Posts Tagged ‘Food’

Back in the Saddle

So I’m back in the garden, growing food … but on a much scaled-down version of my former manifestations.

My theme song is “Back in the Saddle.” The Areosmith version.

 

 

I think it’s a remake of a cowboy song by Gene Autry, but I remember playing it … a lot in 1976 when it came out on “Rocks.” It’s a very punkish edgy song for its day … but really, I think I mostly listened to it for Steve Tyler yodelling at the end because, really, I don’t think there is enough yodeling in music these days. (It’s at about 3:50 of the video)

It turns out that getting ‘back in the saddle’ in terms of getting back into the garden this spring was really hard. This was because of last year’s drought … which took all the fun out of growing food.

I don’t mean to belabor the concept of mild PTSD, because I do not want to marginalize people who have experienced war and really traumatic experiences. But mine was a real slow burn, dragged out sort of trauma. Every day, for 5 months, I had to spend the day in a place that was really under stress. My sandy soil was parched by June and I only had 16 weeks to go … growing enough food for 25 families.

And the heat. Every day was an inferno. Turns out, there is no shade in a good garden. For years I’ve used all these little mental tricks to try and ignore heat in the garden … but seriously, after 90 days of scorching temperatures they start to wear down.

So basically, on the last day of last year’s CSA I walked away from the garden and didn’t go back in. I’m sure you’ve read all the articles and books about how important it is to clean up the dead stuff each fall because that’s where the pests live. Nope, not last year. And you want to remove all those wooden stakes you have delineating rows so you can move hoses around for irrigation. You know …   so you don’t hit them with the truck next winter when they’re frozen and you’re driving a load of horse manure in. Nope, but duly noted … pulling out stakes in the fall would have been a good idea.

So this spring, not only was I not really into getting back in the saddle, the saddle needed waaaayyyy more work than it does most springs. And I’ve got two grandkids now. And I’m back doing websites full-time to earn a living.

But I started a little at time. Cleared up a section of tomato stakes and dead plants. Rototilled a bit here. Spread some manure there.

Then it was time to put up the chicken wire fencing I use for peas, which is way more work upfront but which really improves production. And as I was doing it I was thinking … hmmm … I guess I’m actually going to be able to eat some of these peas this year. And maybe shell enough to actually freeze some for next winter. We love frozen peas. And maybe my grandson will be here when they’re in full production and we can hang out in the pea patch eating fists full. Is there anything tastier in the world than a pea right out of the pod off the vine?

And so the darkness that was last year’s garden has slowly started to lift. This weekend I got more stuff planted, some kale, lettuce, my first rows of sacrificial potatoes. It’s starting to feel good finally.

There are a number of gardens and areas of the main garden that will be fallow this year. Well, maybe it’s not technically fallow. I have rototilled them and I’m planting them with a green manure, buckwheat. If I just left a field to sit, it would turn green really fast, with weeds. That would be fine until they went to seed, which just makes the following year even more problematic for planting. I will probably cut down the buckwheat just as it starts to flower, then rototill that back into the soil. With so many areas in buckwheat this year I may leave one to flower … and then go to seed .. and see how bad the “buck-WEEDS” are next year. It’s fun to think about experimenting, and letting some of the gardens recharge. I have pushed them pretty hard for 5 years.

I always have weeds, and this year will be one of the worst because I could not stay on top of them last year because I spent all my time irrigating … and trying to keep moving in the heat which was effort enough. Even with a drought, weeds will always find some moisture in your soil.

And then this spring has been the ultimate kick in the head, with endless, limitless, never-ending, record breaking rain. The basement flooded once with the spring snow melt and drained by itself after several weeks. Then the rains started and reflooded the basement deeper than it’s ever flooded before. And I must remind new readers that when you live off the grid, you simply do not have enough electricity to run a sump pump 24 hours a day to drain your basement. I did purchase a gas water pump last summer for irrigation, but I just cannot bring myself to drain our basement and spew CO2 with it.

After a few weeks the basement drained again, and now it has some water on the floor again because of the rain that just won’t stop. Really nature? No rain last summer for 5 months and now endless rain? Are you being passive aggressive? Mean-spirited? Ironic?

