Archive for July, 2011

Learning A Lot from the Happy Wanderers

By Cam Mather

We had our second experience hosting volunteer helpers here at Sunflower Farm last week. And just like our week with Mike and Melissa in early June, it was a pretty awesome experience. HelpX (https://www.helpx.net/index.asp) is similar to the WWOOF program (http://www.wwoof.org/) but you don’t necessarily have to be an organic farm to participate in having people come and work in exchange for room and board.

I am a strong believer in life long learning and this summer I have learned a lot without ever having to leave my house.

Gwen and Dave are a young couple from Syracuse, N.Y. They have both completed degrees in Environmental Biology and are exploring their options for their future paths. I think they already have a pretty good idea, but they enjoy HelpXing as a way to get out and learn from others. I think it’s a brilliant concept and shows incredible maturity on their part.

It turned out that Gwen & Dave spent their first week here in Canada at John & Denice’s U-Pick Blueberry farm. John & Denice are good friends of ours and we’ve blogged about their amazing highbush blueberry farm here . We, of course, are very competitive with John and Denice and when we discovered that they’d taken Gwen and Dave on a wine tour of Prince Edward County during their stay it was pretty clear that John & Denice had ratcheted up the game and we’d have to come up with something pretty amazing to compete. Well, not really, I would never try and compete with that. The best we could offer was daily swims in 5th Depot Lake which was pretty crucial since Gwen & Dave were here during a brutal heat wave.

When we asked John and Denice about Gwen and Dave, they raved about them so our expectations were pretty high and they did not disappoint. It started with the rain we got the morning after they arrived. We’d gone weeks without any rain, so I was pretty happy and impressed that their arrival coincided with the rain.

After performing such a magical feat, they could have spent the rest of the week resting on their laurels but they didn’t. They were up and in the garden by 6:30 a.m. to try and beat the heat. What was so refreshing about Gwen & Dave was how self-directed they were. I could show them the area I wanted weeded and they just went to it. They were meticulous around the plants and aggressive in the middle of the rows. They made great progress and the garden has never looked better. I want to give tours now to show it off!

When it was time to water I just needed to tell them the high priority plants (i.e. the ones I am going to be able to sell for the greatest financial return) and they were on it. Dave and I expanded the garden, which required a lot of weed chopping and pick axing. And I’ve got to say, for a couple that eats a plant-based diet, they had a lot of stamina, especially considering the brutal heat and humidity. We worked in the garden until about noon, and then they worked in the shade hanging garlic up to dry and trimming and cleaning garlic in the afternoon.

But really, the greatest thing about having people like Gwen and Dave come and work here is the intellectual stimulation. Whether it was politics, science, renewable energy or religion, we had really great discussions with these two. Since they’ve worked on other farms they shared ideas they had learned elsewhere and since Michelle and I haven’t traveled it was great to live vicariously through the stories of their journeys.

I learned something else when Gwen pointed out some “slime mould” in the blueberry patch. I had seen this before but had no idea what it was. And now I’ve got to say that I know way more about slime mould than I ever thought I would. Like how intelligent they are, and how when it’s time to reproduce, some of the cells decide to sacrifice their ability to reproduce and form stalks that other cells can basically climb up to release their spores. Go figure – sacrificial slime mould cells! It sure made for interesting dinner conversation!

Dave had worked a farm where they washed the garlic after digging it up. I’m paranoid about moisture around my garlic because I want it as dry as possible to maximize how long it lasts. But there have been years we’ve harvested it during a wet spell so sometimes it’s unavoidable. Here Gwen and I are watching Dave shake some garlic vigorously in a rain barrel to get the dirt off. The washed garlic looks great and is now hanging up to dry, so I’ve labeled it as “Dave’s Great Garlic Experiment” and will follow it to see how it lasts over the winter.

At one point Dave and I were busy expanding the garden near a row of large pine trees. It was nice to be able to work in the shade and when I mentioned to Dave how nice it was to have this shady spot, he immediately said, “Yea, good for lettuce.” Well, I might have written a gardening book, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always thinking straight in the spring during my mad dash to get everything planted. So next year I’ll remember to plant the lettuce in that section, thanks to Dave’s great observation. There are just so many things to remember in a garden and some times it takes someone to point out the obvious to you!

Dave is a great guitar player and Gwen pulled out a mandolin at one point, so we got free entertainment along with everything else!

For people like Michelle and me who are pretty happy living alone in our isolated spot, this whole process is a bit of a stretch. We live 3 miles from our nearest neighbor because we like solitude. We also tend to graze all day rather than eating regular meals, so to have to prepare three regular meals a day is kind of different for us. But we know how important it is to eat properly in order to be able to keep working at the pace we were working in the garden and of course we felt an obligation to feed our helpers well.

We had a great week. We accomplished a huge amount in the garden. We learned a lot. And we thoroughly enjoyed the company of a charming, intelligent, well-grounded young couple who we would like to call friends for a long time.

As I said to both of these volunteer couples as we sat down for one of our first meals, “This is just about the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. We’ve never met you and have no idea if we’ll get along or whether or not you’re some sort of psycho killers, and you don’t know much about us, and we’re going to live and work together for a week, and then we’ll probably never seen you again. It’s just weird.” And they agreed.

And yet from this huge potential for weirdness came a really great experience.

This was good for me. I’m past 50 and getting set in my ways. I don’t like staying up late anymore. I have no time for expensive restaurants. I have one mug I like to drink coffee out of. I have one cultivator that I use for just about everything in the garden. Friday night is “Pizza Night” even if a tornado has blown down our house, and Pizza Night calls for Dr. Pepper in the Coke glass that I love.

For someone as inflexible as me, this bizarre and risky experiment with people coming to work and learn on the farm was a huge leap of faith, with a dramatic payback. If this keeps up I might be able to try Pizza Night on Thursday one of these days!

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My Off-Grid Solar-Powered Air Conditioner

By Cam Mather

I always thought “air conditioning” and “off the grid” didn’t belong in the same sentence, unless it was suggesting that you COULDN’T have air conditioning off the grid. But like so many things in my life I have discovered that foundations can shift and reality can be altered.

