Great Recession shows families with improved diets

This month’s edition of the USDA Amber Waves reports that:

The fact that a decline in FAFH [Food Away From Home] consumption was only observed among working-age adults, and not among older adults, suggests that the recession was a large factor influencing where working-age adults obtained their food. However, the fact that accounting for household income did not affect the estimated change in FAFH consumption over the period suggests that the recession effect was not mainly through income, but through other channels such as increased time available for shopping and preparing food at home.

Researchers also found that most of the improvements in diet quality were not a result of the decline in FAFH consumption. The quality of at-home and away-from-home foods improved, perhaps from consumers focusing more on nutrition when selecting foods. Whether or not these changes are a result of the recession or are due to other factors cannot be determined with the data. However, the fact that improved diet quality was observed among older adults and that they also reported greater attention to nutrition information suggests that this nutrition focus is not simply the result of higher unemployment. Food manufacturers may also be responding in part to consumer demand for nutrition by improving the nutritional content of foods that they produce.

Cutting back and eating more food at home correlates with improved nutrition and family time.  That’s good — but not surprising — news.  Although there is no direct link between the two, priorities have shifted.  Read the full article here.

That’s not all.  The United States added 5 million home food gardeners from 2008 to 2009, an increase of 14%.  41 million people who garden for food at home might be impacting those improved nutrition numbers a bit.

Unfortunately, the need for gardening for food for economic reasons is likely here to stay.  The Congressional Budget Office report “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024” forecasts a solid pace in economic growth through 2017, although they don’t expect unemployment to drop below 6% until 2016 and then not by much.  But after 2017:

Beyond 2017, CBO expects that economic growth will diminish to a pace that is well below the average seen over the past several decades. That projected slowdown mainly reflects long-term trends—particularly, slower growth in the labor force because of the aging of the population. Inflation, as measured by the change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE), will remain at or below 2.0 percent throughout the next decade, CBO anticipates… In CBO’s projections, the growth of potential GDP over the next 10 years is much slower than the average since 1950.

That’s a projection, not something written in stone.  As baby boomers continue to retire it will cause a demographic, cultural and economic shift in the United States, the likes of which haven’t been seen since they were born.  Many will be healthy, active and likely to spend decades in retirement.  It’s hard for anyone to say exactly what the full ramifications of that demographic transition will be, and any projections must be viewed as a possibility, not a probability.

If you are involved in home food production, you have a lot of company right now.


By the Numbers: Cabbage

Frost on cabbage

Frosted cabbage

Is cabbage cost effective in the home garden?  Well, sort of.  Let’s run the numbers.

This year, I planted three varieties of heading cabbage from seed, “Brunswick,” “Early Jersey Wakefield,” and “Glory of Enkhuizen.”  All are fairly well respected varieties, but of those, I only got two smallish heads, from the Brunswick and Early Jersey Wakefield.  Since their failure has more to do with the horde of slugs and snails that infest my garden than any problem with plant productivity, I’m going to skip these for the purposes of this evaluation.

Instead, late season I was gifted with 10 small cabbage plugs of a commercial variety by my friends over at Food From the Yard.  They went into the garden quite late: September 1st.  I had ample room, so each cabbage got a full 4 square feet; I filled one 4’x10′ bed.  They were sprayed twice with Dipel DF to control cabbage worm, which is another pest I have in abundance.  Dipel is Bt, which is a very safe and specific control for lepidoptera pests.  (Don’t spray on plants that harmless butterfly larvae consume; it’ll kill them, too.)  I did lose two seedlings to slugs despite an application of Sluggo (iron phosphate), which is another very safe pest control option.

  • Cost of plants: none, but usually these would cost about $5
  • Cost of pest control: about $2
  • Labor: transplanting, two spray sessions of Dipel, one Sluggo application
  • Space: 400 sq. ft
  • Yield: 8 2.5-3.5lb. heads for 24 pounds of produce
  • Cost at retail: $0.62/lb. x 24 = $14.88
  • Gross value per square foot: $0.0372

So cabbage technically has a positive cash flow, if you ignore labor costs and have the available space in your winter garden.  Even if I had purchased the plugs, I would have netted about $7.  But that’s $7 for about 1 1/2 hours of work: well below minimum wage in any state.