Let me be perfectly clear, as a Canadian it is my constitutional right to complain about the weather … I think. All I’m asking is for a bit of compromise in terms of rain.

I am happy that the joy of growing food has returned. I guess you really just have to get back on that bike after you fall off. Turned out this wasn’t an easy process after the a mentally and physically grueling summer of drought while running a CSA. I have put myself on the “DL” (Disabled List in baseball parlance) in terms of earning an income from growing food for a while. Turns out it can be pretty rough to do manually on a small, labor intensive scale. If mother nature helps with some rain, it is much easier.

I already miss spending my days in the garden. I do not miss working all day every day in the sun and heat watching my plants struggle. Poor Jasper wonders where I disappear to every day when I head to my home-office. He liked it better when he could sit in the shade of the pines and monitor me in the garden waiting for his next meal. Life is tough for some dogs. Not that I’m jealous or anything.

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.)

 

 

 

Post-Climatic Stress Disorder

(I wrote this in the fall, hemmed and hawed about posting it, then watched the news last night and decided it might be relevant).

I was watching images of the people dealing with the latest weather catastrophe to hit the south. And yes, I know that you can’t chalk up one weather event to climate change, but I figure now that ABC News has a whole section of videos on their website that I access through Apple TV called “Extreme Weather,” you have to start wondering sometimes.

I have a friend who knows someone who was in the middle of the crazy evacuation of Fort McMurray, Alberta last May, when wildfires forced the entire city to bail out. The videos taken by people fleeing the fires are pretty horrific. My friend says that this person is suffering from PTSD. I think that’s quite possible. If you’re not used to fleeing a raging wildfire that is threatening your life, then it’s probably a pretty jarring shock to the system.

Several months after the wildfires and billions of dollars in damages later, Fort McMurray was hit with flooding. They got months’ worth of rain in just a few days, after the drought that had caused the wildfires. Again, it just kind of makes you wonder. In 2016 the Canadian insurance industry had the highest payouts ever.

We experienced a drought here last summer. It was brutal. It was depressing. It was excruciating. But it didn’t play out over a longer time frame. It wasn’t two hours to “Get Out of Dodge.” It was all day, every day, for 4 months. It started in May, carried on into June, July and August, and we still got next to no rain in September. We can call it 5 months.

And the heat. Toronto set a record for more than 90 days with the temperature over 26° (79°F), which meant that I worked out in the sun longer than I ever have in temperatures that were usually 30°+ in the shade and 45° in the sun. I hate summer. I really do.

I think we did an amazing job of producing a basket of produce for our members last summer, every week, for 16 weeks, during the worst drought to hit these parts, well…ever.

So I started asking myself, can you get PTSD from a slowly occurring event? And if it’s related to a changing climate, is it “Post Climatic Stress Disorder?” Nothing blew up near me, there was no firestorm, no flood, and yet, somehow I felt quite dazed and drained by the experience last fall. At least with a flood, the waters my recede in a week or two. But I had to spend all day, every day, for 5 months, watching my vegetables struggle. They were all stressed, all summer long. There was no respite. There was never a drenching rain where I felt I could stop watering and irrigating for a day. Not a day. It sucked the life out of me.

I won’t do it again.

At least not in a CSA format. I’ll grow food, but I won’t ever put myself through that again. Michelle and I grow great food. We (she) organizes the CSA exceptionally well. But we can’t do it well without some help from Mother Nature, and she appears to be increasingly uncooperative when it comes to creating optimal conditions for many human endeavors, like growing food. I don’t blame her. We’ve kind of been using her for a dumping ground of fossil fuel burning waste and she’s getting a bit of a fever and she’s pissed. I’d be too. I’d start making the weather erratic too if I were her.

I read a book a while back before I started running for the Green Party called “Don’t Even Think About It.” It’s about how people react to climate change. One of the situations it discussed was what happens when you talk to someone who has just experienced a natural disaster that may be connected to climate change. If you point out that this disaster was probably caused by climate change and ask them if they will change their lives in any way to deal with climate change, more often than not their response will be, “I just want to rebuild my home, rebuild my life and get things back to the way they were.” It’s totally illogical, but I get it. Let’s just rebuild and hope it doesn’t happen again. Until it does.

