Posts Tagged ‘Gardening’

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.)

 

 

 

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!

Channeling My Inner Horse Whisperer

I’m one of those people who has a way with horses. I’m terrified of them, and they know it.

I love horses. Or rather I love the results of their hay consumption and how it helps build my sandy soil. So I do spend some time around them.

I was thinking about horses recently because of an incident in a nearby city. A young person, perhaps with the help of spirited beverages, decided to slap a police horse. No really, they did this. They were probably egged on by people nearby. So they slapped the horse, but showing a complete lack of self preservation, they slapped it on its hindquarters. Really? You slapped a horse there?

And the horse, even though it is one of those amazing crowd-control trained horses, still managed to aim a good kick at the butt slapper.

I have learned from my time around horses that they know exactly how you feel about them. Show them who’s boss and they will do exactly what you want … most of the time. Fear them, and they will treat you like dirt … or a play toy … whichever comes first.

From time to time I have helped to look after my neighbor’s horses when she was away. This often meant getting them from the barn, across an unfenced lane to a paddock where they would spend the day, and then leading then back into the barn again at night. A real horse person would make it very clear to them exactly how things were going to go down, and discipline them verbally if they got off track. I bribed them with oats and I even did that poorly. I wore steel toed work boots, my chain saw pants and several layers of bulky jackets to hopefully absorb some of the shock of a kick, but the horses still knew they were in control. And why wouldn’t they? They’re about 2,000 lbs. heavier than me.

Yet somehow this same neighbor is able to jump into horse trailers the size of a small bathroom, wearing shorts and sandals, with 4 of these monsters, and uses Jedi mind tricks to get them to do exactly what she wants. This just isn’t fair, but like my inability to make it to an NHL team, I have accepted my limitation.

Recently I was over at my neighbours’ to retrieve the horse manure trailer (a happy time for me). The horses were in the barn, but they didn’t seem too interested in me, just a passing, dismissive glance out the windows when I arrived. But for some reason, on this particular day, once I got the truck hooked on to the trailer, they decided to investigate. And so 4 or 5 lumbering, Tyrannosaurus Rex-sized monsters were clustered around the truck investigating my presence.

jasper-in-the-truck

Jasper the Wonder Dog thought it was awesome … like Jurassic Park, only he got to watch from the inside of the truck cab, although my window was down and it’s amazing how far a horse can get itself into your truck when it wants.

Eventually I was able to squeeze myself back inside and slowly drive over towards the gate. But on this day, the horses had decided I would not be leaving the compound unescorted. Whether due to boredom or just some horsey mind trick they blocked the exit and showed no signs of moving.

So out I waded into the sea of towering extremely dangerous horses to try and coax them out of the way. First I tried the gentle, calm verbal persuasion technique. They didn’t even acknowledge my presence. Then I started with the friendly face rubs and firmer “Time to head back to the barn” talk, which got me nowhere.

They had decided that something about my Ford Ranger was extremely attractive and 4 (or 5?) horses were licking the truck hood, sticking their heads into the window, examining the truck bed and checking out the manure trailer. Now, they could have examined the manure trailer any time during the previous weeks but suddenly because I was trying to leave with it they were intrigued. Really? You have to do that now?

 

All my finagling is premised on never, EVER getting near the kick zone of one of these beasts, which just slows the process to a dead crawl. Finally, because Alyce wasn’t there I asked another neighbour who often looks after the horses to help. He came down and was able, with great difficulty, to finally cajole them out of the way, and to allow me to exit the gate, which he closed behind me.

I’m pretty sure alcohol must have been involved in the horse slapping incident, because no one in their right mind does that. I’m pretty sure our DNA contains the same intrinsic warnings about the potential harm from a horse’s rear section, as it does about snakes. If it is slithers on its belly and hisses, proceed with caution.

A local radio station suggested that punishment for this slap could include cleaning up the horse stable. And I wondered, is that punishment? I love these places. That’s where the best soil supplement you’ll ever get comes from.

Michelle and I seem to have spent much of our lives enjoying activities that society sees as punishment or deprivation. You hear about prisoners living on ‘bread and water.’  I can’t count the number of times Michelle has made a fresh loaf of bread, and along with a glass of our awesome well water, provides our lunch. It’s fabulous. Why is this problematic? Shoveling horse manure as punishment? And this is punishment because….?

sandwichloaf

My time around horses has taught me a great new respect for any movie I see with legions of horses riding at high speed. This is an extremely dangerous activity and one viewers should be (but I don’t think usually are) in awe of.

When Hollywood comes calling, which it will, when the world has grown tired of Ryan Gosling, and Ryan Reynolds and all those other Canadian imports, and they want me to finally step up and fill the void, my contract will emphatically specify that some nudity is fine, but nothing to do with horses. Unless the horse is animatronic like at Disney World or the role requires the cleaning and shoveling of a horse stall. This is what careers are made of.  (And great raspberry patches!)

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Thanks to PB for his recent generosity. Thank you for not only expressing your gratitude in a comment but with a donation as well. Both were much appreciated!

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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And, as always, if you enjoy this blog and want to leave a “tip” to show your appreciation, the TIP JAR is on the righthand side too. Thanks!

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!

My Epiphany in the Pond

A few weeks ago Michelle posted the mid-season update that we sent to our CSA members. It was pretty bleak. We’ve been experiencing an historic drought.

First they said it was as bad as the one we had in 1959… the year I was born. Then they said it was the worst … like … ever … worse than the one in 1888…the year our house was built. It’s like, come on, is it really my fault? And who was measuring droughts in 1888?