Aside from the financial impact, cabbage stores and ships fairly well, so nutrient loss in cabbage that comes through the food distribution chain is minimal, and if there is a taste difference, it’s not one that I can detect.

I suspect, however, that I will continue to plant cabbage.  There isn’t much else that I can plant in late fall as garden bed space opens up that won’t be in the way next spring, so the space would otherwise be unproductive.  And while the financial benefits are borderline, the psychological benefits of seeing greenery in the garden and harvesting fresh food in December or January are hard to beat.


My favorite winter veggie: cabbage

IMGP0586 pp

Cabbage gets no respect.  Kale is trendy and collards are so very Southern, but their cousin the cabbage is overlooked often in this country, except for the occasional uneaten side of coleslaw.  In 2011 the United States produced 959,750 metric tons of cabbage and brassicas (which would include kale, collards, broccoli and cauliflower).  China?  31,750,000 tons, much of which is what we call Chinese cabbage or Bok Choy.  Cabbage is much more popular in other countries than it is here, partly because cabbage yields more edible product than any other vegetable per acre and matures in as little as 3 months.

That’s not why I like it, though.  It is originally an Asian vegetable that made it’s way to the United States via northern Europe, and that means it’s a cold weather vegetable in subtropical climates like the South — perfect for winter growing.  It’s not quite as cold hardy as collards or kale, but only by a whisker.  Unlike collards and kale, however, cabbage stores exceptionally well for a green vegetable.  With the proper selection of storage varieties (heading types with low moisture content), cabbage will store up to 6 months at 32F and 90% humidity.  A home refrigerator is ideally set at 37F and is less humid, but still cabbage will store for a couple of months under those conditions.  Which means I can leave cabbage in the garden and harvest when I want it, add some protection if the temperature will drop below 22F or so, and if truly cold weather threatens I can bring it indoors into the fridge and store until spring greens are ready.

And as far as I am concerned, cabbage tastes better and is more flexible when preparing meals, from raw to sauerkraut to roasted.  Kale lovers will no doubt disagree.

Left unchecked, cabbage worms will shred your young cabbage in the fall.  They can be controlled with Bt without causing collateral damage to beneficial insects.  I use Dipel DF, which keeps well for many years if kept dry and unmixed, and I add a surfactant so the spray doesn’t just run off cabbage’s waxy leaves.  Reapply after every rain or about every 1-2 weeks to protect new growth.  You can also try hand picking, but I find the worms get down into the crevices and are very difficult to find.

Store-bought cabbage is cheap, this week at $0.52/pound conventional and $1.29/pound for organic, so your financial payoff with cabbage will not be a large one. Those in colder regions that must compete for space in the summer garden will probably not find it worthwhile.  However, with the ease of growing and with the available space in the winter season, cabbage probably deserves a place in the winter gardens for those of us in warmer climates.  Hardy crops like cabbage allow us to have fresh vegetables when much of the country must rely on what they’ve preserved.

(By Nicole Castle)

“Bug parts” in imported spices – should you be concerned?


Sorghum, with a hitchhiker

Thursday, the United States FDA released “Draft Risk Profile: Pathogens and Filth in Spices,” (PDF link) which is making the rounds of the media with a sensationalist tone about bug parts and rat hair, and placing a lot of blame on small farmers overseas.  You can read the whole report yourself at the link above.  If 213 pages seems excessive right now, CNN had the most comprehensive and accurate media coverage I saw on this topic so far.

Let’s break this down into the issues:

  • Bad small farmers
  • Contamination
  • Ick factor
  • Importing our spices

First, the FDA report doesn’t blame small farmers.  Small farmers in tropical regions are responsible for a large portion of the international spice trade.  The problem with small farmers is not their size, but that it is much harder to train many small, scattered growers on food safety and hygiene that it is a few giant operations.

Next, contamination.  12% of spices are considered contaminated, but many of those bulk spices have yet to undergo cleaning treatments at the packaging companies.  These treatments including sifting and cleaning for physical adulterants (like hair) and also sometimes cooking or other treatments to reduce microbial contamination.  Salmonella is one of the common adulterants cited and while it can lead to serious illness, the small amount of spices a person eats shows in the correspondingly small food illness reports: only 14 outbreaks of food illness worldwide in 37 years, and only two deaths.  As food risk goes, this is fairly small.