Since moving to our off-grid home 13 years ago we have suffered through heat waves. I am not one of those people who like the heat. I love winter. I love being cold. In the winter I can just keep adding layers until I am warm. I find heat inescapable and debilitating. Of course you can’t grow food in the winter, so summer seems like a pretty essential season. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I suppose if I lived in a city and had an air conditioned house, and office, and car, and didn’t have to grow food during droughts, I’d probably love summer too. But summer just wears me out. Early on in a heat wave I can still function, but after a few days I start dragging more and more. First I lose my appetite, which isn’t a good thing because I’m still burning calories working in the garden. Heat waves are usually accompanied by a drought so watering the gardening becomes a full time job. I’m in the garden by 6 a.m. but I usually can’t work much past 11 a.m. and so I have to wait until after dinner to finish up.

I think what wears me down the most is not sleeping. I end up sleeping on the couch on the main floor, which is usually cooler than my second floor bedroom, but it’s never a restful sleep. So after a few days of not eating properly and not sleeping, I feel like a dirt bag.

As I’ve described before, we have a solar domestic hot water heater that produces more than enough hot water for us at this time of year, especially since we often swim in a local lake during a heat wave, and we aren’t particularly anxious to have hot showers or baths. We also have the diversion load dumping excess electricity into a second hot water tank. So a few days into a heat wave when we are making lots of hot water and not using much, it gets scalding hot. And since these two hot water tanks are in our bedroom, they help to heat up the room just a bit more to make it really uncomfortable for sleeping. Yes, I know, what am I doing with hot water tanks in my bedroom?

Turns out when they built the house in 1888 they hadn’t considered solar domestic hot water heating. Well, they hadn’t actually even considered inside plumbing, so the only way I could configure the system was to put the tanks in the bedroom. Michelle has written blog posts about what she thinks of them. It ain’t pretty, but it works.

So this summer I said “enough!”  I bought a 5,000 BTU “Haier” window air conditioner. And it’s working great! It’s helping to make this heat wave, which is unbelievably brutal and relentless and unending, seem tolerable. I’m not eating enough and I’m spending way too much time in that relentless heat trying to grow food, but at least I’m sleeping. I have a refuge.

I keep kidding Michelle that we need to start eating dinner in our bedroom.

I did not approach this purchase lightly. I realize that the HFCFCs or whatever the chemical that replaced CFCs is better, but not perfect. But it was $100 and it’s making a world of difference. It draws about 500 Watts of power. When the sun is out my solar panels are making over 1,500 Watts, so it’s using about 1/3 of my output. So I’m running all my other loads, including the water pump, which is going full time, and still have enough to run the air conditioner. I am not using the “dump” or “diversion” hot water heater very much, so our water is just very hot, rather than scalding.

Now Bill Kemp’s off-grid house has been air conditioned for a few years but Bill built an insanely efficient house, so I just assumed I was scuppered with one built in 1888. Bill recommended this unit to me and when he heard how well it was working he went out and got one. Here’s a quote from an email he just sent me.

“I was looking at how they managed to get so much cooling with so little energy. A very simple design takes the water removed from the air and pumps it over the condenser radiator (the hot part that blows the heat outside). The water dripping over it cools the unit as the fan blows the heat away. Same process as how the human body cools itself. Funny that no one thought of this until recently???”

This is what I love about knowing Bill. He buys stuff and takes it apart to see how it works. His wife Lorraine calls it “MacGyvering” stuff. But then when he figures out how it works he can describe it with analogies that I understand.. i.e. the air conditioner works just like you sweating. Now that I can get.

When we first started using it Michelle commented that it couldn’t be dehumidifying the air because it didn’t drip water out the back like all of the other AC units we’ve seen in action.

So the heat wave continues and I am getting a reasonable amount of sleep. My grass is brown. Any plant that doesn’t produce food is in crisis and is not getting any water. Trees are dying. Toronto, which usually gets 74 mm of rain in July, has had 4 mm. My gardens are crying out for rain. All I can give them is well water from the house and drip-irrigated water from the dug well in the vegetable garden. But all my food crops are doing OK. You can tell that at a certain point a lot of activity in plants shuts down when it gets too hot. They just can’t function properly. I’m hoping for a bumper crop of “tropical” sweet potatoes and peppers and all my heat loving plants. There has to be some upside to these summers.

And thanks to my “off grid, solar powered, pretty environmentally friendly and efficient air conditioner,” my personal “feeling like a ‘dirt-bag’ factor” has been remarkably reduced. And all off-grid! Who’d have thunk it! What next? Maybe an electric car I charge off the system! The skies are the limit now!

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Strawberries Are a Bargain at Any Price!

Guest Post by Michelle Mather

This year, for the first time in the 13 years we’ve been living here, we actually had a crop of strawberries from our own garden! We’ve been trying to grow strawberries for years. We would buy a bunch of plants, prepare the soil, plant them and dream about the delicious strawberries that we would be enjoying in a year or two.

Inevitably though we would get busy with other things and the strawberry patch would be neglected. The weeds would take over and we would forget to water and our strawberry plants would wither away before ever producing any fruit. It was frustrating and no matter how often we planted new plants and committed to look after them, time after time we ended up with dead strawberry plants.

In the last couple of years Cam replanted our berry patch and enlisted my help to keep an eye on them. We both dutifully weeded and watered as necessary and Cam put down a thick layer of straw to help keep the weeds down. This year we enjoyed quart after quart of delicious strawberries and we have a renewed sense of commitment to continue to nurture our strawberry patch.

Near the end of the strawberry season, when our patch was no longer producing, I happened to be in our local grocery store and noticed that they were selling local strawberries. They were also selling strawberries from somewhere in the U.S. for less than half the price of the local ones! Needless to say the local ones looked and smelled so much better that I gladly paid $4.50/quart and bought two quarts.

A woman standing next to me was also looking at the strawberries. She said “Isn’t it horrible what they are selling these local berries for? It’s robbery!”

