A few weeks ago, I was picking up some groceries to tide my family over as we wait out coronavirus, and the shelves were far emptier than I’m used to. The lack of cans of condensed tomato soup, in particular, caught me by surprise.
I am in my mid-30s, and I cannot remember a time in which store shelves were empty. For that — and for the fact that soon stores and food distributors will adjust to different demand and fill the shelves again — I am thankful.
It got me thinking about how lucky we really are to have the vast food options we have and about how the people who came before us fed themselves. To learn more, I chatted with someone knowledgeable about the subject.
Sue Balcom was my first professional newspaper editor when I did some sports writing for the Mandan (N.D.) News during my senior year of college. In addition to her background in journalism, Sue also has worked in various aspects of local foods, has a strong love for the history of the region and has authored several books about the pre-electrification days of southern North Dakota.
Sue told me the story of how her father had dropped off her mother sometime around the beginning of December in 1948 at a Bismarck, N.D., hospital to have Sue’s brother. Days after the baby was born, mother and child were retrieved and taken home to McIntosh County, N.D., where they remained until around April. The North Dakota winter did not allow for travel. Store-bought food came via a rare neighbor with a car.
“That is not a very convenient way to feed your family,” Sue says.
Families back then also prepared and fended for themselves. They grew their own food and preserved what they could by canning or in root cellars.
Sue also is a grower in a community supported agriculture venture. She has a greenhouse and a high tunnel and is quite prolific in her growing and baking. So we talked about how people, facing some uncertainty with regard to the future and with time on their hands, might consider taking up gardening.
“First of all, I would suggest not digging up their entire yard until you actually know you’re going to like to garden,” she says.
Sue suggests looking into container gardens or small-space gardening before tackling a larger project. Even putting some vegetables into a flower garden can give you a little extra to eat.
“Really, you can plant a full salsa garden in a 4-by-4 space,” she says. “The key is a good, healthy soil.”
Now is the time to start seeds, and Sue recommends sterilized soil and using sturdy containers. Make sure the seeds get plenty of light; fluorescent tubes work well, as does a window sill and an ice cream pail, she says.
“Plant them and keep them in the house” until after frost, Sue says.
“If you can’t walk around outside naked, you shouldn’t be putting those crops in the ground,” she says.
Some things, like radishes, lettuce and spinach, can be planted outside a little earlier.
Invest in a gardening book or look for online resources, including from your local Extension agency. Make sure to wait until after freezes are open.
I’m no master gardener myself. I enjoy playing in the dirt and occasionally have some success. But I learned a lot talking to Sue, so we’ll see if I improve.
If you want to try your hand at growing some of your own food, this might be a good time to try it. Don’t do it out of fear; our food supply and system is still strong and will be in the future. But it can be a great thing to do, pandemic or not.