Oh, but the ick factor.  The newspapers are publishing large headlines about bug parts, not salmonella, because bugs are icky.  Never mind that many cultures eat insects in one form or another, it’s not part of the American concept of food, despite recent research showing we should be ranching mealworms instead of beef.  I’m part of that culture: the only grasshoppers I am likely to eat soon have “Keebler” on the outside of the package.  But as a gardener, I am pretty realistic about the fact that if you eat food, you end up eating insects and insect parts.  Dried beans are particularly likely to contain insect eggs, but so does meat and the exteriors and nooks and crannies of vegetables and fruit.  If I don’t rush inside to wash a snap pea picked off the vine before I eat it, I am not going to freak out about microscopic parts of bugs in a dash of pepper.

But that brings us to the final concern: importing our spices.  Many of the spices and flavorings that we prize are grown in remote tropical areas.  This isn’t an American phenomenon, nor even a new one.  Some of the oldest trade routes in the world were developed around shipping spices.  If civilization crashed tomorrow, there would still be traders on rafts and boats and donkeys and camels trekking the world to sell spices.  (Whether you could afford them is another matter.)  I have advocated growing your own herbs whenever possible, because for the space and effort they take up, they are very cost effective.  Hot peppers and paprika, too, are in range for most of the US.  But I can’t grow peppercorns in Alabama.  Or vanilla, nutmeg, anise, cinnamon, or many others.  So we import because we must if we want to flavor our foods in familiar ways.

Perhaps most tellingly, the 12% contamination rate in spices is twice the rate of contamination of other imported foods.  That means the fully 6% of all our imported food is contaminated with these specific adulterants, and does not include various chemicals used in farming.  The issue before us is not why do we import spices, but why do we import so much food at all, given the high rate of contamination?  And why are the news reports all about this 12% that comprises much less than 1% of our diet, and not the 6% that comprises 10-15% of our diet (PDF link)?

(By Nicole Castle)

By the numbers: the humble peanut


Virginia peanuts

I didn’t mean to grow peanuts this year.  I didn’t need to conduct an experiment and weigh them to know that peanuts are not cost effective in backyard gardens.  And yet, last fall, at a community seed swap, there they were.  I brought home a scant handful; perhaps a 12 peanuts, give or take.  Few seeds go unplanted in Finch Hollow for long.

Peanuts are not a nut; they are a legume native to South America and first domesticated in the distant past, but they have spread all over the world.  They are exceptionally healthy, very calorically dense, and transport and save well.  Here in the US most of us eat peanuts roasted as a snack or as peanut butter, or eat things fried in peanut oil, but you can find other snacks, soups, sauces and sweets in many cuisines.  In the South they are popular boiled green in the shell with various spices, which is probably yet another culinary brainchild of African slaves.  You’ll see roadside BOILED P’NUT vendors from midsummer to fall.  If you haven’t tried them this way, next time you see one stop by and spend $1 for a cup.  You’ll be glad you did.  It’s messy, but delicious.

Quick note: “raw” peanuts are not “green” peanuts.  “Raw” peanuts are dried, but not roasted or cooked.  Green peanuts are freshly harvested and undried.  You can boil or cook with either raw or green peanuts, but the moisture content is very different, which can affect your recipe’s outcome.  And green peanuts do not keep long.  Green peanuts taste like beans (which they are), not like nuts (which is what most people think they are).


Peanuts are an odd plant.  The seed (that’s the shell and all) goes in the ground, it spouts and then blooms with small yellow flowers.  When the blooms are fertilized, the plant sends down sprouts (or “pegs”) which drill into the soil and the plant fruits underground.  As a survival strategy, I suppose it helps protect the next generation from hungry critters, and the plant migrates it’s colony slowly outward that way.  However, as you can see in the photo above, the plant spreads itself out generously and using raised beds is not advised: those pegs never found dirt and so never turned into peanuts.

I gave the peanuts two 1′ x 8′ strips next to the corn.  They took over the rest of the two 4’x8′ beds and tried to spread into the aisles.  My dozen peanut shells turned into 4 1/2 pounds of peanuts in the shell.  While that is an excellent reproductive rate, it’s not very many peanuts when all is said and done.  I can buy roasted, salted peanuts in the shell for about $1 a pound here.  While the peanuts didn’t cost me anything to grow, they also didn’t pay back financial dividends and took up space that could be used more productively.

