting them too long, late rains can mold everything. It's a hold-your-breath-and-pray-for-the-right-weather proposition.
     To manage this on a commercial scale, dry beans are grown in dry climates (think eastern Washington) where you can irrigate the plants when they're young and then turn the water off as the pods start to fill. On the homestead scale, we can finagle the weather by growing beans in small enough batches (maybe 1/4-acre at a time) that we have the option of taking evasive measures if rain threatens the maturing beans in August. We can (and have) gone into the field ahead of the weather, hand cut the plants, piled them loosely on a wagon, and driven the wagon into a barn, where they can air dry at their leisure until they're ready for the combine.
     Now you're probably saying to yourself, "That's a lot of trouble just to grow your own dry beans," and you'd be right. Organic black beans are relatively easy to obtain these days and we're not talking about a lot of money. But we're stubborn and have a lot of pride in our commitment to self-sufficiency at the dinner table.
     This is a hardy green, and with care, we can manage occasional servings of it in the winter. We do it by planting a crop in the fall and then covering it with Reemay (a spun polyester shade cloth that conserves soil temperature and acts as buffer against winds, while permeable to moisture and a good portion of sunlight) once the cold arrives in earnest. It's kind of like a poor man's greenhouse. We keep chard and Brussels sprouts under the same covering and it's a great treat to have fresh greens whenever a winter warm spell supports a burst of harvestable growth under the Reemay.
     Ordinarily, when a person talks about a $2 lemon, it's in the nature of a story about buying a cheap toaster at a flea market, only to find out it doesn't work when you get it home. This story however, goes the other way: it's about a somewhat pricey purchase that may actually turn out to be a bargain—at least according to homestead economics, which deeply discounts one's labor.
     Sandhill is located smack in the middle of the US—growing zone 5. That means we have a prototypical temperate climate: wet springs, hot summers, glorious falls, and cold winters. The works. Lemons don't grow in that climate. However, we love fresh lemons—they're way better than what you get from bottles of reconstituted juice, and three years ago Gigi acquired a small lemon tree that came in a pot. Once the dangers of frost have passed, we position it in the yard, out of the wind. In the fall we lug it back inside, and place it next to a southern window (where it can gaze, perhaps wistfully, at the outdoors and the natural weather that it's more southern cousins are able to bask in year round). 
     After three years, this "tree" is only 18 inches high, growing out of a pot 12 inches deep. Kind of like a citrus mascot. Yet despite its diminutive stature, the darn thing started bearing fruit last year. Real lemons! (And in sharp contrast with ReaLemon.) 
     So far, we've harvested about a dozen lemons and there are about that many again on the tree in various stages of ripeness (I can't look at a tree that small producing fruit without thinking of teenage pregnancies, but what do I know about lemon adolescence). Apparently the going rate on a young potted lemon tree is about $25. That works out to about $2 a lemon so far (if you don't count your labor ferrying the pot around, watering it, and generally loving it up), but the price is dropping. Of course, it'll be a while before we're self-sufficient in lemons, but now we can see how we might get there, and that's exciting for us homesteaders.
     This spring we're going to buy three more.

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