Are you interested in FOOD?  Then you might find one of these Homestead.org articles handy:

Beet Kvass: The Miracle of Russia by Micah Janzen

Bioponics for the Homestead by Jerry Bauer

What's So Convenient About Convenience Foods? by John Wilson

Against the Grain: The Paleolithic Diet by Bonnie Lavigne

Edible Flowers: A Rose by Any Other Name Just Might be Lunch by Adrianne Masters

Grandma’s Pantry: Lost Recipes of My Childhood by Jeanette Leadingham

Making Mead: A Celebration of Our Unified Past by John Wilson

Diary of a Maple-syrup Man by Reid McGrath

The Devil We Know - Keeping Sugar Off the Table by Barbara Bamberger Scott

Go Nuts: Squirrel Away These Savory Snacks by Doug Smith

Hooked on Sugar: Kicking the Habit by Megan Kutchman

My Experience with Home Milking: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by April Freeman

Super Tuber! by Neil Shelton

Vegetable Gardening: Your Next Step to Self-Sufficiency by Doug Smith

Dutch-oven Cooking by Catherine Lugo

Fermented Food: Beneficial Bacteria for the Health-conscious Homesteader by Karyn Sweet

The Humble Spud – From Inca to Ireland to Idaho by Barbara Bamberger Scott

Free Eats! Combating the Rising Cost of Food by Karen Sweet

Scavenging the Urban Jungle for Food by Sheri Dixon

Understanding the Blues: A Guide to Gorgonzola by Dustin Eirdosh

Making Cheese is Fun  by Allena Jackson

Manna From On High: High-altitude Homesteader Bakes by Gin Getz

 

Buddah's hand citron

 

Weird Things to Grow and Market on the Homestead

by Bonnie Lavigne

It’s a fact that, as a species, we bore easily.  Curious beings are we, always looking for the innovative and new.  This is especially true of our food.  Although we may not always follow fashion fads or jump right in to learn a new technology, we’re far more adventurous with trying a new ice cream or exotic fruit.  There’s less commitment, usually less money involved and little risk.  Food doesn’t intimidate as much as squeezing into a fuchsia body-sock or figuring out complicated gadgets.  New or unusual foods promise a unique sensory experience; and if it proves to be delightful, we’re likely to share it with friends and family.  It doesn’t hurt if the food is also good for us. 

Restaurants, chefs, grocers, and food marketers are all very well aware of this.  They spend a lot of time and money feeding our craving for novelty.  Although some innovations fall as flat as a peppermint soufflé (remember green ketchup, garlic ice cream, or olestra?), our produce shelves are burgeoning with fruits and veggies that wouldn’t be recognized just a few years ago.  Portobello mushrooms weren’t common until the ‘90’s, and neither were daikon radishes, fiddleheads, tomatillos, Jamaican yams, or carrots in any other color but orange.  Producers can generally get a premium price for new offerings.  In our region, ground cherries—that common but largely forgotten roadside plant our grandparents foraged for free—now go for $3.50 a pint.

Value-added products using these new crops generate even more purchasing incentive.  Folks may be a little hesitant to buy something if they don’t know how to cook or eat it.  They may not know what to do with Saskatoon berries, but they sure as heck know what to do with Saskatoon Berry Jam.  Seaweed might be a little intimidating to some, but they wouldn’t hesitate to scarf down a plate of sushi.   

Produce aisles sometimes offer recipe cards for shoppers beside the produce they want to sell.  Presenting a photo of a tempting dish entices buyers and eases any hesitation to try it.  Once a new food reaches a tipping point of general acceptance the big manufacturers jump on the bandwagon.  They may not present it in a healthy or even truthful manner, but their promotion solidifies the food as a cultural norm and is a benefit to small producers who no longer have to educate their buyers.  
But until there is an established demand, there is risk. 

The biggest challenge to growers taking a new path is matching up your current resources to what you want to try, understanding your potential market, and your tolerance for risk.  If possible it’s best to launch your new venture without digging too deeply into your own savings.  That said, you need to be careful about going into debt as well.  How to resolve this conundrum?  Begin with what you know or are producing already.  This means you already have some expertise and an established market that may be more likely to accept new offerings.  The greater the cash outlay needed for your product, the truer this is. 

For instance, let’s say you’ve fallen in love with Water Buffaloes.  Don’t laugh.  Water buffalo milk is rich, creamy, and is the very best for making mozzarella cheese.  According to the Archer family who run Fairburn Farms on Vancouver Island, buffalo milk has fifty-eight percent more calcium than cow’s milk, forty percent more protein, forty-three percent less cholesterol, and is a rich source of iron, phosphorus, vitamin A and protein.  Seventeen percent of the world’s milk comes from the water buffalo.  It’s easier to digest than cow’s milk and is good for many people who are lactose sensitive.   

