Archive for the ‘Home Heating’ Category

Getting to Know My Forest

I’m spending a lot of time in my forest. And it’s pretty awesome.

We’re in the process of applying for what’s called “The Managed Forest Tax Incentive Plan.” (MFTIP)

It’s a program in my province of Ontario which reduces your property tax, a bit, if you agree to manage your forest. We got a bit of discount on our property tax when we were generating enough farm income, but that ended last fall, with the drought.

I took a workshop about the MFTIP several years back and never got around to doing it. But now I’m back at it and part of the plan involves an inventory of trees in your forest. Sounds easy enough, if there’s an ‘app’ for it or something, which I don’t believe there is. But basically, it involves getting out and counting trees. You take sample plots and record the species, diameter of the tree at breast height (DBH) and height.

I suppose this could sound like work, if you weren’t doing it in your forest. Because forests are pretty awesome places. The challenge with work, and earning an income, and growing some of your own food, (you could include Netflix but I would never admit to that publicly in a sort of earthy, back to the land, homesteading blog) is that you often are too tired, or lazy, or stupid, to get out and enjoy your property.

Michelle and I used to say, “we own 150 acres.” I think now we try and suggest ‘we’re temporary custodians’ of 150 acres. Not that the trees and forests need any help. They’ve been doing a pretty good job of looking after themselves before we got here.

My daughter is an archeologist and has left some books around hoping I might pick one up. Turns out there’s some pretty cool stuff in those books. I think the thing that boggles my mind the most is that about 12,000 years ago, where I live, was under ice. The glaciers from the last ice age were retreating and somehow, once they were gone, all these lakes and trees appeared. The wonders never cease!

I remember a National Film Board movie they showed us in public school in the 1960s that showed a guy canoeing the Great Lakes, and it kept jumping around eons. So, one minute he would be sitting in a canoe on top of a glacier, then the next shot it would jump forward 100,000 years and the ice disappeared and he fell 500 feet into the St. Lawrence River. Is it bad that this is one of my few memories from public school?

So, as I walk the property I picture the ice retreating, the big piles of sand and gravel (drumlins?) they left behind, then the forests encroaching on the exposed soil … or in our case sand created from the grinding rocks. I spend a lot of time trying to improve my soil here.

The thing I’m loving about this whole process is how much I’m learning. I started thinking about it as work, and now I really look forward to going out and doing some inventory work regularly. It’s forcing me to pay attention to stuff in a different way.

When we first arrived 20 years ago as I walked the property I was looking for dead oak to cut. There had been a gypsy moth infestation a few years before whereby the oaks were attacked shortly after putting out their leaves. Once the leaves got chewed off they weren’t able to photosynthesize and they just got weak. The ones that survived I think are stronger.

It took a good decade of cutting before they were mostly used up, so then I switched to looking for any tree that wasn’t healthy to thin for firewood. And now I’m looking for easily accessible poplar to remove, to give the hardwoods more energy to grow.

Which brings me to an inextricable part of just about every one of my mindless blogs, 1970s popular music (that’s popular like “POP” music, as opposed to ‘poplar,’ like the trees I’m cutting.)

The rock group RUSH had this song called “Trees” and the lyrics by their drummer Neil Peart were quite brilliant, although I never had the same appreciation when I was a suburban-dwelling teen.

“The trouble with the Maples, and they’re quite convinced they’re right, is that the Oaks are just too lofty, and they grab up all the light, but the Oaks can’t help their feelings, if they like the way they’re made, and they wonder why the Maples can’t be happy in their shade.”

As I’m measuring and looking up at and admiring and touching, but never “hugging” these trees I often sing this song. Luckily the Oaks and Maples seem to slug it out fairly evenly here. There is indeed no “Oak oppression,” just survival of the fittest. It seems to pretty much be a draw over most of the property.

When I cut down these towering wonders of carbon sequestration, I am most grateful for the warmth they will provide next winter. And that is the main goal we have in our forest management plan. We use it for recreation and we love it that it gives animals a place to live. And the trees just seem to keep growing faster than we could ever cut them for heat. As I recall from the workshop years ago you need about 15 acres of woodlot to heat a home. I’m sure this depends on how efficient your home is, how warm you like it, species of trees, i.e. hardwood vs softwood, but I’m often asked this in our workshops and it’s a good target if you’re looking for property.

And you know who is absolutely “over the moon” about my forest inventory? You’re right, Jasper the Wonder Dog! Oh, how he loves the time in the woods. Do you know how many smells there are to investigate on our sojourns? Hundreds. Our terrain is hilly and there are often low areas that are full of water right now with the spring run-off. And Jasper the Wonder Dog has never met a body of water he didn’t love to play in. Or stand in and drink from. Or chase bubbles in. If I didn’t know better I’d guess he had used his Jedi Mind Tricks … that thing he does when you talk to him and he tilts his head inquisitively, to get us back doing the MFTIP. He knew it would mean endless hours of playtime in the woods.

I beat myself up that it takes a monetary incentive, like saving some tax money, to get me into the bush. This time it will be different. I’m going to be a better Forest Steward. I’m going to be a better person. More time in the woods! Jasper insists!

The Homesteading Retreat Weekend

(or more specifically the “Dispelling the myths and showing the realities of the homesteading, independent, sustainable, independent ‘life in the country’ dream” totally awesome weekend!)

Michelle and I have had great success with our one day workshops over the years. We are grateful to the many people who’ve come for the day to learn about our experiences and outlooks on energy systems, food production, the economy, security and the reality of living the homesteading dream.

People have often traveled great distances to get here, and then they have to travel home on the same day. Some, especially our American guests, have stayed in nearby motels. I’m sure this allows them a chance to wind down before they head back to the city, and so Michelle and I have often discussed allowing people to stay overnight here to avoid this.

One of the reasons we don’t usually offer an overnight stay after a workshop is because of my voice. For many years I did workshops at colleges where I’d have a morning workshop followed by an afternoon workshop which meant 6 hours of talking loudly, as well as the whole before/lunch/after informal chatting. I believe in keeping people awake, so I talk loudly (and much to Michelle’s consternation …’quickly’) and spend a lot of time shouting and cajoling and doing my best Sam Kinison imitation which ends up with me collapsing on the floor … just to make sure that people are paying attention to the part on … energy efficiency, or the basics of home security, or the world according to Cam in general.

