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When the apocalypse comes, what will we eat?

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(this transcript is for the main body of the episode. An updated transcript is coming soon)

(Gentle piano chords) 

KAYTE YOUNG: Picture beans growing on a plant. They're in a pod, a long green somewhat skinny pod. Now picture them dried. The pod has turned a pale beige color, it's papery. And the bean inside has hardened and dried. Now the beans are ready to thresh. In a greenhouse attached to a barn, at Sean and Denise Breeden-Ost's farm, wooden tables are lined with white sheets and piled with dried bean plants, ready to be threshed. Working together, they each gather two corners of one of the sheets and pull a mess of dried bean plants out of the greenhouse and onto the gravel driveway. They cover the dried plants with a second sheet and then they walk on them. (Sound of beans crunching underfoot) They aren't particularly gentle about it. Apparently the beans are pretty tough. The point is to loosen the dried beans from their pods. They stop periodically to check on the progress and refold the sheet, and then they walk on them some more. 

DBS: Fold it over on itself and then do some more. (Beans continuing to crunch underfoot) When we harvest them there's a timing... there's a real trick of timing that you're kind of splitting the difference between them being... you want them to be dry enough that they won't mold before they get crispy and dry. But you also want them to be not so dry that they shatter out of the pods when you're picking them in the fields. So... that takes some guess work every year. I'm taking the chaff, the vines, you know the broken-up vines and pods and everything and lifting them off of the beans that are down on the sheet, kind of shaking out any loose beans that are hiding in there. So we end up with just beans and little lightweight stuff left on the sheet, like the small pieces. And then we're gonna winnow that with a fan. 

And this is all basically made up. This isn't like the way that you do this, this just the way that it seems to work for us. A lot of people thresh their beans by hitting them with sticks, or like the traditional flail, which is a tool that you use to thresh things. It's like two sticks with a chain holding them together so you can get more force with your swing because you've got that momentum on the moving piece. But for me walking on things is just like easier than waving my arms around. When people used to thresh grain they would have a really tight floor, somewhere in their barn or their house. And they would have a threshold at the door that keeps the grain from spilling out. So they'd throw it all in there and they'd thresh it and fail at it until it all came out, and then they... it would all be held in that floor. But we didn't want to do it in our house and we're not really, we don't really want this much dust even in the barn so. We use sheets for a lot of things, old sheets are something that we kind of inherited some of with this house. There were you know sheets that didn't fit any of our beds, so sheets had been a good farm tool. They're good to harvest the beans into and carry them, they're just kind of our tarps. 

KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Once they're satisfied that most of the beans are out of the pod, it's time for winnowing. 

(Machine whirring) 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: I think the thing I find really satisfying about this particular job is that it's like you're using your body weight and gravity and wind. It's just so like the most basic technology. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah. What are these called again? 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: This is called Tailer Dwarf Horticultural, it's sort of like a pinto cranberry kind of bean. Striped and we usually cook these into when I was a kid we just called beans and cornbread. Beans cooked with onions and celery and peppers and things and then served with cornbread is kind of the classic way I like this kind of bean. But we grew a lot this year so we might find lots of new ways. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Eventually they transfer the beans to a wide metal bowl and place it close to the fan to winnow the final particles away. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Might be as far as I would take them and then I'll just pick through them by hand, you know sort through them by hand before we have them in our jars to cook. So what I usually do then is I'll spread these out like on a cookie sheet and just move the good ones to the side and move the other stuff to the other side. 

KAYTE YOUNG: It's recommended to do that with store bought beans to look for stones and stuff. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: I wish I'd done it. Recently we bought some black beans and found a rock. I mean the size of a black bean, I bit down on it, thought I broke my jaw. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Denise remembered a poem that she found in Motter Geoffery's World Vegetarian Cookbook. It's something she things about when she's sorting beans that makes her feel connected to women around the world. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: 

