Our Three Favorite Subsistence Crops

farm, homesteading

Making lists is silly but we did it anyway here because we think there’s some real value in turning people’s attention to the foundations of feeding yourself in our geography where growing tomatoes in your garden is far more popular. Even if you don’t have the space to produce that much food you can still save the seed and pick up the rhythm.

All three of these crops provide a certain degree of simplicity and reliability. They also are generally low maintenance all the way from sowing to harvest, at a home scale require no special equipment to process, while also being straight-forward to store for the winter and having endless uses in the kitchen. Though if I had to pick a favorite crop it would be onions, which brings up another curious point for another day- should your favorite food take priority as your top subsistence food?

Beans

Beans are very easy to grow. Direct sow after the frost up until early June for most varieties. Seed in rows 8″ apart and cultivate once or twice until the bean canopy fills in. Watch out for groundhogs. Leave out until plants dry in the field, but not too long or the pods may mold or shatter. They produce a reliable seed. Bush are easiest to harvest, there is a node at their base you can use snips and clip them at, hauling out the whole plant. For larger plots I’ve taken to coming in with the scythe when the bean pods are about halfway to dry. It’s an efficient way to harvest big patches without shattering too many pods. Climbing beans are more work to harvest.

I’ve learned to finish drying out the beans under a cover in the open like an open barn, porch, or shed, in a pile turning it occasionally to prevent molding. I’ve noticed that the longer you wait to thresh them the easier it is. Most of my beans I’ll wait to thresh until a hot dry day in the spring. And when that time comes they are easy to break with your feet alone, and winnowing is a breeze. At that point they are ready for storage in buckets or other containers that seal out the moths.

Potatoes

Potatoes are wonderful because they can be grown lazily. Put a potato in the ground and get more potatoes. It can be as simple as kicking a little soil over them. Dig trenches if you’re a go-getter and drop them in every foot or so. Look for storage varieties to get through the winter. I use a poor storage type that I think is delicious, maybe the seeds are slowly adapting. When I plant those varieties I just say I’m planting pre-sprouted potatoes. Cultivating can be as easy as hilling them a couple times with a rake, or as many times as you can manage. Voles may gnaw on them but otherwise hopefully they’re left alone. It’s possible to get an abundant harvest in smaller space, around a pound per a potato seed. When the green arial parts die back it’s time for harvest. If the soil is loose enough it could even be done with hands, though a shovel works so long as you don’t slice into them. After harvesting make sure your potatoes are exposed to the least amount of sunlight as possible so they don’t turn green. Let them cure for a week at ambient room temperature, then move them to a cool, dark space.

Corn

I set out to grow wheat as my primary grain initially but ultimately fell in love with field corn which could be either flint or dent. I think the big difference is in harvesting and processing the grains. Corn requires much less labor to get to your plate, and no special equipment. Comparatively to wheat I love the ease of threshing corn. I like to nixtamalize my corn in huge batches and have it on hand as dried hominy. While wet in the nixtamalizing process it can be mashed up for easy masa without a mill. Field corn does require a minimum amount of plants to achieve pollination as its wind pollinated. Four rows at least 4′ long are recommended as a minimum. It also need a lot of nitrogen in the soil to be happy. Depending on your variety sow corn in rows 2- 4′ apart, around 8-12″ apart. Hill and feed with nitrogen as the plants reach your shins. Cultivate a round or two until the canopy fills in, then wait for the plants to die back. The corn is ready when the kernels can’t be dented with a fingernail. Then just pull them off the plants, husk them and give them a good ventilated place to dry. I’ll hang mine, tying them up by the husks, either indoors or outside under a pop tent. After a few weeks of drying they get either bagged up or threshed and stored in a bucket away from mice and moths.

Homemade Hominy – Nixtamalization

farm, Homegrown Grains

If I had to choose only one grain to grow it would be corn. Of the great variety of products corn can become, hominy is essential. Whether dent or flint, these corns are perfectly edible and are eaten as polenta and grits, but their kernel’s hull bind up niacin which causes deficiencies that lead to health conditions like Pellegra. In comes the innovative technique called nixtamalization. It was eventually discovered that corn soaked in an alkaline brine dissolved the hemicellulose walls of the corn and freed the niacin for human to ingest. Additionally the process softened the kernels and in some cases dramatically increased the minerals available and greatly reduced mycotoxins.

So how’s it done? Two ways of creating a proper alkaline brine is through the addition of lime (from stone) and lye (wood ash). Lime, also known as Cal, is limestone baked at a really high temperature (converting the calcium carbonate to calcium oxide), then when treated with water (where it becomes calcium hydroxide), and dehydrated to a fine white powder as lime or Cal. It naturally increases the kernel’s minerals when used in processing as well as influencing the familiar aromas we associate with tortillas. Lye on the other hand, being more widely accessible, was used by people who might not have had access to limestone deposits, as it is produced by soaking wood ash in soft water. There is food grade lye you can buy which works the same as a wood ash solution but lacks the mineral contribution provided by natural wood ash.

How its done

Get yourself some field corn, whether flint or dent, either will do. Your best bet is to grow it yourself if you can. But if you can’t, research the Open-pollinated varieties grown in your area. Popular out our way is Wapsi Valley, which is a dent corn pictured above (note the dents on the tops of the kernels). We found it by researching OP corn for feed for sale locally and learned more about the varieties, such as how they are actually delicious heirlooms. If you tell the farmer you buy the seed from that your eating it they may think your crazy as lots of people think it’s just for livestock anymore.

Either way, when you have some corn, weigh the threshed kernels and put them in a pot and cover with water to about 2-3 extra inches above the kernels. Add Cal at about 1 gram per every 100 grams of corn. If you’re looking for Cal, check out a grocery store from Central and South America. For the lye method see below.

Bring the pot to a simmer and let it go until the kernels are a little tender. It could take around 45 minutes, or more or less. Caution that boiling with Cal can create bitter flavors.

Remove pot from heat and let it sit for 24 hours.

Strain the kernels and give them a rinse while also massaging them. You now should be seeing the hulls wash off like whispy, soggy paper. The job is done. Wash off the husks according to what you intend to make. Retaining the hulls adds some gelatinization which is helpful in making thin products like tortillas.

The hominy can now be stored a couple different ways. They can be frozen as they are, or dehydrated and stored dry, in which you would soak them like any other grain before cooking or grinding them into hominy grits. You can also grind them fresh to make tortillas for dinner tonight!


Lye Method

If you’re using food grade lye use roughly the same ratio as above 1 gram lye for 100 grams of kernels. For information on food grade lye and/ or using wood ash itself you can refer to this post regarding lye and bagels. Sodium hydroxide, which is what pure lye is, in the right quantities can burn you so use care in avoiding skin contact with the lye brine if you’re using this method.

Cover threshed corn with water, add lye granules or lye brine, and bring to a boil.

Simmer for 30 minutes, turn off heat and steep for another 30 minutes.

Drain the lye water and soak in clean water for 30 minutes.

Change the water once again and bring to a boil one more time, and simmer until kernels are tender. Wash hulls as you wish.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.