Food Storage Systems

Food Storage Systems

Why is it that you ought to have some significant food storage at home? There are several minor practical reasons. Buying larger quantities at a discount store like Costco or WalMart cuts your food costs, you never have to make a surprise run to the grocery store for typical bulk items like sugar, salt, flour, rice, etc. When you run out of paycheck before you run out of month, it’s a bit easier to cope. But there are larger reasons too. Every place has some Bad Thing that happens. Floods, tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, ice storms and blizzards. The list goes on. But there are also surprise job loss and other financial events that can make it valuable to have a cushion against “hard times”. Is there anything bigger? Well, yes. Unlikely, but possible.

In the early 1800’s we harvested a crop and put it into storage. Then we slowly consumed it over the course of the year while growing the next crop. Usually there was some left over when the new crop was ready to harvest. If things looked bad, you could “stretch the grain” by not feeding the pigs and cows (and eating them instead) and planting fast growing ‘catch crops’ to pick up what production could be gleaned from a failed main crop (like planting fast buckwheat if the corn was failing, or millet if the rains were poor).

Contrast with today:

Now the silos are largely empty. Why pay storage fees if you can consume “just in time”. So we ship grain world wide, just in time. It sits in the silo just long enough to get marketed and shipped somewhere. So instead of having about 3/4 of year to 1 year total in storage at any one time, the world has a few weeks of food in storage. (About 1 week in the stores and regional distribution, about another week in process of shipping and manufacturing, and about 2 more weeks to 2 months in ‘near farm’ storage; though there is seasonal variation and any one farm may run differently).

I remember in the 1970’s we had too much grain and there was concern of where to store the next harvest, then we sold great quantities to the USSR… Since then the focus has been on less storage, the goal being as close to zero as you can get.

So what happens now if we have even one hemisphere of crop failure? People starve. Fast. A couple of months of no harvest and we have no bread and reduced animal feeds.

We, as a planet, have been incredibly stupid about food storage systems. We trust 100% in a zero large failure system of global production, global shipment, and global risk sharing. It works very very well as long as all failures are small, localized, and brief. It is very brittle to a catastrophic failure on a hemisphere basis. And we know that global failures do happen.

Major volcanic activity can cause near complete crop failures in one hemisphere or poor crops globally for 1 to 3 years. This happens every couple of hundred years. 1816-17 was one such event. Called “1800 and froze to death”. Or just a large rock fall from space A moderate sized asteroid of the size that hits the planet every 1000 years or so would do the same. Even the smaller ‘every few hundred’ year size could cause significant crop reductions.. This WILL happen. We even know the size / rate distribution. There is no doubt whatsoever. The only question is when. It could either cause a ‘volcanic winter’ type event, or just make a big enough splash for the tidal wave to sink the dry bulk shipping we depend on to move grain globally. It would take more than one season to rebuild those ships. During that time the folks in food importing countries will be getting very hungry…

But we do nothing to be prepared for the inevitable. That is not smart.

On the plus side:

We have much faster grains now than in the past. Some varieties of Corn (Maize) can be ready in less than 50 days for sweet corn. Old varieties are 120+ days in many cases. We have much more “environment tolerant” varieties. I have a tomato that was making fruit last December(!) and my last one was seeded out in January after significant frost. Unheard of in the past. IF we need to cope and know to start doing it, we have many more choices.

We have much more total production and total food production. So since more people eat a lot more meat, we could come through a grain failure of small to moderate scale with trivial effort. (It takes about 10 lbs of feed grains to make one pound of beef. That is about 10:1 conversion ratio, so for each pound of beef not eaten there would be 10 lbs of ‘food’ available for something or someone else. Chickens are about 3:1 as are pigs, so a shift from beef to other critters can go a long way. In the case of fish, it can reach 1:1 meaning that you could eat one pound of beef, or 10 of trout. Not exactly deprivation… The problem is that it would take a while to convert (build aquaculture facilities or convert feedlots to chickens…) and we might not have that much time in a catastrophic event such as a volcanic winter. We ought to be preparing now, but are not.