Anyway, my voice was usually gone by the end of the day and I would have to spend most of the following day (usually a Sunday) not talking. Michelle LOVED IT!

The result is that I’ve learned I need to be more careful with my voice and it seems to be working. I do way less yelling and friends say they miss the old ‘angry Cam.’ Alas.

So we have decided to offer our first “Homesteading Retreat Weekend.”

I’m also calling it the “Dispelling the myths and showing the realities of the homesteading, independent, sustainable, independent ‘life in the country’ dream” totally awesome ‘this must be just like livin’ in paradise’ weekend. I have never been one who believes in being short and concise. Long-winded and convoluted is more my style.

For this workshop our guests will be able to arrive on Friday night, which means they won’t have to get up really early and commute to our place. We’re excited about that.

The weekend will include three meals on Saturday, beginning with our totally awesome Sunflower Farm breakfast, which I rave (and blog) about constantly because it’s my favorite meal of the day. Then we’ll do the workshop as we have in the past. We focus on energy in the morning – all elements of it including solar, wind, wood heat, solar hot water, hot water production in general, propane back up, geo-thermal, etc. After lunch we focus on food – first on production with extensive tours of our gardens, then discussions of all areas of food preservation and storage. Then after the afternoon break we talk about all those things most people at the workshops seem to want to talk about most – economics..i.e. alternative currencies, security, and how do I tactfully put it…ah….er…sensible preparation for potentially temporary disruptions to those modern luxuries…i.e. electricity, water, heat.. that we often take for granted.

At our past one-day workshops, it was at this point in the day that this seemingly divergent group of people in our home would begin to find out what they have in common and that is when the best sharing would take place. So this time at our weekend-long retreat, the discussion gets to go right into dinner and beyond. I’m very excited about that. At our lunches once people get talking I often find it hard to drag them away from their conversations with complete strangers who they are now the best of friends with, to get out to the gardens to talk about important stuff … like horse manure.

On Sunday morning, we’ll enjoy another utterly fantastic life-altering Sunflower Farm brunch (OMG Michelle absolutely hates it when I build stuff up and create unrealistic expectations) … did I mention you’ll use this brunch as the standard for which you’ll compare all other brunches for the rest of your life, none of which will be up to scratch? Nope, no pressure here.

And after that you can do what you want on Sunday. Hang out and chat. Get the hell out because you are soooo tired of hearing me drone on that you feel that you’ll need some sort of brain cleanse to ever think clearly again. Go for a bike ride, canoe on Fifth Depot Lake, help me weed the garden, load a box up with vegetables to take back to the city … you name it. I think what I’ll do is offer a long walk on the property. People only get to hear me wax poetic about the magic of being temporary custodians of our 150 acres of paradise, so this weekend I’ll have the chance to take guests out and explore it themselves. If you’re desperate for bird watching or hope to see deer or otters, we’ll leave Jasper the Wonder Dog at home. Or we can take him and he will sprint miles ahead of us and sprint back to us and bound and leap with the joy that a border collie just seems happy to spend his day doing.

So there you have it. How’s that for a sales pitch? Two nights, 4 meals & refreshments, the undivided attention of 2 individuals who have lived the homesteading reality for 2 decades and will give you their honest assessment of what’s realistic and what’s not, and time for reflection by a pond and recreation in the heart of “Land O’Lakes.”

The cost for the weekend is $700/couple. We’re saying ‘couples’ because so often at our workshops people say, “Oh I wish I’d brought my spouse because ‘they’ need to hear this…” This way you both experience it so you lose the personal bias when get home and say “Homesteading is totally awesome!/totally unrealistic!”

We offer home cooked meals, peace and quiet, infinite perspectives on your retirement goal of moving to the country/quitting your job and moving off-grid/getting out of suburbia and earning an income away from the rat race, etc. It’ll be a blast.
We’re doing this the weekend of August 18-20th. The lakes will be swimmable (i.e warm enough.) The garden will be at its prime which means much of your food will be picked hours before its cooked. Hopefully it will be great weather for your bike ride or walk in the woods and to hear the loons on Sixth Depot Lake at night so you can you turn off your white noise machine. That weekend falls just before a new moon which means if there aren’t clouds you can spend the night in complete darkness realizing just how puny and insignificant you are in comparison to the expansiveness of the universe and its billions and billions of stars you see from our front yard. And you’ll be able to pick a box of veggies to take home with you to enjoy all week long.

We are going to limit this to 3 couples. We think this is the most workable. I’m thinking from the interest we’ve had in the past it will be booked quickly and I think we’ll only offer this once this year. Send Michelle an email at m.d.mather at gmail.com to ask questions and reserve your spot. I’ll give our blog readers a few days to respond before we put it out there to the rest of the ‘interweb.”

Hope to see you soon! For some photos of our place be sure to check out www.sunflowerfarm.ca

(If you are interested, but that particular weekend isn’t good for you, let us know and we might be able to change the date.)

 

 

 

The Net-Zero-Carbon House … almost

Years ago, Michelle and I did a ‘green’ show in a big city and a person perusing our books informed us she had gone “completely solar” in a somewhat, dismissive, ‘that was soooo easy’ sort of way. I was intrigued. We’d been off-grid for a decade and were still a long way from being completely free of fossil fuels. After several probing questions, I was able to qualify that what she meant was that all of the calculators in her home were now solar powered … and I’m pretty sure that even back then it was hard to buy a calculator that wasn’t.

I just made the mistake of reading a great book by Andrew Nikiforuk called “Slick Water, Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry.” It’s about the challenges of living in a place like Alberta that has a huge industry fracking to get at natural gas. (http://andrewnikiforuk.com/)

It reminded me that we must have hit ‘peak fossil fuel energy’ for companies to be putting so much effort (and energy) into forcing out things like shale oil and natural gas. It also reminded me that the choices we make, in our purchasing decisions and how we choose to live, impacts other people. The book follows one woman’s challenges with the results of fracking around her rural home, and the lawsuit she eventually launched to try and draw attention to the impact of resource extraction.

