May 2009 Archives

Is it cost effective to can your own tomatoes?

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home versus store 2

A cost analysis of home canned versus store bought tomatoes.

A question that a lot of people ask about home canned goods is: can you save money by canning your own food?  I think it's an important question to ask.  I can't say that I preserve my own food for the possible savings,  I do it because I think it tastes better, I know what's in it, and best of all, I truly enjoy doing it.

For many people it is only worth their time if they know they are saving money by doing it and I respect that.  So I decided it was time to try and answer that question.

I am starting with an analysis of canned tomato products because I use this more than any other pantry staple that I can make myself.  I can about 36 jars of diced and sauced tomatoes a year and I would like to do more.

I took price notes on two different types of canned tomatoes (diced and sauce) from two very different grocery stores: Winco, the leading bargain grocery store in my town (most things they sell are dirt cheap and close to the expiration dates) and Roth's, the leading family owned fancy grocery store (where everything is pretty top notch quality and prices reflect this).  And then I calculated the cost of my own home canned diced tomatoes and tomato sauce.

Roth's:

Diced Tomatoes 28 oz can (Hunt's brand)- 9¢ per ounce
Diced Tomatoes 28 oz can (Muir Glen Organic brand)- 12¢ per ounce

Tomato Sauce 28 oz can (Hunt's brand)- 8¢ per ounce
Tomato Sauce 28 oz can (Muir Glen Organic brand)- 12¢ per ounce

Winco:

Diced Tomatoes 28 oz can (S and W brand)- 7¢ per ounce

Tomato Sauce 28 oz can (Hunt's)- 6¢ per ounce

Home Canned:


Diced Tomatoes 1 quart (using U-pick tomatoes)- 5¢ per ounce
Diced Tomatoes 1 quart (using home grown)- 2¢ per ounce

Tomato Sauce 1 quart (using U-pick tomatoes)- 10¢ per ounce

Tomato Sauce 1 quart (using home grown)- 4¢ per ounce

(homegrown here is assuming you buy the vegetable starts, not grow them from seeds.  Keep reading!)

There were only two choices to include from Winco as they don't have the widest selection at any given time.  For the homegrown I took into account the price of plants and how much you can generally expect a plant to yield and how many pounds of tomatoes it takes to make diced tomatoes versus how many pounds it takes to make sauce.  For the sauce I chose to use the number of pounds it takes to make a pretty thick sauce rather than a thinner one to maximize the meaning of the numbers here.  I always make a thick sauce, the thicker you make it the more tomatoes it takes to fill a quart.

I didn't account for the price of canning equipment, jars, the power it takes to can, nor the amount of water it takes to grow your own and here's why:  with almost any worthy activity you must buy tools.  Tools are a one time cost.  If you really want to add the price in you must make a guess at how many years you think you will be using the tools.  I plan to keep on using my canning tools until I am a grizzled old lady like the ones I meet at the u-pick field who have been canning for over 50 years.

So my canning pot and equipment cost me $1 per year to use.  If you are a stickler, you can do the math and figure out how much it costs per jar (37 quarts per year X 30 years) (Seriously?  You're going to do the math?)

The cost of the jars if bought brand new and not on sale works out to be about $1 a piece.  So if you want to do the math on that- be my guest.  Figure that each jar is (if treated with reasonable care) likely to last you 30 years.  You will have breakage once in a while but it is rare if you are good at canning.  So, divide $1 by thirty years and you will have the cost you can add to the per ounce prices I've listed above.

Some sticklers insist on adding the cost of watering home grown vegetables to the cost of their food.  I don't do this because I think it's ridiculous and here's why: the majority of Americans who have homes (whether rented or owned rarely makes a difference) with yards in them are already watering lawns.  In my master gardening class we were given some astonishing figures on how much water in the US is used to keep lawns looking alive and "nice".  It's shocking.  Even if you don't have lawn you're already watering (and I bet you do) you're probably watering a bunch of shrubs and flowers- am I right?

