Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Food Processing Saga - Final Chapter?

OK - got the camera fixed, so I can now show you all the fun we had processing the bulk food into buckets. This was the order we got from Walton Feed, and everything came up to just over a ton and was delivered on two pallets by freight truck. The canned meats and dairy from Ready Depot didn't need to be processed since they were already in cans and cases. Too bad they were only a couple hundred pounds worth of food and were easily delivered by UPS. The mylar and the oxygen absorbers were also easily delivered by Fedex. The buckets came on a pallet by freight truck, but that was more because of the size that 84 empty pails and their lids takes up rather than because they're heavy... so the delivery driver had no problems taking the pallet into the carport for me.

See, we have these two pallets, weighing approximately 1000 lbs each. We live at the top of a hill, on a road that deadends at our property line with a steep driveway that slopes up perpendicular to the angle of the road. This does not make us particularly popular with delivery truck drivers! They can't turn around and back up easily, and they can't maneuver in line with the driveway, and they certainly can't back up the driveway without bottoming out. Even with the nifty hydraulic pallet-jack hand truck, the poor driver did not want to try to drag 1000 lbs up the driveway into the carport. I even offered to push from the bottom... no dice. So he just dropped them right there at the bottom of the driveway, in the sun, and left me to shift a ton of food uphill by myself. Joy!

Well, of course, delivery day had to be a rare sunny day in Seattle and actually fairly warm. I couldn't just leave all that food out in the sun and the heat; and I figured that if I could shift it up the hill into the carport, I might as well just take the last 30 feet into the house. Let me tell you, when almost everything on a pallet weighs at least 25 lbs and most of it weighs 50+, it's an endeavor of near-Herculean proportions for a 140 lb woman to lug it all uphill, in the heat, by herself! Have you ever tried opening a door when you're carrying a large 50-lb box of bouillon or bag of wheat? Yeah, not too easy. So I decided that I would carry as much as I could to the door, then carry it from the door into the living room before starting the whole process over again at the bottom of the driveway.

It took me 3 cycles to get everything up the hill and into the house. I had to take several breaks because I was sweating like a pig and I didn't want to bleed on the food from all the cuts and scrapes the boxes and bags were giving me. I figure I could have gotten it done faster without the breaks... but dehydration and blood loss sucks. Besides, shifting a ton of food in only 2-1/2 hours ain't too shabby (if I do say so myself). By the end, I could barely feel my arms and I had so many bruises that I looked like a junky. I couldn't even lift the last 4 boxes off the porch and resorted to flipping, kicking and sliding to get them into the living room. I admit it, I'm not too proud to cheat or beg or generally look pathetic... I let the UPS delivery guy who showed up with our clothing order help me move in the last 56 lb box.

(Note to self: buy a hand truck before doing this again!)

So here's what over a ton of food, 2/3 - 3/4 the recommended yearly supply for 2 adults, looks like when it's all stacked up in your living room. For reference, that window is 16 feet wide and 7 feet tall. The food actually took up more floor space than our queen-sized bed. You can see how tiny the meat and dairy is (on the right side of the picture) compared to all the bulk stuff. At this point, I was too pooped to pop and I was so dehydrated I looked like a salty raisin. Figured I'd done enough for the day and promptly passed out on the sofa until DH got home. At which point, I realized that I had dislocated both my elbows and my shoulder. Oh well, I'm double-jointed, they went back in easily enough with a little not-so-gentle persuasion.

I needed a day or two to recover from the initial hauling and needed help pouring all the bags into the buckets anyway, so we put off the processing until the weekend when DH was home. This was actually a tiny miscalculation on my part, which I'll explain later. We'd watched several YouTube videos on packaging food into buckets for storage with mylar liners. Gee, it didn't look that difficult. But, we soon discovered that there is a bit of a learning curve to the processing. First, how do you get a flat, square, stiff mylar sleeve into a round bucket without 1) cutting yourself, 2) poking your eye out on a corner, and 3) getting weird folds and crinkles in the mylar that reduces the storable volume in the bucket. And how do you do this when your arms (well, my arms) are about 1 inch shorter than the depth of the liner?

Next we discovered that pouring 25 lbs of beans into a bucket is easy and it fits; but pouring a 50 lb feed sack into a bucket is a whole other story. We learned that rye berries love to escape and refuse to go into the mylar liner, prefering the run free across the floor instead. We learned that big bags get floppy and it's really hard to control the flow... so we overfilled and spilled a few times before we used our brains and got scoops! We also learned that you don't really have a lot of time between chucking in the oxygen absorber and sealing the mylar, or else the O2 absorber losses it's uumfph. We were quickly reminded that haste makes waste when we'd sealed 10 bags before realizing that we'd forgotten to squish out as much air as possible first. Oooops! So we snipped off the corners, chucked in a new O2 absorber for peace of mind, squished out all the air and then resealed the corners. I only managed to burn DH's fingers with the iron 4 or 5 times, and get myself with melted mylar once (gotta keep that iron moving folks!).