So I have been putting myself in that situation since our drought last summer. Am I guilty of saying “I just want to get everything back to normal, and I don’t want to focus on climate change right now?” And of course all summer that’s what I wanted, to get back to normal, which meant some rain. I accepted the dead lawn. I accepted the death of hundreds of dollars and years worth of work on blueberry and raspberry bushes, because I couldn’t spare the time or water to save them, but just a bit of rain may have helped a few other things.

But the more I thought about it, I had already taken action, my post traumatic climatic shock response, prior to the whole thing becoming so darn personal in my life, and creating havoc with my life this summer. I got out in front of it as it were. “Pre Climatic Stress Disorder.”

Michelle and I learned running for office is incredibly time consuming. And we did it provincially and federally for the Green Party. It sucks your time, and your energy and your spirit. And by the end of the federal election I was really questioning it. What the hell I was thinking? Why put so much effort into something with an outcome that does not have a Hollywood underdog sort of ending. The best you can do is hope to just move the dial a little further towards something actually being done for a threat that holds so much potential for so much grief for so many people.

The Canadian government signed the Paris Accord and has made commitments to start reducing CO2 levels. They are way too conservative. They are totally inadequate to meet the Paris targets. But at least they are talking about it. At least they are seen to be doing something. And Canadians are going to have to come to grips with the fact that we will have a price on carbon and it will make fossil fuels more expensive.

The CSA eventually ended. We got rain several days after it ended in October. Obviously.  We’ve had precipitation this winter. I’m hoping the ponds will fill up again. It’s actually freezing rain right now. I think I’ll go out in it and get soaked and shiver and raise my fists in the air in rage and scream “Where were you this summer you useless rain gods?” Might as well try for a Hollywood cliché ending whenever possible. Look for video footage of my rant coming soon to my YouTube channel.

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!

The Cake to Firewood Quotient

This is going to be a really complicated blog. There will be a lot of complex formulas and math and hard stuff to understand … like laws of thermodynamics, and real smart stuff like that.

Or not.

Since I never did ‘real good’ with math, I won’t be using a lot of formulas and calculus and things that I never understood during my illustrious and short-lived academic career.

Yet the formula I’m going to introduce could in fact change the course of human history, kind of on a par with E=MC2 or that formula for the perpetual motion machine. It goes like this:

Daily consumption of calories from cake should be less than or equal to the calories burned hauling firewood

I know, it seems pretty basic, but it’s something I’m having trouble getting my head around. Although, most days I am pretty much sticking to this.

This summer, during the hottest summer on record with an historic drought to boot, I was having trouble consuming enough calories. It would probably have been better if more of my calories were in the form of kale and other green things, but they weren’t and I accept that.

But now, the CSA is over and I am burning way fewer calories. So along came my birthday, and the large chocolate cake with cherry pie filling layered in and I had this sort of epiphany, that this can’t go on forever, otherwise I will end up getting my own reality TV show and ill have to be removed from my house with a forklift.

This is not Cam's cake, but very similar. His wasn't quite so pretty and he was too busy eating it to photograph it!

This is not Cam’s cake, but very similar. His wasn’t quite so pretty and he was too busy eating it to photograph it!

So I vowed to force myself to burn a whack of calories each day before I ate cake. In honor of Marie “Let them eat cake” Antoinette when she learned the peasants didn’t have bread to eat (just before the revolution), I have enough bread but still love cake.

First the good news. I managed to make the cake last a full week. We have one of those glass cake domes and I realize that nothing makes me happier than a cake under a glass cake dome on the dining table (with a cake in it, in case I hadn’t made that clear). So I made it last as long as I could. It would help if Michelle ate cake, but she has the willpower of a monk and can ignore bad foods like a ninja warrior … if they were adept at junk food denial.