A lentil, a lentil, a lentil, a stone.
A lentil, a lentil, a lentil, a stone.
A green one, a black one, a green one, a black. A stone.
A lentil, a lentil, a stone, a lentil, a lentil, a word.
Suddenly a word. A lentil.
A lentil, a word, a word next to another word. A sentence.
A word, a word, a word, a nonsense speech.
Then an old song.
Then an old dream.
A life, another life, a hard life. A lentil. A life.
An easy life. A hard life, Why easy? Why hard?
Lives next to each other. A life. A word. A lentil.
A green one, a black one, a green one, a black one, pain.
A green song, a green lentil, a black one, a stone.
A lentil, a stone, a stone, a lentil.
KAYTE YOUNG: Cleaning lentils was written by the Istanbul based Armenian poet Zahrad. The poem was read by Denise Breeden-Ost. After a short break we'll sit down with Sean and Denise Breeden-Ost to talk about growing staple foods and we'll wonder about what kind of apocalypse you might be preparing for. Stay with us. 
(Music) 
(Piano chords) 
Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. Regular Earth Eats listeners might remember my audio essay from earlier this year in the spring about pandemic gardening trends. I was curious about the notion about first time gardeners planning to survive the year on food from their veggie patch. Then later in the summer I learned that a couple of growers with many years of experience had planted a decent amount of beans for drying and corn for cornmeal. And I thought, "Well they might be growing enough food to survive on." These particular farmers also grow and put up a lot of fresh produce from their growing, you know canning, freezing, drying, curing. So perhaps they could be eating their garden's bounty all year long. And then I started to think about the more complicated notion of self-sufficiency. I knew that these growers were thoughtful people, so I sat down for a conversation with Denise and Sean Breeden-Ost. They were the ones you just heard threshing beans and reading poetry. We talked about growing enough food, growing too much food, the pleasures of working with plants, and the tendency to personalize your apocalypse fantasies to suit your skillset. 

Denise and Sean live on a hilly and somewhat forested patch of land east of Bloomington, about a 20-minute drive from downtown. Sean grew up on the property. He and Denise and until recently, their son, who just left for college, live up on a hill, and Sean's brother lives down in the valley. While the woods can be dense, there are plenty of large clearing for growing food. Sean has been a market farmer for decades; Denise is a writer, but she is also played an active role in the farm over the years. They no longer grow food for market but the growing of food has not stopped. 

[INTERVIEWING] What kinds of food do you grow? 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: A lot of greens. 

DBO & SBO [TOGETHER]: Tomatoes

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Peppers.

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Potatoes
DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Sweet potatoes
SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Corn
DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Summer and winter squash, turnips and rutabagas 
SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Beans

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Onions, garlic
SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Okra, hot peppers

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Blueberries

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Cucumbers

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: We grow a lot of peaches, but the squirrels eat those greens, so we don't actually eat those. But we do grow them. 
SEAN BREEDEN-OST: We do have a lot of asparagus. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Shiitake mushrooms

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: That might be a pretty good summery...

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Basil

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Basil (laughs) 

KAYTE YOUNG: How do you determine what to grow? 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Well it's based on what we like really. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: We kind of sit down with the seed catalogs in January and talk about what we want to grow and it's pretty consistent. I mean it's the foods that we like to eat and that we know we can grow here. And then you know we try something new every once in a while. We've given up on somethings that don't do well here or that we're just not very good at. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Like what's an example of that? 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Well pole beans. We love pole beans but putting up the trellis, and we had a bean mosaic ?? years ago and we pretty much decided to stop with the pole beans and just go with the bush beans. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Mosaic virus. It killed it. And if you have bush beans and something happens to them you can just replant, you can till them and if the bean beetles or the disease or something gets bad and plant another row. But with pole beans you're kind of invested for the whole season and so we went with the bush beans. We can't grow very good spinach up here and Sean's village down in the valley grows great spinach, so we just don't bother (laughs). We've never had great luck with beets, but I think that was mostly just neglect, I'm not sure. So there's a few things that just haven't thrived. Our sweet potatoes we've experimented with over the years and some of them didn't do well here and some did, and so it's more of a variety choice. Tomatoes for years, we had a two-week tomato season because of disease pressure, and we finally found a couple of varieties that we can grow and they, we had a full tomato season this year. It was so exciting, it was like, "Wow there's still tomatoes out there" So we're a lot of it is choosing the varieties that like it here. 
KAYTE YOUNG: And so when you're growing are you also thinking about, or when you're picking your seeds or deciding what to grow, are you also thinking about food preservation? 
DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah. We definitely grow to put up. I mean that's part of at least with a lot of our crops that's part of what we're doing. And I have, I have records of how much food we've put up in the past for the past, I don't know, 10 years or so that I've been doing that. And so I can look back and say "Okay last year I put up this much and we did or didn't eat it all, and how did that go. And so this year I want this much instead." And so we've kinda tweaked the amounts over time for what seems to work for us. It made a huge difference because I was starting pretty much, I mean food preserving. I had an aunt who did a lot of it but it's not something that my parents did, and not something I learned to do when I was at home. So I said, so as an adult I was learning how to do that. And so I did. I took a lot of notes, here's what I put up, here's how I did it, and here's how it turned out, and here's when we ran out of it. And it let me gradually, it let me feel like I was learning rather than just starting again every year. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah also I can see where you know having an understanding of did we use this? Like we froze all of this broccoli, but we didn't like how it tasted so we never used it. And then it got freezer burn and then you know sat there in the freezer all year. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: That's one of them. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: And I hate wasting food and so yeah it was really important to me to not. And it's not just wasting food cause... I mean if we don't put up all of our tomatoes and some of them rot, we just throw them in the compost and then they go back to the soil and whatever. But if I've put in hours and hours of labor and propane and glass jars and lids and all of that, it feels like a bigger waste. So yeah I'm pretty, I pretty much, I want to make sure that we eat everything I put up as much as possible so. Yeah I do write it down. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: And things like potatoes we know how many pounds we'll eat before they sprout. And so when we harvest we see how much we have and then we keep what we're gonna use and then we give the rest away. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: We usually keep more than what we use, and then right before they're about to sprout we call up our friends and say, "Can you eat a bunch of potatoes in the next two weeks?" And they're like "Sure!" 

