By Jerri Cook – Here’s an interesting soil fact for you. A cubic foot of dirt weighs between 90 and 110 lbs., depending on soil type. My friend Roger is pretty sure his soil tends toward the heavy side. He would know; along with his 12-year-old son Dane, he moved tons of dirt by hand to execute the root cellar plans to store the family’s food.
“If you’re going to live off the grid,” says Roger, “you’d better do some planning for food storage.” Roger and his wife, Ann, are life-long homesteaders who made the jump to off-grid living when they went mortgage-free a few years ago.
Their homestead, tucked in-between tall trees and trickling streams, is powered by a few 12-volt batteries that they use for charging their cell phones and laptop, and a gas generator that is used sparingly. “We don’t really use much power,” says Roger. “A couple of fluorescent lights, the modem and computer, and a 12-volt water pump we use for our shower are about it. If Ann wants to use the vacuum cleaner or some small kitchen appliance for very long we fire up our generator. I’d like to have a lot more battery capacity, but big batteries have big price tags. I’m hoping to build a steam driven alternator that I have plans for as soon as I build a heated shop.”
Everything else is powered by ingenuity and hard work.
The family constructed their home out of logs that they cut and debarked by hand. They built an outhouse and an outdoor solar shower. Their menagerie of animals, which at any given time consists of goats, sheep, llamas, backyard chickens, pigs, cows and a bevy of curious creatures, are housed in handmade structures. The structures they’ve built over the last few years stand as testaments to their raw determination, but the root cellar embedded in the side of a hill is at the heart of their homestead.
Roger chose a spot below the log cabin on a south-facing hill. He and Dane began to carve a 10′ x 16′ horizontal vault into the heart of the hill. Unlike traditional root cellar plans, which are dug vertically, their cellar is a walk-in style, partially above ground. The earth didn’t yield as easily as they had expected. “It turned out to be a bigger job than I thought it would be. We hit clay and hardpan at about two feet, and it continued to the seven-foot depth we stopped at,” says Roger. “It meant that every bit of dirt we took out had to be loosened with a pick first.”
As the hole in the hillside grew larger in accordance with the root cellar plan, so did the pile of earth next to it. Not being one to waste anything, Roger decided to use the loose dirt for the walls.
“One alternative type of construction that I have read about but never tried came to mind. It’s called earth bags. I didn’t have anything fancy lying around, but I had some feed bags and I had dirt. So, instead of earth bags, I used dirt bags.” Many homesteaders have had success using this low-cost construction technique.
Roger and Dane filled old feed bags with the soil from the hillside, filling each bag only one-third full. Folding the top under, the pair laid each of the dirt bags in place with the fold down.
“Run a row of these, then place two rows of quadruple-barbed barbwire on top and sandwich it between your next row of bags. It really ties them together,” says Roger. “You have to make sure to position each bag correctly before adding on to the next layer. Do this all the way up until your wall is as high as you want it. The wall turned out to be about two-feet deep when it was finished, so we had a 6′ x 12′ area when we were finished.” Roger extended the dirt bag wall a few feet from the opening in the hill to build the walk-in entrance.
“If you use feed bags, don’t use ones that have been sitting in the sun for any length of time,” he says. “Feed bags break down in direct sunlight. They won’t hold when other bags are stacked on top of them. They’ll rupture.
“After you have your wall as high as you need it, five feet in my case, build a form for a concrete shelf on top of it. I made mine four-inches thick. This helps compress the bags and keeps everything in place. I also used it to get everything square and level, because it’s hard to keep it that way when you’re building with dirt bags. They don’t stack like block or bricks.
“I put a plywood wall on top of the shelf and coated it with tar. Then I embedded sheets of plastic into the tar to seal her up good; as long as the water doesn’t get to the plywood, it’s fine. After that, I added a roof, plastered the inside walls with cement to protect the bags from being punctured when we’re banging stuff around. And I put drain tile on the outside of the walls.
“On the ceiling inside I put Styrofoam insulation, and on the walls, I put a new kind of insulation that uses bubbles and foil. I don’t like the way it’s working, so I’m going to put another layer of Styrofoam on it. It hovered about 34 degrees all winter. It was a little colder than I wanted it, so I’ll add more insulation to the entrance. I’d like it to stay about 40 degrees in the winter. In the summer it has gotten to 50, but I’d like it to be cooler.
“For the door, I made what amounts to a large picture frame and put Styrofoam in it. Then I added another layer of Styrofoam slightly bigger. It’s offset, like a bank vault door to help seal it,” explains Roger. The door sits at an angle to accommodate head height when going in.
