The Curious Case of Canning Tomatoes | High or Low Acid?

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Canning Tomatoes

 

The history of the tomato is not as mundane as you would expect from a simple fruit. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing simple about the tomato or its tumultuous history at all. If all of the tomatoes ever produced could talk, they would captivate you with a harrowing story of persecution and eventual redemption. The truth is that throughout history, the “apple of love” has been revered, feared, hated and only relatively recently accepted. However, this is a story for another blog article (and rest assured, it’s coming).

Today, while tomatoes and their virtues have been widely embraced, the truth is that they are still steeped in controversy. I’m of course referring to that age old debate- Are they fruits or vegetables?

In canning, a food’s acidity is incredibly important. Knowledge of your food’s pH will guide how it is processed and canned. Fruits are typically acidic, having a pH below 4.6 while vegetables are generally low acid, with a higher pH. True to their controversial nature, tomatoes reside smack-dab in the middle. Most are acidic, but many varieties exist at a pH of 4.6 or higher. So, the debate continues- what the heck are tomatoes and how does this affect your canning?

Low Acid Tomato Varieties

Not all tomatoes are high acid, and not all tomatoes are low acid, a somewhat annoying division that has frustrated many a home canning enthusiast. Luckily, the USDA and University of Minnesota Extension have done us a favor by listing the tested tomato varieties that have a pH of 4.6 or higher. They’re listed below.

  • Ace
  • Ace 55VF
  • Beefmaster Hybrid
  • Big Early Hybrid
  • Big Girl
  • Burpee VF Hybrid
  • Big Set
  • Cal Ace
  • Delicious
  • Fireball
  • Garden State
  • Royal Chico
  • San Marzano

It’s important to note that these are only the tomato varieties that have been tested. There are likely more that should be considered low acid. Figs can also be considered borderline acidic, so the following input regarding canning tomatoes applies to them as well.

Canning Tomatoes

Canning tomatoes is one of the primary joys associated with home canning. There is so much that can be done with them. Whether canning them whole, crushed, peeled, in a sauce or paste it’s important to know that they require an extra step. Acidifying your tomatoes with lemon juice or citric acid is currently considered best practice, no matter what variety you’re using and no matter how you process them.

Acidification of Tomatoes

The process of acidifying tomatoes is relatively simple and the USDA has developed a well-researched method to do so for all varieties. The acidification protocols for canning whole, crushed or juiced tomatoes are shown below:

  • Add 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice or 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid per quart of tomatoes.
  • Add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice or 1/4 teaspoon of citric acid per pint of tomatoes.
  • The lemon juice can be added directly to the jar before OR after filling it with the tomato product.
  • The lemon juice must be bottled as it has a standardized acidity, the acidity of fresh-squeezed lemon juice may vary.
  • Sugar can be added to offset the acidic taste that accompanies lemon juice and citric acid.
  • The acid can NOT be decreased after canning has occurred.

It is highly recommended that you follow these steps while canning tomatoes, no matter what variety you’re using. After acidifying your tomatoes, you can safely process them in a water bath canner and rest-assured that your final product will be safe to consume.

Acidification of Tomato Products

You should take special care when canning tomato products like sauces or pastes. Most sauces require the addition of low acid foods like onions, carrots, celery etc. for flavor. The addition of these extra low acid components may alter the acidity of your mixture enough that the above acidification methods are not sufficient. To be safe, tomato products should always be pressure canned at higher temperatures, especially when meat and mushrooms have been added to the mix. Please be aware that acidification of tomatoes is still required when pressure canning.

Processing Times

Processing times are also very important for safe canning of tomatoes. The following standard processing times were developed at Penn. State and taken from the PSU Extension website.

  • Raw-packed acidified tomatoes in pint or quart jars should be processed in a boiling-water bath canner for 85 minutes or a pressure canner for 25 minutes (10 PSI for a weighted gauge canner, 11 PSI for a dial gauge canner at an altitude of under 1000 ft).
  • Hot-packed crushed tomatoes in pint jars should be processed in a boiling-water bath canner for 35 minutes or a pressure canner for 15 minutes.
  • Hot-packed crushed tomatoes in quart jars should be processed in a boiling-water bath canner for 45 minutes or a pressure canner for 15 minutes.
  • Hot-packed tomato juice in pint jars should be processed in a boiling-water bath canner for 35 minutes or a pressure canner for 15 minutes.
  • Hot-packed tomato juice in quart jars should be processed in a boiling-water bath canner for 40 minutes or a pressure canner for 15 minutes.

Use these standard processing times to assess recipes that you come across while planning your preserve. As a general rule, it’s suggested that you only follow recipes from the USDA and cooperative extension or from a Ball Blue Book which have been scientifically tested.

A word of Caution

Note that tomatoes must be acidified in order to prevent germination and growth of C. Botulinum spores. Growth of this bacteria in low acid food increases your risk of botulism.

While acidification theoretically mitigates this risk, it’s still possible for the Botulinum bacteria to grow in high-acid food. Improper acidification of foods may result in internal pockets of low acidity. Further, if acidified food is improperly processed, some strains of fungi can survive and produce local pockets of non-acidity, facilitating bacterial growth and formation of the toxin. Proper processing and acidification should eliminate this risk, so please follow approved USDA or Ball Blue Book recipes.

