• Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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The Return of the Root Cellar

Storage barrels

Written By

Chris Chaisson

Written on

June 26 , 2013

The globalized food chain that Americans have increasingly relied on for over 50 years has begun to show its weaknesses—and inevitable failure. There are many weak links in the chain, but the weakest are storage and distribution. These aspects of modern food production contribute significantly to energy consumption: fossil fuel is required to ship food from far away, to keep food fresh during long–distance transport, and to store food over a long period of time. How can we opt out of this destructive system?

Enter the humble root cellar. This simple structure, and others like it, offer homeowners a chance to save money on food purchases, trips to the grocery store, and energy bills. They also allow local farmers to have readily available storage for winter CSA shares. In short, root cellars offer us a way to addressfood security in simple, accessible, and sustainable ways—and they can be built in most homes.

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Found almost everywhere in the world in some fashion, food storage structures have a history dating back to 3,000 BC. Some of these ancient structures, which are still standing, can be found in the Middle East, where they offered access to cool earthen temperatures, shaded food from the desiccating effects of the sun, and offered protection from freezing and hot temperatures.

Root cellars and other forms of subterranean food and crop storage structures were also once the norm on farms and in homes in northeast North America. During the 17th and 18th centuries, root cellars were built at almost every farmstead as a means of keeping food safe throughout the winter when exposure to freezing temperatures could easily turn a hard labor’s bounty into famine for a family.

In Vermont, food storage structures were created in basements (cellars), submerged into hillsides, and established in outlying farm buildings, such as barns. Many structures contained several rooms or chambers, which allowed for the storing of different types of crops at their optimum conditions. Some structures even contained springs and wells, that allowed for the creation of cold–water baths for cooling milk, beer, and other beverages.

With the advent of pasteurization and canning in the 1700s, convenience in food storage was born, and food was able to be stored for much longer than pickled or raw foods. As industrialized areas grew, “stores” took the place of cellars and city folk began to rely on readily available food bought daily or weekly. With the development of refrigeration, root cellaring and its associated ways of life took their final blow and were considered an aspect of antiquity. Only on actual farms and in rural areas would you still find people storing crops throughout the winter.

Recently, farmers and other supporters of sustainable agriculture have remembered the necessity and accessibility of low–energy forms of food storage. CSA members are taking responsibility for storing what they pick up weekly from their farmers, and localvores who like to buy their foods in bulk are finding spaces big enough to fit their bounty. Communities and villages are building shared food storage spaces with all sorts of materials. Root cellars are becoming a form of social capital, offering resplendent bragging rights and the safe and secure feeling of knowing where food has come from.

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Storing food isn’t rocket science, but it’s an art that must be engaged in with patience, reverence, and determination to live, eat, and work healthfully. It also helps to know some basics. Root cellars and similar structures meet storage needs by three means: conduction, convection, and thermal mass.

Conduction: The Earth is one big superconductor of energy and it retains a constant mean temperature four feet below ground. Underground masonry walls conduct these temperatures into the structure, providing protection from heat in the summer and cold in the winter.

Convection: This process uses two vents, one to bring cold air into the structure, another to release warm, stagnant air back outside. Convection also releases vapor so that condensation does not form on vegetables and bring rot, mold, and bacteria.

Thermal Mass: Materials that are dense and have lots of weight have large amounts of thermal mass, and thus maintain temperatures for longer periods of time than low–mass materials. Thermal mass is generally used in passive solar applications for retaining and releasing heat. In cooling, thick masonry walls and the earth itself are used to store cold energy.

Design requirements for root cellars and other storage structures include:

  • Shade from the hot sun: for example, on the north side of a house or hill

  • Venting: this should always be above snow line, and located (ideally) on gable ends to keep out rainwater

  • Drainage: while humidity is key for roots, too much can be bad; make sure to include footing drains and other forms of daylight drains to keep humidity controllable; standing water and condensation promote rot

  • Insulation: used to keep the cold in when the structure is less than four feet from the ground surface

As for the food, it all has different needs, but none should be kept above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Many foods can be stored up to six months in some situations. Foods such as brassicas and leeks should be dug up roots and all and be replanted in sand and moist peat in containers. Carrots and other roots can be best maintained when repacked in moist sand. Apples and other fruits need their own chambers and vents to release ethylene gas.

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Creating your own food storage space can be done in several ways. Retrofitting existing basements is a great option for homeowners looking to use already available space. Creating an attached but separate root cellar allows for access through the existing house and limits having to brave the cold during frequent winter trips. Then of course, there is the iconic, standalone root cellar, which could have a shed on top or be completely subterranean, allowing for less insulation and more thermal mass, and hence more protection.

All of these structures are ideally created with some form of masonry building material. Poured concrete, surfaced bonded block, stone, gunite, concrete board, and/or brick are the most common materials used for thermal mass, load bearing strength, and water protection. When building a storage structure, don’t forget to obtain all local and state permits, as underground structures require special permitting in some places.

There are several alternatives to full–size root cellars that would allow for storage in a city, the suburbs, or where there is a need to feed only one or two people. These include clamps—insulated and above–ground caches covered in chicken wire, hay bales, and hardware cloth for rodent protection—and pantries, which are usually uninsulated spaces with vents for cooling and which are maintained in the spring, summer, and fall months by opening a door at night to let in cool air and closing the door in the morning to keep warm air out.

Almost any interior space near an outside wall, especially a closet or an attic, can serve as storage for some, if not most of your crops. Most important is to make your storage area easy to check on, so be careful of putting it too far from your home.

Root cellars offer us a new glimpse of sustainability through the guise of food security. By creating these storage spaces, we can protect our own harvests, support our local farmers, save trips to the store, and begin to take responsibility for the economic and ecological consequences of our food consumption.

The five main conditions found in the root cellar

root cellar storage chart

 

 

About the Author

Chris Chaisson

Chris Chaisson

Chris Chaisson is a farmer, designer, builder, and educator with Whole Farm Services, LLC. His work includes constructing sustainable infrastructure for farms and homesteads using regenerative technologies.

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