Next I had to kick into gear my firewood campaign to get next winter’s firewood cut and hauled. A couple of hours of cutting can result in double or triple the number of hours hauling, so out came the big plastic sled to start moving the wood close to the house. During the dark fall and early winter months I haul the green firewood through the bush to the house, then by March and April we have those fabulous cold sunny periods where we have tons of electricity so I can buck the lengths into fireplace sized logs with the electric chainsaw, and then split them with the electric log splitter, the solar powered electric log splitter to keep them as close to zero-carbon as I can.

hauling-wood-1-copy

There are tons of devices you can strap on now to count your footsteps and work out the calorie consumption of your workout, and calculate your body mass and blah blah blah, none of which I own or will ever own. I go by how damp my t-shirt gets from the sweat generated hauling sleds of firewood at or near my physical capacity.

It is awesome! I love hauling firewood, and I love heating with firewood, and I love eating cake. So each night when I sat down with my ‘reasonably’ sized piece of cake, I felt no guilt.

These are really bad calories. I get it. Too processed, too much fat, too much sugar, probably too many artificial colors… I mean seriously, I might as well take up smoking. But regardless of how many documentaries I might watch on the evils of sugar, I shall cling to my one-time belief that ‘you can metabolize’ sugar and live in the splendid whacked out bliss that cherry pie filled chocolate cake brings me.

It will not solve the problems of the world. It will probably not move me further up the karmic ladder of spiritual enlightenment. But it does make me happy. And it gets me off my ass and on to next years’ firewood.

Michelle always laughs at this time of year when people ask her, “Does Cam have this year’s firewood done yet?” Hah! It was done 18 months ago. I’m working on winter 2018 now. If I had another reason to celebrate I could probably get 2019 done in good time. Is chocolate cake a yuletide tradition somewhere that I can honor here at Sunflower Farm? I’ll go check the calendar and see whose birthday is coming next so I can celebrate it … with a cake. Cake goes in, firewood comes out.

Science is so awesome! It’s all good.

Picking Spinach in the Dark

I am NOT in a rut. I don’t think I’ve ever really been in a rut. Life constantly throws new things my way, and I’m getting better at just going with the flow. When I think of people who put on car doors for 30 years, I am grateful for the path I have chosen.

The last few CSA delivery days found me in the garden, in the dark, picking spinach by headlamp. And it was kind of weird.

headlamp-spinach

During CSA season, I try to get on the road with our weekly boxes by 11 a.m., and as the season progressed and there were more and vegetables to go into the boxes, this became increasingly challenging … like those games you play where the machine throws more and more balls at you and you have to try and deal with them.

At the end of the season we had all of the regular fall stuff … squash, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, potatoes, kale, etc. as well as a new crop of stuff that our members also got in the spring, like spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce… and a bunch of other stuff.

I think spinach is really healthy and I therefore assume our members like it. But it is time consuming to pick. I could pick it the day before but I believe it’s better picked on delivery day, and we aim to delight our members. I could have skipped the spinach because there were already a lot of other greens in the box, but no, I wanted the spinach in there.

At this time of year it doesn’t really start getting light out until 7 a.m. or so, and there was no way I could get everything done for the delivery unless I started before 6. And so I got up and headed out in the dark, with my headlamp on, to start on the spinach. My headlamp is awesome. It is a really good LED one that my daughter gave me last Christmas, so I could set aside my cheap and ineffective Dollar Store ones finally.

It’s usually around 10°C (50°F) that early, and since we’ll have had a dew, it’s wet, and once your hands get wet they get really cold. Which brings up the point of this blog.

How the heck did I find myself in a situation where I’m out in the pitch black picking spinach? My instinct is that it’s less than ideal. I’d rather be in bed. Or reading. But alas, spinach picking it is.

I just read a book by Chris Hedges called “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.” He talks about struggling places like Camden, New Jersey and he devotes a chapter to a city in Florida where workers, many undocumented, meet in parking lots at 4 a.m. to hopefully get picked to be bused out to produce fields to harvest crops all day, for meager pay. Much of the produce is grown under plastic mulch and has heavy pesticide residues and it sounds pretty lousy.