Respect Canned Tomatoes

Canning tomatoes is not something to be feared, but it should be respected. They are a unique fruit that requires extra care to can safely. Make sure that you’re educated and have all the right equipment and ingredients beforehand and you shouldn’t have any problems.

Happy Canning.

 

High Acid Food vs. Low Acid Food | Home Canning

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High Acid Lemon Picture

Jumping into the world of canning food is exciting. By doing so, you are beginning a journey towards self-sufficiency and a fantastic hobby! But before starting your first recipe, it’s extremely important to arm yourself with knowledge of the basic science behind canning food.

You may ask- why is it so important to learn the basics of canning if there are so many recipes available online? The truth is that you have to take responsibility for your own safety when dealing with food preservation. Without an understanding of the processes and reasoning behind a recipe, you won’t be able to determine if it’s safe for the home canner.

So, let’s start with the basic and most important concept to understand in terms of canning. Specifically, what is the difference between high acid food and low acid food?

What is Acidity Anyways?

What determines whether a food is acidic or not? To fully understand this concept, we first need to understand what acidity is. A solution’s acid level is illustrated by its power of hydrogen, or pH. The value of a solution’s pH resides on a 14 point scale, where 0 is the most acidic and 14 is the least acidic (most basic).

The pH value of a solution is inversely proportional to the concentration of hydrogen ions that it contains, hence the name “power of hydrogen”. Water is the liquid of life, it’s neutral and has a pH of 7 – which is very close to the pH of our bodies. Water becomes more acidic when it comes into contact with molecules that easily give up hydrogen to it. Acidic water always has a pH less than 7. Conversely, chemicals that take hydrogen from water make it more basic, resulting in a pH higher than 7. Therefore, you can see that in chemistry, neutral water (pH 7) sets the baseline between where high acidity or low acidity occurs.

High Acid Food vs. Low Acid Food

The scientific explanation given above is an important first step towards understanding the principle of acidity in food. Food is harvested from living organisms, and these organisms are largely composed of water. However, there’s a lot more than just water in food. These extra molecules, which reside in our food are what determines its acidity. For example, lemons contain citric acid which easily gives up hydrogen to water making them acidic. Conversely, low acid foods contains less hydrogen-donating molecules than high acid foods, yielding a higher pH.

In chemistry, high acidity and low acidity is divided by a pH value of 7. However, in terms of canning, this dividing line occurs at a pH of 4.6. Any foods that exhibit a pH lower than 4.6 are considered high acid, while anything above is considered low acid.

Acidity in Nutrition

A common point of confusion when considering high acid food and low acid food is how you actually determine what constitutes acidity.

Nutritionists and food processors don’t always agree on what makes a food high or low acid. For a nutritionist, the determining stage comes once nutrients from food reach the kidneys. Here, the food will either produce ammonium or bicarbonate. If the food produces more ammonium, it’s considered acidic, and basic if it produces more bicarbonate. In fact, scientists have created a system to measure the nutritional acidity of food called the potential renal acid load (PRAL) score. The PRAL score method is very different from how we measure acidity in terms of canning- which is simply by determining the pH of the food itself.

As a result of these two differing methods, the nutritionist and home canner will often reach contrasting conclusions regarding a particular food’s acidity. For example, a lemon is considered a high acid food when canning due to the presence of hydrogen-rich citric acid. However, it’s PRAL score suggests that nutritionally, a lemon is alkaline (low acid). So, when researching the acidity of canned foods, make sure that it’s not based on their PRAL scores. Instead, consult a resource built for canning. Clemenson cooperative extension provides a basic list of canned food pH approximations here.

Canning High Acid Foods

In canning, a high acid food is one that has a pH less than 4.6. This environment of concentrated hydrogen ions effectively prevents the growth of most bacteria, fungi and yeast. These common spoilage agents do not thrive in an acidic environment, and killing them at the temperature of boiling water is an easy matter. For that reason, high acid foods can be safely processed in a water bath canner. Importantly, the acidity stops germination of Clostridium Botulinumwhich prevents the release of it’s deadly neurotoxin. Therefore, mitigating the need to kill the spores during processing.

High acid foods are those that have a high concentration of hydrogen ions. Fruits, juices, pickled and fermented foods are all high acid, due to the presence of acetic or citric acid (very high concentration of hydrogen). Fruits, and anything that is derived from fruits are usually high-acid. However, mixing high and low acid foods can result in an overall mixture that has a pH greater than 4.6. For example, a common mantra states that adding 3 strips of bacon to a jar of strawberry jam changes that food from high to low acid, thus requiring the use of a pressure canner. Without knowledge of acid-base chemistry, it’s very difficult to know the pH of any particular mixture. That’s why it’s so important to only follow recipes that have been approved by a processing authority.

Canning Low Acid Foods

Ground beef is a low acid food that, when canned, provides a perfect environment for the growth of botulism.

Complications arise when you get into canning low-acid foods (pH greater than 4.6), which include meat, fish and vegetables. Botulinum spores are unable to germinate in a high acid environment. However, canned low-acid food provides a perfect environment for the spore to germinate, grow and produce its toxin. Therefore, killing the spores is a necessity to safeguard against the risk of intoxicating your dinner guests with a paralytic disease. Unfortunately, Botulinum spores are fairly resistant to heating at boiling water temperatures. In fact, proper processing of low acid foods in a water-bath canner takes so long that doing so will significantly diminish the quality of your final product.

