Processed: cornerstone or millstone?

I know, I know.  This is not the post you expect from me.  I love to cook from scratch and spin my own yarn and we’re going back to the land and all that.  Don’t worry – I’m not changing that.  But I needed to take a moment to remind folks of just what processed and manufactured goods give us in our daily lives.  I think as preppers we have to be aware of how much better our lives are because of mechanization, and how vulnerable our society is to losing access to those processed goods.

See, I was recently given a gift of fiber.  A friend of mine gave me about a quarter to half of an unwashed fleece.  I was absolutely thrilled.  We’re getting our Shetland sheep in the spring and I can’t wait to spin from my own flock.  But I knew that you needed to do so very much to even get the fiber ready to spin, much less turn it into yarn and I wanted to learn, so she gave me this to practice on.

First, you have to clean it – and trust me, sheep are MESSY critters.  I shook it, and picked out icky bits, and burrs and seed heads (aka “vegetable matter”).  I washed it three times, rinsed it twice, and squeezed all the water out by hand, then dried it.  This took about two days (admittedly, most of that time was drying, or letting the wool soak).  Then I have to pick it.  That means I have to fluff out the fiber by hand – and I’m still finding tons of vegetable matter that I’m pulling out.  I’ve just started that, but it’s going to take some time.  Then I have to card it to get it ready for spinning.  Then I have to spin it, ply it, and THEN I get to start weaving or knitting with it.  In essence I am putting weeks’ of work into this.  Now – if I did this professionally I’m sure I’d be faster and have some time-saving techniques, etc.  But still, this isn’t a quick process.  I’ll probably get about one or two skeins of yarn from this depending on how thickly I spin it.

What does my obsession with wool have to do with prepping?

Now think about how much time machines save us.  A commercial mill can do a LOT more – they can process dozens or hundreds or more fleeces a day, depending on their size.  Modern manufacturing can also make the kinds of fibers I can’t – polyester, rayon, etc.  Machines also allow far finer knitting and weaving than can be done by hand, and much, much faster.

So much of the stuff we use on a daily basis is like that.  You can hand make or grow so much (and there are VERY good reasons to do so, from it being healthier to being morally justified due to environmental concerns), but frankly you can’t make everything you need.  For instance, I could probably make toilet paper, but it’s much easier to buy.  But shoes – I doubt I could make anything approaching the quality of shoes I can buy for $30 at Payless.  I certainly couldn’t make a cast iron pan or a power drill or a tv set or a car.

Now, think about our modern Just-In-Time (JIT) system of manufacturing of these things.  Orders for goods are made frequently and goods are delivered frequently.  There are fewer warehouses and items don’t sit in warehouses as long as they used to do.  JIT depends on reliable, efficient, and cheap transportation and communications, not to mention computer modeling (for larger operations) of demand and costs.  JIT requires a smooth, functioning government and infratructure.

Our modern, relatively comfortable lifestyles are dependent on these items that are manufactured by large factories and delivered via the Just-In-Time system.

The pluses of processed

There’s a reason that we rely so strongly on processed goods.  For the most part it’s cheaper, easier, and stores longer.  Large food processors who do tons of business can afford the large and expensive equipment needed to preserve food to last for years.  Home-canned food typically lasts only a year.  Large fabric manufacturers can dedicate whole buildings to looms, and machines are so much quicker than people.  Faster, larger-quantity manufacturing means goods can be offered at lower prices, too.

A company like Walmart could not exist with small hand-crafter businesses.  You know that if you step into a Walmart in Maryland you’ll get the same goods you could get in Oregon.  However, if you buy hand-crafted yarn the color and weight will vary from skein to skein – if not within the skein.

For preppers storing processed food can have several upsides.  We’ve already talked about the longer storage time.  Then there’s the fact that for many of us processed is comfort.  For Mr. WPW it’s the mac and cheese in the blue box.  My absolute must-have is toilet paper. I may have my basement filled with two year’s worth of toilet paper, but I’ll be doggoned if I do without toilet paper if the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan.  When times are tough having things that provide a little comfort and familiarity can make a huge difference for your morale.

It also helps if you don’t have to figure out how to cook or use items when you’re under stress.  Who really knows what the heck to do with “wheat berries”?  Ok, I do, but I had to look it up.  But, if I’ve spent all day working in the garden, digging a new latrine, and carrying water from the stream half a mile away, dinner in a box sounds like a winner.  I don’t want to have to grind my own wheat just to make a PB&J.

What happens when things don’t go smoothly?

Most preppers know that things don’t always go smoothly.  Weather events like Katrina or Sandy cause huge disruptions in transportation, gas prices fluctuate and cause prices to skyrocket, and political instability leads to crumbling infrastructure or terrorist events that can disrupt the flow of goods.  Preppers store supplies in addition to food because we know how vulnerable modern manufacturing is to these disruptions in supplies or transportation.

You don’t even need a natural disaster or a war to make things hard to get.  My favorite butter is imported.  It was out of stock for weeks at my usual grocery store because of a supply chain disruption.  Not any political or financial or natural disaster, just a simple glitch in the ordering of the grocery store chain.

Alternative sources

Now is the time to scope out and develop alternative sources.  I’m not just talking about growing your own veggies or getting chickens, though I highly recommend that kind of thing for prepping.  Think of other things like finding your local farmer’s market – not only will you be supporting small, local farmers and getting fantastic and delicious fresh food, but you’ll be investing in a robust regional food system.

What can you do if you can’t get your medicines – are there natural remedies that might help mitigate symptoms?  How about breaking some bad habits like smoking so if you can’t get cigarettes you won’t go through bad withdrawal.  Store hard-to-find items in case you can’t find them in stores.

What items would you find of critical importance should there be supply disruptions?  What can you make or grow yourself that would make life easier if you couldn’t get them commercially?

About WellieWitch

Wiccan prepper with a small hobby farm, a day job, & a bunch of animals. Blogging about prepping, homesteading, gardening, cooking, chickens, fiber arts, & more.

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