And I am grateful that my harvest activities were very much voluntary and under much better conditions, not counting the brutal heat this summer, which my comrade harvesters in the south would no doubt be dealing with as well. There was not a time during the season that I didn’t haul around a box of vegetables that I picked that I didn’t feel a kinship to others who put the food on our tables, often for very low wages in brutal conditions.

As I picked in the dark once in a while I’d hear a vehicle go by. And I’d think it was someone on their way to a job in the city. The two likely cities they’re headed for are a good hour away. And I wondered how long they have to work to pay for the vehicle and fuel and maintenance to get them to that job. Which takes me back to the first decade we were here when I drove 3 hours back to the Greater Toronto Area to see customers every 4 to 6 weeks. And I’d be up around 5 a.m. and on the road in the dark, and I never really thought much about it.

I would spend the day eating industrial food and dodging huge trucks and stressed-out drivers and constantly monitor the 680AM All News Radio station “with traffic on the ones” to figure out how best to navigate some of the worst traffic in North America, with it’s awesome new “All Day Rush Hour” … traffic that just never ends.

As I picked spinach I did the math on how much easier it is to make more money commuting to a city job. But except for the odd car on the road, I am in a place of peace, and quiet. Right now we hear a lot of owls. And I can hear the Canada Geese on nearby ponds. I don’t think I’ve heard the loons recently…I guess they’ve headed to overwinter in Florida.

When I think about it, harvesting spinach in the dark is pretty awesome. I have this great gift … property to grow food on, people who will pay me to grow organic produce for them, no neighbors, no man-made noise cluttering the sounds of nature … a wife who will be out to help once it’s light enough to start packing the boxes.

As I look back to the house the kitchen light is on. It’s powered by electricity from batteries that were charged the day before by the sun. For the last 100 years or so people have been looking back at this house in the early morning, after milking cows when the barn still stood, or picking spinach…without a high tech lithium-ion powered LED headlight… and seen what a warm inviting place this is. I would finish picking the spinach around 7:30 and that’s when we’d have breakfast.

the-glow-from-the-house

Breakfast included potatoes from our garden and eggs from our chickens. At this time of year, I chop up some spinach and throw it in the scrambled eggs to give it some color, and for the iron and other goodies it contains. That spinach … I picked that! In the dark!

sunrise

2016: The Year of the Tomato

Just so I’m not accused of being totally negative about the summer of 2016, aka the summer of the drought….the spring/summer/fall of our record breaking drought…the summer of the soul-sucking drought from h*ll … this was an awesome summer for tomatoes.

It was an awesome year for all our heat loving crops – peppers, eggplants and tomatoes.

Our previous two growing seasons (the summer of 2014 and 2015) followed ‘polar vortexes’ (vorti?) and so they were relatively cool and wet. Awesome for the grower working in the fields all day, not so great for heat-loving vegetables.

One recent summer our entire tomato crop was decimated by some sort of blight. (Read about it here.) That was heart breaking.

So, since I never know what kind of summer we are going to have, I used my usual ‘carpet bombing/cover all bases’ strategy of cultivar selection this past spring. In other words, I plant a whack of as many different varieties as I can. My assumption is that surely something will work.

And this summer the Best Boys worked, the Beefsteak worked, the Early Girls, the Glamor, The Roma, The Cherry, The Healthkick, The Amish Paste tomatoes…every single type of tomato that I planted thrived.

So we have had truckloads of tomatoes! The tomato season starts off so joyfully! We reveled in each and every tomato! That first harvest day when we carried buckets full of beautiful, cosmetically perfect, blight free, healthy tomatoes into the house to wash was just amazing. As our cardboard flat trays filled up with tomatoes it was fantastic. Carrying them all out to the sorting station on CSA delivery day was just joyful. I was over the moon.

It is quite surprising how quickly the shine can come off the bloom or whatever the expression is, after a few days of hauling tomatoes. By the second week I was harvesting every second day and the haul was usually about 8 buckets. Each delivery morning, I was getting up earlier and earlier so I could lug the tomatoes out to the sorting station for Michelle to start filling baskets.