It most certainly doesn't cost any more to water vegetables than it does to water your lawn.  In fact, if you are using drip irrigation or some other form of water efficient irrigation, you are probably going to save money on your water use.  This is why you should turn your lawn into your own grocery store (thanks, Kathy, that is a lovely way to look at my kitchen garden!).

The power it takes to can vegetables or to freeze them.  Yeah, this is another one that I discount.  If the average person watched less television, used less power lighting their homes, had energy efficient heating, threw away their hair dryers, and used fewer plug in items, the amount of extra power it takes to run a small auxillary freezer or to can your own food could be easily offset.  No need to add that in.  Make some effort and you will see the difference.

During canning season (and I've been canning now for 9 years) I have never seen a significant bump in my electricity or gas usage.  It increases a little bit but it is also generally increasing because the lights are being turned on earlier as fall digs in.

Oh, but the biggie that I have heard many people say which never ceases to annoy me is "But my time is money...so when you account for the labor it takes me to make my own food, it isn't worth it."  Most of you have already heard my feelings on this issue, but for anyone who has not, let me just ask you if you compare all the time you spend raising your kids against what daycare providers earn and make your decision based on how much money your time is worth?  Because if you do, you have some pretty twisted priorities.  Most people give their children as much personal care as they are able to without once asking themselves if it might be worth just handing them over to the babysitter full time because it just isn't worth their time.

What makes an activity worth the time and effort you put into it is dependent on more factors than how much your time is professionally worth.  There is pride at stake, there is quality to consider, there is control that adds bonuses most people don't want to think about when it comes to food preparation (such as not allowing a certain percentage of insects to be cooked with your sauce), and there is enjoyment.

Feeding ourselves and our families is the most important thing we do.

I suggest that all of us work a little less for other people and a little more for ourselves.

Because it does save us money.  (See the numbers above).  And because it enriches more than just the food on our plate.

Let me finish by summarizing my analysis.  If you don't have a great deal of space (or time) but you want to preserve some of your own tomatoes you will get the most for your time, space, and dollar if you grow roma tomatoes and dice them and then freeze them.  (They should be blanched first).  Doing this is a lot less work than actually jarring them.  Efficient freezers don't take much energy to run and the quality of frozen tomatoes if cooked first is excellent.

If you can start your own seeds for the tomato plants you will reduce the cost of either diced or sauce by a huge percentage that I have yet to calculate.  (One envelope of tomato seeds costs anywhere between $1 to $3 and will have at least 25 seeds in it.  Germination rates should be at around 85% which means you should be able to get 21 plants out of one package.  Wait, I'm going to do the damn math for you...

If you had room for 21 roma tomato plants and can keep them well irrigated with drip you should expect an average of around 12 pounds of fruit per plant.  At that rate you will yield at least 252 pounds of fruit.  If you made all sauce from that you could get 38 jars of thick tomato sauce a year.  This would cost you 7¢ per jar.*

Did you read that?  Did you take that in yet?

I'm not even sure how to say a fraction of a penny but this makes home made sauce (from home grown plants started from seed) cost .21 of a cent per ounce.

So the next time you ask if it's worth growing your own and doing all that work?  Well, don't ask me or I will wither you with my math.

So, go pick out a spot in your lawn to grow some romas!





*I made my calculation based on the most expensive packets of seeds.

A similar article you might enjoy:
Is Making Your Own Clothes Economical?
dandelion-2

Dandelion

Taraxacum officinale

Asteraceae (Sunflower family)

true-dandelion1

Picture Above: Dandelions

Dandelions are native to Europe but have established themselves around the world.  They thrive in moist sites: meadows, lawns, pastures, and most likely in your own garden.  It is a perennial herb whose leaves grow in clusters around the root crown and whose long tap roots exude a milky juice.