Methods for storing food are simple and available to everyone for very low costs or even for free. A little thinking ahead can make it a profitable venture. It certainly makes life more comfortable. (More than once I’ve opened a tin of condensed milk for tea, coffee or cereal rather than make a cold wet run to the grocers or doing without…) So there is a simple and easy coping behaviour you can do on your own that costs nearly nothing and makes day to day life easier. That’s a pretty good thing to have on your side!

In another forum, someone said:

This message however that all we need to do is control CO2 borders in my perspective on being criminal. It prevents the discussion of the very necessary evaluation our infrastructure’s ability to survive a variety of risks having nothing to do with CO2. Risks associated with flooding, drought, hurricanes, and short term weather related agriculture disasters that are seen in the paleo-climatological record.

Exactly. The “Global Warming CO2 mantra” is guaranteed to kill people in fairly large numbers thanks to sucking all the oxygen from the air for any other needed and appropriate mitigations of risk (and the destruction of energy infrastructure that it will engender if successful… ) We ought to have a global system to store at least 1 year and preferably the biblical 7 years of grain. It was, and is, a prudent bit of advice; and we are not immune from the natural risks that justified that advice in the first place.

Good Advice on Food Storage

FWIW, I grew up in a Mormon town. One of their very good bits of wisdom is to store 1 year of food for the bad times. (Due to their experiences with food / crop failures and actually being able to remember their history…) While I do not have a 1 year food storage system, I do try to have a few months worth. It isn’t all that hard. It has been very handy at different times when I didn’t have a job, didn’t want to run to the store, or just had more month than paycheck left. I also felt much better during the Loma Prieta quake knowing that I could open “Smith’s Kitchen” and feed the neighbors if it went on too long and we ran out of freezer foods needing a communal BBQ…

Buying in bulk at a major discounter ends up paying for the whole thing anyway in the long run. The only ‘cost’ really is the space to put it. The time it takes is more than paid back by times you don’t need to run to the store…

So what to do? Do I buy a “system” from a dedicated producer? Do I buy MREs (military style Meals Ready to Eat) or ‘nutrition bricks’? I’ve tried them all. The emergency food briquettes work, but just barely. The MREs are edible and keep a couple of years, but not exactly something you can get cheap and work into the regular family dinner (though they seem to survive just about any environmental insult and can be eaten warm or cold to good effect). You can buy bulk grains canned in dry nitrogen as part of a “storage system” that will keep for decades, but typically we don’t know how to use bulk whole wheat, and in a decade or two you end up tossing it out and buying another one. Not exactly a great idea. If you are really dedicated you can convert to cycling whole wheat into your regular meals, but for most folks it’s just a bit too much of a leap.

There is also the issue of cost. A ‘1 year supply’ can range to $3,000 or even $5,000 for a family of 4. Surely there is an easier and cheaper way?

My solution is to just store what you regularly buy and put new purchases on one end of the shelf while you eat from the other. Yes, it really can be that simple. Canned goods keep a couple of years and dry goods in decent storage even longer, so a 1 year storage latency is not a big deal. Modern packaged foods are often already optimally packaged, so why not use that to your advantage? Buy 8% more each month than you eat and in a year you will have a one year storage system. (8 x 12 = 96%, close enough.)

So how much and of what to store? What are the problems and how do you get past them? The major issues are oxidation, food quality / taste, and physical protection (from water, rodents, bugs, crushing, whatever). For many foods those issues are dealt with by the commercial package (canned goods are an example). For others, you need to provide the package. In some cases, like perishables (think bread, butter, milk, meat) you need an alternative. Usually this is a canned or dried variation.