As I read a bit more each day and went further and further down the rabbit hole of modern day energy production I was getting more and more critical of what I was up to in my own home. In July we just breeze by being completely “solar,” and I mean more than just using solar-powered calculators. I mean everything from cooking to hot water, and this is a big deal. We are very proud of it. It feels great.

In November and December, it’s much more of a challenge. As I remind people in my workshops, in the northern U.S. and Canada (according to Natural Resources Canada) 60% of your home’s energy requirements are for heat, then 20% is for heating water, and the remaining 20% is for all your other electrical needs … washing machines, toasters, TVs, computers, electronic toast butters … all the essentials.

We’ve got the heat covered by heating with wood which is carbon neutral and which I’ve blogged about … on and on … ad nauesum. The real challenge right now is hot water. We have a Solar Domestic Hot Water (SDHW) heating system which we invested $5,000 in. But it is pretty ineffective when the sun is only up for about 2 ½ hours a day and barely clears the tree line because it’s so low and basically gives us zero hot water. So, we improvise and use our marvelous woodstoves for hot water. I say woodstove (s) plural because we one in the house and one in the guesthouse.

Every second day or so I heat up 4 or 5 stock pots of well water on the woodstove for our bath. Michelle has the first bath because she can stand it scalding, and then a while later when the water is humanly tolerable I use the same water. Then we leave that bath water in to heat the bathroom in the cast iron tub, because the bathroom is on the north side of the house and a long way from the woodstove. In the morning I use the bath water to flush the toilet. Sure, it’s “Little House on the Prairie-ish” but I love it. It just feels right. We are in complete control of all the inputs, including the massive amount of energy required to heat a bath full of water. When you live in a typical house and just pay energy bills and turn on taps and get hot water out of them, you never really have a handle on the enormous energy required to make that possible. And you never think if you heat with a fossil fuel, what the impact is on someone who lives near the well where that propane or natural gas came from. I strongly recommend you read “Slick Water” to give you some perspective.

The challenge is that we use hot water for other stuff. Like dishes. I only do them with a kettle of hot water heated on the woodstove. And shaving. I only shave with a kettle heated on the woodstove … first sink full to shave, second sink full to rinse the soap off. Hand washing … well, our bathroom is so far from the hot water tank that we’re used to washing with cold water by the time it gets to the bathroom taps, so I just wash them really well occasionally with hot water … from the woodstove.

So … heat … check … net-zero-carbon. Hot water … check … net-zero-carbon.

Cooking … ZZZZZT (loud gameshow buzzer sound when you get the answer wrong). We have a propane cookstove. A woodburning cookstove is in the plans, but right now in the kitchen there is a beautiful, monstrous piece-of-art propane stove reeking havoc on some poor fellow human who moved to their piece of paradise not realizing they were near a coal-bed-methane deposit.

So breakfast preparation starts an hour prior to eating. Kettle for coffee goes on the woodstove. Hashbrowns and eggs are cooked in cast iron pans heated on the woodstove. Bread is toasted in a cast iron pan on the hottest part of the woodstove. This is my favorite way to eat toast because it’s less dried out than using the electric toaster. I do so love toast. Michelle makes the most awesome bread to toast!

After breakfast, dishes are washed in woodstove-heated hot water. Water for the chickens is warmed up using water heated on the woodstove. Ugly sweet potatoes and potatoes that I’ve had in the root cellar go into a stockpot on the woodstove, boiled until mashable, then served warm and mashed to the chickens. They love these and devour them, especially on a cold day.

There are some days when it feels like I spend the whole day trying to live a typical North American lifestyle in terms of what we accomplish, while doing it pumping no carbon into the atmosphere, so feeling like I am living on the prairie a hundred years ago … but with internet and Netflix.

So if your response to reading this is “Well, see, you can’t realistically live without fossil fuels so why even think about the impact of their extraction” I would suggest that’s simply not the case. Most of our readers live plugged into the electricity grid and could be heating their home, which uses 60% of energy needs, with a ground-source geothermal heat pump. This provides some hot water as well. If you live in a state or province where electricity is generated with coal, you could purchase zero-carbon energy through an intermediary in Canada like “Bullfrog Power.”

Yes, you will pay a premium for these options, but it’s not usually a large premium. If you like and respect your neighbors like I do, you could never imagine doing anything that might impact them, such as digging up your yard if it was going to affect their water supply. If you start thinking on a bigger picture basis about your purchasing decisions, making these changes is much easier. And with a geothermal system your spouse won’t roll their eyes at you as you come up with new and more complex ways to use less or zero fossil fuels. It can be a fun game, until it’s not. Then you’ll need to clean the bathroom or something to get back in their good books, and no one wants to go down that road, least of all me.

(p.s. We do fall down as we do use a bit of propane and I still own and drive a car … but I’m working on it)

An Iconic Photograph

 

So, here’s my dream photo. I took it on January 14th.

This is the time of year when companies start trying to appeal to those vivid images we keep in our heads, the ones that make us do things, like book trips south, and buy mutual funds so we can end up on the golf course. It’s not bad enough that we are bombarded, beginning at Halloween (well now it starts just after Labor Day) with images of the stuff we need to buy for Christmas. And now, car companies hit us with lots of ads for treating ourselves with a new vehicle under the tree.

These images are tough to fight against.

So, I have been using this little theme (or “meme” I think I could call it.) It’s a quote from our neighbor who was having a bad day when I helped him to get his trucks unstuck (read about it here.) In the middle of it all he looked at me and said, “I just want to build a cabin on that hill and sit by the woodstove.” And he will do it, because he has the hill, and the property and he’s built his own houses before. You know, just like you and I. Last winter he was skidding pine logs out of the bush using those big draft horses of his. I’m pretty there’s no cheaper way to be mortgage-free than to have the skills to build your own home, from materials on your property. What a concept.