(DBO & KY Laugh) and share them around. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: But we're getting better at it. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Do you have an idea about you wanna eat mostly the produce that you grow yourselves throughout the year or is it just kind of seeing what you can do, or I don't know if you want to talk a little bit about the values or goals that you have that are associated with that. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: I think over time we just kinda learned to like the stuff that we grow. And we don't really desire other things that we can't grow like things that are out of season. And we're happy with collards we don't have to have lettuce if we don't have it. So it's not really that our goal is to provide all of our food, we just know how much we need to grow, and we grow what we know we can, and we enjoy what we grow. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: My friend Stacey said one time that something like if you want to produce your own food, it's better to start instead of growing everything you want to eat, you start with eating everything you can grow. And so we're not real recipe users. I mean we use recipes for inspiration, but we really start with the food we have which helps a lot. Because if you look at a recipe every recipe is gonna call for like a scallion or something, and scallions are not something we have in January. But I mean we buy produce, we buy avocados. We buy a little bit of fruit and odds and ends, and after we run out of potatoes we'll buy some potatoes. I buy okra at the farmer's market every year because I'm not very good at keeping okra picked, and so we grow it, but it doesn't really work. And I only want one batch of it anyway, so I just buy that. But there was a while when Glenn was little there were probably five years or more where we grew and preserved all the produce we ate except for a little bit of fruit. I'm not sure why it was definitely, like that was in my mind was that was what I wanted to do. And some of it may have just been finding out if it was possible, finding out if I could. But yeah we pretty much ate only the vegetables that we grew for quite a few years. And then Glenn got older and he was like "I want a salad" and so (laughs) we go got flexible. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Or "I want mangos, I'm sick of blueberries." 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: So part of it was it changed as our family changed. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And then there are things like olive oil and maybe flour and stuff that you're not gonna be growing so you're gonna be purchasing those things. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Sugar, salt, flour, oils. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Lots of different beans and grains and nuts and seeds. We buy a lot of food. But we don't buy a lot of fresh produce. Most of our fresh produce is something that we have and much of our off-season produce is something that we grew. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So what kinds of things do you put up when you do food preservation. What are some examples? 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Frozen peppers, dried peppers, paprika, tomato juice, relish, jam, and dried beans and corn. Frozen green beans. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Frozen greens. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Frozen greens, frozen pesto. We just made candied ginger for the first time that was kind of cool. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: From market gingers, fresh. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: From local, that was cool. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: It was very good. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Potatoes, and winter squash and sweet potatoes which you don't' have to do anything to. 

KAYTE YOUNG: You just have to give them the right conditions to not rot. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Right (laughs). What else do we put up? It seems like... I don't have my notebook out. Lots of frozen blueberries. 

KAYTE YOUNG: You grow enough blueberries that you can put them up for a whole winter. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Oh yeah, we put up... in 2019 we put up like 40 gallons frozen. And so I'm... we eat those in pancakes and things, but I'll also make blueberry jams sort of continuously through the whole year and that's our, that's the jam that we like. And so we eat it for breakfast everyday (laughs)

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: And our famous blueberry smoothie. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah the blueberry smoothie

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Sunflower seeds, and blueberries, and a little bit of honey, some water. It's breakfast. 