Instead, botulism can be prevented by processing low acid food in a pressure canner. This effectively raises the maximum temperature that you can reach during processing. Instead of maxing out at 100 degrees Celsius, a pressure canner can heat food up to 118 degrees. At this high temperature, Botulinum spores are rapidly killed and the processing time is significantly reduced.

Importance of Understanding Acidity

A home canner chooses their method of processing based on the pH of the food they are preserving. It all comes down to safety, and preventing the growth of C. Botulinum. This insistence on safety is what established the pH dividing line of 4.6, and provides a relatively simple way to know how to process your food.

Everyone knows that the internet is full of information that simply isn’t true. The same goes for home canning recipes. Recipe contributors are often qualified and go through proper processing protocols, though there are exceptions. Further, home canners frequently share recipes with each other. Most are great and the community is usually very responsible and experienced. However, arming yourself with the basic science of home canning will give you the ability to judge for yourself if a recipe is safe.

Empowering yourself with this knowledge will lead you to a mastery of home canning, never stop learning about your craft!

Please leave a comment and tell us your thoughts!

4 Deadly Food-Borne Pathogens | When in Doubt, Throw it Out

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Organic garbage bin

 

“When in doubt, throw it out” is a classic home canning mantra, and it’s probably the most important one that you can learn before getting into food preservation.  Its meaning is clear – unless you’re 100% sure that your food is safe to consume, don’t eat it.

Food starts to spoil immediately after harvest or slaughter through multiple mechanisms including: light exposure; autolysis; oxidation; and most importantly, bacterial putrefaction.

Many different types and strains of food-spoiling microbes exist. Some grow at low temperatures (like the refrigerator), some at mid-range temperature (the danger-zone) while some even grow at very high temperatures (thermophiles). This broad spectrum of life ensures that no matter how you store your unprocessed food, it will eventually spoil.

Limiting these sources of decomposition is the key to keeping your food fresh. Spoilage is usually accompanied by some pretty obvious sensory indicators. We’ve all had to stifle a gag after discovering that forgotten sandwich residing in the depths of our fridge. Stumbling upon “rotten” food is always an unpleasant experience and you certainly wouldn’t want to eat it. However, ingesting spoiled food won’t necessarily end up with a stint in the emergency room. In fact, most spoilage-causing bacteria are harmless when ingested. For example,  Pseudomonas spp. and Brochotrix thermosphacta will introduce an unpleasant  odor, taste and slime to your food but secrete no toxins and aren’t pathogenic.

Unfortunately, not all bacteria are so friendly. In fact, a few of them are actually quite dangerous. These are known as the pathogens. Pathogenic bacteria can cause severe illness and even death to individuals who consume them. These hazardous food-borne bacteria pose a risk for all home canners. So, we’ve compiled a list of four of the most dangerous to show why it’s so important to adhere to the mantra- “when in doubt, throw it out”.

Salmonella

Salmonella is a particularly nasty bacteria that’s commonly found in the intestines of animals and birds. As a result, it is usually transmitted when people eat foods contaminated with animal feces. All types of foods can become contaminated and eating them can lead to infection, causing salmonellosis. Symptoms of salmonellosis include: diarrhea; vomiting and fever. Most people who become infected with salmonella recover within a few weeks.  However, in some cases it can result in serious illness or even death.

While the overall mortality rate of the disease is fairly low (under 1%), there are variations of the bacteria that can be more fatal. Salmonella poisoning certainly is a deadly food-borne pathogen, but proper processing of canned food  will mitigate the risks significantly.

Listeria

Listeria is a food-borne bacteria that is found everywhere in soil, sewage and untreated water. These sources often pass the bug onto the fish, meat, fruits, vegetables and dairy that we consume. Infection by Listeria bacteria causes a disease known as listeriosis. Individuals who become infected can start to exhibit symptoms from 3 – 70 days of eating contaminated food. Fever, Nausea, Diarrhea, cramps, vomiting, headache, constipation and muscle aches are common symptoms of the disease. However in severe cases the bacteria can cross the blood-brain barrier and spread to the nervous system. Such a spread often results in more serious neurological symptoms and can even be fatal.

Fortunately, an extremely large number of bacteria need to be present on contaminated food for infection to take hold. Nevertheless, taking proper processing precautions is vital to prevent Listeria from taking root in canned food.

E.coli (STECs)

E.coli lives in the gut of humans and animals, and has been shown to play an important role in protecting their host from various diseases. However, certain Shiga toxin-producing strains of E.coli (STECs) synthesize a toxin that can cause illness in humans. These bacteria are most commonly found in cows, but are occasionally present in other commonly canned foods as well. Symptoms of Shiga-toxin poisoning progresses in stages, starting mildly but progressing into severe cramps, nausea and bloody diarrhea.

The illness is most dangerous if the Shiga-toxin gets into the bloodstream, which can cause the kidney’s to shut down. Pancreatic damage and impairment of the nervous system can further complicate the illness. E. coli poisoning will not be a problem for the home canner who follows correct processing protocols and is easily deactivated by water bath canning. However, it is always a risk if your food was improperly processed or sealed.

Clostridium Botulinum

C. Botulinum is the most important pathogenic bacteria to consider when discussing canning safety. Mainly, because it becomes dangerous only under certain conditions. Conditions which are met by canned low-acid foods. Botulinum seals itself within a spore when it comes into contact with oxygen because it is anaerobic (oxygen-hating). Upon being moved to a moist, low-acid and oxygen-free environment, it germinates and begins to grow. Once a culture is established, the bacteria releases a deadly neurotoxin that you may know as Botox. If ingested, Botox causes botulism, a paralytic disease that can be lethal if it reaches the respiratory system.