Substitutes for Perishables

Crackers instead of bread (and a recipe to make tortillas, crackers, or even hardtack along with your stored flour…). Canned condensed milk (used to make pumpkin pies and custard when not in an emergency). Oil instead of butter (think Italian salad dressing and bread dipped in olive oil as ways to rotate the stock). Canned meat (not the ‘keep refrigerated’ canned ham) but the cans of tuna, chicken, deviled ham spread, and SPAM. (BTW, SPAM is actually quite good as an ingredient). It was designed by a “name” chef and works very well as a seasoned meat in dishes like “Ham and Potatoes Au Gratin” using packaged dehydrated potato mixes. The Betty Crocker (or even the WalMart house brand) can run about $1 down to 50 cents a box. Add 1/2 a can of spam cut into cubes and you have a very nice meal. Freeze dried meats are available from camping stores. Dry salami can hang in the kitchen for weeks (though mine never seems to last more than 2 days once someone sees it!). Heck you can even just put jerky in a jar. It is also possible to buy cheese powder (that needs added oil) or even canned cheese. And, of course, you can do the classic beans instead of beef. Lentil curry or lentil chili is a decent substitute for meat, especially with a can of spinach to supply the iron. So put a couple of jars of curry seasoning with the lentil jars!

How Much?

There is a simple, yet accurate, rule of thumb. One person needs about one pound of dry food per day as a reasonable small ration. It doesn’t matter much if you are measuring wheat, jerky, or Kraft Mac & Cheese. To feed a family of 4 for 100 days would take about 400 lbs. Not small, but not so large either, really. About the size of a small desk or large filing cabinet. Done with beans, rice, and vitamin pills it’s less than $400 (maybe even as low as $200 if you work it right.) Realize that this is not being stuffed, especially if low calorie foods like dried apples are used. On the other hand, cook a one pound package of beans and rice and look at how large the product is! Even if you aren’t over fed, you will be feeling full!

So there is your first decision point. Do I want something very fast, very cheap, and not very interesting? Visit your local bulk discount store and put 25 or 50 lb bags of rice, beans, and 50 x 1 lb bags of noodles on your cart along with a couple of gallons of cooking oil (oiled noodles). Add a giant sized bottle of vitamin pills and head for the checkout counter.

Want some more flavor? Buy a case of ketchup bottles and/or a giant sized jug of soy sauce, add a case of spaghetti sauce and a few cases of canned goods. Maybe toss in a giant sized chili powder bottle and some Tabasco sauce. Buy a big jug of olive oil and some Italian seasoning / dehydrated garlic granules. Oh, and a big jug of parmesan will sprinkle a lot of oil & garlic noodles (aglio e olio). Yes, it can be that simple and that will work, especially in a ‘surprise emergency’ panic run when the stores are still open.

But a little thought and a little planing will work much better. Most people will not really want to spend 100 days eating boiled white rice with ketchup and beans, even with some chili powder or tabasco to change it up… We have food habits and it works better to follow those food habits. Buy what you regularly eat, or dry goods similar to what you regularly eat, and use them in your regular meals. This keeps the inventory fresh and it keeps you happier if you do need to live off the stored food in some minor ’emergency’, financial or otherwise.

So one way to do it is just to figure out in advance what you eat and buy enough of it for everyone to have 1 dry pound per day. Wet goods, like canned goods, take closer to 3 or 4 pounds per day, so allow 3 or 4 times as much for canned goods or other ‘wet’ foods. This isn’t really a problem for wet foods since you must store the water to rehydrate dry foods anyway.

Say you like canned ravioli. There are about 1000 meals in a person / year (really 1095 but most folks will miss a couple of meals in a real emergency and not notice) and say you would be happy with 10% of them being ravioli, that’s 100 cans. For me, one can of ravioli is a meal. It’s close to one ‘wet’ pound and that would be about 1/3 of a ‘dry’ pound, or about one meal. You could add 100 cans of peas and have a more balanced meal for two people (each eating 1/2 a can). Repeat this until you have a shopping list of 1000 meals worth, buy it and stock it (in your planned space).