KAYTE YOUNG: I mean you said something earlier Sean about kind of adjusting your tastes and your desires to what you have. And accepting like you said Glenn was like, "I'm tired of blueberries." 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Yeah, I think that's evolved over the years. I guess I've always liked garden produce. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: I've learned to like quite a few things over the years. Sean is never been a picky eater, but I was, you know I didn't really love brassica family greens and arugula grossed me out, and I hated cilantro and I didn't like melons and I didn't like cucumbers. And I gradually over the years I've actually come to like some of those, which in some cases it was really exciting because I always wanted to like melons I just didn't. And in others it was like arugula, still if I didn't have arugula ever again I wouldn't cry but if it happens to be the green we have, and I want some greens to go in something I'll use it and be happy with it. So there's, I don't know, I'm a little more flexible than I was. We did I mean, we had some conversations when Glenn was 14 or 15 about like, "Why do we have these juicy tomatoes that make a mess when I eat them on my sandwich? We should go to the store and buy a proper sandwich tomato that..." 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: That's dry and crunchy. (Sean & Denise laugh) 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: That doesn't turn into slop. So it was interesting to actually hear him working through that and coming up with his own opinions because it never would occur to me to buy a different kind of tomatoes. Like well we've got these tomatoes, but I can see how, it's possible to have some other way of working with produce. But we've gotten used to this. This is kinda what we do. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah I've always been resistant to a CSA because I was afraid I'd waste the food. That I would just like the idea of it, but I wouldn't actually eat it because it's just not the way I cook. But if I was a farmer I think I would adjust the way I cook. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: You probably would have to. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Well and you can adapt recipes to what you have too. 

KAYTE YOUNG: True to a certain extent (laughs) again that's where the flexibility comes in. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: I think it's a mental barrier. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: I think that's what we do, is we just adapt it. And we're like "collards are just as good as spinach." So...

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: And sometimes we buy a package of frozen spinach. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Sometimes we do. 
DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Because spinach and feta pastry thingies sound really good and I wanna make some for my son and he likes spinach better and so I just buy some. When I was a kid my mom, I mean I learned to cook from my mom as a teenager. And she is somebody who... she goes to the store to replenish her supply of the things she always has on hand, and then she makes the food that she makes with that food. And it’s really good food and it varies quite a bit, and it does include garden stuff. But I didn't grow up buying vegetables at the store, like zucchinis or peppers or things like that. We bought potatoes and onions and carrots at the store. And it wasn't like we couldn't buy anything else, but it was just like there was a standard range of stuff that we always had on hand and that's how I learned to cook. And I think that helps me be adaptable. 

About the CSA thing, one thing that made me think of, was when we had a CSA, we ran a CSA. Sometimes people wouldn't pick up a share, and we would bring it home and put the produce in the fridge. And sometimes the produce went bad. So I just want to say to people who are CSA customers it's not, you're not a terrible sinner, or maybe I'm a terrible sinner too. But it was actually harder to use up a box of CSA produce because it had already been harvested and when you have it in your garden, you can decide, "Well I'm not using those onions today and they'll keep for 3 weeks. They sit there in the ground; they'll just get bigger." And so I think there's more, it's actually a little more flexible when the stuff is out in the garden on plants and you pick it when you need it. So in some ways we do go to the store when we decide what we're making, we just... the store is the garden. 

KAYTE YOUNG: I'm speaking with Denise and Sean Breeden-Ost about growing food, preserving food, and eating food. After a short break we'll talk about what it takes to grow your own dry goods like beans and grains. And about prepping for the apocalypse, or not. I'm Kayte Young, this is Earth Eats, stay with us. 