Unfortunately for the unknowing canner, this environmental change occurs the moment that you seal your vegetables, fish or meat in a jar. Botulinum spores are very resistant to heat and the amount of time required for processing at the temperature of boiling water is greatly increased. That’s why pressure canning is highly recommended when processing low-acid foods.

To learn more about botulism, and how to control it follow this link.

When in Doubt, Throw it Out

Many food-spoiling bacteria leave obvious signs of their presence. Their unpleasant tastes, odors and appearances make it crystal clear that a bounty has spoiled. Unfortunately, the above-listed pathogens don’t leave any of these telltale signs. You simply cannot determine from its taste, odor or appearance whether or not your food is contaminated. The detection of food-borne pathogens requires rigorous scientific testing and it’s often impossible for the average home canner to know if they’re sealing up a deadly poison. Whether it be concern over your processing method, a faulty seal or just a bad feeling- when in doubt, throw it out.

Feel free to leave us a comment, story or fact from your personal canning experience. We would love to hear from you!

Controlling Botulism | Home Canning Health Risks

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Botulism in Food

Bacteria and Safe Canning

Today, many people view canning and preserving food at home as a hobby or means to become less reliant on their local grocery store. However, in the past preserving your food was actually a way of life. Food wasn’t as easily accessible as it is today and it often had to be preserved in preparation for the inevitably lean times ahead. So, when Nicolas Appert developed his method of canning in France during the 17th century, the world took notice. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason behind early canning protocols. In fact, Appert’s reason for heating and isolating food from air was simply because he noticed that otherwise, it spoiled.

Today, we know that the main reason food spoils when  in prolonged contact with air is due to the presence of microscopic organisms that require oxygen to grow. A desire to kill these food-spoiling yeasts, fungi and bacteria is the reason why canned food is processed before being stored on the shelf. In particular, some bacterial growth in improperly processed can foods can even result in illness or even death.

It’s important to note that very few bacteria are associated with disease. In fact, there are many bacteria that provide us with crucial benefits like: nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil and those that reside in our gut. However, others aren’t so friendly and can actually provide a real danger when food is canned at home.

Pathogenic Bacteria

While it’s true that we have little to fear (aside from spoilage) from most bacterial strains that are found in food, a small subset are pathogenic. Pathogens are agents or organisms that cause diseases in humans if given the opportunity. Salmonella, E.coli (STEC), Listeria and Camptylobacter are four well-known bacterial pathogens found in food. While these bugs have been implicated in many cases of food poisoning, they pose little threat to the home canner and can easily be destroyed with moderate heat treatment. Clostridium Botulinum, the pathogen responsible for botulism, poses the biggest risk for the home canner. In fact, C. Botulinum is so dangerous that controlling its growth is really what canning safety is all about.

From Sausage Poison to Botulism

Botulism In Blood Sausage
In the 10th century, blood sausages were banned in Byzantium due to the increasing number of botulism cases.

In the 10th century, the manufacture of blood sausage was outlawed by Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium due to the increasing number of food poisoning cases that resulted from eating them. Back then, people had no concept of microorganisms. However, they observed symptoms that resembled botulism as we know it today.

Approximately 700 years later, a German poet and district medical officer by the name of Justinus Kerner published the first accurate description of these symptoms and called the unknown agent “sausage poison”. The term was later renamed “botulism” after “botulus”, a Latin term meaning sausage. It wasn’t until 80 years later that Emile Pierre van Ermengen identified C. Botulinum as the bacterium responsible for these symptoms. This was after Appert first discovered how to can food, and after many had already died from the deadly toxin that vegetative (actively replicating) botulism produces.

The Life of C. Botulinum

So, let’s talk about this toxin, and why it’s so prevalent in any discussion involving safety while canning. C. Botulinum produces a deadly neurotoxin that acts by severing the “docking ports” of synaptic vessels. It’s so dangerous that even 1 millionth of a gram can kill a person, making it the most lethal poison in the world. Even scarier is that C. Botulinum is everywhere, residing in the soil as well as most foods.

So, if the bacteria causing botulism is found everywhere, wouldn’t everyone on earth be paralyzed? Fortunately, this isn’t the case because the pathogen is anaerobic- meaning that it hates oxygen. Consequentially, when the bacterium comes into contact with the atmosphere, it builds a wall around itself and lives as an inactive spore. Botulinum spores are unable to release botulism toxin but are extremely durable. Able to exist for thousands of years until their environment is suitable for germination. Botulism toxin is only released when the spore’s environmental conditions become supportive of this germination and growth. Specifically, these conditions are:

1) Less than 2% oxygen
2) Temperature between 40 – 120 degrees Farenheit (Danger zone)
3) Moist and low acid food (most meats and vegetables)

Each one of these conditions is fulfilled in a jar of canned low-acid food, making for a dangerous breeding ground. A knowledge of effective processing protocols and an understanding of microbiology principles is critical for successfully controlling botulism. For this reason, it’s extremely important that you only follow recipes that have been approved by a processing authority (like the USDA).

Controlling C. Botulinum

There are two ways to control C. Botulinum during the canning process.

