The Root Cellar

What comes up must go down…
Unearthing the Contemporary Root Cellar
By Anne Dailey & photography by Jennifer May

As we evolve as a society, various tools and technologies disappear from our daily lives, rendered obsolete by modern innovation. Butter churns, horse-drawn wagons, stone foundations and cast iron cook stoves faded first from use, then gradually from memory. In some cases, the things we lose become obsolete or no longer make sense for our needs and our culture. After all, evolution and innovation are often positive processes—if we come up with a tool that does the job better, we ought to use it. There are times, though, when the technology or tool we are in danger of losing, is one that we ought to save. Not for nostalgia’s sake, but for the wisdom and practicality behind it. One such technology is the root cellar—that solid, grounded space where generations past preserved their food through the long winter months.

Step into an old root cellar, even one that stands empty and abandoned, and you can sense the power and integrity of the space. Put your hand on the wall, feel its coolness, and you immediately understand why they were invented. You can imagine someone, thousands of years ago, digging a hole and feeling the temperature of the earth, and putting two and two together. Up until the 1950s when the refrigerator became a ubiquitous feature in every U.S. home, root cellars were the chosen, and indeed the only, way to preserve produce outside of the relatively short harvest season.

They were everywhere for one simple reason—root cellars work. No modern invention can match them for food preservation, financial savings and ease of operation. Once, nearly every home would have had its own root cellar, particularly in the rural areas of the Hudson Valley.

Today, most stand abandoned, in various states of disrepair, but there are signs that the root cellar is making a comeback. Throughout the region one can find root cellars that have been remade and shored up, cleaned out and packed with carrots, potatoes, turnips and apples. Still others are being built from scratch, combining old preservation wisdom with new technologies. Though the reemergence of the root cellar is far from mainstream, it is significant and an indication that practicality and good common sense are alive and well in our valley, and that our local foodshed is resilient and strong.

roots for root cellar
root crops are easy to store for winter eating!

For centuries humans have been utilizing the earth—a temperature-regulating, flexible and free resource—to preserve our food. The root cellar as we understand it today likely originated in 17thcentury England, but historians believe that native Australians were burying yams to preserve them over 40,000 years ago. Dig down a few feet, and the earth is a constant, stable temperature—approximately 50 degrees. Combined with passive winter air, it’s not hard to create a space that will maintain a steady temperature of right around 38 degrees—perfect for storing root vegetables, apples, pears and cabbages.

A properly maintained root cellar can preserve winter storage crops straight through until the first spring greens arrive to cleanse our palates. Before the emergence of supermarkets, and year-round availability of just about everything, it was the easiest way to feed your family through the winter. The modern refrigerator may be a simple and convenient way to store our food, but it need not be the only way. For today’s consumer, building some kind of root cellar remains a viable option. The technology hasn’t changed much; it’s simple and flexible, and, in the Hudson Valley, there are dozens of farmers, homeowners and community members who are reclaiming root-cellar technology and shaping it to fit their own lives.

root storage in root cellar

Reclaiming the Root Cellar

For Hans Bartges, who recently built a house in Columbia County with his wife, Susan, including a root cellar in their plans was part of a conscious decision to pull away from that convenience culture that most Americans exist in today. “The grocery store is always stocked,” he says. “We learn to rely on that supply being there; I’m actually trying to force myself to do more with less.” Bartges finished construction on the 10-by-8-foot root-cellar construction last year, and plans to stock it with produce from the garden they’ll put in this spring. For Bartges, a root cellar is about independence, saving money and, ultimately, about keeping it local.

The issue of where our food comes from and how it gets to us was a driving force behind the decision to build a three-room root cellar at the Common Fire housing co-op in Tivoli. Residents of the house share kitchen and communal spaces, while maintaining private living quarters and autonomy. The LEED Platinum–certified building is regarded as the greenest in the Eastern United States, and houses 11 to 12 residents who are committed to sustainability and social change.

“Food is completely linked into social justice issues,” notes Kavitha Rao, one of the founders of the Common Fire Foundation and a resident of the house for the past several years. “Especially when we think about who’s growing the food or where the gas that it takes to drive the food is coming from, or which chemical businesses are involved in growing the food.” Co-op residents pool their money to buy food, and collectively make decisions about what to purchase and where. “With the root cellars we can eat local food from people we know, whose farming practices we know, well into the winter,” says Rao. “Our CSA share ends in November, and farmers’ markets dwindle down in the fall, but in January, February and March we’re still able to eat local food.”

While social and political reasoning can support the decision to create a root cellar today, initially it was more an issue of practicality and thrift. A root cellar can represent significant financial savings, both in energy costs and food purchasing. Refrigerators suck up enormous amounts of energy, more than any other household appliance, and can cost nearly 20 dollars per month.