  • Cost of seed, labor, fertilizer, etc: none
  • Labor: none, other than harvesting
  • Space: 16 sq ft to 48 sq ft
  • Yield: 4.5 lbs
  • Cost at retail: $4.50
  • Value per square foot: $0.09-0.28

However, there are reasons you might want to grow peanuts anyway.  Peanuts are legumes, so they are nitrogen fixers and don’t deplete the soil, and can make an excellent cover crop if you have enough growing space to let beds rest.  If you have a lot of space, they pack a nutritional wallop for almost no effort until it’s time to dig them up.  (Loose soil is advised.  For you, not the peanuts.)  And if you want green peanuts for traditional dishes, green peanuts can be very difficult to find outside of farm market stands in the South for a limited time in the late summer and fall.

Should you grow peanuts?  Probably not.  Modern agriculture brings us this tasty and nutritious vegetable for far cheaper than you can grow it yourself.  But in terms of fascination with the plant itself, I can understand why George Washington Carver devoted so much time and brilliance to the humble and unassuming Arachis hypogaea.

(By Nicole Castle)

By the numbers: Sweet bell peppers


Bell peppers are practically synonymous with “salad vegetable” here in the United States.  Lately fancy colored peppers in yellow, orange and red have become foodie trendy, but these colors are just the fully ripe versions of the humble green pepper.  Even the more exotic colors like chocolate and purple start out green.  (With the exception of the new Islander hybrid, which is shades of purple and pink when still unripe, and I will be trialling next summer.)  Green peppers has a slight bitterness to them; colored peppers are sweeter and more nutritious but are also a lot more money because getting peppers to the fully ripe stage takes a lot of time and many peppers are usually lost to rot and fungus when on the way.

Our household is very fond of peppers.  It’s difficult to weigh and log your peppers when so many get eaten while standing in the garden or vanish from the countertop when you bring them inside.  We eat most of them fresh, but some get sliced up into curries.

This summer I planted a whopping 8 bell peppers plants in rather cramped conditions: just 2.8 square feet per plant.

  • 2 California Wonder, the standard, an old open pollinated variety, 5.6 square feet – 3 lbs., .54 lbs/sq. ft.
  • 2 Orange Bell, an open-pollinated variety of unsure provenance, 5.6 square feet – 4 lbs., .71 lbs./sq. ft.
  • 4 Jackpot, a hybrid, 11.2 square feet – 31 lbs., 2.77 lbs./sq.ft.

Yes, seriously, the hybrid performs that much better.  It may not in your climate.  Most bell pepper varieties sold today are variants on the California Wonder which was bred specifically for California agriculture.  Alabama is nothing like California from a gardening or climate standpoint.  The Jackpot F1 tends to produce a larger and longer pepper which is not as square and blocky as the standard and with fewer seeds but just as thick-walled and tastes the same.  Like California Wonder, it will turn red when ripe.  Unlike the California Wonder, peppers exceeding 1/2 pound aren’t uncommon.

The Jackpot seed was a new packet this year but, I reused seed from previous years for the others.  The Orange Bell seed was nearly 10 years old and has really never performed well for me so it was forgotten.  It of course turns orange when ripe, and it also is virtually identical in taste to the others.  For the numbers, but let’s pretend I purchased all new seed at $3/pkg

Seed: $8
Fertilizer: Cottonseed meal, maximum value $1
Irrigation: Yes, twice this year, but usually I’d need to water 5 times or so,  $1.
Pesticides: None.
Row cover and other tools: None.
Labor:  Started seedlings indoors and transplanted.  Minor weeding.  Harvesting.  Re-used seed pots, cost of potting soil and electricity for lighting, $2.

Total cost to grow first year: $12

I don’t let many go ripe, because I lose too many to rot in our humid climate.  Ripe peppers tend to be mistakes; one lost in the foliage until it’s bright enough to see.  Sometimes, fetching it is a gooey experience, but sometimes not.  So the money numbers below are based on green bell pepper prices.  As of last week (this link updates, so if you click on it you will get the latest report and not the one to which I am referring), the average price of conventionally grown green bell peppers is $1.53/lb. and $2.99/lb. for organic.  Harvest time is the lowest price point per year you’ll see.  $5/lb. is not unheard of here on the off season… but I don’t have fresh peppers then; so I always compare with seasonal prices.  My price for home grown organic-ish bell peppers?