1) Preventing the spores from germinating and growing.
2) Killing the spores.

Germination and growth of botulinum bacteria is not possible within the confines of a spore wall. Luckily, bacterial growth can be inhibited by two controllable factors: acidity and water activity.

Acidity

Spores of the Botulinum bacteria germinate when they find themselves in conditions that are favorable for growth. Only then do they produce their deadly toxin. Spores are present in most foods, both high acid and low. Why then are high-acid foods safely processed at 100 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes while low-acid foods are not? Simply, because C. Botulinum is unable to leave its spore and grow in an acidic environment. Some foods are naturally acidic (fruits, an juices) while others can be acidified (cucumbers by acetic acid) or fermented (sauerkraut). The high protonic force of these foods mitigate the need to kill the spores through pressure canning.

Please be aware that it’s still possible for the Botulinum bacteria to grow in high-acid food. Multiple cases where low-acid foods were improperly acidified resulted in internal regions of botulism. Further, if high-acid food is improperly processed, many strains of fungi can live and produce local pockets of non-acidity, facilitating bacterial growth and formation of the toxin. Unless you’re a food scientist, you probably aren’t qualified to rely on acidification to prevent the growth of botulism, so follow an approved recipe!

Water Activity

Have you ever wondered how bacteria eats? They have no mouths, teeth or traditional digestive tracts. Instead, they absorb nutrients that are dissolved in water. Without water, bacteria cannot eat and therefore won’t grow! The amount of water that is available to a microbe is measured by the food’s water activity, or Aw. Lowering this metric is the primary factor behind the preservative power that you get from using a dehydrator.

Lowering the Aw of canned food is more difficult, and not overly practical. Added solutes (salt or sugar) grab a portion of the water in your food, limiting its availability to the microbes. A concentration of about 10% salt will effectively prevent germination of Botulism spores in your canned food. However, such a high concentration of salt isn’t very appealing when it comes time to eat your creation.

Instead of messing around with acidity and water activity, the best way for the home canner to control the growth of C. Botulinum in low-acid foods is through pressure canning. Pressure canning allows you to achieve temperatures high enough to kill the spores in a smaller amount of time. Again, following recipes that have been approved by a processing authority is the best way to ensure a safe product!

Inactivating Botulism Toxin

While the botulinum spores are heat resistant, the vegetative bacteria and toxin that it produces are not. In fact, the toxin is nothing more than a protein which is easily denatured at the temperature of boiling water. Boiling your canned food for 10 minutes prior to eating is considered good practice.  Doing so will ensure that your food is toxin-free when you want to enjoy some home-canned cuisine with your family.

Please leave us a comment with your thoughts!

What Detroit’s Bankruptcy can Teach us about Resilience

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Communal Self-sufficiency

What is Empowerment?

Empowerment is a term that we hear about in the news more and more these days. A quick google search for the term “empowerment” shows results referring to women’s rights, mental health and the role of employees in a business setting.

It’s clear that organizations and people in all walks of life like to use empowerment as a positive term, and for good reason. Empowerment is chock-full of positive connotations and good vibes. But what does it mean? And more importantly, how do we actually become empowered?

As much as I don’t want to use this source… Wikipedia provides an excellent definition of empowerment, which is quoted below.

The term empowerment refers to measures designed to increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in people and in communities in order to enable them to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way. – Wikipedia

And this makes sense when you think about it. Every business, charity and organization preaches how they love and aim for empowerment. Businesses want to empower their employees to strive for greatness, while charities want to empower people to better their lives. But how? What are the magic ingredients that you, or the organization(s) that you’re involved in, need to add to achieve empowerment?

Two words: Self-reliance and resilience.

Empowerment through Self-Reliance

In a previous article we determined that true self-sufficient living is impossible but that we should strive to be more self-reliant. Briefly, self-reliance can be thought of as a way of living where you produce as much as you can for your own use, but do so in the confines of a community. By understanding this concept, we can learn a lot about empowerment and how to attain it.

If a company wants to empower its employees, it has to provide them with some measure of autonomy and self-determination. Human beings do not like to be controlled. We are all individuals who want to be in charge of our own lives. Forcibly following instructions from a boss that we don’t respect, or anyone for that matter makes us feel powerless. Take this comic strip for example. To be empowered,  people must have autonomy and a feeling of complete control over their jobs and lives. This could be something as simple as making their own schedule to more of a say in your companies strategy and direction.

Whatever the case may be, empowerment is synonymous with becoming more self-reliant. And self-reliance is all about taking control of you life away from society’s institutions. Producing and preserving your own food, having an alternate energy source, and developing financial independence are all important steps towards gaining independence. By doing so, your reliance on grocery stores, the power grid and your employer diminishes. Providing us with the power and freedom to quit your job, find one that empowers you or follow your passions (whatever they may be).

Empowerment through Resilience

Picture the life of an average, everyday working Joe. Let’s see what a typical day might look like for him (or her).

  1. Wake up at 7:00am.
  2. Make breakfast or pick something up on the drive to work.
  3. Arrive at work at 8:00am when their shift starts.
  4. Perform their employer-sanctioned duties, which is often the same everyday.
  5. Eat their pre-made or purchased lunch for the day.
  6. Finish their shift.
  7. Drive home, maybe pick up some groceries on the way.
  8. Relax, grab a beer and watch some Netflix.
  9. Eat dinner.
  10. Do some work around the house.
  11. Go to sleep.
  12. Repeat.