Once you’ve constructed a root cellar, you can essentially operate it for free. And, with a wellstocked root cellar, you can avoid paying higher prices come February when food supplies are lower and at their most expensive. “We cook meals together and we end up saving a lot of money—each of us spends about $100 per month, and we’re eating mostly local and organic.”

Related  What To Store In A Root Cellar

For farmers, root cellars have another benefit— extending their business into the winter. At Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, Jay Armour has built two root cellars, each 15 by 20 feet. With the recent increase in winter farmers’ markets in the Hudson Valley, Armour is now stocking both root cellars with storage crops that he’ll sell at a few different farmers’ markets in the region. “People are looking for locally grown organic root crops a lot more so now than they used to,” he says. This year he’ll attend at least two winter farmers’ markets. “[The Root Cellars] give me a winter income,” he says. When he built them nine years ago, he knew of just one other regional farm using the technology. “I think a lot of farmers are burned out by the winter,” he says. “But the winter market concept is just beginning to catch hold and, as that gains more momentum, I think we’ll see more farmers doing it.” For farmers and consumers alike, it makes sense to grow a surplus, so long as there’s a place to store it. That, of course, is where the root cellar comes in.

Even if you don’t grow your own food, it makes far more sense to buy 20 pounds of potatoes and squash when that surplus is filling the bins at farmers’ markets in October and November, than to drive to the supermarket each time you need a few carrots. “In the Hudson Valley, we get the bounty of the harvest in a very short window of time,” notes Gianni Ortiz, executive director of the Regional Farm and Food Project (RFFP). “Often people’s main objection, with CSAs for example, is having too much food all at once, and, it’s like, ‘well that’s the point!’ The harvest is supposed to feed us through the winter as well.”

When Ortiz took over the RFFP project just a few months ago, she quickly organized a series of workshops dedicated to educating people about growing, preparing and storing their own food, including one focused on root cellars. “I really want to help consumers take more responsibility for their food sovereignty,” she says. “To get the homestead skills they need to become producers. Everyone is in this together—you don’t just show up at the farmers’ market and have all your needs provided for.” For Ortiz, root cellars were an obvious way to get people excited about their food, and to preserve an important tradition. She researched root cellars in the Hudson Valley, and recruited organic farmer Jack Kittredge, who has been putting up food in a root cellar for over 25 years, to run the Art and Science of Root Cellaring. The workshop was designed to teach attendees how to utilize this ancient technology, from simple in-ground burial to fully designed and constructed freestanding and in-house root cellars. “There has been incredible interest in the workshop series,” she says, “But particularly so in root cellars. We’ve gone so far as a society in a very abstract direction, and I think [root cellars] feel like very peoplescale, doable things.”

There is a certain romantic appeal to a well-stocked root cellar, but it’s not all pretty jars of preserves and perfect potatoes. The technology may be simple, but it requires an initial input of energy and money, a familiarity with seasonality and crop storage, and flexibility in the ways we view our food. It also requires a return to some of the basic food know-how that used to be commonplace for farmers, homesteaders and even urban dwellers. To operate a root cellar effectively, you have to have a hands-on relationship with your food—you must learn which vegetables can be stored with each other, and which might need separate accommodations. There’s also the adjustment to preparing truly seasonal food. “Using a root cellar requires a different way of thinking about our cooking,” notes Rao. “Instead of coming into it with an idea of what we’re going to make and then going to the store to get the ingredients, it’s like, ‘OK, what do we have, and what kind of creativity can I bring to it?

For those of us who have traveled far from our agrarian roots, root-cellar construction and operation can seem daunting; it’s helpful to remember that root cellars emerged because people needed to find a way to preserve the foods they grew with the resources they had. If you’re thinking about starting your own root cellar, you might try approaching it the same way. You don’t have to dig a cavern into a hill and line it with perfect stones to utilize the power of the earth to preserve your food. Hundreds of root cellar designs exist, from intricate multiroom systems to old refrigerators buried backside down and lined with straw. One book highlights a man who buried the bed of an old milk truck with soil, creating his own insulating hill. If you’ve got an old stone cellar or a hill in the backyard, you’re halfway there. Buy a sack of potatoes or carrots from a local farmer and talk to him or her about storage, find an old-timer who grew up with a root cellar, or check out a book on root-cellaring from the library. The resources are there, and the earth is waiting.

Learn More About Root Cellars

The classic text on root-cellar technology is Mike and Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring (Storey Publishing, 1979). From case histories to lists of storage requirements for nearly 100 crops, it is the go-to resource for anyone looking to understand and utilize the root cellar.

The root cellar at the Common Fire Housing Co-op was designed by green architect and builder Jesse JW Selman. Selman created a detailed 15-page document on the design and construction of the root cellar, as well as a list of storage requirements for various fruits and vegetables. The document can be downloaded from Common Fire’s website,

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"The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease" ~ Thomas Jefferson

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