2017 Utah Prepare Conference and Expo

If you’re like me, you like plenty of warning before events, especially one that lasts two days. That’s why we’re letting you know now that tickets seem to be on sale for this year’s Utah Prepare Conference and Expo.

The expo is from September 8 through 9, at the South Towne Exposition Center (9575 State Street, Sandy, UT 84070).

Early bird tickets are $8, until August 15. After that, tickets will be $10. Click here for the EventBrite event page, and tickets.

Keeping Informed on Twitter

In our day and age, communication is king. Whether it’s sharing stories on Facebook, family pictures on Instagram, kittens on YouTube, or reading fine web content such as this site, our lives are now all about communication.

In an emergency, communication is just that much more vital. We’ve posted about ham radio and such here, but there’s another resource that seems to be underrated as a communication medium: Twitter (and other social media).

When emergencies happen, people take to social media. It’s not uncommon to hear about a disaster from friends on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, long before the commercial news outlets (CNN, local TV/radio, etc) start reporting it.

A number of important agencies have Twitter accounts. Some even have multiple Twitter accounts, just to handle communication for various departments or divisions. And a number of these can be crucial in informing you as early as possible.

Now, I’m not a huge Twitter guy. I rarely post, and when I do, it’s rarely important. And I almost never read tweets. It’s just not my personality. But I do want to know, for instance, when FEMA has something important to say for my region. And I want to know as soon as they tell me.

FEMA is one of many Twitter users that makes use of alerts. When you open up one of these account in the Twitter app on your phone, you will see an icon that looks like a ringing bell.

FEMA Region 8 on Twitter

When you click this icon, turning it red, you will see a notification that, “You will receive mobile notifications when this account sends critical updates.” These are my favorite accounts to follow, because they are designed for critical alerts.

Other accounts allow you to receive instant notifications as well, without having to receive notifications from all of the accounts that you follow on Twitter. In the mobile Twitter app these also have a bell icon, but without the ringing part.

UHP on Twitter

I have notifications turned on for a number of these accounts too. Some can be annoying (@SantaquinPolice likes to tweet a thank you note every time they get a follower), but I think it’s worth it to be able to see alerts when they do get tweeted.

The following are a number of Twitter accounts that I follow, and have explicitly turned on mobile notifications for. This list will vary a little for you, depending on your location, but it will also give you a good starting point.

These accounts are less official, but still useful. Think of them like a Twitter version of a police scanner.

Canning Butter at Home

I’ve recently come across a lot of information and misinformation about canning butter at home. Because of the level of controversy, and the amount of unsafe advice out there, I wanted to set a few things straight.

If you’ve read any of the articles or blog posts out there, then you probably already know that the USDA does not recommend canning butter at home. The reasons stated are many, and there is an abundance of misinterpretation of the statements made by the USDA, even by those who directly quote it. Let’s clear this up first: the USDA does not have a recommended procedure for canning butter at home. This is not because they have ulterior motives. It is simply because they have not created and tested a procedure which they can reliably claim to be safe. And if they can’t reliably claim a procedure to be safe, then they won’t recommend it.

This may lead you to ask why the USDA has not done the legwork to create and test such a procedure. On this, I can only speculate. Perhaps it is because of a lack of funding to the department(s) responsible. Perhaps they have in fact spent countless hours in development and have discovered that with the equipment available to the home canner, such a procedure is not possible. Again, I can only speculate on their reasoning, and such speculation distracts us from actual facts.

Now that we have the USDA part out of the way, let’s talk about what butter actually is. Even though I know better, I still find myself constantly surprised at how little people know about butter. It’s constantly referred to as a fat, which is understandable, since fat does make up the bulk of butter’s composition. However, “whole butter” is not 100% fat. It is in fact an emulsion of fat, water, milk solids, and sometimes salt. Depending on who made the butter, usually butterfat makes up somewhere between 80-85% of “whole butter”. American butter tends to have less fat, European butter tends to have more. Milk solids and any salt usually comprises around 1-2%, while the rest is water.

When all of the water and milk solids have been removed, the resulting product is called “clarified butter”. Notice that I didn’t mention salt in this equation. This is just conjecture, but I’m not entirely convinced that clarfying butter will remove 100% of the salt content from salted whole butter. This is irrelevent to me, since I only buy unsalted whole butter (not counting butter spreads), but it may be relevant to you.

Now that we know more about the composition of butter, it’s time to talk about the methods presented for the preservation of butter at home, and why they should concern you.

When you can food at home, you should sanitize the jars that you use, as close as possible to the time that you use them. You should wash them in warm, soapy water and rinse them, at the absolute least. If I were you, I would take it one step further and run your jars through the dishwasher, and let them sit there, with the door closed, until you need them. There are other methods which are suitable, all of which involve steam, but the dishwasher is my preferred method.

What you should never do is heat your jars in the oven. Mason jars are not designed to be heated in the oven, and doing so increases their chance of breakage. The dry heat of the oven also does not adequately sanitize jars. I read one blog post that recommended oven heating jars, on the basis that water inside the jars is undesirable. Remember that butter already has water in it; the residual from sanitizing jars using a wet method will not suddenly contaminate the fat by being water.