And then this week hit. I convinced Michelle to take some photos just so we’d remember what our summer was all about. I was carrying flats out by 5:30 a.m. which at this time of year was dark. So I had on my headlamp as I carried them from the cold storage out to the sorting station. Michelle suggested that I should use the truck but by the time I got them loaded and drove such a short distance it seemed easier just to haul them out by hand.

lotsotomatoes

 

Weeks later the darn plants just keep pumping out the darn tomatoes. It’s like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. They’re never ending. I keep saying “Well this should be the last heavy week” which just ends up ludicrous on delivery day as the flats roll out endlessly. What an awesome problem to have!

tomatoes1

 

This summer really proved the value of greenhouses to me. Our greenhouse tomatoes were much earlier than our outside ones, and they were much nicer cosmetically. Not a blemish. Hardly a zipper or bruise. They were a work of art …thanks to Mother Nature and the heat.

camandtomatoes

I cannot recommend enough getting a greenhouse if you live a more northern area like me. And not a big fancy greenhouse. I’ve built all of mine from scratch. Just ask a neighbor for that portable garage frame that lost its cover years ago that’s been sitting beside their house, and order a sheet of 6 ml plastic to put over it. The tomatoes will thank you.

newgreenhousewoodenframe

The greenhouse BEFORE the tomato plants took over!

We have tons of tomato plants outside of the greenhouses that were slower to ripen but are going like crazy now. I had used most of my good steel cages in the greenhouses, so I had staked the outside plants. And of course, every Friday it was my responsibility to prune the tomatoes and tie them up. Yea, how’d that go? It never does. Even in regular seasons I fall down in this responsibility and with the drought this year and watering and irrigation taking all my time, they really suffered.

I had a couple outside plants in cages and I was amazed at how much better they did than those that fell over. While I got tons of tomatoes off the plants that eventually toppled over, the number of blemishes and marks on them is unbelievable compared to the ones that stayed upright.

So if you take nothing from this blog other than this it should be worth having read it. If you want great tomatoes, put them in a cage or stake them and keep them tied up properly. When you’ve been growing food for as long as I have you sometimes forget stuff, but Michelle walked over at one and point and said “Yea, it’s because the water (from the rogue raindrops that fell twice this summer or watering can water) splashed the disease up on them from the soil.”

It just made sense. I’m pretty sure I wrote about this in my gardening book, but at my age you just keep staking and caging because you always have. You forget why sometimes. I do discuss the benefits of pruning tomatoes and other stuff too in our gardening book which we still have copies of.

I do believe our CSA members are probably getting sick of tomatoes and I must say, I’m pretty proud of that. Now if Michelle and I can just take a few minutes away from the brutal heat that is continuing this fall and throw a few in our freezer, we’ll be able to appreciate them this winter too.

And here’s some of our pretty peppers too!

greenpeppers

*******

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Down the Wishing Well and My Coffee Can Solar Tracker

Several years ago, in the month of May, I was talking to one of our off-grid blog readers in California who has become a friend. We were discussing the California drought and she said “Oh we won’t see rain now until probably November.”

May to November without rain. That was my worst nightmare. And in the words of Alice Cooper, this summer at our house it’s been “Welcome to my nightmare.”

I will admit that I wrote this in the middle of August and we were getting the tail end of the rain that caused all the flooding in Louisiana. For us the rain was glorious. Too little, too late, but I welcomed it. (And since then we’ve had a few showers, never amounting to more than 3 or 4 mms. My garden still resembles a giant sandbox.)

Part of my “Embrace the suck, move the ‘heck’ forward” in the mess that was our summer running a CSA in the worst drought for 100 years, is my newfound knowledge of our wells. Mostly the ‘dug’ well near the barn foundation which provides the bulk of the water for irrigation.

The well was ‘dug’ by hand, in 1936. We know this because the builder put his name and date in the concrete and we know his son Ken, a former resident of this wonderful place, who is in his ‘80s ’90s now (see comment below from Ken’s son Lynn!).  The well is about 15 feet deep and how they managed to dig such a deep hole by hand, and then build forms and mix everything up by hand and add a foot of concrete all around boggles my mind.