At first glance, you might think that this is a pretty normal day. But, there are a few things that are really quite scary about it.

  1. This person’s day is completely controlled by his job.
  2. This person is completely reliant on his utilities, the grocery store and his employer.

A life of dependence on society and its provisions is scary, mainly because society is such a fragile system. We’ve seen societies collapse before. And it’s happening all over the world even now. The stock market crash of 2008 decimated the economy and scared millions into adopting a survivalist or prepper mentality. And rightly so! They wanted to become more resilient, and less dependent on society for their well-being.

Becoming more resilient to society’s fluctuations and instability is the ultimate form of empowerment. Resilience is the ability to withstand traumas, or deviations from the norm of life. Survivalists and preppers are masters of this by constantly preparing themselves to be as resilient as possible, no matter what happens. You too can increase your level of resilience and do so without having to buy an acreage for a homestead.

Case Study: Detroit

A great example of this in real life is Detroit. Detroit is a legendary city that was once an economic capital of America. The city is credited for inventing the automotive industry and is home to many great sports teams. But, despite this it filed for bankruptcy in 2013. Why?

Detroit was, for years, paying its debts on borrowed money. Driven primarily by the decline of the American automotive industry, and the collapse of the market in 2008. It’s population peaked in the 1950’s at 1.8 million residence, but has recently been called the home to 700,000 people. The economic disaster that the city faced hit its occupants completely unprepared, and they fled in droves.

Detroit is now promoting the concept of urban homesteading, which involves:

  1. Reducing the resources that you use.
  2. Raising animals and producing your own food.
  3. Food Preservation through canning, drying, freezing, cheese-making and fermenting.
  4. Community food-sourcing (ex. Foraging, Gleaning)
  5. Reusing, recycling and repairing.
  6. Composting.
  7. Natural Building

This is a clear case of the government asking its citizens to adopt a way of life that reduces their dependence on society. And, it’s in response to an economic disaster that disrupted the city’s ability to provide its citizens with what they need to survive.

The scary thing is that this could happen to any city, including yours. So why not take the proactive step of  getting into urban homesteading and become more resilient and self-reliant.
You will develop a level of autonomy and control  over your life that will empower you all the way to your dreams.

Please leave us a comment or five! We love hearing your stories.

 

 

Self-Sufficiency vs Self-Reliance | A Lesson from the Animal Kingdom

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Jaguar is communally self-sufficient

Is True Self-Sufficiency Possible?

In general, self-sufficiency can be thought of as complete autonomy from any outside help. Is that possible though? To be a homesteading hermit with no input from the outside world? My gut says no, but we should probably dive in a bit deeper. To answer this question, let’s look at the animals. The animal kingdom is rich and diverse, overflowing with a massive number of species. Many of which are solitary, meaning that they live alone in order to avoid competition from members of their own species (like the mighty jaguar). Does their ability to survive with a solitary lifestyle equate to self-sufficiency? Not really.

A Lesson from the Animal Kingdom

Enough with the questions, let’s find some answers. For an animal to be self-sufficient, it must be autonomous without any outside help. For this to be true, the mighty jaguar would have to be able to survive and thrive in the absence of all other animals. Unfortunately, in reality this isn’t the case. Animals live in communities, which are networks of interdependent organisms living in close proximity to each other, engaging in both positive and negative relationships. Three primary types of species exist within a community.

  1. Foundation Species: Primary producers of energy for a community, they alter the environment in which a community lives making it favorable for others. For example, nitrogen-fixing bacteria extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and add it to soil to allow for plant growth.
  2. Keystone Species: Responsible for maintaining the biodiversity of a community, preventing extinction or over-replication of species. For example, Otters are keystone predators that prey on sea urchins. They suppress the sea urchin population, which would otherwise grow out of control and consume all kelp in the community, which is an important foundation species.
  3. Invasive Species: Foreign species that are introduced into a community. They are often more competitive than indigenous species, leading to dominance and extinction of lesser species.

Animals Contribute to their Communities

Otter Is A Keystone Species
The otter is a keystone species that prevents the local extinction of the foundation species kelp.

All three of these types of species are critical for the health of their community, as well as for the individual animals that comprise it. Foundation species maintain the environment while the keystone species preserve biodiversity, ensuring that  a community is energetic and competitive. Further, the native animals of a community in combination with some outside help (humans) must suppress the dominance of invasive species to survive. Hopefully, you can see that solitude doesn’t necessarily equate to self-sufficiency. Even solitary animals live in communities and are very dependent on outside forces.

You and me baby ain’t nothing’ but mammals. We’re no different, incapable of ever being truly self-sufficient outside of a community.

Communal Self-Sufficiency & Self-Reliance

You may think that animals needing other animals isn’t great evidence for the impossibility of true self-sufficient living. I don’t blame you. In fact I agree that it’s a different scenario for humans. The example of animal communities is simply a metaphor. Animals depend on other animals to survive, so they live in communities. The fact that they cannot survive on their own is a result of biology. The same goes for humans, but in a broader sense it’s also a result of our psychology and need for practicality.