(Music)

Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. I had a chance to visit with Sean and Denise during the corn harvest season. They walked me through the steps of getting dry seed corn from the field to the table. The variety of corn they raise grows incredibly high. It towers over our heads. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: We go in there and we start yanking them down. 
(Sound of corn being pulled from stalks)
KAYTE YOUNG: So you're yanking the ears not the stalk. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah, so as you can see there's a height issue here. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Grab the ?? and peel them back. Peel them back. Snap it off, make sure it's a sound ear. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: This is ?? corn. It's a white heirloom corn. I was pretty suspicious about white corn at first because I really like my corn bread to be yellow, but this stuff tastes amazing. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Yeah so what we'll do is we'll shuck it and then we'll stack them loosely in crates and take them inside and let them dry for a good month or two before we grind it. And we still have lots of corn left from last year and the year before. I have 524-foot rows, and then another 100 ft row. It is more than we usually grow. I was worried about what we were gonna do with all the corn, but the squirrels kinda solved that problem for us so. I think we'll end up with about 8 bushels or so, it's enough to eat, share. And lots of polenta, corn bread. It's a tremendous number of calories that are on each plant, and it's well adapted to our environment. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: These last three vision on my novel when I was writing about shucking corn, and I was trying to describe the breaking off of the bottom part of it, I actually called my mom and then called my granny to find out is there a name for that part you break off. Like do they have a name for that. And they're like "No, it's just the part you break off." It's like well that's not very elegant. So I think ended up calling it the stem which is what it is, but I felt like there should be a name for that gesture of breaking the bottom and all the shucks off of the corn. It's such a calming thing people have to do. I guess they didn't feel like they had to talk about it. 

KAYTE YOUNG: The next step was shelling. 

(Sound of hard pieces dropping into a metal bowl)

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: I used to do this when I was a kid. We used to go into the neighbor's corn field, it was feed corn, and pick corn and shell it off and use it for corn fights. 

KAYTE YOUNG: What's involved in a corn fight? 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: You have a bunch of corn that's shelled off the ear and stored in margarine tubs or something and you have forts built out of things and you rush out at each other and fling handfuls of corn at each other. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay so there's no device that, it's just your hands, flinging them. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah it's just throwing corn at each other (laughs) 

KAYTE YOUNG: And then they bring it inside to grind it. They have a grain mill attachment for their champion juicer. It's one of those classic juicers with a heavy-duty motor. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: And I grind it twice because you have to crack it first. 

(Heavy machine whirrs) 

KAYTE YOUNG: After a second pass through the grinder they set the corn meal through a mesh shiv, and it's ready to use for polenta or grits or cornbread. For this coarsely ground cornmeal Denise uses a hot water cornbread recipe, which you can find at EarthEats.org. We tried it this week and I highly recommend it. When I first heard that Sean and Denise were growing their own beans and grains I wanted to hear more about their motivations. Sean said he tried ? corn for the first time a few years ago. He remembered a variety that his grandfather had given them when he was a kid. He looked for something similar and gave it a try. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: I just wanted to try it, so we put out a plot probably 30feet wide by 40 feet. And it grew just amazingly well. 

KAYTE YOUNG [NARRATING]: Once they had the corn there was the problem of grinding it. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: We did some in our blender and figured out that was gonna be the death of our blender. But then we acquired an attachment for the juicer that we have and boy it was amazing. Much sweeter, more corn flavor then store-bought cornmeal and so then I was hooked. And we tried a different corn the next year. And this year we planted about three times what we've ever planted before. 

KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: So this was the first time you'd grown your own grain? 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Yeah. Yeah and we've been growing dry beans since at least 2010, maybe a little before that. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And did you grow more of those this year as well? 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: We didn't plant more but they thrived better. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And so do you think of the corn and beans differently? And I'm asking because I do. I see it as like Oh, that's moving towards self-sufficiency because if you can grow your own protein, and you're not raising animals, it just makes me think of a more self-sufficient model that you could survive on that or something. (laughs)

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: There's a feeling to it that's kind of satisfying that way. It doesn't feel like so much we could survive on it as we're able to provide some of our sort of staple foods. Which I mean the potatoes and the sweet potatoes are staples if anything is. But it breaks down a barrier in my mind between sort of dry goods and produce. And mix it so that actually there's not a line there that says you can't cross it as a home gardener. I just always assumed, I mean assumed that to grow your own corn you had to have, like for cornmeal, you had to have acres and acres of corn. It just seemed like it'd be this huge endeavor, and it's not. I was really surprised by how much cornmeal there is from an ear of corn. And the beans I think warned us, I didn't have as much of a sense of that being different because when I was a kid my aunt grow horticulture beans. And my grandparents had grown beans as well. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: And I think a good part of it is it's like the tomatoes and peppers we just prefer the taste of these beans and this cornmeal over what we can buy. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: We do buy a lot of grains and beans, you know, because we want to have red split lentils, and we want to have black eyed peas, and we want green split peas and lentils and...

