Peanuts, Popcorn and Applesauce

Written by Lydia Benedict.

In the supermarket one day I overheard a customer talking to a store employee.

“Are these the only bell peppers you have?” she asked, pointing to some green and red peppers in the produce section, “These prices are too high. I’m going to Wal-Mart.”

I often hear people complain about the price of produce. I agree that eating fresh fruit and vegetables can get costly, especially if you’re feeding a family. But if more people tried growing or raising their own food, their perspective would likely alter.

When we moved to Virginia I was pleasantly surprised to find mature fruit trees on our property. However, it was clear from the snarled masses of branches that these trees hadn’t been tended to for years—perhaps decades. My first winter on the farm I hired a tree pruning company: a cherry picker style truck was necessary to prune the high reaching branches.

Snarled apple tree branches.

Our second winter, my neighbors taught me how to properly prune fruit trees. Since then, my oldest son and I have done the entire pruning—until he became a busy college student. Now I do the bulk of the pruning myself. Every January I spend about a week in the apple trees, pruning every last shoot and branch that points skyward. After five years of pruning, I have apples!

With bushels of apples, I turned most of the apples into sauce. First, I washed and filled large stockpots with quartered apple chunks, cooking in boiling water until softened. Then I drained the apples and put them through a food saucer.

Maggie and Clara making sauce

While I prepared the canning jars, including washing and heating both jars and lids, I kept the sauce hot on the stove top, stirring it regularly to keep it from burning.

Then I filled clean, hot canning jars with hot applesauce, wiped the rim of jar clean, put on lids and tightened.

Next the jars went into the water canner and were brought to a boil, processing for the appropriate length of time. Finally, I removed the jars from canner to cool and seal.

Needless to say, I have a very different perspective about the price of apples. A 48 oz jar of Mott’s Applesauce runs $2.68 at Wal-Mart, which breaks down to $.06 per ounce. At that price, my 32 oz quart of applesauce would go for $1.79 each. If I run two canners at a time (and work quickly), I may finish two batches of applesauce in about two hours, or 14 quarts in two hours. That’s $25.06. But then there’s the cost of the jars at $.91 each totaling $12.74. I have just cut my profit in half: $12.32 for two hours of work—never mind the years of pruning.

Another year the kids wanted to try growing popcorn. The popcorn grew easily and was a lot less vulnerable to pests than sweet corn. After the corn was picked and dried, it was time to remove the corn kernels from the cob. The kids and I went to work, quickly learning that this was the tedious part of the harvest. Several hours later we had sore fingers, broken fingernails, and still hundreds of cobs left to shell.

If I want to sell my popcorn, I need my price to be competitive. A three-pound container of Orville Redenbacher's Original Gourmet Popping Corn costs $4.98 at Wal-Mart. And generic brands are even cheaper. It would take me at least an hour with the help of my children to shell and jar three pounds of popping corn. That’s only about $1 for each person for an hour of labor.

The last two summers I tried yet another crop: peanuts. Peanuts are not actually a nut, but rather a legume—like a pea. And since peanuts like hot summers, they grew well for me here in Virginia. The real work began at harvest. I carefully dug up each plant: simply yanking the plants from the dirt would leave the peanuts in the ground since they grow on the roots of the plant. Next I moved the plants to my cellar and arranged them to dry.

Digging up my peanut plants

A few weeks later, I retrieved the plants and my kids and I plucked each peanut off the plants’ roots. Then the peanuts sat in paper bags, drying still longer. Eventually, I retrieved the bags and began the tedious project of cracking the shells open, one-by-one. Hours later we had several pounds of raw peanuts, a kitchen table covered in dust, and sore hands and fingers. Then I blanched the peanuts, rubbed the skins off, spread them on a baking sheet with a little peanut oil and sea salt and baked them until lightly browned.

I estimate that I can shell, blanch, skin, and roast a 32 oz quart of peanuts in an hour and a half, with help. Yet a 35 oz container of Planters Dry Roasted Peanuts with Sea Salt only costs $5.98. To save myself the $.91 cost of the jar, I can bag the peanuts instead, bringing my family’s joint peanut harvesting effort to almost $4.50 (not including the time it took to actually grow and dig up the plants.)

If nothing else, growing or raising your own food quickly instills an appreciation for food and the amount of energy required to produce it. Working for hours to grow, raise, harvest, and prepare food teaches the true value of food. Now when I go grocery shopping, I have one over-riding question: How can food be so cheap?

Maggie enjoying a homegrown apple