Roger says the root cellar plan served them well, and they don’t miss their electric refrigerator at all.
“You can’t expect to store leftover mac and cheese in there when it’s 90 degrees out and eat it 10 days later. But you can eat it the next couple of days. If you think you’re going to have leftovers you have to plan for them.
“We have an ice box in the cabin, literally an insulated box with ice in it. We keep our day’s supply of meat, cheese, and milk in there so we don’t have to run back and forth, but other than that, everything is kept in the cellar.”
The family produces most of their own food, which means they need to store their hard-won harvests without worrying about spoilage.
“Since we have a dirt floor in the cellar, we didn’t want to stack anything directly on the floor. So, we laid lengths of PVC pipe on the floor and then put our stackable wooden crates on top of them. We put potatoes in there and they kept fine.
“Ann had a great idea for storing apples in the cellar. It came to her on a sunny fall afternoon. We raked up all the dry leaves around the cellar and used them as packing between layers of apples. We had several bushels of apples stored in there all winter, and we only lost a dozen or so.”
Roger doesn’t recommend plastic totes with lids for storing food in a cellar. “Humidity runs high in there. I added vents to the roof, but other than that, everything’s sealed pretty tight. We don’t have problems with rodents or anything, so the wooden crates work fine for us. I’d be concerned about mold with covered plastic boxes.”
The family raises and butchers animals for meat. They do it without the benefit of electricity. “Being off-grid doesn’t change anything other than preservation methods,” says Roger when asked about butchering on the homestead. “You don’t need electricity to butcher.”
The family rents space in a relative’s freezer for some of the meat, and they can or dry a fair amount. Roger also smokes a good deal of whole cuts and sausage. “I cure my hams and bacon in plastic meat tubs and smoke them in a smokehouse I built from scrap wood and steel from other projects.”
Roger realizes that many people believe that smoking is beyond their capabilities, but he disagrees.
“Making raw pork into hams and bacon is nothing more than cooking and no more complex than preparing any other good food. It takes a fair amount of elapsed time to cure meat but not that much actual working time. If you can bake bread or can pickles or cook a pot roast, you can cure your own meat. It will save you a ton of money; it’s enjoyable, and you can have gourmet food that you made yourself.”
Roger made the smoke house. “There was nothing to it. You can smoke hams or bacon in a 55-gallon drum if you want to. I had this wooden rack that was actually a planting stand about five feet wide and two feet deep and about three feet high. It was just some oak slabs and a frame. I covered it with tin, you know, pole barn steel. I put a layer of insulation around the outside and then another layer of pole barn steel.
“Down where the fire is, that’s just an old water heater jacket like a giant tin can. I just build a little fire in there and the smoke goes into the smokehouse through a stove pipe. It might not be ideal, but it works. You have to tend it to make sure the temperature doesn’t fall. It’s not an automatic one.”
Roger uses recipes from Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing by Rytek Kutas, but says there are plenty of recipes for home curing in back issues of Countryside and Small Stock Journal.
For bacon, Roger uses his own, tried-and-true cure. He combines a pint of maple syrup and a pound of salt with an appropriate amount of a natural cure containing nitrates. He doesn’t have a favorite brand of natural cure, “Nitrate is nitrate. I buy what’s on sale and read the directions.”
When asked whether he has any concerns about using nitrates to cure his hams, he replies, “It’s why the meat stays pink. If you want to eat gray meat, go ahead, but I want mine pink all the way through.”
Roger smears the cure on the bacon, wraps each one in freezer paper, and lets them set undisturbed for four days. “We put ours in the root cellar. It’s best if you can hold it to 36-45 degrees. That’s why we wait until fall, that and the flies. We wait until after a hard freeze to butcher. That way the flies are dead. Who wants to contend with fly strikes when you have meat hanging?”
Roger lets his hams smoke for 48 hours or so, depending on their size. The bacon take about half that time. “Once you do it a couple of times, you get the hang of it,” he says. “Just do some reading and give it a try. With a little practice, you’ll master it.”
These seasoned homesteaders aren’t frightened by big ideas or hard work. In fact, they understand that big ideas without hard work are just daydreams. Like Roger says, it’s one thing to know in your head what a cubic foot of dirt weighs; it’s something else altogether to know it in your back.
Have you ever executed a root cellar plan on your homestead?
Originally published in Countryside November / December 2009 and regularly vetted for accuracy.