Humans Need Community

Do we really want to exist outside of a community?  One controversial study from the 1950’s performed by Harry Harlow illustrates how dependent we are on others. Harlow took baby rhesus monkey’s and placed them into what he called the “pit of despair” for up to 12 months. Completely isolated, they quickly lost any hope of escape. Once removed, Harlow noticed that the monkeys were incredibly disturbed: Staring blankly, rocking in place and mutilating themselves. Those left in isolation the longest never recovered, their social abilities were decimated.

Humans have been the subject of similar studies in the past.  In 1951, an experiment at McGill University isolated graduate students in small cells containing just a bed. They wore blindfolds and had only white noise to keep them company. All of the participants were broken within a week. The point is that isolation from community can have devastating effects on the psyche of a human being.

Self-Reliance

A community is also a source of practicality. Providing a framework for trading and bartering and allowing its members to supplement what they produce themselves. No one person can produce absolutely everything required for a good life. Even if they could, why would they? Societies have developed for a reason, to share the workload.

It may be best to consider self-sufficiency as a noble dream to aspire to while focusing more on developing a level of self-reliance. Self-reliance can be thought of as a way of living where you produce as much as you can for your own use, but do so in the confines of a community. You contribute to the community, and subsequently benefit from it. For example, the mighty jaguar is solitary and therefore self-reliant. It finds its own shelter and water, hunts for its own food and protects itself. However, it needs a community for survival and contributes to that community through its role as a keystone predator. This kind of mutually beneficial relationship between self-reliance and community illustrates a kind of communal self-sufficiency.

Self-Reliance in our Modern Communities

So, how do you become more self-reliant in today’s modern, dependent and fast-paced society? You don’t necessarily need to go out and buy a large patch of land and start a homestead (Good for you if you have though!). Society is unstable, but the communities within it are strong. Self-reliance today entails contributing to and benefiting from the communities produced by society while preparing to deal with the problems that may result from it. Stockpile food, water, power and start implementing the pillars of self-sufficiencyBut, take advantage of and enjoy the supplies, resources and people that your community provides.

Please leave us a comment, we’d love to hear your views on self-reliance!

 

The 10 Pillars of Self-Sufficiency

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Self-Sufficient Life

The 10 Pillars of Self-Sufficiency

Do you identify as a prepper or homesteader? Or dream of living an off-the grid life that centers around freedom from the “system”, a holistic lifestyle or preparedness for what may come. While subtle differences exist between these lifestyles, they all have one important principle in common: self-sufficiency. In reality, we all strive to be self-sufficient. In many ways, it goes hand-in-hand with independence and freedom. Teenagers want independence from their parents, employees want freedom from a nine-to-five and many people want autonomy from high income tax rates. These prevailing thoughts that society propagates all converge on a deep-seeded desire for self-sufficiency. We are egotistical beings, so we don’t want anyone to be able to diminish who we are, or have dominion over our ability to survive in this world. Becoming more reliant on yourself and less on society instills a degree of independence that facilitates personal stability.

‘Self-sufficiency’ is the quality of feeling secure and content with oneself, a deep-rooted sense of inner completeness and stability. Psychology Today

However, we can’t all abandon our jobs and places in the urban jungle to start a homestead pursuant of inner peace. Self-sufficiency though, or at least some measure of it, is still within your grasp! We’ve come up with what we think are 10 pillars of self-sufficiency. Attempting to align your life with these pillars is a great way to begin your journey to self-reliance.

1. Achieve Financial Self-Sufficiency

Everyone needs money. However, the amount of income that you need decreases proportionally to your costs. Lowering your monthly costs will lower the minimum amount that you need to earn in order to survive. Learning a trade, starting a side business or writing a blog are great ways to become more self-sufficient. There are many businesses with low startup costs that you could consider. These include: selling goods that you produce (food, furniture, honey), providing a service (landscaping, gardening or dog walking), or consulting. Start slow, keep your old job and run your business on the side. When it gets to the point that it can support you, quit your day job and enjoy financial independence! Whatever you decide to do, make sure you save a little bit each month as a reserve. You never know when you might need it.

2. Participate in a Community of Like-Minded People

Tempering your dependence on society and its institutions is not easy. It’s kind of like quitting smoking, you know that being so dependent is harmful but you do it anyways. We’ve become addicted to the easy life, but the rewards of “quitting” far outweigh the difficulty. Like any addiction, the best way to stay the course is through a community. Joining a group of people who also value self-sufficiency will provide with you the support that you need to thrive! There are many online and offline communities focused on prepping, homesteading and self-reliance.

3. Keep a Supply of Clean Water

Having a personal and renewable source of clean drinking water is even more important than having a stockpile of food. Humans can live for 30 days without food, but will rarely live past four without water. There are a few ways to obtain your own source of water, but the easiest and most practical is to harvest rainwater. By collecting rainwater and channeling it to a barrel or tank, you are taking advantage of a natural process. Use this water for your plants, purify it to use as drinking water, or just stockpile it for later.

4. Produce your own Food

This is a big one for you if you run a homestead. You can raise crops, chickens, dairy cows and livestock to produce a variety of whole foods for you and your family. However, if you are just transitioning into self-reliance, your options are a little more restricted. One way to start producing is by planting a vegetable garden. Even apartment dwellers can have small vegetable gardens by growing them in pots on the balcony or using custom planters.

5. Hunt, Fish or Forage for Food

Another way that space-restricted individuals (and everyone else) can generate food is through hunting, fishing and foraging. Hunting and fishing are not only a source of natural and hormone/antibiotic-free meat, but they’re also ethical and cheap. A hunted animal lives a free and wild life, just as nature intended. Further, foraging for mushrooms, herbs and berries in your neighborhood and local forests is also a great way to stockpile food. Even foraging at your local farmer’s market may yield some interesting results!