So right now, during our cold winter, or when I come in from shoveling snow, or hauling a load of wood in, my line is “I just want to build a cabin and sit by the woodstove.” It is a wonderful idea, but hard to achieve. Modern woodstoves are extremely efficient, but at some point, you still must drag a load of wood into the cabin. And you have to cut that wood, and split it and dry and get it to the cabin. But we can always dream.

So, on January 14th I took this shot.

Where should we start? With my shoes? These are running shoes that I used to run in. That was a long time ago, but they are like slippers now, and I really need to wear shoes since our floors are pretty cold. I’m holding my latest favorite “rooster” coffee mug and on top of the woodstove the Melitta (thrift shop) coffee pot has my next ½ cup of coffee keeping warm in it. I drink one and a half cups of coffee in the morning and it is a delightful decadence.

Then there’s “Jasper the Wonder Dog” who would be perfectly happy to be outside herding sheep, all day. But since we don’t have sheep, and the chickens are in a secure enclosure, well, he’s kind of in winter mode and laying around more than he would prefer. But he stays healthy and slim, so I’m not going to nag him to get more exercise. That’s not MY job.

Check out that woodstove! Oh, the heat and warmth and light from a woodstove. Could there be anything more beautiful at this time of year? Well, according to those tourism ads, yes, it would be sitting on the beach … until the tsunami wave arrives, or someone mugs you for your phone, or the airport calls (the place where you spent most of your first day of your holiday) to tell you they never found your luggage, or wait, is that a bit of a gas pain or is it Montezuma’s revenge about to hit me again like the last time I had one of those drinks? Yup, I’ll take my woodstove anytime. Tell me every one of your southern holidays from flights to accommodations has been perfect and I’ll tell you I think you’re ‘exaggerating’. Maybe you should have got that new shot before you went, the needle for the new thing you don’t want to get. Or you could stay home.

On top of the woodstove is this morning’s bathwater in the stock pots. In January when I took this there still wasn’t much sunlight to make much of difference with our solar domestic hot water production, so we supplement it with zero-carbon woodstove heat. Could we use propane? Absolutely? Might it negatively impact someone near where it was taken from the ground? Potentially. So, I take the slow, zero-carbon, Little House on the Prairie technique and make my hot water the old-fashioned way… I’ll earn it.

I should probably have been more careful and made sure the LED Xmas lights weren’t in the photo, but it was January 14 and yes, we still had Xmas lights in the living room. Is that pathetic? Absolutely. When we come down at 6 a.m. it is still dark for almost an hour and a half and these things use so little power and are just so darn pretty and festive-looking that they’re the last Xmas thing to come down. Every other Xmas decoration was tucked away.

I’ve got my cabin in the woods and I CAN sit by the fireplace all day if I want. I rarely do spend too much time there, but when I do, it’s absolutely magical. When I jump out that sky diving plane after getting ‘the diagnosis’ and decide I’m not going to pull the cord to the parachute, and start looking through those photos in my brain … playing LEGO when I was 5, learning to water ski at 9, learning to windsurf, kissing Michelle for the first time, watching my daughters grow up, seeing my grandkids become part of the family, dropping big heavy scary trees for firewood that always remind you of how precious life is, I think this might be the last memory my brain will fixate on. Then the orange glow of the fire can turn into a white one. Perfect!

Mommy’s Alright, Daddy’s Alright, They Just Seem a Little Weird

When you’re a parent there comes a time when you have to look back and think about your parenting choices and their impacts on your kids. And how did they perceive you as a parent? The song lyric from the title is from the band Cheap Trick. It was on their 1983 Live at Budokan album and the song is called Surrender.

I played it the other day and was taken back to a day when I was pretty young and my parents called a family meeting, which they rarely did. We all sat in the living room, with the so hip deep red shag carpet (it was 1968 or thereabouts). They then proceeded to tell us that they were selling the house and were going to buy a sailboat and we were going to sail around the world. What? No school? Can we leave tomorrow?

I do recall it being brought up that they had never sailed a day in their lives, but we lived near Kingston, Ontario which was swimming with sailors, so really, how hard could that be? I had sailed with my neighbor Paul in his “Laser” which required locking your feet through this seat belt strung down the middle of the hollowed out leg area, then hiking yourself as far out over the water as you could. It was so much fun until the wind gust died and you went into the water head first, although at age I’m pretty that was a blast too.

As it was the world wide adventure never happened. I’m sure inertia eeked back into my parents’ life … the mortgage…the promotion that was probably offered when they heard he or she were leaving … maybe they thought they shouldn’t interrupt the kids from school.

And really what kind of person would do that anyway? Yank their kids out of nice, controlled, suburban lifestyle, with access to good libraries, shopping, activities … well that would be just wrong. That parent would be completely irresponsible. Clearly. No doubt about it.

No wait, that’s me! Back in 1998 we moved from a suburb of Toronto 3 hours away to the woods, with no phone, internet, or electricity cables to the house. We were going from the middle of advanced 20th Century Developed First World Affluence, to the middle of nowhere.

Listening to Cheap Trick the other day was when I finally figured it out, that I was even worse than my parents! I followed up on my threat to drop out. “Daddy’s alright, he just seems really weird!” I had at least become my parents in spirit, and I believe this is many children’s fear. I could do worse I suppose.

My father is still alive, so I would never refer to the “sailboat incident” as a ‘mid-life’ crisis, but come on, what else could you call it? That is so “Mosquito Coast”ish (the movie/book where Harrison Ford drags his family to “Brazil” for his midlife crisis) And why are so many wives tolerating these male mid-life crises?

I have no doubt that I was the prime instigator in us ‘going off-the-grid,’ but Michelle was right along there with me during the whole ride. It took us close to 5 years to find this place. When it came time to pull the trigger and put in an offer she said, “Just do it.” Was that encouragement or an ultimatum?

Regardless, here is where we ended up when our girls were in their early teens. I can’t tell you how many people have said to us, ‘oh we’d have done that if the kids hadn’t been in school. We didn’t want them to have to leave their friends.’ Oh get over it. They’re kids. They’ll adapt. And yes, we were homeschooling so it was easier, but today, why do I get the impression that ‘friends’ for kids today are mostly pixels through text and online chats on smartphones as opposed to hanging out after school and building stuff with Lego … which you should never do once you get to high school … which I might have been doing but would never admit to publicly.