All very orderly and efficient. Almost nobody will do it this way. The effort and cost makes it a pain to do…

An easier way is to pick a place where you will put your food. A pantry or even just a shelving unit in the garage or closet (temperature controlled is better, so the garage is a last resort unless it has some protection from freezing [that breaks jars of liquids] and high heat [that makes food lose flavor and nutrients fast]. Then every time you buy some dry goods or canned goods, buy a few extra and put them on the storage shelf. After a while you can go back and count up how many days worth you have in storage, if desired. It’s better to have something being stored than a great plan that never gets done…

What are the ‘issues’?

Canned goods are fine, but you will want more than that. For things like bulk dry goods, the packaging is sometimes not enough to protect the food from oxygen in the air and from water in a disaster (or from ‘critters’ in a storage space that isn’t entirely critter proof in a disaster). So we need to consider how to keep out air, water, bugs, rodents, and prevent crushing or physical damage in the case of a structure collapse in a storm or earthquake. What could possibly do all that?

Glass jars.

I had several cases of glass jars with dry goods in them survive a 7.2 earthquake. The jars are in boxes with crumpled newspaper around them. Yes, it’s that simple. Water, bug, rodent, and air protection come from the glass jars. They are also very strong. They just don’t take impact well, so pack them in a crushable container with newspaper or ‘packing peanuts’ and they survive one heck of a lot! I’ve had squirrels eat their way into plastic tubs stored on the patio. I’ve had moisture condense inside metal ‘canister’ sytle cans whose lids were not hermetic and make a puddle inside. I’ve never had a jar failure unless I dropped it on concrete or ceramic tile.

So food purchased in glass jars, like spaghetti sauce and ‘canned’ fruit is already optimally packaged! Canned goods are somewhat more crush / impact resistant, but moisture can cause the metal to slowly corrode, so storage for more than a couple of years really wants some kind of vapor barrier or low moisture protection (indoors with a decent air conditioner will keep humidity low, but watch cans in a garage, especially in humid areas). Plastic is almost as good as glass for storage for less than a year. More than a year and it depends on the kind of plastic. Some let a bit of oxygen in and that lets oils oxidize and go rancid or flavors decay. So ketchup or mayo and cooking oil in plastic is OK for 6 months, but over a year is ‘dodgy’. In between? Depends on the food, the plastic, and your pallet. Start tasting samples at the 6 month point and let flavor be your guide… or find some in glass or cans.

Oils, Fats

Olive oil in cans or glass bottles have a multi year life. It’s harder to find other cooking oils not in plastic (and perishable oils like butter are just not an option, so any food taking oil, fat, or butter to prepare; will instead need some kind of stored oil). Vegetable shortening in cans stores very very well, but do not buy vegetable shortening with trans-fats in it. They are just horrid from a health point of view. The major issue with storing fats is oxidation, so glass or cans are best. Saturated fats store better, so things like palm oil, coconut oil, and lard keep better than soybean oil and other polyunsaturated oils. It’s better to have a saturated fat in storage than to worry about polyunsaturated. In a food emergency the last thing you will need to worry about is too many calories and too much fat in the diet… It is possible to decant oils from plastic bottles into glass or metal, but that takes some skill with sterilization and sealing (and isn’t really needed if you shop wisely for prepackaged oils). I keep a 1/2 gallon plastic jug of safflower oil in the ‘fridge most of the time and that makes up a fair amount of my ’emergency’ oil needs.

Know How To Cook It

The major issue for most folks is that they know how to cook and eat a TV Dinner, but not whole wheat grains. (You can cook them like brown rice, grind to flour, or even sprout them for ‘greens’ of a sort…) So storing 100 lbs of wheat and rice for most folks is not going to work without some effort. If you do choose to store a bulk grain in raw form, start to work it into your regular cooking now. You want to learn how to prepare it when there is no issue, not when the power is out, it’s dark, and everyone last ate yesterday… And remember that a whole grain like wheat takes a lot of water and fuel to cook, while a jar of peanut butter and jelly is edible with a spoon and nothing else… as is a can of ravioli or chili beans.