6. Preserve your Food

You can stockpile food until your heart’s content, but if you don’t preserve it properly it will rapidly decay. Preserving food (self-produced and purchased) is an important part of becoming self-reliant. It will ensure that you and your family are well fed with healthy natural food, no matter what. It also serves as a cheap source of “groceries” when you are going through a personal financial crisis. Common food-preservation techniques include: canning, vacuum sealing, freeze-drying and pickling. Check out these 12 home food preservation methods for inspiration.

7. Equip Yourself with the Right Tools

Living a self-sufficient life requires work, and that’s great! Instead of working as an employee of some company, you will be working for yourself. There are few feelings in the world that are better than that. However, often times you will need specialized tools or machines in order to maximize your output and results. For example, to preserve the food that you collect, having a reliable can sealer, vacuum sealer or pressure canner  is important. To produce honey at home, you will need to build your own hive and acquire an arsenal of beekeeping suppliesHaving the right tools makes becoming self-sufficient a joyful and stimulating experience.

8. Gain New Skills

You can’t truly be self-sufficient without being able to build, maintain and repair things yourself. Knowing how to construct a shelter, maintain your home and repair damage to equipment means you will no longer have to hire other people to perform those tasks. Achieving an overall higher level of handiness allows you to fix just about anything, saving you bundles of money. Learning new skills will also open up the income opportunities that you have. For example, becoming proficient in a CMS like WordPress will allow you to develop, maintain and monetize a blog or business website.

 9. Have an Alternative Energy Source

We’ve all been victimized by power outages and the tyranny of the power company’s electricity bill. The grid is notoriously unreliable. Recently, hackers linked to Russia hacked and took down Ukraine’s power grid. While we’re not into fear-mongering at Wells, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that your power grid could go down unexpectedly. Unless you’re a vampire, this isn’t an ideal scenario. Having a back-up generator will allow you to power your home as long as you have fuel. However, going a step further and installing an alternative energy source like solar will greatly impact your level of self-sufficiency. Solar power is a low-maintenance, renewable and green way to constantly be generating your own power.

 10. Learn how to Protect Yourself

This is an important and broad pillar. Learning how to protect yourself doesn’t only refer to defending yourself from physical violence (which is also a valuable skill to learn). To be truly self-sufficient, you must be able to survive and thrive even in the absence of societal institutions put in place to protect you. You must be able to prevent or withstand crime, fires, emergency medical scenarios and more. Create action plans that dictate how you and your family will respond to all conceivable emergency scenarios and take precautions to protect your belongings.

Agree? Disagree? Have something to add to our list? Please leave us a comment and let us know!

Self-Sufficiency | How Aristotle can lead you to the Good Life

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The Good Life

What is the good life?

You might think that it is subjective, or that everyone’s “good life” is different. Bobby loves video games, he can name every character in the Nintendo universe as well as their interests, hopes and dreams. Rebecca loves fashion, she can accessorize like a champion and critique your outfit until you feel like your wardrobe consists of nothing but garbage bags. Does this mean that Bobby’s good life entails a passive income stream that allows him to “Nintendo” to his heart’s content? Or that Rebecca’s is a job as the head of some high-falutin fashion empire?

You may or may not agree that these seem like good lives for Bobby and Rebecca. That’s why it’s subjective right? This may be true, but perhaps the good life is actually more objective than we previously thought. This concept has been studied for thousands of years. In fact, it was first associated with the work of Aristotle and his teachings on ethics. He claimed that certain classes of individuals could never achieve the good life. Women, slaves, the lower classes, animals,  the ill and even the gods were destined for unhappiness. This sounds kind of ridiculous at first glance, but in Aristotle’s time all of these classes of individuals were dependent on someone else. Women had few rights and were dependent on their husbands, slaves their owners, the gods the people and so on. According to Aristotle, the only path to the good life was through independence from their slavers, husbands and overlords. In other words, the key to the good life was through self-sufficiency.

Self-Sufficiency | Relying on Yourself More, and Society Less

Rebecca and Bobby may well be happy with their respective lives. But in reality, Bobby is a slave to his games and the energy and developers that make them possible. Rebecca is a slave to the company that employs her, and the clients that hire her. They are both slaves to the grid that supplies them with power, the stores that sell them their food, the reservoirs that supply them with water, the government for building and maintaining the infrastructure that they use every day and the emergency services for assisting them when they need help. While all of these things are a great source of convenience and comfort, there is no doubt that we as a society have become hopelessly dependent on them. In truth, most of us are Rebecca and Bobby. The world is an unstable place, and there is no guarantee that we will always be able to depend on institutions and corporations to provide the necessities that we need to survive.

I’m not suggesting that we should all be shrouded in fear of the world ending- that’s no way to live. Instead, we should take some good advice from one of the smartest people to ever live. We should start to transition away from our dependencies and establish a level of self-sufficiency.  In this way, we can live well knowing that we will thrive no matter what happens to our society. Only then can we start to experience the freedom that comes with being more self-reliant, and being better-prepared for what may come.

Check out this article The Pillars of Self-Sufficiency for more information on becoming self-reliant.

Please leave us a comment or five! We love hearing your stories!