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: And black beans

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: And brown rice and you know lots of things that we appreciate the variety of. So we're not at all trying to replace all of that, but it's kind of nice to know that we can grow that stuff too. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And when you've grown the corn has it lasted you through the year? 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Oh yeah

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah, more than through the year. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And then this year you grew more than you needed. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: We did. (chuckles)

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah, that was Sean's decision-making process (laughs). It's not mathematical. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: I've always been one to plant way more than we need because I love giving away stuff. And I just like how generous the land is with its abundance. And this year the squirrels go more corn than we did. We shared quite a bit. 

KAYTE YOUNG: They had a rough year. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: They did. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: They did. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: They didn't have any nuts, and so they got fat on corn this year. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah Sean'll be standing there by the kitchen sink and look out the window and he's like "They're just running up the stalks! They're just running up the stalks eating the corn!" I mean it's just...

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: There'd be like five squirrels out there, like kernels flying everywhere. And then the birds come in. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: But still we got more than we can possibly eat. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Well..

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Well we've got more than we will eat. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And if you can store it from year to year, do you feel like it's stable enough that it's fine. The two-year rule of corn is fine? 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah, oh yeah. We're still eating the older corn. It's really, it keeps really well. We keep it whole on the ear partly because it keeps better that way. And then when it's... when we want some, we shell it off the ear into a bowl and pour it through the grinder, grind it through twice and then shift it and then usually I make enough for maybe a quart and a half of cornmeal at a time. And I'll only use a cup to 2 cups when I'm making cornbread and so I put the rest in the freezer and use that as we want to. So that it gets ground close to when it's used. 

KAYTE YOUNG: I guess I want to go back to my other question about the idea of self-sufficiency or survival. You know I feel like it's come up a lot this year, pretty much as soon as the pandemic hit, and grocery stores had less on the shelves than normal. And people were at home more than normal, some not all, but some. That all of the sudden I started hearing at least in the media circles that I'm attention to which granted is limited and food focused. There was just a lot of talk about, "We gotta grow our own food!" And "I'm planting a raised bed this year because it's time to sustain ourselves." And having grown some food myself for the past you know 15 years I was like... okay, do you have any idea what you're talking about? Just because one it's not that easy, even if you do know what you're doing. And two, I just feel very suspicious of that kind of thinking, of like we have a lot of canned goods stored in our basement that we've put away. And sometimes when people see it they're like "Oh, I'm coming to your house if there's a crisis or something." And I'm like, "Okay, fine." Because that's what's gonna happen is it's all gonna be shared and be gone in like two days because what are you gonna do if you got everything you need? Like how are you gonna defend that, or what, I don't know. That's just a lot of things that come up for me and I wanted to know if you guys had thought through any of those kinds of things when you start to think about self-sufficiency or survival or prepping or any of those terms. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Every year we go into the wintertime, and like well, if it snows so much that we're snowed in for 3 months we won't starve. You know cause we got a hundred squash on the shelf above the cabinets or something. It's like we might turn orange. So yeah we have that we have that feeling. It's just not a... it's not the primary motivation. It's one of the byproducts I think. A lot of it's curiosity. It's like I wonder if we could grow beans. I wonder if we could grow corn. Sean planted rice this year. And it was like I wonder if we could grow rice? I'm gonna try it. And you know we had a little bit of rice, and maybe we'll grow a little bit more rice in the future and so it's more like... it adds to a bank of knowledge or to its sense of knowing and understanding and learning, that's kind of an end in itself. And it's a relationship in itself with this place and the land and the plants. And then the sort of thing about like someday when everything falls apart we're gonna need this knowledge, it's like well yeah, that's quite possible that we might need that knowledge for that sort of reason. But it's not the motivation. It's an aftereffect. That sense of competence in the world, it feels good more than it is rational I think. What I've noticed is that most people they pick which thing they want to not be able to get anymore after the apocalypse. For me I can, I'll be sitting around daydreaming apocalypse of something that I've done, and think well, I know how to live without electricity. I know how to build a composting toilet so for me I can imagine being very satisfied and smug in a postapocalyptic future in which we don't have electricity and everybody else is in hysterics because they don't have a TV, and I'm fine. But that's nonsense. For one thing here we are in the middle of a pandemic and we had this sort of crisis in our society and what I ended up needing to do was not how to live without electricity but how to meet with people on zoom, which I was much less well prepared for. So in those sort of larger world beyond food, I think we kind of pick and choose our fantasies of collapse to be something that works well for our particular quirks. And I'm not real comfortable with that kind of self servingness. It seems like in a fantasy life self-serving this would be okay, but I get caught up on the logic. But also it really seems to always come down to this idea of the nuclear family as self-sufficient. That we will provide everything we need, and I just think that is always a lie. I do not think a nuclear family can provide everything it needs, not in a way that I wanna live. You need community and you need it for human relationships. But you also just that's just the way the world works. It's there's not a little bubble around us that we can just live in. I don't know I was trying to think of what is it that we need that we couldn't do ourselves, well we need a stable climate. We cannot grow food to eat no matter how good we are at it, if the weather goes haywire. And we can't possibly create a stable climate by ourselves. So you know even on that level it's just impossible to insulate yourself from the effects of things. And then there's the question of what do we do if we're sitting here eating our sweet potato pie and cornbread and our neighbors are starving, are we gonna feel happy? I wouldn't feel happy. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: We would invite them to dinner. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah. And then everybody would be at our house for dinner and then our food would go pretty fast and then we'd all have to figure out what we're gonna do next. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: Squirrels. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: Yeah there are a lot of squirrels and they are really well fed. They're fed on grain peaches and blueberries and corn. 