In Jars

My contribution to the art of food storage is very simple: Dry goods put in glass jars keep for several years. (One to three years for most dry goods with just food and air in the jars, more if you use a ‘Foodsaver’ vacuum sealer to suck the air out). So my first “system” was just 1/2 gallon canning jars with dry goods poured into them and a lid screwed on. Salt, sugar, white rice (brown rice can have the oils get a bit rancid in air so it doesn’t store as long), bulk noodles, lentils (peas ‘get hard’ after a year and some beans will go 2 or 3 years before they ‘get hard’; but I’ve had lentils that stored for 16 years and still sprouted – I grew them out just to see…), flour, whole grains like wheat, barley, oats, etc. All these things can just be poured into jars and have lids screwed on. The more full (the less air) the better. Even pancake mix works this way.

Storage Life

Sidebar on storage life: As an experiment, I’ve let some jars go ‘way too long’ just to see what it’s like. The 16 year old lentils were edible, if a bit long to cook. I just cooked some lentils that were stored about 1/4 of a century ago. Yes, about 25 years… They were OK, if a bit bland. Today I also opened a jar of noodles that had been stored with the FoodSaver having sucked some of the air out. They were stored about 25 years too… They looked more of a deep orange / gold rather than the light yellow of new noodles. Cooked, they were edible, but with zero taste and a bit chewier than usual. This indicates a bit of polymerization of the proteins and starches. In a true starvation disaster, I’d eat it, but I don’t recommend it! I think this marks the outside limit of what you would ever face… Better would be to do a decent rotation of less than a couple of years. But this does confirm that dry goods low in oils can easily be kept for several years. I’m doing a ‘sprout test’ on the lentils and at the almost a week stage I’ve got about 25% sprouting. Lentils have an extraordinary storage life!


I also saved a bunch of 1/2 gallon ice cream plastic tubs and use them for bulk rice, flour, sugar, salt, etc. (though they are not as secure against things like rodents and physical impact or water intrusion – i.e. flood) they are free, quick, and easy. Salt and sugar keep forever. Flour for a couple of years. Noodles years and years… These tend to be in my pantry inside the house where impact, ‘critters’, and similar issues are less and where turnover is faster. I buy an industrial sized bag of sugar, salt, flour, beans & rice at my bulk retailer whenever I get down to just a couple of gallons of any particular item and then refill my tubs. Empty tubs ‘nest’ so they take up little room when empty.

Sadly, the ice cream industry has decided to have a race to the bottom by shrinking the size of containers, so the ‘standard’ 1/2 gallon (that has been unchanged for 50 years that I know of) is now 1.75 or 1.5 quarts… Maybe eventually the 1 gallon size will shrink to 1/2 gallon and I can get more of these wonderful tubs… There are commercial white plastic tubs available with hermetic seals and the whole works. These are great, but costly and not really needed for most storage up to a year. (And I turn over rice, flour, sugar, etc. in less than a year…) I’ll be buying less ice cream in plastic tubs now that they’ve shrunk them. But they are still a workable choice.

So just pick a closet and, one ice cream tub at a time ;-) store some rice, lentils, noodles etc. Add a jug of oil, bottle of spices, case of canned peaches, canned spinach and canned peas every so often and before you know it, you’ll be ready for The Bad Thing too. Jars of spaghetti sauce keep for years as do jars of other foods. It isn’t hard.

Free Jars!

Oh, and several kinds of spaghetti sauce come in real Mason canning jars (like Classico brand) so you can even get your jars for free as long as you like a lot of spaghetti 8-) They sell the quart size at the Costco here. Just soak them in hot water to remove the label then run them through the dish washer. I used a gallon sized jar from mild peppers for beans, but it took a long time to eat that many peppers!

If you don’t want to eat a lot of ice cream & spaghetti, you can get 1/2 gallon or quart sized canning jars at most grocery stores and many traditional stores like OSH (Orchard Supply Hardware). WalMart sells jars too. Start looking around and you will find more canning supplies than you might expect.