I turned to her and asked “Have you ever grown strawberries?” She said “No” and so I assured her that I had been trying to grow my own for years and so I had a good idea of just how much work is involved with growing them and that I was thrilled to be able to buy some, at any price! She didn’t respond but just hurried away and probably assumed that I was the local crackpot!

I think too many of us are so removed from the origins of our food that we just don’t have a clue how lucky we are to eat as well as we do! Until you have spent some time planting and weeding and watering and protecting your crop from bugs and wildlife, you will never know just how much time and effort and hard work goes into producing food.

Last Saturday Cam and I set up a stand in our local town to sell our excess produce. We always grow way too much and we’ve always just given it away to friends and neighbours. This year we decided to sell our excess. We enjoy growing food and it will be nice to earn something in return for our hard work. But as I stood in my pea patch, rubbing my aching back, I was thinking about what price I would be able to get for my peas and realizing just how undervalued food is. If we kept track of the time spent growing our various crops and then factor in the time spent harvesting, packaging and selling them, I am sure we would be appalled at the abysmal return on our investment. Luckily we aren’t in it for the money and gardening has always been something that we both just enjoy doing.

The other thing that amazes me is how little of our disposable income we spend on food here in North America, especially compared to other countries. There’s a great chart here;

http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/cpifoodandexpenditures/data/2006table97.htm

that compares the percent of household income spent on food consumed at home, by various countries in 2006.

Americans spend roughly 6-7% of their disposable income on food. Canadians spend a bit more – roughly 9%. At the bottom of the chart you’ll find countries like Pakistan where people spend almost 46% of their income on food! What a huge discrepancy!

Too often I overhear people at grocery stores grumbling about the price of food. I don’t think we know how lucky we are!

Fighting Over Food

Guest Post by Michelle Mather

Cam has shared many stories about the challenges that wildlife can present in terms of gardening. We keep our main vegetable garden loosely fenced with chicken wire. “Loosely” so that raccoons won’t attempt to climb the fence – if it were taut it wouldn’t keep them out. Deer could jump the fence, but luckily they don’t seem too interested in our vegetable garden at this time of year. We always see them or see signs of their presence in the fall when they make a point of going in and cleaning up the leftover broccoli plants or Brussels sprout plants, etc. By then we’ve finished with the garden and so we don’t mind them using what they can.

One winter day Cam happened to walk through the vegetable garden and saw red stains on the snow. He looked more closely and thought it might be blood! Then he took a closer look and realized that deer had been in the garden and had discovered a few beets that had been overlooked. The deer had dug through an inch of snow and into the frozen ground to gnaw on the frozen beets. Apparently they were still juicy enough to cause the red stains on the snow!

Our strawberry patch is located behind the house and is not fenced in. This year, just after we had picked the last of the berries, Cam noticed that something had been chewing on the leaves of the plants. We’d been competing with chipmunks for the actual berries, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t chipmunks eating the leaves of the plants. A few nights later we happened to spot a deer out back. It was a young deer and it appeared to be grazing on the grass back there. The next night the deer was back but this time Cam caught it in the act of grazing on our strawberry plants! He frightened it away and made a point of tying Morgan the Wonder Dog up in the patch the next few nights to keep the deer away.

Every summer as corn season approaches we have to keep a close eye on it. The local raccoons seem to have some sort of “corn radar” and they know the precise moment that the corn is ready to harvest.  Once again, Morgan earns his keep by sleeping in the corn patch during corn season. If it’s a rainy night though, we give him the night off, as I don’t think it’s fair to expect him to sleep out in the rain. One rainy night the raccoons had a party in our corn patch. We wouldn’t mind so much if they picked an ear of corn and ate the whole thing before choosing another, but they only take one or two bites from each ear before tossing it aside and choosing a new one! A couple of raccoons can go through a whole lot of corn at that rate!

The other morning I discovered a new threat to my plants. I had potted some small basil plants. I decided that I’d better water them and so I filled up my watering can and headed over to my plants. I happened to notice that one pot was missing its basil plant!

I couldn’t imagine any creature wanting to eat a basil plant – I’ve noticed that bugs have been nibbling on the leaves of the plant but they hadn’t taken out a whole plant before! As I got closer to the pot I noticed a pair of eyes looking back at me from the top of the pot.

It was a toad! A rather large toad had decided that my pot looked like a comfy place to sleep so it had dug my basil plant out and wedged himself (or herself) in!


After I had admired the toad and taken a few photos I gently relocated him or her to a cool, shady garden and repotted my basil plant. Deer, raccoons, chipmunks and now toads! It’s hard work protecting our gardens from the wildlife around here!

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Blogger

By Cam Mather

I came up with this blog title and thought I’d better explain it. “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Loneliness_of_the_Long_Distance_Runner) is a book that I’ve never read, but which I often think about when I’m doing something solitary. Back when I lived in the city and needed exercise I would go running or cycling, and the title of this book spoke to me. I look back on those days now that I’ve got so much “real” stuff to do, and the thought of having to perform some activity in order to get exercise that really doesn’t accomplish anything is very foreign to me.

When I looked up the book I discovered that it was written in 1959, the year I was born! Cue the theme music from “The Twilight Zone”… ‘Do do do do, do do do do… According to “The Celestine Prophecy” it is important to recognize that coincidences may have deep meaning. So I’m using this coincidence as an excuse to buy a lottery ticket for tonight. Now if only my mom would come to me in a dream and give me the six winning numbers all would be well.

But I digress, as I often seem to do in these blogs. So I was thinking about how blogging is a very solitary thing, like long distance running. It’s just you and your train of thought, which in my case is terrifying. It’s just more of “The World According to Cam” which some of my family members like to mock me for. But some of them do read my blog and I think eventually they just sort of assume that since they know what’s going on in my life they don’t have to bother to communicate with me about what’s going on in their life. This is fine. I don’t mind the solitary life. But it can be a very one-way street.

This is why Michelle and I love the comments we get on our blogs. We read every one and we really, REALLY, appreciate everyone who responds, good or bad, and shares their perspective. Since Mother Earth News started reposting our blog our regular readership has gone up significantly, and while that’s great, it’s still the feedback we get from your comments, which make this blog in large part worthwhile, so please keep it up.

