Autumn is just around the corner and canning season is in full swing! We've already canned several hundred quarts of meat, fruit, and vegetables and all in all I've only spent about $50 on produce. To see what we're putting up and watch our root cellar fill, check out my monthly inventory- click here to see the one for August.
In my experience, it is easy to find both very inexpensive meat and produce for canning if you get a little creative with it. While not all of these methods may work for you, I'm sure that everyone can get free or cheap food for canning using some of the tips in this post!
Grow it Yourself
This is the tried and true traditional method of getting food to can for free. Canning started off as a way to not only extend shelf life on commercial products, but to help your great grandmother store excess produces from the garden into the winter without only relying on storage crops. While grandma undoubtedly had a large garden, there are plenty of crops that produce yields high enough for canning, even if you only have a small, urban yard. Provider bush beans, for example, produce unbelievable quantities of green beans on just 20 plants (thats about a 3x8' bed), not to mention that the same plants will produce all summer and wont have to be replanted. Cucumbers are another amazing crop for canning, plus they can be grown vertically, further increasing your available growing space. My favorite variety for growing large quantities is Boothby Blond cucumber, just don't let their yellow color put you off. In just four 3x8 beds, I have grown enough of these small, yellow cucumbers to put up close to 150 quarts of pickles, plus have had plenty to eat ourselves, sell, and give away.
Pick Your Own
While this is not the most inexpensive tip on this list, it is much, much cheaper than buying produce at the store. I like to go to pick your own places mainly for fruit that I do not grow myself, such as strawberries or blueberries. Some fruit farms will actually give you produce for free if you pick it yourself and give them back half of what you pick. This is how they get their produce harvested without paying employees to do it.
To get the best deals try to go to the pick your own farm the last day or two before they close for the season or stop allowing people to pick a certain crop. While it may be more difficult to find produce to pick, you will almost certainly get a better deal on it.
If pick you own places are still too expensive for your tastes, you can still get your produce there. This is a great technique for tree crops, such as apples, that fall to the ground and can be picked up easily. Simply go the farm and ask if you can pick up all of the apples that fell to the ground for free. You will have to pick through them a little, but there are often some good ones that are perfectly acceptable for making apple sauce or cider. This does not only apply to pick your own farms, some other farmers will often allow people to glean unwanted produce from their fields at the end of the season.
Deer/Bear Bait Apples
While this may not be the best option if you are trying to eat only organic, it is a great way to get large quantities of apples for cheap. Orchards will often bag up ground falls or imperfect end of season apples and sell them to hunters in 50 lb bags for very low prices. Hunters use these apples to bait deer and bear so they keep coming back to the same spot, where they can shoot them later in the season. While this is an unfair and lazy way to hunt, frugal canners can get great deals from this practice.
Go to the Farmer's Market or Farm Stands
Buying perfect produce at full price at the farmers market can be very expensive, but vendors often keep imperfect or bruised produce behind the table. Walk around the entire farmers market first and ask each vendor if they can produce for canning, how much they have, and how much they want for it. Once you've figured out who has the best deals you can go back and buy from them. This method works best for buying produce that is easily damaged, such as peaches or tomatoes.
Offer to Can For Someone with Excess
Do you have a neighbor with a big garden? Often times people have a lot of excess food in their garden but they do not know how to can, don't have the time, or are too elderly. Offer to can all of their extra produce for them. In exchange for canning it, ask if you can keep half of the canned goods you make for them.
Foraging is a great way to get food for free whether you are going to can it or not. Berries, such as raspberries or blackberries, are a great item to forage, as they are easy to identify and can be picked in large quantities. We can blackberry jam and I can promise you, it is delicious! While berries are delicious, be sure to stay creative and can whatever you have access to. For example, this spring I canned young japanese knotweed, which some say tastes much like rhubarb.
Ask For Produce at the Grocery Store
Many privately owned grocery stores will give you produce that they couldn't sell for free if you tell than you are going to be feeding it to chickens or pigs. They cannot legally give it to you if they know that it is for human consumption, which is part of the reason we have such an issue with food waste here in the United States and in many "developed" countries as well. Once you get it home, though, they can't control if you actually do so or not (don't tell em I sent you though!).
I know, I know, I always talk about roadkill on this blog and it always grosses people out, but by god, I just refuse to stop! With a little bit of food safety knowledge and some reasonable ability to skin, gut, and butcher (skills that many farmers and hunters already have), there is absolutely no reason to be squeamish about this free and abundant resource. Did you know that over one million animals get hit by vehicles each day? And that number does not even include smaller creatures, such as amphibians. I guarantee that the vast majority of those do not get used in any way whatsoever. A vast number of these unfortunate critters are game animals that many people already eat, such as deer, elk, turkey, bear, etc. A single deer (which is not hard to come by) can provide a years worth of meat for an entire family and will keep you busy canning for a very long time, for free! Not to mention that it's free range, hormone free, organicly fed and was probably not under as much stress as livestock is when it died.
Even if you don't care to judge edibility yourself, there are programs in many states where the you can sign up to get roadkill from the state fish and wildlife or authorities. You simply sign up to be on the "roadkill" list and if an animal is hit near you that is deemed edible, authorities will call you and see if you want it and sometimes they will even deliver it to your house. To read more about how, where, when, and why to utilize roadkill, check out some of my previous blog posts about it:
10 Reasons You Should Eat Roadkill
Here Are The Roadkill Laws in All 50 States
Preventing Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions- These 12 Tips Could Save Your Life
Picking up Roadkill: Is it Legal?
The Roadkill Bucket- How We Feed Our Chickens For Free!
Buy a Share of a Steer or Hog
Too scared to eat free roadkill? There are plenty of ways to get farmed meat on a budget. One way is to buy a share of an animal in the springtime. You often get a large quantity of meat, usually a quarter, half, or whole animal. Since you usually pay for your share in the spring, the farmer is able to give you a discount because it is cash up front for them to use to feed the animal, plus they are guaranteed a buyer since the meat is already sold before the animal is even dead. Just make sure you have a lot of freezer space or are ready to have a canning frenzy if you go this route.
Cutting up roadkill venison to add to traditional bean hole beans.
Hunters, and hunting families, often throw out large quantities of meat. Some trophy hunters use very little or none of the meat at all and simply take the head and hide to have stuffed. Often times, families with multiple hunters will get several deer each year, even though it is too much meat for a single family to eat. If you know a family like this, they will often give away large quantities of meat each year for free.
Many hunters only take the "prime" cuts of meat, as well, discarding much of the meat, including organs, heads (including tongue- a delicacy!), bones, rib meat, etc. Waterfowl hunters are particularly prone to this practice, only taking the breasts and simple chucking the rest- how insane!! My brother in law hunts geese and only takes the breast, which means that I get all of the legs, not to mention all of the necks and carcasses. I get drumsticks, plus a never ending supply of delicious broth with big chunks of meat in it.
Talk to Your Local Butcher or Game Processor
Once again, whether it is hunted or farm raised, there is plenty of meat that simply gets thrown away or sold at highly reduces prices simply because nobody wants it. Which is really a shame, because some of the most nutritious and delicious cuts fall under this category. If you know how to cook meat other than steak and burgers, it is very easy to get free or cheap meat from your local butcher. Game processors are especially good for this as many hunters dont want these cuts back and so they just throw them out. Call one up this fall and you could be swimming in fresh venison!
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