It costs very little to buy a 25 lb. bag of white rice, or 10 lbs of bulk macaroni and put them by in glass jars or plastic tubs. Its hard to beat a can of nuts for nutrition per unit volume / weight. Similarly, buying an extra jar of olive oil and an extra flat of canned corn from time to time costs little. After a years worth is in storage, then you start consuming it anyway (rotating the inventory) so the net effect is a delay in when you get that value, not a total loss of it to ‘storage’.

Vacuum Sealers

I’ve not had good success with storing foods in vacuum sealed plastic (like the “Foodsavers” system) for intervals of years. They eventually leak air in after several months. They are not critter proof. Etc. The FoodSaver adapter that sucks air from jars does work nicely and does extend life in storage, but unless you are going for many years without stock rotation, you don’t really need to vacuum out the air. The FoodSaver does work well for it’s design purpose of storing food in the ‘fridge or freezer for a few months.

How Much? Of What?

So how much to store? One pound dry turns into 3 or 4 pounds after cooking, so this can be a decent quantity of food. In my experience, storing what you already eat works better than storing things you don’t normally eat (i.e. store white rice if you eat rice, not whole wheat berries if you have no clue how to prepare them…) A jar of peanut butter and another jar of jam are more useful to most folks than 2 pounds of buckwheat… So just look at what you regularly eat and try to find a storable version.

Some of my favorites are bulk pancake mix and hermetically sealed tubs of instant mashed potatoes and some instant dry milk. Easy to prepare meals. Keep a long time in sealed storage. Not fancy, but good enough. Krusteaz pancake mix comes in a sturdy plastic bag in large sizes that keeps well. Idahoan instant mashed potatoes come in a large cylindrical tub rather like an oatmeal “box” that keeps well. It has a metalized coating on the inside.

Coffee in sealed metal cans keeps a long time as do many powdered drink mixes ( Tang, Lemonade ) that come in large ‘cans’ like oatmeal tubs (and oatmeal itself keeps for a year or two). Similarly, 400 tea bags fit in a few jars and 25 lbs of sugar goes into a few ice cream tubs very easily. Add a couple of jugs of syrup (sugary syrup keeps forever as near as I can tell) and you have pancakes & tea for a year.

Some jerky or canned meat (tuna is a favorite as is the classic SPAM) and you can have decent dinners. Kraft mac & cheese seems to keep for a couple of years too… so a tuna noodle casserole is easy to store – package of mac & cheese, can of tuna and oil instead of ‘spread’, canned condensed milk (not sweetened!). Add some canned peas and you’re done. Since my daughter practically lives on mac & cheese it turns over fairly fast!

So start being a connoisseur of packaging. Find the things packed with a metalized or foil liner. Put cardboard cartons of Mac & Cheese, Rice-a-Roni, or Potatoes Au Gratin into giant plastic baggies or plastic tubs to make them water proof (if storing in a non-dry place) or just put them on a dry pantry shelf in a closet. Pretty quickly you can have a few months worth of food ‘stored’ without a lot of cost, waste, or strange foods.

You get the idea. It’s easy, it saves money in the long run, and all it takes is a closet. Well worth it when The Bad Thing comes, even if it’s just that you wanted to buy a new TV this month and need to cut costs somewhere for a little while ;-)

My favorite storage foods:

Any canned foods.
Any foods ‘canned’ in jars.
Dry goods repackaged into jars. (Or plastic tubs for less than 1 year).
Dry goods shipped in decent packaging such as “oatmeal” style cylindrical containers with a metallized vacuum sealed inner liner. Especially ‘instant’ foods taking little fuel to prepare.
Foods packed in metallized or foil pouches. (Think potato chips and dried fruit too, not just main entrees, freeze dried camping food and MREs).

Preparing the Food

Remember that you need a ‘camping stove’ of some sort with enough fuel to cook the food. This can be as simple as a chaffing dish and extra cans of Sterno.