With jar sanitation out of the way, we are free to contemplate the actual canning method. According to the USDA, there are plenty of sites that will recommend melted butter into jars and closing them, with no further processing. Somehow I managed to miss any of these sites. Nevertheless, as the USDA tells you, this method is completely unacceptable. Just storing something in a jar is not the same as canning it, and this method does not meet any definition of canning.

One might consider steam-canning as their method of preservation. According to the USDA, the only thing you should ever steam can is juice. Personally, I won’t even do that. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that steam canners are useful for is sanitizing jars. And as I’ve already said, I don’t even use them for that. If you have one, just throw it away.

Next up is boiling water canning. I did see a number of blogs recommend water bath canning, which is disconcerting to me. Let’s be clear: boiling water canning is only acceptable for high-acid foods. This means that any food with a pH above 4.6 should never be processed in a boiling water canner. Since butter is in the 6.1 to 6.4 range, it should never be processed in a boiling water canner.

Now, wait. What’s the deal with acidity? There are a number of factors which affect the safety of food. It’s easy to remember them with the abbreviation FAT TOM: fat, acidity, time, temperature, oxygen, moisture. These all play a role in canning, though fat is actually the one that I’m the least concerned with.

There are a number of food-borne illnesses that plague our society, but by far the worse one in relation to canning is a bacteria called clostridium botulinum, which is responsible for an illness known as botulism. These bacteria love moist, low-oxygen, low-acidity environments. They are also very heat stable: when they encounter environments that are too hot, they protect themselves with an outer layer called a spore, which can withstand temperatures up to 240F. Because water boils at 212F at sea level (and less above sea level), a boiling water canner cannot destroy these spores.

This is also disconcerting since one of the important functions of canning is to remove oxygen (though not all of it) from the jars. Because clostridium botulinum loves low-oxygen environments, and it loves moisture (which is always present in canned foods), canned food would normally be a haven for this bacteria! But it cannot thrive in acidic environments. The higher the acidity (meaning the lower the pH), the less comfortable this bacteria is. A pH as low as 4.6 is enough to disable it. This is why pickles, jams, jellies, and fruits can be canned using boiling water: they all involve an environment where the acidity is high enough to disable the growth of clostridium botulinum.

Our last option for canning is a pressure canner, which as you’ve probably guessed by now, is the only acceptable method of canning low-acid foods. Meats and vegetables are all considered low-acid foods, as is butter. This tells you that if you ever come across a procedure for canning butter that does not involve a pressure canner, it cannot be considered safe, and you should move along.

However, just because a procedure involves a pressure canner, doesn’t mean it is safe. Let’s talk about how pressure canners work, and how this relates to butter.

As I said before, water boils at 212F. It also freezes at 32F. Going back to junior high chemistry, we know that matter has three states of being: solid, liquid, gas. Well, okay, technically there are four, the last being plasma. Water below 32F is in a solid state, water between 32F and 212F (at sea level) is in a liquid state, and water above 212F (at sea level) is in a gaseous state. And for those interested, water enters a plasma state at around 12,000 degrees K.

Low-acid, low-oxygen foods are a perfect breeding ground for clostridium botulinum. Our only defense against this bacteria is heating it above 240F, which means we need to use water that is in a gaseous state (steam). A pressure canner filled to the brim with water doesn’t allow enough room for steam to grow, which is why we only add around 3 inches of water. Water inside the canning jars is also important, because as the water on the outside turns to steam, the pressure will also cause the water on the inside of the jars to turn to steam.

Once the steam inside the canner, and subsequently inside the jars, reaches 240F, the mass genocide of clostridium botulinum spores has begun. Temperature isn’t enough to kill those bacteria though; it also takes time. And just because the steam inside the canner has reached 240F, doesn’t mean all of the food inside the jar has reached that temperature. The thicker food is, the longer it takes to heat it thoroughly.

How does this relate to butter? Whole butter has moisture in it (close to 20%), which creates an environment inside the jar that can be used to heat the food with it to 240F. This should tell you that clarified butter is probably not a safe candidate for canning. I say probably, because I don’t know for sure.

In fact, this is where fact begins to fail us, because we don’t yet have all of the facts. Whole butter is likely a better candidate for canning than clarified, because of the moisture content, but there’s still a matter of time to be considered. Does it require 25 minutes like beef broth? 90 minutes as with chicken? 100 minutes like for certain fish? Perhaps the number is lower than 25 minutes, or higher than 100 minutes? This is the thing that we don’t know. Perhaps it needs to be canned at a pressure that is unsafe or impossible using a home pressure canner.

Now of course you could run a number of tests yourself. You will need a lot of butter, a lot of time (months, as you continue to test the long-term safety of the canned butter), and of course some very expensive equipment to perform the testing.