When we arrived here almost 20 years ago the last vestiges of the shed that was built over the well had just fallen over. I used one of the walls as a cover for a few years, then built a better fitting one about 10 years ago (with scrounged wood of course). It was just spruce and softwood and had started to rot a lot, but like so many of the odd jobs around here I just kept telling myself, “I’ll fix it next year.” Human inertia is a powerful thing.

I use a 12V DC pump, which I just hook up to an 80 Watt 12V solar panel, to pump from this well. I used to move the panel around a frame I made, but it was cumbersome, so this year I built a tracker. I call it my “Coffee Can Solar Tracker”. I just put a cedar post in the ground, and bolted the solar panel to a coffee can that sits on top. It has worked marvellously all summer. Very low tech. No software has failed on it or had to be updated.

Version 2

Version 2

The pump is rated to only suck water from 8 feet below. This is fine early on during most summers, because the water level is high. But over most summers it gets pretty low and the pump basically loses prime constantly. This year with the drought this started happening earlier than ever before.

So I ripped the cover off the well. Then I built a frame, put the pump on the frame, and lowered the frame into the well. This way the pump is now closer to the water level so it doesn’t have to ‘pull’ the water as much. These pumps are great at pushing water once it has reached the pump, just not so good at pulling it up to the pump.

Version 2

It still loses prime sometimes and my trick to get it going is just take the intake pipe and ram it into the water a few times and off it goes. Once the pump was down the well though this technique wasn’t available. So I put an aluminum ladder down the well and so I have to regularly climb down the ladder to prime the pump.

I don’t think I’m claustrophobic, but there is something about being deep down in a well. I think it’s because of all those televised news events where a child falls down a well and has to be rescued.

As the water has gotten lower it’s allowed me to solve the great mystery of what is at the bottom of the well. There is some water-logged wood, and like all things immersed in water, they are pretty creepy. I, of course have been straining to see something shiny … something of a precious metal nature … because I’m pretty sure that’s where people used to put their valuables 80 years ago … down the well. Just makes sense, right?

Version 2

Since we moved here almost 20 years ago, I’ve wondered what was at the bottom of this well. Thanks to our awesome drought, I am now intimately knowledgeable on the well and all its workings. Just another reason the lack of rain has been so awesome. (Please note there is a lot of sarcasm in this blog).

Version 2

Version 2

Version 2

Thanks D. C. for your recent contribution to the TIP JAR. It is very much appreciated!

Heat + Drought + Pests = Exhaustion

Note from Michelle: It’s been a while since our last post. Even at his busiest, Cam usually finds the time to unwind in front of the computer screen and type out a post. As many of our readers know, we run a CSA (community supported/shared agriculture) during the growing season and we grow enough vegetables for about 30 member families. Beginning in late winter/early spring we start seeds, we spend the spring preparing and planting our many gardens and then during the summer months we weed and water and harvest and provide a box of fresh veggies once a week to our members.

This summer has been a bit different. Here’s a note that Cam wrote to our members. He writes an update 4 times over the course of the growing season. This was Week #8 so we are halfway through our CSA.

 

Hey Everyone

Are we having fun with this drought yet? I’m not!

In my last update a month ago I said that I had heard the drought was the worst since 1959, the year I was born. Now Michelle tells me that it’s the worst since 1888, the year our farmhouse was built. (http://www.thewhig.com/2016/08/10/region-in-midst-of-driest-summer-since-1888) I have this funny feeling somehow I’m responsible for the thing. We have had no rain since my last report, including no thunderstorms. They have all missed us, although 10 millimeters of rain when you need 80 would be inconsequential at this point. It just would have been a nice dust suppressant for half a day before it evaporated.

Regardless, things are not going well here. We have 4 things to deal with. Lack of water. Excessive heat. Pests. Exhaustion. Where do you want me to start?

1) THE DROUGHT.