But establishing a water-buffalo herd is not for the novice.  During the Mad Cow Disease scare of the 1990’s, all ruminants purchased from Denmark were ordered destroyed and their carcasses tested.  Although this disease has never been found in water buffalo, the Archers lost their entire herd of nineteen Danish-born animals.  They were in debt and without income, but with a few Canadian-born calves and never-say-die determination they rebuilt their herd and began producing milk and breeding stock. 

Innovation on this scale is not for the timid.  It’s a better option if you already have the land, or a dairy, and a marketing outlet (Fairburn sells all their milk to local artisans, Natural Pastures Cheese Company).  But the opportunity for growth can make the risk worthwhile.  If you search for "water buffalo yogurt" online, you’ll find several North American farms producing it.  The product fits well with America’s trend toward buying healthier, locally-produced, organic meats and dairy.

But what about we smaller homesteaders who want to try growing something new?  Luckily there are hundreds of options out there, and small local and/or organic farmers are already well-equipped to meet the needs of niche markets.  The trick is to match up what you already have to the opportunities that exist.  The following is a four-step process to find your perfect fit. 

Step One:  Brainstorm

Open your minds and imaginations and get set for an adventure.  Gather up paper, pencils, and some intelligent, optimistic people and write down some ideas.  Anything goes.  No holds barred!  Don’t invite any nay-sayers to the table.  This is the time for creativity to flow, and nothing dampens that process as well as someone exercising "caution".  Make a rule: no negativity.  So what if you live in Arizona and you imagine growing scented purple rice.  Put it out there and worry about the practicality of irrigated rice paddies in the desert later.  Sometimes a great idea overwhelms the obstacles, so don’t put the obstacles first.  This is where the creative types can go wild.  Give them free reign. 

Step Two: Qualify

After you have a couple of hundred wonderful ideas, go get a coffee and take a break.  When you return to the table, it’s time to put those erasers to work.  First, remove anything that doesn’t absolutely excite you.  Then make another list, this time of resources.  How much time can you devote to developing something new?  What are you currently growing?  How do you market your output now?  Do you have any excess funds for your new venture?  What about acreage, soil type, water resources, climate, local pests, etc.?  Even if you don’t have your land yet, don’t skip this step.  You probably have a good idea of where you plan to homestead and what you’d like to grow.  This is where the bean-counters in the group can go to town.  Be as detailed and realistic as possible about your assets. 

Step Three: Kill Your Darlings

You now have two lists.  One with innovative ideas, another with realistic assets.  Now is the time to match them up.  Now is the time to kill your darlings.  If you live in a hollow in Arizona with an underground aquifer that seeps out to support rice, then keep your purple rice idea.  Otherwise put it on the back burner for now.  If you worry about diseases that transfer from ranched wildlife to their wild cousins, then an elk farm may not be for you.  If you don’t have the funds to build a fish farm or the acreage to support water buffalo, toss those ideas into the bin.  Pare down your list relentlessly.  If it helps, don’t imagine these ideas are gone for good.  File them for later assessment.  Now is the time to listen to the cautious types, the practical ones who’ve been wriggling in their seats until now. 

Step Four:  Pick one and go for it

What you will end up with after all of this is a list of qualified options.  This list is gold.  If you’ve done this right you can fly with whatever is left.  Give yourself enough time to learn and create the best quality before you head to market though.  This is especially true of edibles you plan to sell to specialty customers like chefs.  Consistency, reliability, and reputation are essential in niche markets.

The following are a few innovations that have succeeded.  Let them inspire you! 

Snails

There’s an old joke about a little snail who painted a big "S" on his car.  When asked, he said it was because he wanted people to look at him as he passed and say, "Hey, look at that big S-car go."  Cute, but in fact the name "escargot" is a French moniker for any kind of snail.  The Helix polmatia is the large, white-bodied snail most commonly associated with French cuisine, but its cousin, Helix aspersa also makes great escargot.  This is the smaller, grey-bodied critter that decimates gardens across North America.  Raising these as food is a kind of poetic justice. 

Helix polmatia

Demand for escargot is far greater than local supply, with most chefs purchasing tinned snails imported from France.  Locally grown escargot has good growth potential as it offers better value and often better quality for restaurant buyers.  You can start small with low cash outlay.  Mary Stewart is a successful snail rancher in California who supplies top chefs all over the country.  According to NY Times writer, Jeff Gordinier, who calls her "The Snail Wrangler", Mary’s snails are in high demand because she makes the effort to cultivate the best and thoroughly clean them of grit before market.  Mary advises potential snail-farmers to take time to learn the art of heliculture before approaching chefs who are very particular about quality.   

 

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