In the end, it’s entirely up to you whether you decide to can your own butter. It’s also up to you whether you want to do any number of things which involve questionable safety. Are you willing to trust your life, and your family’s life to your procedure? Plenty of preppers are happy to do exactly that. Until I hear further word, I think I’ll just go without canned butter.

Wildfires in Utah

Feeding ‪#dumpfire‬ Fire crews.

We are now into Day 3 of the Dump Fire at Saratoga Springs in Utah. Our own Jayce and Neybar live near the fire, and while their homes do not seem to be in any danger, they still left work early yesterday to volunteer to help. Their experience and knowledge has undoubtedly been invaluable to the volunteer effort. They have been keeping us posted on Twitter (@JayceHall and @neybar), and I have seen several of their tweets mentioned and retweeted by others needing information. For those who haven’t been following along, you can keep an eye on the #dumpfire hashtag on Twitter. For any ham radio folks who want to monitor, they’re on 145.23 repeater (131.8 tone). NetOps is at station 2.

Cause of the Fire

It is believed that the fire was caused by people target shooting near the landfill. They were shooting in an area where it was legal to do so, and when the fire started, they called 911 and attempted to put the fire out. They have been cooperative with authorities, and have been helping the effort to put the fire out. Because they were shooting legally and did everything right after the fire started, they are unlikely to be charged criminally.

Being Prepared for Evacuation

In following news reports, I have noticed some things. When crews knocked on doors on Day 2 of the blaze to tell people they had 15 minutes to evacuate, a lot of people scrambled to pack up what they considered necessary. Family photos, pets, medications and a change of clothes. Less prominently featured in the stories were people who decided that they were going to have to evacuate, and started packing their cars long before evacuation orders came in. While I’m sure there were plenty of preppers who already had 72-hour kits ready to take at a moment’s notice, they were apparently not as newsworthy as the less-prepared. Though my family lives in Magna, far away from the fire, we still had one evacuee knock on our door asking to buy a small bottle of shampoo from my wife’s basement salon.

Food donations for the #dumpfire.

This incident underscores not only the importance of fire safety, but also the importance of being prepared and keeping a current 72-hour kit or Bug Out Bag. Fortunately, several local businesses pitched in to provide food and water at the local evacuation centers, but this is not always the case. Be sure to check expiration dates on the food in your kits and in your food storage in general.

Our hearts go out to those affected by the fire, and we hope that it will be out soon.

Book Review: What’s Wrong With My Plant?

The other day I picked up a new gardening book from the hardware store. Its cover wasn’t cluttered with photographs like so many other gardening and home improvement books; in fact, the only photo on the cover was of an obviously-distressed leaf. The rest of the cover was largely devoted to the full title of the book: What’s Wrong With My Plant? (And How Do I Fix It?): A Visual Guide to Easy Diagnosis and Organic Remedies, by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth. This was actually the first thing that caught my eye. I don’t like when books try to glam themselves up in an attempt to conceal the vapid content inside. This book looked like it was ready to get down to business, and so I picked it up and started leafing through it. It didn’t take me long to decide to buy it. Continue reading “Book Review: What’s Wrong With My Plant?”

Are you a victory canner?

Victory Canner Poster

I came across this post in my feed reader this morning, and Jayce and I thought it was worth sharing. These are posters from WWII to encourage victory gardens and canning.

What were victory gardens? Back in World Wars 1 and 2, citizens of various countries were encouraged to do a variety of things to help out military efforts. This ranged from buying war bonds to saving scrap metal to growing gardens at home in order to ease the strain on the public food supply. Because certain foods were rationed, these gardens provided families with extra fresh food during warm months, and home-canned foods when it got colder.

Nowadays, home gardening is seen by many as more of a hobby. But a little bit of time and effort can pay off in big ways. Not only will you be able to enjoy fresh, ripe veggies that weren’t picked green and then ripened during delivery, you can avoid a variety of issues inherent with the globalization of the food supply. Price fluctuations, E. Coli and salmonella scares, Genetically Modified seeds, and just plain shifty practices by manufacturers will be of little concern to you.

Of course, if another world war breaks out, the experienced home gardener will be ready long before anyone else.

World War II Canning and Gardening Posters via Kabaju

Book Review: All New Square Foot Gardening

I first heard about square foot gardening a few years ago from a friend who swore by it. Looking at his garden, I could see why: he had a bounty of chiles and tomatoes to make any salsa enthusiast drool. At the time, I was unaware that there was a book involved; I thought that it was only a fad. Turns out there’s a little more to it than that.

I picked up All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew last year towards the end of the growing season. After careful consideration, I have broken the emphasis of this book into four main points: Continue reading “Book Review: All New Square Foot Gardening”

Prepping for Work Disasters

We had an emergency at work today, involving a critical server that was not properly cared for by its department. Due to the severity of the situation, I was called in to help recover the server. I had to go pick up the server from the data center and bring it back to to office to work on it. It was important enough that my boss offered to let me take his car, a 2006 Cadillac CTS. I think he was a little surprised when I declined, in favor of driving my 1998 Corolla instead.
Continue reading “Prepping for Work Disasters”