So how many kids think of their parents as stressed out and miserable? How many parents come home from work every night bagged? Pissed off at their boss? Another promotion overlooked. More job cuts and those who manage to hold on to their jobs just get more work dumped on them … blah blah blah. To counteract the stress they say, “Let’s book a trip, I need a change of pace. And we NEED a bigger car.”

For the first little while after our move our daughters still saw me stressed out about earning an income, especially with the challenges we had with phones and communications and therefore fax and early internet stuff. But as we were able to shift more of our income to book publishing and producing information about sustainable living, well that phase was over for me. Plus, the girls did a few years of high school and then went to university, so I suppose they missed most of the really happy dad days.

Today, as long as we don’t talk about last summer’s drought, everything here at Sunflower (aka Cam’s Midlife Crisis) Farm is pretty awesome.

I left a city where I was pretty miserable when I was 39. I have heated with wood, which I love, and grown much of my own food for almost 20 years. I have spent 20 years looking out my windows at nothing but forests and ponds, and often wildlife. When I wanted I chickens, I just got them. There is no by-law against it here. When I want to snow blow at 3:30 am (as I did the other night when I couldn’t sleep) there are no neighbors within earshot to complain.

Michelle has asked our daughters to each contribute a chapter to the book she is just finishing on homeschooling. I hope they discuss their experience with moving from suburbia to the bush. I hope it didn’t impact them too negatively. Me, on the other hand, well listening to and responding to my midlife crisis was the BEST thing I ever did (after marrying Michelle and having kids, obviously). If Sunflower Farm is what a midlife crisis looks like, they can be pretty awesome!

The Plague Comes to Sunflower Farm

“I don’t get sick.”

Ever know one of those people who says this?

Or “I don’t watch TV.”

What? I love TV! I watch as much as I can!

I was one of those ‘I never get sick’ people, but I hope I didn’t brag about it. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to avoid a lot of stuff. I think it helps that I still have my tonsils. So many of my peers got them surgically removed as children, Michelle included. Quite often, I would just suffer through just a sore throat, while Michelle got the full blown cold.

But once our kids were grown, and out of the house, we both managed to avoid getting colds and flus. We’ve led a pretty isolated life here in the bush. And when you aren’t and about with other people, well, it’s just easier to avoid a lot of bugs.

Then we had a marvelous, amazing, joyful reason to leave our little piece of paradise enter our lives. If our grandson doesn’t get up to see us we drive to see him, minimum once a week. And you know, when your 18-month-old grandson who spends time at daycare wants to come and hug you and have you pick him up, you just do it. I’m finding it physically impossible to NOT kiss those cheeks, regardless of how snotty that nose is.

Welcome to Germ Land. Let’s just see how good your immune system is ‘Campa’. (Michelle came up with that … a combination of Cam and Grampa!)

Turns out my immune system is not so good.

We both got a cold before Christmas but by the time the “kids” arrived we were feeling better and had a great time with them. Perhaps it hadn’t actually gone away, but we were just too determined to let it spoil the fun.

So after the kids cleared out a couple of days later the cold came back to Michelle with a vengeance. I was starting to think I had licked it in Round One before the holidays, but no such luck. It came back again for me a couple of days after it hit Michelle.

Michelle actually went to see her doctor, which she is loath to do, and the doctor suggested that she had a touch of bronchitis. I think that’s a code word for a wicked evil bug that you just need to shut up and get over because they don’t have a clue to beat a cold bug.

Today is January 19th and we’re both better but still have the occasional cough.

While I was sick I would have a good day and think, well that’s it, I’ve gotta get some fresh air. One night we had a blizzard so while I was feeling fine I snow blowed the driveway and pathways, I did firewood and I shoveled snow away from the greenhouses that are bending in because of the volume of the darn stuff this year. Later that night I lay on the couch shaking with my legs aching, coughing like I had TB, hot one minute, freezing cold 10 minutes later. What the hell was this thing? It wouldn’t leave me alone.

Ever look at a smart phone and marvel that it has way more processing capability than the computers that put a person on the moon? Ever wonder in amazement at what humans are capable of, then realize that these microscopic little viruses are way smarter than us? They can mutate and pass along information to circumvent a body’s immune system, just marvelous, marvelous stuff. And you know, they are going to be “the last man standing.” When we’re gone they’re just going to step back and be giving germo-high-fives all around. I wonder what they’ll do then, when they don’t have humans to torment? And will they really be that happy about wiping us out?

In my book “The Sensible Prepper” (available here) I suggest that people should watch the movie “Contagion”. Not necessarily from the pandemic perspective but from the what happens when lots of people get sick, or jurisdictions starting closing borders to slow down the spread, and economic activity grinds to a halt and how quickly store shelves go bare. After this cold bug I don’t think I can ever watch that movie again.

This bug has reminded me how much physical effort our low-carbon life really takes. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but with this bug wheeling a load of firewood into the house using the hand cart feels like climbing to Camp 2 on Mt. Everest. And that 25 kg (55 lb) bag of chicken feed that needs to be dragged in from the barn, well, it may as well be a small car because it feels just as heavy and I will be just as winded when I’m done. Then I’ll sit and pant and breath like Darth Vader and cough like I’ve got whooping cough, because it sure feels like whooping cough. My stomach and chest muscles will ache from coughing. I’m not sleeping very well, and I’m not that hungry. At what point in our evolution did some trait to take away your hunger, just when you should be eating to stay strong to take on the infection, become dominant. Evolution sucks!

I’m feeling much better. And each day that I am healthy and invigorated I will be grateful for good health. It’s easy to forget to be grateful if you’re just healthy all the time.

Soon I’ll head down to the city to see my grandson. And he will have picked up some new horrible thing my underdeveloped immune system has never seen before, and he will come tearing down the hall squealing with delight, and he’ll make sure to pass along some of that new thing. And for the joy that boy has brought into my life, it is absolutely worth it.