Remember also that you need a source of clean water or you need some stored water and a water filter purification system. Dry beans are somewhat useless without 1 hour of cooking fuel and a bunch of water. When in doubt, start with storing ‘wet’ canned goods that can be eaten from the can without heating or cooking. Then add a camping water filter kit and a back yard ‘water feature’ along with the beans and rice …

Having tried just about every camp stove on the market, the easiest to use is a simple propane stove that uses the disposable propane bottles (which also store well for many years). An adapter to run one of these off of the bigger propane bottles used with outdoor BBQ grills is also helpful for long term use. Stoves that run on unleaded gasoline let you get emergency fuel more easily, but storing gasoline is harder (it ages and evaporates). My solution is to have one of each stove and some of each fuel along with many foods that don’t absolutely need cooking (thus the PBJ & crackers, ravioli, etc. mentioned above…) Don’t forget a couple of butane fireplace / BBQ lighters. The ‘spark’ from these will still light propane even after the lighter runs dry.

After 6 months, then what?

I have a small garden. Gardening is not something you just do overnight without preparation. It’s much easier to discover that the local ‘possum eats your cauliflower, but not the collards, when it’s just a hobby; much harder when it’s life or death. So I’d recommend some gardening experience. Even if it’s just a few potted herbs on the kitchen window ledge.

BTW, my ‘possum did eat the cauliflower, but she also keeps the snails eaten up – ‘possums love snails. So I get a net gain by letting the ‘possum live under the shed and snack on cat food the cat no longer wants. I can now grow things that formerly were nothing but snail food and I don’t need snail bait any more. I LIKE my ‘possum! Cauliflower is a small sacrifice to make in exchange.

You also need some seeds. Hard to get in the middle of a systems collapse. Seeds normally are packaged with this years date on them. Folks think that they only work this year and you need new seeds each year. This isn’t strictly true.

A few plants, like onions, have seeds that don’t store well and usually only grow during one year. Others, like beans and corn, will often keep for 3 or 4 years. But any of these seeds (except some fleshy fruit, nut, tree seeds) will keep far longer if frozen and dry. But most home freezers are not particularly dry. (The defrost cycle makes a damp period.) What to do?

Glass jars, again.

A single quart glass jar can hold dozens of packages of seeds. Stored in the freezer, these will stay viable for many years. I’ve grown onions after 5 years and some others up to 15 years later. (I’ve only been storing them that long – their ultimate life span is still to be determined).

So get a glass jar and next time you are in the local garden shop (or hardware store or even WalMart) pick up some seed packages and put them in the jar. They keep better if not repeatedly thawed out (and keep moisture from condensing on the frozen seeds by letting the jar warm to room temperature prior to opening… moisture also reduces storage life). It’s better to buy a bunch, stuff the jar, and toss it in the freezer. It’s not so good to buy seeds one package at a time and add them to a frozen jar one at a time (moisture and freeze / thaw cycling problems).

What grows most easily for me is: green beans, corn, squash, kale, collards, peas, beets, chard, tomatoes, and green onions. Your weather and gardening skills may work better on something else. So it isn’t enough to say “I like carrots, I’ll store carrot seeds”, you also need to know what you can grow. A practice garden, even if just 4 feet on a side, will let you discover this. Also, FWIW, radishes grow to maturity faster than just about anything else. 25 days in some cases.

Traditional Garden Cycles

The traditional garden cycle started with radishes and turnips as some of the first foods harvestable after a cold winter. (Turnips can be started before winter and ‘wintered over’ under snow. Kale also grows in light snow for winter greens.) So even if you don’t like radishes, turnips, and kale all that much, storing some seeds can be useful for a faster / earlier garden or one that grows better in unexpected cold.