SEAN BREEDEN-OST: I think for me the self-sufficiency it's more important to trust in community and knowing that things will be available. They maybe in short supply but as long as we're sharing things I think everybody will have hopefully what they need. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: The growing of the food also creates more, it creates our entertainment and our exercise, and our education and our time spent together. There's all this. If all we got out of it was food I can't even imagine that. I don't even know what that'd be like. But there's so much else that we gain from doing that in the world of being in relation to the rest of life. And then also in relationship with each other. And one thing Sean was saying earlier we were having a conversation about the self-sufficiency thing, is the idea that if the real kind of self-sufficiency or self reliance that would be smart to be doing, like the place that this is pointing when people are saying "Oh no we have to grow gardens now." What actually makes sense is for communities to start talking together about how they can be more able to support themselves without if California produce is not available for a year or for three years. Or if something else happens, how would we take care of one another in that situation. How could we make it possible as a community for farmland in this area to be used growing food for people instead of being used for growing commodity crops to feed livestock which is what most of it is in now. There's a lot of farmland here, we could be growing food to feed people here but because of the food economy that's not financially sustainable for farmers. And so as an area you can look at things like how do we work on food security together or how do we do more of that stuff that we need in general together. But that's really different from doing it as a nuclear family. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And I think that part of the conversations that I was hearing was "We need to, let's start growing food and community gardens." And even so it felt naive and missing something. You said the thing about it makes sense to trust in community and that takes a lot of work too. The community isn't there, it has to be built and maintained and that's kind of what I woke up to. Is that's what we don't have. 

DENISE BREEDEN-OST: I'm just thinking about and the naivety piece, and yeah it is kind of naive for somebody to say, who’s never gardened before to say, "I'm putting in a garden right now so that I can grow my food this year because there's a pandemic." They're definitely going to learn a lot. And I think actually being naive may kind of a prerequisite for starting to do some of these things. We're not that good, at least I don't feel like we are in this culture at deciding to do something that we think is really hard and probably won't work. And so we have to have this optimistic. I mean Sean is a temperamentally very optimistic person and he's the one who can farm. When we've been farming, when we did farming for market, it was much easier for him because every spring he goes out and he's like "Wow! Look at all the great food we're gonna grow." And I go out and say, "Oh my god what's gonna go wrong this year?" and I wouldn't start the thing. And yet because he starts the thing, I get to participate in it and learn from it and find out that actually a lot of good food does happen, and a lot of things do go wrong. And so I think that naive flinging into it can lead to a good places and can if people kind of stick with it when it all falls apart and try again and learn something. 

(Upbeat guitar music) 

KAYTE YOUNG: I've been speaking with Denise Breeden-Ost and Sean Breeden-Ost about growing food, processing staple foods, and what the idea of self-sufficiency means to them especially in the middle of a pandemic. Check out EarthEats.org for some photos of their corn and bean harvest, and you'll also find Denise's hot water cornbread recipe. Check it out at EarthEats.org. That's it for our show this week, thanks for listening. We'll see you next time. Take care. 

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Josephine McRobbie, the IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Denise Breeden-Ost and Sean Breeden-Ost. 