Both our drilled well at the house and dug well by the main garden are the lowest they have ever been. This is restricting how much we can physically water, and believe me, everything needs water, and lots of it right now. Michelle and I brainstormed on how to deal with this. We contemplated buying truckloads of water but we’d need a reservoir they can dump it in fast. We looked into a couple of reasonably priced swimming pools from Canadian Tire, but all the stores in Eastern Ontario were sold out. Can you believe it? Waiting ‘til August on the hottest summer … ever … only to discover they’re sold out. What’s up with that?

We borrowed a neighbor’s gas water pump. (Thank you Sandy!) The pond by our house is a puddle. The next closest pond 300 or 400 feet from the garden, which has always had water in it, is gone. We have a deeper pond we call “the hockey” pond, which still has water in it, but it’s 700 feet from the house. So this is what we’re using. So, it’s walk 700 feet through the bug-infested woods to start the pump. Walk back, fill up totes and rain barrels. Walk back 700 feet through the bush to shut it off. Walk back. Rinse. Repeat. Hence, item number 2…

2) EXHAUSTION

The heat is starting to catch up to me. I can handle a hot July. I can handle some heat in June and some early in August, but things got really hot in May and haven’t let up. I think Michelle said we’ve had double the normal number of days over 30°C. It seems every day is that way to me. Normally, running a CSA is a marathon that I love. This year, we’ve added constant watering to our usual TO DO List. I have a lot of drip irrigation in place, but with our set up it often works best for me to fill up rain barrels throughout the gardens with our dug well pump, and then water specifically with watering cans … and it turns out … again to my surprise, water is heavy! Who knew?

We’ve had the added bonus of our “War with the critters” in the corn patch which means that despite our exhaustion, nights are sleepless. Last year we had no raccoons. This year we’re getting it from the ground, the air and below. Birds and chipmunks are being very aggressive with the corn. Raccoons are back every night, and I think we have groundhogs tunneling in, because a lot of the lower ears are eaten on the stalk which I’ve never seen before. Which ties into our next issue…

3) EXCESSIVE HEAT

Over a certain temperature plants just basically shut down as a defense mechanism, and a lot of our plants are doing that now. This will be our only week for corn. I’ve had to cut our losses with the heat and lack of water and corn uses an enormous amount of water. Plus, much of the corn is showing signs of both heat and water stress, turning brown, and not producing ears. The corn in this week’s basket was irrigated but I can no longer do that. With the number of bean plants I had planted you should have had another week or two of them, but again, they have just packed it in with the heat.

With our limited water we’re having to choose what we think we can keep alive. Some things like potatoes and onions are done growing for the season. Usually they’d still be going strong but they basically have said “OK, so… no water…that’s it for me…I’m done for this year…” The harvest will be greatly reduced, but at least I focus on watering other things. I won’t even get into my inability to rototill because of the dust and hence the number of weeds that are going to seed, which will be problematic next year. The challenges just never end this year.

4) PESTS

Apart from the battle Jasper the Wonder Dog and I have been waging in the corn patch with furry and feathered creatures, insects surprisingly seem to love this weather … who knew that organisms that have been around for .. like …ever… could adapt so easily to an epic drought? The big insects like the grasshoppers and locusts, have always been problematic, but at least they used to have grass and areas around the gardens to feed on when they were chased away screaming in fear for their life by me and my trusty badminton racquet. But alas, there is no grass or much of anything else nearby to eat, so they are pretty determined to eat much of ‘your’ food before I can harvest it for you.

We have a good crop of fall brassicas (broccoli and cauliflower) in the ground and if I can keep the little critters off it and keep the water to it, we might have a shot.

The bottom line is that I’ve been growing food for 40 years and never imagined something like this. I have been very proud of what we’ve been able to provide our members for the last 5 years. This year I am having to live with great disappointment and I will not be able to provide the volume or quality I would like. It is always a challenge when you are working harder and feel like you are not providing an optimal end product, but nature is winning the battle this year. I have gone through all the various stages of grief like denial and anger with the drought and have finally reached acceptance. We’ll do everything we can with the resources we have to salvage what’s left of the season.

It sure would have been a great summer to spend at a cottage by a lake. What was I thinking deciding to grow food instead!

Thanks for listening.

Cam

The photos below show just how hard we’ve been working to keep everything alive!

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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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