The dandelion is both a food and a medicine.  Its leaves contain a number of nutrients including: iron, zinc, boron, calcium, silicon, and is especially high in potassium.  It is also high in vitamins A, B complex, C, and D.

As a food you can add young dandelion leaves to salads, to stir fries, or pasta dishes.  It is best to pick the leaves from crowns that have not yet flowered because once the plant flowers the leaves become tougher and more bitter, though you can still eat them if you choose.  The root can be dried and then used as a coffee substitute.  The flowers have traditionally been used to make wine.

As a medicine the dandelion plant has proved to be one of the safest and best diuretics because, unlike conventional diuretics, it is extremely rich in potassium so that it replaces what the body loses through water elimination.   Dandelion is used as a liver and kidney tonic, a digestive stimulant, and is considered a remedy for high blood pressure.   The latex contained in the leaves and stalks is used to remove corns.

Every part of the plant is safe to use.

 identification-2

Identifying dandelions in your yard or in wild areas:

Dandelions are not difficult to find  and most people know them by sight already.  However, if you want to be sure you are collecting the true dandelion, you need to become familiar with its imposters.  In the picture above there are 4 leaves.  The first one is from a plant often mistaken for dandelion which is why it is commonly referred to as "false dandelion".  The next 2 are both true dandelion leaves.  The last one I have yet to identify but it grows everywhere the dandelion does in my garden.  Let's go over the identifying qualities of the dandelion.

Identifying factors of a true dandelion:

The leaves are oblong with a jagged edge.  (Think "toothy")

The leaves grow in a rosette close to the ground.

The stems of the flowers are hollow.

There is only one flower per stem.

The leaves are smooth to the touch.

 dandelion-comparison-2

1. closed dandelion bud 2. opening dandelion bud 3. false dandelion semi-open bud 4. false dandelion bud 5. false dandelion bud

false-dandelion-collage

Picture Above: False dandelions


False dandelions grow just as prolifically in most people's gardens and are easily confused for them if you don't know a couple of ways to differentiate them from the real thing.

Identifying factors of Spotted catsear (false dandelion):

The leaves are oblong and don't have a jagged edge.

The stems of the flowers are thin and solid.

The flowers and flower buds are small.

The leaves are prickly both on top and on the underside.

Once you observe the differences between the two you will have no trouble telling them apart.  The two most immediately discernable differences are the fuzziness of the leaves of the imposter- true dandelions do not have prickly, fuzzy, or spiny leaves, and the stem of the flower- the true dandelion has a thick hollow stem and its imposter has a thin solid one.

You don't need to worry about accidentally picking the wrong one to put in your food because although there are some toxic members of the Asteraceae family, all of the dandelion look-alikes in the family are completely harmless.

You can pick the leaves to eat fresh or you can dry them for later use.  All parts of the plant are bitter, though the bitterness is much less pronounced in the young leaves.  I have eaten them in pasta and I can say that they are bitter but paired with the rich cheese sauce I used the slight bitterness was counteracted nicely.

Dandelions, in most climates, bloom for about nine months out of the year.  The best time to harvest young leaves is either in the spring or the fall.  The roots can be cut and dried for later use as well.

It is amazing how a plant we have come to regard as an enemy of our yard can be such a boon to our health and well being.  Instead of cursing yours or using poison to get rid of them, how about harvesting them to dry for year round use and why not consider making wine with them?  This little weed packs a powerful nutritional punch and is worth putting back on our list of revered plants.  I don't generally prefer bitter greens but I have to admit that after doing a bunch of reading about dandelions I feel I have wasted a great deal of time not treating my body to such an easy source of vitamins and minerals.  I am teaching my palate some new tricks and I entreat you to join me in the adventure!

Reference Material for this article: "Weeds Of The West" edited by Tom D. Whitsun "National Geographic Desk Reference to Nature's Medicine" by Stephen Foster and Rebecca L. Johnson "The Complete Herb Book" by Jekka McVicar "Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health" by Rosemary Gladstar

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