Round about this time we realize that maybe we were doing this the wrong way. See, I didn't think about how we were really going to use this food. Unlike the survivalist folks who are stocking all their food away long term, we're actually intending to eat this food during the coming year while we're building our house. And, unlike the regular "home" food storage folks who can go to the store if they need something and can easily rotate smaller portions of canned goods or smaller buckets (and who have a refrigerator and a freezer), we're going to be roughing it out in the wood without (m)any conveniences and most of our food was dried and in large buckets.

Now, it didn't make sense to fill an entire bucket up with all one thing... as this would mean that we would have to keep unsealing the mylar liner, at least once a month, to scoop out usuable portions. Which kind of defeats the whole purpose of sealing up the buckets in the first place. What we needed to be doing was prepacking the goods into sizes that we would use in a month, and then packing the mylar and buckets full of those bags in a monthly combo pack. So, off we went to Wally-World to buy their entire stock of vacuum seal food bags. We already had the vacuum sealer, we just knew we needed more bags than we had on hand. This was pretty expensive. In the future, since we know ahead of time, we'll order the generic industrial bags in bulk from a place like Goodman's at a substantial discount. The beans that we had already processed (twice!) would just have to suffer from our ignorance... at least they aren't particularly perishable. Of course, I could have ordered the vac-bags and started dividing and weighing while I was waiting for DH to help on the weekend. Doh! Hindsight is 20/20.

Some of the less perishable items, like salt, we just pre-packaged in convenient weights or volumes you'd find at a grocery store. Other more perishable items, or items we'd use less of, we packaged into pints/quarts or 1-2 lbs. This required some conversion calculation and hefty amounts of estimation because a lot of the food we have is dehydrated and/or powdered -- meaning their end weight/volume was much different than the amounts I was packaging. For instance, just a cup of tomato powder can make a quart of marinara sauce once it's reconstituted - same for powdered eggs, milk, shortening, peanut butter, etc. So it wouldn't make sense to pre-pack those in quart sizes if we couldn't use it all in a month. Also, powdered stuff is really hydrophilic, it loves to absorb water from the air and turn rock hard. This meant that we were either going to have a bunch of tiny vac-bags or we were going to have to pre-package our pre-packaging. So, yes, we have bouillon in cup-sized zipper bags inside a quart-sized vacuum-bag, inside a mylar bag, inside a bucket. Overkill?! Maybe. Better safe than sorry though.

But we did learn a few useful things. For sticky or clumpy things like brown sugar and powdered eggs an ice cream scoop with a flip-ejector-thingy works the best for scooping and bagging without dumping too much of it on yourself or being unable to get it out of the measuring cup. For fine powdered things like milk and instant potatoes, a large-mouth funnel (like you use in canning) is about the only way to fill the bags with minimal dust and minimal spillage. Inhaling tomato powder really sucks... "It burns us"! A lot of foods are really stinky when they are dehydrated and concentrated (don't stick your nose near the broccoli bag!). Cats find open bags of powdered dairy product infinitely fascinating. Never underestimate the usefulness of a proper food scale... we were using a baby scale that got to weigh the cats, definitely NOT the right tool for the job!

So, I spent about a week pre-packaging and repackaging; and finally, nine days after delivery, we had everything (except the cabbage, which mysteriously disappeared from the truck) all packaged up and ready to go. That's 66 six-gallon buckets worth of bulk foods, and several cases of #10 and #2.5 cans. Now we just have to get more fruit (nowhere near recommended amounts in that category), some nuts and snack/treat things that are quick to grab-and-go when the blood sugar tanks and you're too cold and hungry to cook a proper meal.

Now all we have to do is make sure that we're allowed to drive it all through Canada on the way up. Some sort of weight/volume restrictions on what's considered "personal use" and what's considered "distribution" blah blah blah. I hate customs and all their silly rules that seem to change every season. But, alas, that is a tale for another time....


Anonymous said...

A little late to the party one this one, but I just stumbled on your blog a few days ago.

Anyway, out of curiosity, did you end up having any hassle going through Canada with all those stored food goods? Did they question what it all was (or heaven forbid, want to open your sealed packages to "inspect" them)? Did they want you to pay some kind of "made-up" fee for importing it? Or did they let you through hassle-free, with few questions?


Plickety Cat said...

Canada didn't give us any problems with the food and we didn't have any problems bringing it back into the US when we got to Alaska... only because it was canned or dried and sealed. No frozen, no fresh. We told them we had it, that we bought it in the US (not Canada) and were only transporting it through Canada without any plans to import it... and they were ok with that at both borders.

No fresh, no frozen, and nothing from Canada out or into Canada to stay... seems to be the safe bet!