For people who take the time to post comments, we are very grateful. We also appreciate everyone who reads our blogs regularly.

I was also thinking about how blogging may be good for my state of mind. I read a study recently that said that writing is a good way to relieve stress for a lot of people. I think this is the case with me. When I blog about being overwhelmed with the garden or some other component of our off-grid lifestyle, we get comments from others going through the same thing or offering encouragement to stay the course and it really helps.

The other thing about writing is that I think it can really help you to appreciate your life. Michelle and I have finished writing our book “Little House Off The Grid – Our Family’s Journey to Self-Sufficiency.” Amazon has it listed already and they are taking pre-orders! We’d better get cracking!

We decided to chronicle our journey from our fairly typical suburban lifestyle to one of independence in the woods off the grid. And as our HelpXer Melissa pointed out, it’s a “Narrative Non-Fiction” which is very popular right now! I know I always read books like this when I was still living in the city and dreaming about moving to the country. My favorite TV show for years was “Northern Exposure” about a quirky village in Alaska and the lives of the people in it. Now I live near a village just like that called “Tamworth” and I know lots of wonderful people in town and you know, it’s pretty great. And of course, many of them know me. I’m that off-grid solar guy who dressed up as Super Solar Man for the Canada Day Parade and an LED-lit Xmas tree in the Santa Claus Parade. I think my most popular idea though was when I pulled a solar-powered bubble machine along the parade route. It’s like I’m trying to become a character on Northern Exposure!

As we work through the final edits of the book before we pass it off to be edited, I am reminded about what a fantastic journey this has been. There have been many highs and many lows, but all in all, it’s been a blast. And now that the systems are all working well and we “get” the whole energy thing, it is one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done in my life. Well, other than raising two fantastic daughters. Oh, and publishing “The Renewable Energy Handbook” which has been a huge motivator for thousands of people. Living off grid is really a dream come true.

One of the most important parts of the book is when we share the “lows” that we have experienced. We have had many “challenges” (see, I don’t call them problems, isn’t that positive!) that have had a pretty jarring impact on our lives. Communication, either via phone or internet has probably been one of the biggest, so it has not been a complete joy ride by any means. But the lows have just made the highs, higher. This is very much like my personality. Michelle is very even keeled, never too up or never too down. Somedays I can be bouncing off the walls with glee one minute and then ready to jump in front a train the next. It’s a testament to Michelle’s temperament that she’s been able to handle my personality for 30+ years.

One thing that I’ll say for a manic personality like mine is that those lows make the highs much better. And since my nearest neighbors are 4 miles away, I can come out of the office on a high and sing “I hope you had the time of your life” by Green Day at the top my lungs with no hesitance that someone will hear me. And I must say, on those days when I’m in one of those singing’ at the top of my lungs days, frankly I wouldn’t care if someone, or a crowd of people was listening. Pavarotti I am not. Happy I am. At least at that moment.

And that was the great thing about writing our new book. I was forced to go back and think about my time in suburbia and how badly I wanted out. And I thought about how many times since then I’ve climbed the small hill where our first wind turbine was and looked down at our house on a cold winter’s night. The house is brilliantly lit up inside with lights powered by the sun that shone that day and charged our batteries. The house is warm from the wood that I harvested sustainably from the property, and the root cellar and freezer are full of last summer’s harvest, and the bookcases are lined with books I’ve read or plan to read, and there is nowhere else on the planet I can possible imagine myself living. “Challenges” be banished from my consciousness. I am living where I want to, how I want, in a place I was meant to live. Tonight, at this moment, the universe has aligned itself perfectly.

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The Dieter’s Guide to Weight Loss While Gardening

By Cam Mather

I am NOT one of those weight-obsessed people. So you might wonder why I am writing a blog about my weight. Well, a few weeks ago I weighed myself and discovered that I’d lost weight. Again. What’s with that?

Well it probably had something to do with the fact that Mike and Melissa, our HelpXers, were here and we all worked in the garden a good chunk of every day. My weight has been as high as 150 lbs and sort of fluctuates between about 145 and 150 lbs. I know … it’s my metabolism. That’s what everyone tells me. I can still wear my Adidas shorts that I wore when I was in high school, although they should be banned for being indecent. I’ve noticed that about fashion though. I just hang on to all my clothes and eventually they come back in style.

And yes, I do have a good metabolism, and I didn’t gain weight having babies, etc etc. but I give most of the credit to the plant-based diet that I have eaten for 20 years and being pretty active. I cut all of our own firewood, for both the house and the guesthouse. I can soak a shirt with perspiration in a day of woodcutting on the coldest day in winter. But I think gardening has a big effect on me keeping my weight in check.

Since I always seem to have a number of large projects each year that involve rolling round hay bails or moving soil from one spot to another with a wheelbarrow, there are plenty of opportunities for me to burn calories. But once planting season starts it’s a marathon. With no tractor, it’s just me against a ½ acre garden that has to be rototilled, raked to remove last year’s residues and then I make rows, plant, weed and water.  I repeat the last two steps endlessly over the summer.

And then there’s the endless walking. Move this flat of sweet potatoes over to where I’ll plant it later. Move the hose from the dug well from the upper irrigation system to the lower one. Grab that cultivator that I left up by the gate that I now need down near the barn foundation. Back in 90 seconds.

I’ve tried to reduce the amount of walking I do by buying multiple tools. I have tools and cultivators everywhere, but it doesn’t matter how many I have, the one I want is always at the opposite end of the garden.

So when Mike and Melissa were here for the week it was a bit of a marathon getting everything done that I had planned for them. Well we didn’t even get close, but we accomplished an enormous amount. And while I worked just as hard as they did, I was also a little obsessed about making sure that I had the next job ready for when they were finished the existing one. That inevitably meant walks back to the house for more plants or seeds, or the woodshed for tools, or the berry patch, or wherever.