RENEE REED: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artist at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

Sean and Denise Breeden Ost standing in a wood framed greenhouse with tables piled with dried plant matter. They are lifting a sheet cradling some dried beans plants)

Sean and Denise Breeden-Ost gather the corners of a sheet filled with dried bean plants in order to take them outside to thresh. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“There’s a feeling to it that’s kind of satisfying in that way. It doesn’t feel so much like we could survive on it, as we’re able to provide some of our staple foods.”

On today’s show we’re continuing to celebrate our 15th anniversary with a favorite story from 2020 about my visit to a farm east of Bloomington Indiana, to speak with Denise and Sean Breeden-Ost. 

We talked about growing food, preserving food and eating food. We check out their dry bean threshing techniques and reflect on the notion of food self-sufficiency.

Plus, food news from Harvest Public Media.

Denise and Sean Breeden Ost looking down and walking on a bumpy light blue sheet, with greenery behind them.
Denise and Sean cover the dry bean plants with a second sheet and then walk on it to loosen the dry beans from the pods. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

We’re looking back this month, to some of our favorite stories,

This story was recorded back in 2020, when a lot of people were taking up gardening, claiming they needed to become self sufficient. I remember shaking my head at the notion of first time-gardeners planning to survive the year on food from their veggie patch. 

Then, later in the summer, I learned that a couple of growers, with many years of experience, had planted a decent amount of beans for drying and corn for cornmeal. And I thought, "well, THEY might be growing enough food to survive on!" These particular farmers also grow and put up a lot of fresh produce from their garden--canning, freezing drying, curing. So, perhaps they could be eating their garden’s bounty all year long. 

And then I started to think more about the complicated notion of self sufficiency. I knew that these growers were thoughtful people, so I sat down for a conversation with Denise and Sean Breeden-Ost.

Sean Breeden Ost in a face mask, holding several ears of corn in one arm,  standing in rows of tall dry corn stalks, reaching above his head for a dry ear of corn.
Sean Breeden-Ost reaches overhead to grab an ear of Hickory Cane seed corn from a tall stalk in the field.(Kayte Young/WFIU)

I also had the chance to visit their farm during the corn harvest season. They walked me through the steps of getting dry seed corn from the field to the table. 

They also demonstrated their dry bean threshing methods, which Denise says are "made up." Denise mentions her novel, and how she consulted with her mom and her granny on the term for the part of the corn ear that you break off once the husks are pulled back. Her novel, Making It All Right is full of lovely descriptions of growing food, harvesting and processing food and so many more details of rural life in Indiana in the 1940s.  You can here her on WFIU's The Poet's Weave.

Sean and Denise Breeden Ost standing near a wooden farm cart with face masks, and hats. They are holding ears of corn and pulling off the husks. There is wild drying vegetation behind them
Sean and Denise Breeden-Ost shuck the corn out in the field before stacking it loosely in crates and bringing it indoors to finish drying.(Kayte Young/WFIU) 
Two hands holding an ear of dry yellow seed corn with a reddish-brown cob, over a metal bowl partially filled with corn kernals
Once the corn is dry, it is shelled off the cob by hand. (Kayte Young/WFIU)
Denise Breeden Ost in profile with face mask holding a back under a grain grinder attached to a motorized juicer in a room with woodwork and a yellow wall.
They use a grain mill attachement for their Champion Juicer to grind the corn into cornmeal. They pass it through once to crack it, then a second time to grind it. After sifting it through a mesh sieve, the cornmeal is ready to be made into polenta, grits or cornbread. (Kayte Young/WFIU)
Denise and Sean Breeden Ost, in face masks, kneeling on a white sheet, lifting dry chaff and holding it in fron of a fan.
To process their dry beans, they use an electric fan and gravity to winnow the chaff away from the bean. Wearing facemasks is useful, even when we aren't in the midst of a pandemic. The dust can cause irritation.(Kayte Young/WFIU)
A close up of multi-colored beans in a metal bowl.
These beans are called Taylor Dwarf Horticultural. They are similar to an October variety, and can be used the way you might use a pinto bean. (Kayte Young/WFIU)
Music on this Episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Dosh and the artists at Universal Production Music.

Credits:

The Earth Eats’ team includes: Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Stories On This Episode

Denise's Hot Water Cornbread

Ears of white seed corn stacked loosely in 3 wooden crates on a brick floor.

This cornbread is best made with coarsely ground cornmeal, like the kind Denise Breeden-Ost processes from their own seed corn.

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