Sorry if I’m droning on about my grandchild, but I’m pretty sure it’s in the contract when you become a grandparent that you have to do this. I’ll try and contain myself in the future.

 

 

My Prime Earning Years

Happy New Year everyone. Time for resolutions about being a better person, making better choices, blah blah blah.

This fall Michelle and I did a lot of soul searching about such big life questions. Mainly about how to earn an income … or whether to earn an income … no, that’s not fair, it’s really about how to earn ‘some’ money.

I had an opportunity to take a job in the city and it was a tough choice. It would mean a real income, and it wasn’t a bad gig. The challenge was the drive, and the inability to live our lives the way we’ve become accustomed, which is to strive to have as little impact as possible and to produce as little carbon as possible. As soon as you turn that key in the car every morning that goes out the window, in a big way. As does the net-zero wood heat, because we’d end up having to burn some propane to heat the house and cook, and as I discuss in an upcoming blog, I’m loath to do that.

So here I am, at 57, in my prime earning years, and not prime earning. Well, now that the CSA is over and we haven’t got other things rolling, not earning at all.

This is supposed to be terrifying, and there is the odd moment of that. Those retirement financial ads do wear you down a bit. But then I think, it seems like a crappy way to live a life, work until you’re 60 or 65 and hope you live long enough to come out ahead of the pension fund or financial instrument that you paid into all your life. Oh, and you most likely didn’t head to work all happy and cheery every morning. Most of us can be pretty miserable with the whole work thing, so you travel during your time off, and flip your cars every 3 years because it’s a huge distraction. I’ve been doing the same thing for almost 20 years and I never tire of it. I just have to leave my front door to get a smile on my face living where I live.

I blame our frugalness for our current dilemma. We got very lucky, bought a small house at a reasonable price in 1987, worked and saved like crazy and paid it off in 1996, then bugged out of the Greater Toronto Area, or “Death Star” as I often refer to it, in 1998.

So for almost 20 years I’ve lived in paradise, grown a ton of food which I love to do, and cut and heated with firewood from our 150 acres. Really, it’s been pretty awesome. We’ve been livin’ the dream. During this summer’s drought we were livin’ the nightmare, but crap like that happens and you have no control over it. I have been getting better every year at accepting those things that I cannot change and trying to see the bright side to every situation. This summer I was forced to invest in several water pumps which I had always meant to do but which human inertia had stopped me from doing.

Last summer when we hinted that we might give up on this blog we heard from a lot of people who still enjoy it and wanted us to continue. We’ve had kind of a spike in people subscribing since then which is nice too.

We’ve also had a number of people tell us how many people would love to live the way we do. The challenge is we have to try and monetize this blog or figure out how to make some money from this.

The challenge with the internet is making money from content and it’s really quite tough. I also know that so many of the places I visit on the web kind of tell the same old story over and over or focus on just one specific topic. If your theme is the coming Zompocaplyse, and it hasn’t happened, for say the last decade, then your blog gets kind of stale. Our blog runs the gamut but basically comes back to life off the electricity grid and our perspective on the mad mad world we live in today. As world events and technology and my perspective changes, so does the blog. With the number of subscribers who’ve stuck with us for a long time, this seems to be a model that people like.

So with this in mind Michelle and I are launching two new businesses. The first is “Simple and Practical Websites”.  https://spwebsites.ca/ For years Michelle has been doing our websites and others for friends and associates using “WordPress” which is a free, online web development tool. Now we’re going to promote it.

The second business is that we’re going to do the whole B&B thing with Sunflower Farm which we kind of started a while ago but then got distracted with running a CSA and stuff. https://sunflowerfarm.ca/ We’ve decided this is a way to take some of the interest the blog nurtures and allow people to come and check out the place. It also lets people get a better perspective on how we really think, since I read Edward Snowden’s book and just watched “Citizen Four,” the documentary about him, I radically self-sensor myself on-line. Sure, I’m a shiny happy guy all the time, but there is the odd moment when I let myself slip.

So the deal for the next little while is this. I’ll keep posting a shiny happy ‘life-off-the-grid, sustainable independence, homesteading is awesome but here’s the reality’ blog early in the week. Then later in the week I’ll post a ‘here’s what we do for a living and if there’s a fit with what you’re looking for … someone to do a basic website … a place to visit and really check out off-grid living … then here’s why to come to Sunflower Farm.’

This way you can ignore the second weekly blog if you don’t want hopeless commercial interruption. I will endeavor to keep this second blog entertaining. In fact I’ve already scoped out some of our “theme” weekends/workshops and they are A) Pretty Funny B) Pretty Awesome C) Pretty Ironical D) All or none of the above. (‘ironical’ is actually a word, even though most people just use ironic)

The thing with the second blog post is this. If you’re following this blog because you have some interest in country living, as I’ve said all along the challenge with ‘livin’ the dream’ is ‘earnin’ an income’. So this way you can follow along as I try to shamelessly promote how we do it and you can see if it makes sense for you.

Worst case scenario when you read the Thursday blog you can write a tirade about why you didn’t subscribe to this blog for an on-going sales pitch and how you are officially cancelling your subscription in outrage (you know, the FREE subscription) then I’ll write a biting/witty response about how we’re not livin’ in some communist republic and how we’re still in a capitalist world and how I’ll pitch my dam wares any time I want. Or not.

So stay tuned. Fun stuff to come!

A Neighborly Snow Day

NOTE: Sorry for the delay in posting. We moved our web host over the holidays, and we both got sick with a brutal cold so we haven’t been running on all cylinders.

It’s been a snowy winter and after last years horrible green Christmas we were thrilled to have a white one this year.

One snowy day, just before Christmas, I had my day all planned out – breakfast – dishes – snow blow our place – a bit of office work – then out to the bush to start hauling some of next year’s firewood that I’ve cut. I need snow so that I can pull the sled of wood out to the road that runs through the back of our property. I could spend $10,000 on an ATV so I don’t need snow, but for now I’m frugal (and resistant to taking any more money out of my rapidly dwindling retirement fund.)