So with all this exercise I had every excuse to call out the dessert brigade! Michelle has basically given up eating desserts. She has amazing will power. I am trying, but failing miserably. Having three square meals a day was weird enough, but I had Mike and Melissa as an excuse to indulge my sweet tooth. We started with chocolate cake and chocolate ice cream and strawberries. Then the next night was chocolate cream pie. Then coconut cream pie. Then Michelle made maple tarts. Then brownies with chocolate ice cream. I think we opened a few bags of Oreos in there as well. And I didn’t scrimp on the size of my portions!

So if I worked in veal fattening pen in some office and commuted an hour to that job, I’m sure I would have gained 10 pounds that week. But when I weighed myself at the end of the week I’d lost 8 pounds and was down to a little over 140 pounds! Holy crap. That’s like 7% of my body weight. Apparently there’s something to this gardening thing. Now I’m regretting not having a chapter on this in “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook.”

I simply can’t imagine having to reduce my caloric intake to lose weight. I refuse to do it. I believe increasing your physical activity is the only way to lose weight. And if you really ramp it up then you can eat whatever you want. Well, for someone like me with no willpower, this has been working. And eating a plant-based diet has been a huge help as well. It’s simply much harder to eat the number of calories when you’re not eating protein and calorie dense foods with a lot of saturated fat.

So I think my next book should be “The Cam Mather Off Grid Guide to Losing Weight Through Gardening.” I’ll get a picture of myself in some cheesy gardening coach-like attire waving my hoe at some gardening neophytes eating Twinkies and looking apprehensive. It’ll be awesome!

Once my gardening program is proven successful at weight loss I’ll start a new service, “The Sunflower Farm Weight Loss Gardening Spa”. The HelpXers were here for free, well just the cost of their food. What was I thinking? Now I’m going to charge for people to come and garden. I’m going to charge a lot, because people don’t associate value with something unless it’s expensive. So it’s going to be like $1,200/week, and I’m going to work you. Oh am I going to work you! I’m going to be like one of those obnoxious coaches you see on “The Biggest Loser” and the myriad of programs about losing weight. I will work you ‘til you drop.

“Come on you big bag of dirt, hoe that row! Shovel that manure! Oh you need a shovel? Well it’s over in the blueberry patch. That’s 200 meters away. I want you there and back in 45 seconds or I’m going to make you chop some firewood! So you’re tired of rolling 1,000 pound round bales around? Come over here. I’ve got some wet ones. These should be closer to 1,200 pounds. Now put your back into it! Come on, stop your whining! Suck it up and push it!”

This is going to be awesome! Taking reservations now!

In the meantime I’m going to need to carbo-pack to get ready. Shall it be chocolate cake or strawberry shortcake tonight? Wait, that’s too tough a choice. Maybe I’ll have both.

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The Pecking Order Here at Sunflower Farm

By Cam Mather

When we got our chickens I really just wanted them for their eggs. I knew they’d also make fertilizer for my gardens, but I had decided that if I was going to eat eggs I should know where they come from, and how much grain goes into producing eggs. What has surprised me is how much I enjoy them. They are so much fun to watch and they seem to have such unique personalities. So here in a nutshell, are the chickens that inhabit Sunflower Farm.

Henrietta

Henrietta, or Henny for short, is the ringleader of this pack of chickens. She is the alpha-male of this little gaggle of ladies and she’s decided that she’s  #1 in the “pecking” order. When Flora and Belle arrived a couple of weeks after Henny and Penny, it was Henny who behaved like a bit of a thug to the other two. She was picking on Belle in particular, and it reminded me of my neighbor Ken’s stories about prison (where he worked for most of his adult life.) Ken says that inmates will single out and make an example of one easy target, so that other potential competitors for the top spot fall in line.

I’m convinced that Henny is conspiring to plan an escape from the pen that I built for them. But like Huck Finn, she’s convinced the others to do the dirty work. They’ve dug a big hole in the corner of the pen, where they plan to make their break and I’m sure it was Henny’s idea. When our HelpXers Mike & Melissa were here and we let the chickens out of the pen for some “free ranging,” they disappeared when I turned my back for a few minutes. Henny was the last one to be found that day. I found her down by the pond. I could tell she was trying to decide whether or not she could swim. She had that look… “if I could have just made it across this pond, I would have been out of here and never looked back!”

When we toss leftover rice into the pen, Henny is the fastest and most aggressive about grabbing the biggest clumps. She always picks the largest chunk of rice and she races off to a corner to devour it before the others can get to her. As I mentioned in a previous post, she is the Captain Jack Sparrow on this ship. In the morning as we lower the drawbridge/gangplank door from the coop she is always the first one to jump on and ride it down. I think she fantasizes that she is boarding a gold-laden Spanish galleon and the treasure will soon be hers. No really, I can tell this is what she’s thinking every morning.

Penelope

Penelope, or Penny for short, is the vice-president of the little chicken government that’s formed in our coop. She seems happy to let Henny rule the roost, but she doesn’t take any chicken poop from anyone, including Henny. As I garden I often gather up undesirable bugs and I toss them into the chicken pen for the girls.  Penny is always the fastest at eating them. She has the eyes of an eagle and she can spot a grub or cutworm long before any of the others. And when I put about 50 scarabs on a piece of white cardboard (photo in previous blog post), she just blasted through them like “The Terminator” against cops with handguns. In movie terms, the scarabs were “Gone in 60 Seconds.”

Penny is kind of like the Dick Cheney of our chicken coop. Henny seems to be in control, but somehow I sense that it’s Penny behind her pulling the levers of power. While Henny may talk a good story to convince the others of the importance of the task at hand, i.e. digging the escape hole, it’s Penny who thought up the hole to begin with. Penny knows there is something to being VP. When you’re number one, you’re the fall person. She’s a smart codger this Penny. You can always spot her, over by Henny, whispering something in her ear. She was part of the duo that went missing during the great escape. Penny is the second chicken riding the drawbridge gangplank down every morning, staunchly behind Mrs. President, Henrietta. The other way you can tell that Penny is like Mr. Cheney is that she never writes anything down!

Flora

Flora is like the middle child of the Sunflower Farm Chicken Cooperative. She knows she’s not at the head of the class, but she also knows she won’t be the last to get picked when they arrange a game of “dodge ball” or “chicken” which they play for hours.

