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Do I Need A Root Cellar?

If you have a piece of land and consistently produce good crops of vegetables such as potatoes or turnips, you may well be wondering whether you should build a root cellar. Under what circumstances do you need a root cellar?

Root cellars allow fresh, organic produce to be available after its growing season and enable saving on the grocery budget. They require little energy and maintenance and add to the value of one’s home. A five-by-eight space can hold enough food for most families.

Many factors affect whether you should build a root cellar or utilize some other form of food storage. Let’s examine these factors in more depth.

The Fundamentals Of Root Cellars

When considering whether you need a root cellar, ask yourself whether you have enough produce to make it worthwhile. If you buy your produce from the store or only have a little veggie patch, then it’s not necessary.

Suppose you have a large vegetable garden or homestead that produces significantly more food than you can eat at harvest time. In that case, a root cellar can be a very worthwhile investment, allowing you to store that extra produce without it spoiling.

Root cellars give you more autonomy and reduce the need to find a market for excess produce. Instead, you can store it for your own use!

A root cellar of 5’ by 8’ will hold up to 30 bushels, which is probably enough for your family. However, larger root cellars can store hundreds of pounds of produce.

A great benefit of a root cellar is that it allows you to store produce without being reliant on electricity. If the power goes out, you won’t lose all your produce the way you would if it were stored in a fridge.

The following factors come into play when building a root cellar:

  1. Temperature
  2. Ventilation
  3. Humidity
  4. Darkness

Temperature is the most important factor; you want stable temperatures between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the main reason why root cellars are usually built underground, as temperatures stay low and stable.

The root cellar must be ventilated with a through-flow of air without raising the temperature. Using the principle that warm air rises and cool air sinks, you can locate the intake low down in the cellar and the outlet high up.

The humidity level should remain high, at around 85-95 % relative humidity. This is the main reason why traditional root cellars have dirt floors: it keeps the cellar moister and allows you to pour water on the floor to raise the humidity.

A root cellar should be kept dark, as light can cause spoilage of produce. If you are building from scratch, build without windows. If you convert a part of your basement, cover any windows to block out the sunlight completely.

Because of the temperature and humidity requirements for root cellars, warm or dry climates such as those in the South and Southwest are not suited for using them.

You will have to use alternative means of preserving your food, such as canning or fermenting.

The Pros And Cons Of Root Cellars

Root Cellar Pros

  1. Greater food security — A root cellar enables food storage for months. If a road is closed and you can’t get into town, you will still have access to food.
  2. Ability to store much more food — A root cellar allows you to preserve the bounty of your homestead.
  3. Saves money — even if you can’t grow everything, you can buy in bulk at a lower price during harvest seasonand store it overwinter.
  4. Decreased reliance on electricity — because root cellars don’t use electricity to preserve food, they still work even if the power goes out.

Root Cellar Cons

  1. Expensive to build – depending on the materials you use, it can take several hundred to thousands of dollars worth of materials, in addition to the cost of hiring plant such as a backhoe.
  2. Takes a lot of effort and time to build — building a root cellar is a manual labor-intensive project that will take several weeks to finish if you have a full-time job.
  3. Every root cellar is different — you’ll need to learn for yourself which areas of your root cellar are cooler and damper, which are warmer and drier, and find out which produce to store under which conditions.
  4. Maintenance — the floor will have to be kept moist to keep the humidity up. You will also have to deal with any mold or mildew build-up.
  5. Inconvenience — if the root cellar is not accessible from your house, it can be unpleasant and inconvenient to have to head out in the middle of rain, frost, or snow.

How Much Does It Cost To Build A Root Cellar?

You will need some way to dig out a room-sized hole; hiring a backhoe is the most practical way to achieve this. You will also need materials to build your cellar, whether masonry, concrete, or wood. Be sure that it can support the weight of the soil.

You may well need a professional builder to build out the shape of the roof. You don’t want to have a cave-in that could destroy your produce or even injure someone. Also, a flat roof is unsuitable as it will drop condensation everywhere, resulting in issues with mold and mildew.

The price varies depending on size, complexity, building materials, and so forth.

A smaller, basic root cellar may only set you back a few hundred dollars. The typical larger root cellar will cost thousands of dollars (anything between $2500 to $25000).

The biggest cost in building a root cellar is the materials. If you can recycle materials, you can bring the cost down substantially.

Bear in mind that a root cellar is a money-saving feature and adds to the value of your property.

You can also use a root cellar as a storm shelter, and if you build your root cellar to be dual-purpose, you may be able to receive some monetary assistance from FEMA. This applies both to new builds and to retrofits.

What Are The Alternatives To A Traditional Root Cellar?

There are various alternatives to a traditional root cellar. Any place that is cool enough will keep certain produce such as potatoes and carrots for longer than they would otherwise have lasted. For example:

  • A room that stays between 32 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit
  • A closet on an outside wall
  • A section of the basement
  • A trashcan buried in the yard or kept in an unheated garage

Bear in mind that these do not have the same ability to store lots of produce that a traditional root cellar does and will not add to the resale value of your property the same way.

Conclusion

A root cellar is a great way to store extra produce if you have a large vegetable garden or a homestead. It gives you added food security, autonomy, and peace of mind. However, the costs involved in building it are considerable, as is the labor, and you may be able to make do with a more modest alternative.

Sources

Frank Pearmain

As a homesteader, survivalist, and previously a safari guide in Africa, I have extensive bush and wilderness experience. I am passionate about living a self-sufficient, off-grid lifestyle and continuously learn and strive toward that goal!

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