Pounds Cost to grow Cost per pound
California Wonder 3  $    3.00  $    1.0000
Orange Bell 4  $    3.00  $    0.7500
Jackpot F1 31  $    6.00  $    0.1935

For the California Wonder and the Orange Bell, I did better than the market rate, but not by an impressive amount.  For the Jackpot F1, I did very well, which is why I continue to grow Jackpot every year despite the fact I can’t save seed from it.  The cost of a packet of seed that lasts several years is easily recouped.  It goes to show the importance of selecting a variety that performs well for you.  From a financial standpoint, I rate bell peppers to be mixed: if you find a good performer, they are a good value for the limited space they require.  If you get modest results, they may not deserve space in your garden.  Consider the tough and prolific banana pepper instead.

However… the production of bell peppers for the mass market requires large amounts of pesticides and chemicals.  It’s one of the “dirtiest” vegetables you can buy.  If this is a concern for you, growing clean and pesticide-free peppers may outweigh any lackluster financial returns.

(By Nicole Castle)

By the numbers: Sweet banana peppers


I’m not a huge fan of banana peppers — don’t ask me why since they taste almost exactly like bell peppers — but they are practically bulletproof in the southern garden.  For those unfamiliar with banana peppers, they are basically a sweet frying pepper, but are most commonly pickled or eaten fresh.  They also dehydrate well.  They have thinner walls than bell peppers, and while they will eventually turn orange and red, I don’t know anyone that waits for that to happen.  Taste-wise, banana peppers don’t have the trace of bitterness that accompanies green bell peppers, but neither are they quite as sweet as fully ripe red bell peppers.  At least at the yellow stage; I’ve never eaten a ripe banana pepper.

In addition to the more common sweet version, there is a “hot” version that tastes pretty much the same but has a tiny kick.  Sometimes they are confused for Hungarian wax peppers or peperoncinis, but they don’t have the heat of the former or the hint of bitterness of the latter.

This year I planted 4 seedlings, 2 from the old fashioned heirloom variety, and 2 of an improved hybrid called Sweet Spot XR.  The hybrid produced significantly larger and thicker peppers, but one of the plants up and died for no reason I could determine after only a few peppers; postmortum revealed poor root development.  The following numbers are based on 4 plants (because that’s what I planted), but really they are the yield of 3 plants.  Each plant was given 2.8 square feet of space, which is a bit cramped for peppers.

Final tally: 11.2 square feet – 26.5 lbs., 2.36 pounds per square foot, or 6.5 lbs. per plant.

I did not break down by variety for this plant; since the plants all grew into each other it would be near impossible to accurately and consistently identity which fruit came from which plant.  Again, I reused seed from previous years, but let’s pretend I purchased seed at $3/pkg

Seed: $6
Fertilizer: Cottonseed meal, maximum value $0.50
Irrigation: Yes, twice this year, but usually I’d need to water 5 times or so,  $1.
Pesticides: None.
Row cover and other tools: None.
Labor:  Started seedlings indoors and transplanted.  Minor weeding.  Harvesting.  Re-used seed pots, cost of potting soil and electricity for lighting, $1.

Total cost to grow first year: $8.50

The USDA doesn’t track retail prices for banana peppers, so I am going to use the bell pepper price.  Depending on your region, banana peppers could sell as an exotic pepper, or they could be of a lower value as they are here in the South.   As of last week (this link updates, so if you click on it you will get the latest report and not the one to which I am referring), the average price of conventionally grown green bell peppers is $1.53/lb. and $2.99/lb. for organic.  As always, this is the lowest price point per year, but unless you are preserving them it’s a realistic figure to compare to what you’d be purchasing.  My price for home grown organic-ish banana peppers?

Pounds Cost to grow Cost per pound
Banana peppers 26.5  $  8.50  $   0.3208

That’s a huge savings for a fresh, nutritious vegetable that takes up a very small space to grow and is liked by most people.  Banana peppers also rarely succumb to disease or pests or fruit rot.  I declare banana peppers a winner in the cost effectiveness category.

So why did I give away most of my banana peppers?  Because I had a great year for bell peppers, which I prefer.  The banana peppers are just a fall-back plan, because here in the South, bell peppers don’t always do well.  More on that in our next installment of By the Numbers, coming tomorrow.

(By Nicole Castle)