Flora has that sort of raised in suburbia kind of outlook on the world. Oh, well yes, food will be provided for me. I will be kept warm. And all I’ll be asked to do is pop out the odd egg once in a while. I can live with that social contract. When there’s a commotion, usually with Henny picking on poor Belle, Flora stands on the sidelines and won’t get involved. You can see her little chicken brain processing the situation… “This is not my fight, and if I step in on Belle’s behalf I could get my chicken butt kicked, so I’ll just stay clear of this little tiff.”

I think Flora would like to aspire to greater things, but I think she’s just resigned herself to a life of mediocrity. She could write the next great novel, but she probably won’t. And that’s okay with her. You’ll never see her on top of the coop making a run and flight for freedom, but you’ll also never see her pouting in the corner if she didn’t get enough of the strawberry tops that got tossed in there with the latest compost bucket. And she’s good with this. When I look at Flora I see a continuous loop of the band Rush’s “Subdivisions” playing in her head. “Be cool or be cast out.” She’ll play the game, but she won’t be enthusiastic about it. What did you do on the weekend Flora? “Oh, got drunk in my parents’ basement, then I went to the mall Saturday and ate at the food court.”

Belle

Belle is a sweet, sweet chicken, but not the sharpest tool in the shed. Well, I hate to say it, and I don’t say it to be mean, but Belle is a little dense. Oh she looks pretty, and she lays fine eggs, but really, Belle is just eye candy in the Sunflower Farm chicken menagerie. If it weren’t for the chicken feed we provide in their dish, Belle would starve in about a day I think.

When I toss a bunch of rice into the pen, Belle seems perplexed about what to do. The other three quickly find the biggest rice clump and take off for cover to eat it. Belle has her head up but seems dazed and confused about what to do. Sometimes she chases the other three and tries to grab their rice ball, but mostly she stands there while the bulk of the rice is consumed by the other three. I’ve shown Belle where the rice is, tried to explain how to eat it, and have really emphasized the importance of Belle exerting herself over the other three. But alas, poor Belle seems destined to live in her own little world.  If it weren’t for us providing her with life’s essentials, she’d need to find herself a good earning rooster to allow her to live the sort of lifestyle she desires.

While I have high hopes for Belle, I think she’s destined for the fast food, minimum wage kind of chicken job. She won’t be going to “Chicken University.” Poor Belle won’t even make a low level community chicken college. But hey, someone’s got dig ditches, and Henny is happy to have Belle around to do the grunt work of digging the escape hole to freedom while she watches from the sidelines.

Michelle’s Message – When I see how much fun these chickens have, all day long, digging holes, having dust baths, scratching in the grass, and just being chickens, I am reminded of just how cruel it is to confine 6 of them to a small cage, as is done in commercial egg factory farms. There seems to be growing awareness and concern amongst consumers and so let’s hope that this barbaric practice soon comes to an end!

This Must be Just Like Gardening in Paradise

By Cam Mather

Back in about 1988 when David Lee Roth left Van Halen (this is a homesteading blog, honestly!) he had this great video for his song “This must be just like livin’ in paradise” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4qh_9vH1Ww I always loved this video, mostly because of my long-time fantasy to wear spandex, have long blond hair and be able to do great roundhouse jump kicks. I think I also associated with this video because much of it shows David rock climbing, which he clearly seems to relish doing. The footage of him running and rappelling off those great rock walls has always stuck with me.

But like all goods things, the next line of the song is “…and I don’t want to go home.” For most of us, those moments of elation we experience at the cottage, or mall, or exotic foreign location are fleeting because we have to return to the reality of our jobs, and our homes, which are generally in urban areas close to those jobs. I think I’m getting pretty close to being totally content to never leave my house and be at peace with my life as it is.

This realization came to me early one morning recently weeding in the garden. It was probably 7 a.m. and still cool. The work is tedious and mindless and one of my favorite things about gardening is taking a chaotic row of vegetable seedlings crowded with weeds and restoring it to order so that I can appreciate the beauty of the plants that will eventually nourish my body.

One recent morning the loons were particularly boisterous. There was one on West Lake, which is south of us, and one on Sixth Depot Lake just north of us and they were engaged in a heavy-duty conversation. I think it was one of those “No, you come to my lake…” sort of discussions, because eventually one flew directly overhead making that hauntingly beautiful loon call in 3D surround sound. And I was probably the only human on earth that heard this little discussion because my nearest neighbor is 3 miles away. Birds singing, loons calling, surrounded by a billion colors of green, growing my own food. Really, could there by anything else I’d rather be doing that I could enjoy more? I now know the answer is “NO.” This is as good as it gets, and it’s pretty great.

But I need to bring reality into this idyllic image I’ve created, because there is always something in paradise trying to upset the balance of things. Early in the morning in the garden it’s mosquitoes. The price for being surrounded by thousands of acres of trees and lakes and ponds are these noisy pests. If they are brutal I wear a bug hat. Once the sun is out and the dragonflies wake up they provide me with air cover and the mosquitoes are dispensed with until dusk.

Once the sun is up, out come the deer flies. They are brutal this year. Deer flies love to land on the back of your head and work through your hair to bite you. I guess this is how they behave around “deer.” I use a product called “Tanglefoot” which is a sticky tree resin. I duct tape a piece of box board to the back of my hat, smear it with Tanglefoot and it gets filled up with about 50 deer flies in about an hour. If my options are suburbia or deer flies, I can handle the deer flies, no problem.

I blogged about the scarab problem we had where all my wonderful berry plants were being attacked by these leaf devouring pests. And early in the spring cutworms were waging war with my small vegetable seedlings, looping them off as quickly as I could replant them.

This year was the best year ever for strawberries here. I have nurtured this patch for 3 years now and really worked on it last year in terms of weeding and watering. After an amazing harvest a deer found them and ate 1/3 of the leaves off, which will stunt that section for next year.