Look for varieties that are fast to maturity, produce for a long season, and produce a lot in a small area. Also make sure that at least some of your seeds are ‘heirloom’ or open pollinated varieties. Having some hybrids is fine for a quick start, but if you need to go into a second or third season, you will need to be able to save your own seeds. For that you want the natural, open pollinated, non-hybrid varieties. For many kinds of foods these are my favorites anyway. Brandywine tomato, Kentucky Wonder beans, Aztec black corn or Country Gentleman white corn, evergreen onions (allium fistulosum – a perennial green onion), Dinosaur Kale, yellow straight neck squash, Romaine lettuce, french breakfast radish, red potatoes. The list goes on, but it’s hard to beat these traditional “regulars”…

In Summary

I hope that this has been helpful. Having a food storage system (even an improvised one that was not very large) has been very beneficial to me. Having a garden (even when it was just 2 x 4 feet and a couple of pots on my apartment patio some decades ago) was soothing for the soul along with tasty. Hopefully some of what I learned and posted here will be helpful to you as well.

Happy gardening, storing, and most of all, happy eating!


About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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3 Responses to Food Storage Systems

  1. Chiefio,

    Fascinating article, learned heaps on storage, ta.

    Possums here too, they eat the tamarillos. Brush turkeys eat the bananas green, no more crop, but they seem to knock out all the ticks, which at times kill the dogs. And so on. Staples here are macadamias and bunya nuts. Pumpkins are powering, this year. Have tried over a hundred food plants, find it takes years to pick the staples that work. This is edge rainforest, very variable rainfall, and what works is the endemic stuff. The forest ecosystem is ferocious, so that after a few years, the local bugs and diseases get the measure of the newcomers. Bunyas and macadamias evolved here. Some pests have followed them, but so far they survive on the big farms but not here, as we do not spray or poison anything. Find every year is different, as in New Guinea forest farming. They plant five crops, hope to harvest two, sometimes get one, sometimes none.

    If cost is a hassle, taste some different varieties of dry dog food. Some is awful, some is excellent, just like dry biscuit, but much cheaper. But it is all supposed to have everything an animal needs. A bonus is, you find out if they are selling your dog shellgrit.

    Tend to go more for growing and finding than buying, maybe less loot. I have got into planting the public roads with food trees and now harvest same. Works here. Get lots of guavas. They will not grow on this place, as a fruit-spotting bug destroys the fruit. But it is shy, so the passing cars ensure the roadside fruit is perfect. Odd outcome

    Minnows in ponds are a fine safety net. I learned that from a Japanese visitor, used it once when out of food in the bush. You can eat the whole fish raw. They taste well, like fish. Fried, they are a delight. But I tend to feel sorry for them, so here it is for emergencies. Pouring dozens into the frying pan, one leapt out and fell in the bucket. So he/she went back to the pond.,

    Here, you cannot store in plastic, the bush rats simply eat straight through. And a brush turkey, if so minded, will punch a hole in a tin can. Used to keep chooks (chickens) , but had to have several dogs, to deter other dogs, cats, dingoes, foxes, eagles (2 species), hawks and goannas. We had to deter the carpet snakes and owls ourselves.

    Everywhere food security is very different, is my main point. But the short rations times do come, there is no real global food reserve, and the answers for each area and climate do need to be worked out.


    Closeburn, Oz

    P.S. Ta for the insights into peak trimming. There is some sort of odd tracking going on, isn’t there?

  2. Roger Sowell says:

    E.M., interesting article in today’s Houston Chronicle re garden seeds and impending shortage thereof. Cause is / was recent bad growing seasons. Looks like it is seeds for home gardens, though, not commercial farms.

  3. E.M.Smith says:


    What hits one tends to hit both…

    That is why I have a bunch of “mayonnaise jars” of seed packets in my deep freezer.

    It is a quick and easy defense against this kind of thing. Onion seeds, for example, typically only “work” for about a year. I’ve sprouted some that were 7 years in the freezer (and still going!).

    So if you have any idea that in a disaster you might want a garden, put seeds in a jar in the freezer now.

    If you are a regular gardener, the cost savings on NOT needintg to buy “fresh seeds” each year can be very significant too!

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