Since there was enough snow for me to snowblow, I headed down to our neighbors at about 11 a.m. to do their place and some other driveways that Ken is responsible for. He was away for a week, and he lives on top of a hill which makes it hard to get to their place. His neighbor’s driveway is like of those roads you see on the TV show, “Death Highway Truckers” where they take big rigs along donkey trails in the Himalayas. It has this 65% incline along a cliff and if you tumble off, well, writing off the tractor is going to be the least of your worries. And yes, I use Ken’s tractor which has a rear-mounted snow blower that runs off the PTO so you have to drive backwards and it’s a pain. The snow blows down the back of the seat and even though I had on ski pants they eventually soaked through and I got quite chilled.

I finished up snow blowing at about 1 p.m.

On the way home there was a horse on the road. It’s owned by another neighbor. He hasn’t built his house yet but he keeps his horses there. One of them was out and my best reasoning did little to convince it to return quietly to the paddock. I tried to phone my neighbour when I came home to have some lunch but no luck, so I went and grabbed John, who was horse sitting at Ken’s, and brought him back to help me corral the horse.

It was a Belgian draft horse, like the kind you see in those horse pulls at fairs, so it weighed more than a Ford 350 and was 18 hands high, which is like two stories. Unlike me, John isn’t afraid of horses, so he got a lead shank around it while I opened the gate, trying to keep its buddy, also a Belgian, inside the paddock. It was a success and as we climbed back on to the road the horse’s owner showed up.

He had just got his truck stuck down where he keeps his round bales of hay. So I took John back and then went to the stuck truck. Luckily he has an old pickup with snow tires he was going to use to try and pull it out.

I try not to live a cliché but there’s this great song by Corb Lund that goes something like “so the Dodge got stuck and then the Ford got stuck…” and that was kind of how it went.

I asked my neighbor why his truck has all season radial tires, given where we live. He explained that the truck came with them and he hadn’t replaced them. And then I asked, “Why is the transmission not engaging properly when I put it in reverse?” He explained that it needs a new transmission which is about 2 grand. So I said, “I know your tractor is old, but it really is the best way to get round bales to horses.” My neighbor said, “Well, it needs $700 for a new transmission.”

I love being around people who do not have limitless money and have to make choices. Where I came from in suburbia, when stuff breaks, you just buy new stuff, or pay someone to fix it. Now I meet people who, like me, are ‘income constrained’ so have to make choices. It sometimes seems like a more legitimate way to go through life. “This life not covered by warranty!”

By the time we had moved the truck part way out, we had ripped the trailer hitch off his old truck. Then he came around and hooked it to his front bumper and since I got to drive in forward (which his transmission seemed to handle better) through a lot of mud and snow slinging, we were able to unstuck it.

It was clear to me he was not having a good day. Once the round bale was rolled into the paddock, and the trucks were unstuck, I think his day got better. There have been too many days to count since we moved here when neighbors have helped us out and it is always gratifying to have a chance to pay it back.

I didn’t get back to my house until 4 p.m., which around here at this time of the year is getting pretty dark. I got my truck up the hill near where I was going to haul wood and then Jasper and I (okay, pretty much just “I”) pulled a few loads of wood to get a path knocked down in the snow.

The day did not go as planned. I did not accomplish the goals I had set out for myself. But it was snowy, and wintry, and I drove a tractor and chased a big horse and got a truck that was really stuck, unstuck. It was such an awesome day. I must say I never had these days when I worked in an office.

(If you’ve got a few minutes do watch the Corb Lund video. It really captures country life.)

How Heating with Wood Keeps the Darkness Away

How Heating with Wood Keeps the Darkness Away (literally, figuratively, metaphorically…)

I love heating with wood. It’s been a common theme of many of my posts.

the-warmth-of-a-woodstove

I will never forget the conversation I had with a friend before we moved off the grid almost 20 years ago and started heating with wood. She said “You’ll hate it! Oh it seems all romantic and stuff, but it won’t take long before you just hate it.” Almost 20 years later I still love it. Yes, by March I do get tired of starting the woodstove, sometimes several times a day in the swing seasons, but the overall experience is still amazing.

I love wood heat. I have never felt warmer. I love the work involved with getting our firewood. I love that’s it’s almost zero-carbon. And I love that every spring I know exactly where my heat is going to come from next winter. It’s in the piles of cut and stacked firewood that I harvested from our property that is curing and drying in the heat of summer.

I remember a movie from the 1980s called “The Mosquito Coast.” In it the father, played by Harrison Ford, has had enough of the rat race and decides to drop out. But he doesn’t do the hippie thing and just get a place in the woods near a village. Nope, he moves the family lock stock and barrel to a very southern location, in Central America I believe.

I certainly understand his desire to get out of the city. That was me. And I certainly appreciate his distaste for how wasteful our current economic model is. I’m with him. The movie though is a very cautionary tale. I’m sure the character was predisposed to this, but he begins a descent into madness and … spoiler alert … it doesn’t end well. That movie has stayed at the edge of my consciousness since I moved off-grid.

I do believe I was the instigating force in our move, although Michelle quickly came to love where we live and can’t imagine living back in the city again. I’m sure our daughters had misgivings about the whole adventure, but they seem to love visiting here now so I think living in the city they understand the attraction this place held for us.

As my mind chatters on though about how well capitalism is innovating to deal with our climate crisis (i.e. not fast enough) or the floating plastic blobs in the oceans, or the volume of waste each one of us creates each year in this system, it can become very easy to dwell on some dark thoughts about where we’re at.

This is what I love about heating with firewood. I know, it seems completely unrelated, but it’s not. Because I cut my own firewood. I harvest firewood from our 150 acres of forest and I am forced each winter to get out into our woods to do this. And when you are standing in a forest, surrounded by trees, and ponds (frozen right now) and more trees, well, it just seems that everything is alright with the world.

Saturday-in-the-woods

My focus completely changes. My mind just switches into a whole other gear. I am looking up to find dead trees to harvest. I am looking at the lean of these dead or dying trees to figure out how I can get them to fall right to the forest floor, without getting hung up in other trees. I’d like to say I’m such an expert that this rarely happens, but instead I’ll say that our woods are so healthy that I can rarely find a tree standing off on its own enough to not hit any number of obstacles on the way down.