I often fantasize about growing food “somewhere else.” Surely there is a place, perhaps surrounded by other farms where I wouldn’t have the bugs and pests and deer problems I have now. Well maybe, but I have no doubt I’d have unique issues to deal with there. Different pests. Or no pests, the results of chemical warfare being waged by neighbors with toxins that I try to avoid, which would be worse than the waves of insects I have to deal with here.

A lot this just comes down to my state of mind. I can honestly say black flies and mosquitoes and deer flies don’t bother me. I was miserable in suburbia, and that feeling with being out of step with my surroundings never went away. None of these pests last forever. We might have a few brutal days, or even a week but by the end of July most of the bugs are gone and then peace and order is restored to the garden.

There is no place on earth to garden that consistently has the perfect growing conditions. Just the right combination of sun and rain and no pests. When people ask me to sign their copy of my book “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” I often write, “May your days be sunny and nights be rainy,” which is my definition of climatic perfection for a gardener. I have experienced this a few times in my life, a stretch of sunny days with rain in the evening. But it was short-lived and is as rare of hen’s teeth around here. (Now that we have chickens I can say with certainty that I’ve yet to notice any teeth in their mouths).

So for now I do my best to focus on the positive. I am working to build up my soil to make it healthy and resilient. I am working to maximize how much water I can store and pump to nurture my vegetables when nature won’t cooperate with rain. And when I’m in this very special place that radiates positive energy, weeding and nurturing those vegetables that will feed my body, I will ignore anything extraneous like the buzz of deer flies, and focus on the call of the loons. It’s not always easy to tell, “but this must be just like gardening in paradise, and I don’t have to go home.” I’m there!

“Can’t You Just Spray?”

By Cam Mather

This was the question that my neighbor Ken asked me recently. I had just told him about the bugs eating my berries. “Can’t you just spray?”

So how’d you spend your weekend? Road trip? Shopping? Reading at the coffee shop? I spent a recent weekend here on my knees cutting garlic scapes and squashing bugs. And I mean a lot of bugs. Not that I’m complaining. It’s just an observation on how humans have so many choices available to them. I love my choice of living in the country and trying to generate an income growing good organically.

This can be a very discouraging proposition. Early in the season I am overrun with cutworms, a caterpillar that lives just below the soil surface and takes out plants when they are small and vulnerable. In many years they have completely decimated certain crops. This year I had about the usual amount of damage, which I’ve grown accustomed to.

Each year something new always comes along to keep things interesting. Last year our raspberries did fabulously well with very few pests. This gives you a cocky sense of complacency. “Oh raspberries? They’re so easy to grow organically!” NOT! Well not this year anyway. I have an unholy pestilence of “scarabs” this year and they are trashing my berry plants in big numbers. I first noticed them on my blueberries. My beautiful blueberries with lush green, shiny leaves. I was watering and noticed some of the leaves were damaged. Upon closer examination I noticed the scarabs.

Scarabs are nasty little pests that will take out the berry flowers and young fruit, or just chew on leaves. You can see in the photos what a leaf looks like after the scarabs have chewed on it. While it may look like a lovely lace pattern, this damage severely restricts the plant’s ability to photosynthesize and convert that wonderful sunlight into energy to be used in the biomass of the plant. Left long enough they’ll denude the whole plant and it’s game over.

So I spent the weekend on a hunt and squish mission, going over each of my berry plants numerous times. Their natural defense is to drop off the plant when disturbed so I go after them with one hand and put my other hand underneath to catch the ones that drop off. And they can fly, so I have to pick the ones out of midair that take off. Later in the weekend after I had removed the worst of the infestation, I began shaking the plant stalk and most would fall on to the ground where I eliminated them. You have to work fast though, because some will scamper under debris and hide while others will try and get airborne to fly away. Oh it’s a barrel of fun.

I noticed that scarabs are a big part of Egyptian artwork. You see them used extensively on jewelry. Come on ancient Egyptians, what were you thinking? Scarabs? Really? They’re obnoxious! They’re eating my berry plants. And you want to immortalize them on jewelry? Interesting that the scientific classification of scarabs is the Class “Insecta”, Order “Coleoptera”, which looks like Cleopatra to my dyslexic brain.

We’ve had problems with scarabs on our peonies in previous years, but this is the first year they’ve ever gone after the berries like this. If I had just left them they would denude every plant and I would have no berry plants next year. This may be cyclic, they may not be as bad next year, or they may be worse. Essentially I’ll have to make a mental note to keep this time of the year clear to deal with them. Problem is, there is no spare time at this time of year. We haven’t had much rain lately, so I am watering full time, and trimming garlic scapes (which is a full time job with 10,000 heads of garlic) and I’m still finishing up some planting. Oh and weeding. So essentially it just means in the gardens by 6 a.m., out by 8 p.m., with lots left undone.

So when Ken asked “Can’t you just spray?” the answer of course is “Yes, I am physically capable of purchasing a pesticide and nuking them.” The question is, do I want to? Do I want to eat diazinon or whatever pesticide would eliminate them? My berries are well formed now. Anything I apply will leave a residue on the berries I eat.

A lot of the organic control methods seem to deal with eliminating pests like these in the larva stage when they’re grubs. But I have to wonder even if I applied a beneficial nematode within a reasonable distance of all my gardens, would it eliminate them? They can fly. So I’ll always be exposed to them from the surrounding area.

Which brings me back to the task at hand. Spending many hours inspecting my plants and squishing scarabs. There is no question my time would be better spent here at this computer creating eBooks to sell, and taking that money and buying berries grown by someone else. But at this stage of my life, that seems like a copout. This is what I want to do. And I need to stick to my principles of growing organically. It’s a stupid amount of time. But it gives me lots of time to think. And here is the conclusion I’ve come to.

1)    The world CANNOT feed 7, or 9 billion people using organic methods.

2)    We’re running out of easy, cheap oil and gas, the basic building blocks for modern chemical agriculture used in the “green revolution” that has allowed us to feed 7 billion people today.

The result of my conclusion is not a good one, but one I think most of you can figure out. Ultimately food will be more expensive. And it will be in short supply, certainly at various times of the year. Hence the need to eat strawberries in June until you’re so sick of them it takes another 11 months until you’re ready to feast on them again.

And if you can find a local organic farmer selling her wares at the farmers market, make sure you not only patronize her, but also thank her for her efforts. If anything just thank that farmer for not giving in to the impulse to spray. I understand the impulse and if I was trying to grow on a large scale and earn my income from only growing food I’m not sure I could make a living if I didn’t.

In the meantime I’m going to try and train the chickens to eat scarabs faster. They seem to take their sweet time eating them, which gives some of the scarabs time to fly away. And once I’ve caught a scarab once, I have no desire to have to do it again.

A Lesson in History and Gratitude

By Cam Mather

We recently enjoyed our yearly visit with Ken and Madeline Snider. They were in this neck of the woods for a family party and so they stopped in for a quick visit. Ken was born in our house about 85 years ago, and Madeline boarded here about 65 years ago when she taught at a one-room schoolhouse several miles from here on the California Road. The coincidence of how we know Ken and Madeline is a pretty amazing story, and is well-described by Michelle in our upcoming book “Little House Off The Grid.”

Ken’s visits are always very enlightening for me, and make me extremely grateful to live with the modern tools I have at my disposal. Farmland in this part of the world was hacked out of the bush starting in the late 1800’s and to the settlers’ disappointment came the realization that the sandy soil left by the retreating glaciers was not good. Hay was one of the few things that would grow well here, which is why the agriculture of the area is primarily livestock-based.

When Ken was 14 his dad got sick. His doctor told him that he was working himself to death, and if he didn’t leave the farm, he wouldn’t last long. So Ken’s dad moved to Kingston to work in construction and Ken became the man of the house and worked the farm. And “worked” is a deceptive word, especially by our modern definition. Every ounce of energy in Ken’s being would have been poured into this farm, and not with the idea of getting ahead but more of just survival. He sold milk to the small cheese factory down the California Road and traded eggs and chickens, but this was basically to just buy other supplies. There was no retirement nest egg being built up here, just the basic goal of surviving. This is the way many people on this planet still live today, but we in the west have lost sight of this. Many people aren’t concerned about personal growth and self-actualization as they are just making enough to put dinner on the table tonight.

So Ken would have worked from dawn ‘til dusk every day doing just that. They had 12 to 14 cows to milk, some pigs, lots of chickens, and a huge garden. It took me a couple of years of living here to be logical enough to situate my vegetable garden near the barn foundation. As we stood in the old barn foundation on Saturday Ken showed me where the stalls for the 4 plow horses would have been. Then he pointed out the section for the pigs and explained that the bulk of the space was for the cows. As Ken said, the horse manure went out that window, the pig manure out that window, and cow manure out that door.

His day would have been a blur of getting hay to the animals for feeding, to milking, to moving animals in and out, to growing food to bringing in hay or cutting firewood. We live in a forest which Ken points out used to be cleared and growing hay. When I worry about the planet I often find solace in this fact, how quickly nature will reclaim man’s efforts. He also brought in hay from some of the many marshes in the area. The horses had special “shoes” that were strapped to their feet, basically one-foot square boards to keep their hooves from getting buried in the mud. They would have to learn how to walk with these. Picture a horse walking with small snowshoes. The hay would be cut, and collected and placed by backbreaking work in huge stacks. Then in winter he would take a horse and sleigh in to retrieve a load everyday. It was poor quality feed so the animals would burn through huge quantities of it to get their required protein, which made the scale of his efforts even larger.

The house was heated by a number of fireplaces and stoves. I can never get all their locations correct. But these were not the EPA-certified, airtight, efficient woodstoves of today. Our one woodstove heats the whole house amazingly well. Woodstoves in Ken’s day required way more wood to keep the place even moderately heated. So this meant a grueling amount of firewood cutting once the animals were fed and tended to. Many years ago Ken & Madeline showed me a photo with a huge pile of firewood piled up behind the house. It was roughly as much as I could probably cut in a week with the help of a chainsaw, but it would have been a whole winter’s effort with manual saws and axes.

I remember my absolute glee at moving here. In the six months it took us between when we bought this place to moving here, while I got the phone system working, it was hard to contain my enthusiasm. In Ken’s case it was exactly the opposite. He couldn’t wait to get away. When he was 20, Ken and Madeline got married and moved to Brantford where he worked part of his life at Massey Ferguson building tractors. Funny to think that he spent all that time on this farm with horses, and ended up working for a tractor company. If Ken could have afforded a tractor while he was here it would have made his life infinitely easier.

When we read the history of this part of the world the mind boggles at how hard people worked to eek out a living from the soil and trees. In this photo Ken and I are standing in front of a “wooden water pump.” Ken’s dad used to cut trees from the property and haul them to “Bellrock” where there was factory on the Napanee River that made these pumps. Bellrock is a 20-minute drive today. Ken said his Dad was gone all day on those trips.

Ken seems to enjoy his visits here. He said he didn’t come back for a long, long time after moving away because the memories weren’t good ones. I guess time takes a bit of the edge off. He seems to enjoy telling the stories today. Seeing how big my gardens are and how well we live, even without power lines coming to our house, probably helps. And I am well aware that I can live here the way I do because of technology. The technology that is in my solar panels and inverters allow me to live like anyone in North America, but without relying on a centralized power plant hundreds of miles away.

I am also aware that oil allows me to live here the way I do. I have access to this amazing manservant that is petroleum, which does so much of the work that human and animal power used to have to undertake. I still work hard, and sweat a lot, and fall into bed exhausted, but I have a feeling that my workload isn’t even close to what Ken Snider’s was when he lived here. My back and muscles often ache. On those days I can spend the day in the office to earn an income. Or I can always borrow my neighbor’s log splitter and use the embedded energy in a bit of gasoline to accomplish the work that an axe and food calories used to have to accomplish.

I am grateful to live in a time where I have access to many amazing tools. I am grateful to live in this fantastic little piece of paradise and not be anxious to ever move away. And I am grateful to Ken for his visits which remind me of how infinitely fortunate I am to have been born when I was and to be able to live the way I do.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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