I am also accompanied by “Jasper the Wonder Dog” in the woods and he reminds me of the simple concept of ‘joy.’ In the winter ‘The J-Dog” spends way more time inside the house than he’d like. But once he gets into the woods, all is forgotten. There are just endless smells to chase and paths to sprint down and places to dig and explore. Michelle claims our pets can smile. I’m not sure I see this (although none of them are grumpy cats so I guess I get it a bit).  But I can sense however the different mental states in my dog stuck inside most of the day in front of the fire which in itself is not the end of the world, and the dog in the woods who has unlimited space to run and unlimited smells to pursue. It simply is joy. There’s no question he’s smiling. I’m smiling right along with him.

This week we were cutting in an area with a lot of big beautiful pine trees. The deer love these places to hang out during big snowstorms because less of the snow makes it to the ground underneath. And boy does our dog love the scents they leave after being hunkered down.

Then there’s the repetition of hauling the cut logs from wherever they are (generally in lower area, up a huge descent)… up to the road where I can access them with the truck. And the lifting and the bucking with the electric chainsaw and splitting with the electric log splitter and piling and stacking and.. and … and…

A mind boggling amount of work, and a mind boggling stupid way to heat your house as opposed to having someone deliver a fossil fuel to your house to do it… natural gas, propane, home heating oil… but a mind boggling method to keep your mind uncluttered and unencumbered and joyful.

Ever have one of those nights when your mind if just full of thoughts that keep you from getting to sleep, and you haven’t had enough physical activity to make you tired enough to sleep? Ya…. When I’m cutting firewood I don’t have those.

bliss-in-the-woods

Don’t forget to sign up for our next workshop! For details and to register, click here.

 

Time to Evaluate Your Preparedness

First off, thank you to the many thoughtful responses to our healthcare blog. I guess I was hoping to help any of our American readers get a sense that the Canadian universal healthcare system, while awesome, has some pretty big challenges on the horizon.

I’ve had a good haul of ‘day-old’ newspapers and copies of “The Guardian” to plow through of late and I’ve noticed a bit of a trend. An article in The Guardian was titled “Crashing Markets are telling us something.”  Ya think? (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/17/china-economic-crisis-world-economy-global-capitalism)

In a recent Globe and Mail, Carl Mortished’s article “Why Cash is Still King” starts off by asking if the world descends into chaos what would you stuff in your pockets as you bugged out? “Would it be plastic cards or paper bills?” That article doesn’t even get into the reality of how gold and precious metals have started their upward climb with the uncertainty in the markets.

This brought me back to the book “Lights Out” by Ted Koppel. He wrote about the impacts of a widespread blackout should the grid ever get hacked. After 18 years of living off the grid I’m finally getting a handle on how many people don’t ‘get’ what has to be done to prepare. For example, I’ve often had friends tell me about someone they know who has moved off the grid and powers their home entirely by renewable energy. Usually it turns out that ‘powered’ only refers to keeping their lights and appliances on with solar and wind power. They might innocently admit that they heat with propane through hydronic in-floor heating. They probably also heat their hot water with propane. So much for being “off grid.”

Once you realize that 60% of the ‘energy’ you consume in your house is used to heat it, and 20% is used to heat your water, you realize that for these individuals, independent renewable energy is only meeting 20% of their home’s energy requirements (this is obviously tailored towards people who live in colder parts of the country). So if you are off-grid for environmental reasons, using a fossil fuel like propane for 80% of your energy needs doesn’t really cut it. Or if you’re off-grid because you want to be ‘prepared’ for the zombpocalypse (a fancy amalgam of zombie apocalypse), then heating your home with a fuel you have to purchase and have delivered to your house (and that frankly requires a huge amount of very capital intense infrastructure to drill for and refine), then you really haven’t achieved that goal of independence.

I am always amazed at the number of people who feel their preparation for an extended power outage is a gas or diesel or propane generator. That’s great for a few days or a week, or until your fuel runs out, but during an extended outage it’s not a good strategy.

After reading all of this I finally decided to offer a spring workshop here at Sunflower Farm. I think we will ‘go dark’ or really off the grid soon, but for now I think I’ve got another workshop in me. I really do enjoy the energy that comes from a house of people who seem genuinely interested in how we’ve got our home as energy independent and low carbon as we have.

The time is growing short if you’re planning on getting serious about putting a plan together about being prepared for an uncertain future. It only works if you do it while you have access to the tools you’ll need. And most importantly, you need to know the most efficient way of harnessing your limited resources (because most of us have some limit on what we can spend) and putting them to the best use.

I have spent almost 20 years trying to figure this out. Initially it was because I wanted our home to run more efficiently. Then I became more motivated to put as little carbon into the atmosphere as I physically could. Then it became because I wanted to offer the best information I could to the people who read our books. And now it’s because I want to be as logical and ‘sensible’ as I can in making our home independent and prepared for ‘bumps in the road.”

I start out each workshop saying if I didn’t leave my house, and nothing came down my driveway for 6 months, the quality of my life wouldn’t change. I readily admit I will get a caffeine withdrawal headache for several days when the coffee runs out and I am forced to detox, but I know that’s coming and I’m mentally prepared for it.

So this may be our last “Hands-On, Solar-Powered, All-You-Can-Grow, Ready for Rough Times” Workshop. We’ve set aside April 30th for it. We limit participation since we can only sit so many people around our dining room table for lunch, so if you’ve been thinking about this, now’s the time to do it. Or you can send your spouse (or kid, or neighbor) and have them give you the highlights. I would highly recommend you come yourself and see how our place it works. It’s pretty awesome.

I’ll also note that we’ve had a number of Americans come to our place and with the Canadian dollar outrageously low right now, you’ll get way more bang for your U.S. dollar. So don’t delay! Book early! Book often! Extend your American Dollar Value and make the trip the today! It’s always worth the drive to Sunflower Farm!

For more details, click here.

from-the-air-Sunflower-farm

 

 

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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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