We’d had basically no rain for 8 weeks here. Since that blog post we have had 5 mm (less than ¼”) one day, 24 mm (almost an inch) a few days later and then another 10 mm (less than ½”) last Sunday. All of Eastern Ontario is experiencing it although most places have had more rain than us. Everywhere you look as you drive around the corn crop is brown, the soybean fields have withered … and around here many trees are brown and dying, especially if they are growing in thin soil. Bleak bleak bleak.

I have been trying to put into practice my new mantra, which I learned from Tina Fey’s awesome movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” It’s a military expression … “Embrace the suck, move the ‘heck’ forward” (heck replaces that bad ‘f’ word you might use in combat that offends so many people).

It’s easy to have these mantras, but when you spend the day becoming more and more exhausted, watching your plants wither in the brutal heat, and become more and more parched because it doesn’t matter how much you water, you can’t replace a wonderful rainfall by Mother Nature … well, it’s easy to give in to the laziness of despair.

I have started to take some positives from it though. I knew this day was coming, this epic drought, and I meant to prepare better, but I didn’t. There is an inertia to human existence, and one tends not to be as proactive as one should be. It seemed as though during each previous drought, just as the wells were bottoming out, we got enough rain for me to say “Well, we dodged that bullet.”

So this time the first thing I did was borrow my neighbor’s gas-powered water pump. Then I started to learn about them and bought myself a Honda 2” pump, and Princess Auto 1” pump. Then it took 47 trips to 26 different retailers to get all the bits and pieces and hoses and fittings I needed to get them set up the way I wanted them.

I have the main 2” pump in a pond we call “The Hockey Pond,” because we are, well, Canadian, so it’s our natural tendency to refer to any body of water large enough to freeze as being related to hockey. It’s a long way from the house. It was created by beavers and their ingenuity continues to amaze me. It’s in a natural low spot surrounded by rocky hills. Just two dams and voilå … a great pond. It’s a pretty awesome spot. I try to remind myself of every time I make the trip there to run the pump.

thepond

 

When I was using Sandy’s pump I had put it a spot that looked like it had enough water, but with the ongoing drought the pond receded. So with my new pump I decided to get it to a spot where I hope to get a few more weeks out of it. Once I had the spot picked out and had dragged some beaver-felled logs over to it, I wanted to dig it out a bit to make a spot so I could put a big flat rock under the foot valve, and still have it covered in sufficient water.

So it basically meant being in the mud up to my knees while I dug with a shovel. I don’t own hip waders, so I took down an old pair of rubber boots that leak. I didn’t want to work in sandals because it would be hard to stomp on the shovel with them. Water leaks into the boots, and yes, creepy crawlies can get in but I figure it’s harder for the leeches and things to get to me this way. And so far, so good. The fact that it was brutally hot actually made it quite enjoyable.

When I was in high school in the 1970’s I belonged to an outdoor group called Intrepids and one day we were in groups hiking cross country to learn how to use a compass. We kept arriving ponds that weren’t on the map. By the end of the day we just waded through them up to our necks rather than walk around. This project takes me back to those great days.

I have a small posse of frogs that observe my every move.

lotsoffrogs

Correction, I have a huge posse of frogs watching. This pond is swarming with them. It is so absolutely fantastic to be in a place with so much life.

Plus, I have danger around every corner. With the drought, humans have more contact with wildlife … like bears…so I’m assuming sooner or later I’ll have to go swimming to avoid one. And of course, being a fan of movies, as I dig through the lily pads and mud I know it’s just a matter of time before some huge anaconda emerges and wraps itself around my legs, requiring a lot of struggling and hitting it with the shovel to escape. So many anacondas here.

My security backup of course is Jasper the Wonder Dog. Many people see him and think he could easily win “Best in Show”. This would require months of training and grooming. Sometimes I try and keep Jasper on the sidelines, but the few times I’ve been down there digging in the mud, I imagine that he says, “Forget that, I’m going for it!” at which points he immerses himself in the pond/swamp water and proceeds to spend the next half hour vigorously chasing frogs or anything else that moves. This would include bubbles he has made, hence his face being basically black here, because, with the drought, where he’s playing it’s just mud. Oh what fun he has.

Jaspercatchingfrogs

Jasperinthepond

I’m not good at reading pet emotions, but I can tell when Jasper frolics in ponds, he is joyful. I try and learn from him everyday. He’ll be a very smelly dog for many days to come, but really, who cares? It’s hot, and he’s having a blast. I’ll take him down to the lake in a few days to let him swim in fresh water. I will try and be more joyful like my dog.

So I’ll be trying out the new pump and the 124 different pipes and adapters tomorrow. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Here are a couple of photos of the woods I have to walk through to get to the hockey pond.

walktopond

walktopond2

I know, pretty tough eh? This is where I work. I wish we weren’t in this drought, but it’s forcing me to spend time in the magical woods that we’re surrounded by.

I’m not a big fan of that “A bad day at the golf course is better than a good day at the office” bumper sticker, but when I think of my life in suburbia, and look around where I spend my days right now, I realize how pathetic whining about the drought is. Because really, in the words of David Lee Roth …” This must be just like living in paradise…” and his next line is “…and I don’t want to go home…” But I AM home.

I am “moving the ‘heck’ forward”.  Now just a little rain more please.

*******

Thanks to NB for his recent generous donation. We appreciate not only your ongoing support but your friendship as well!

 

 

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!

Progress in the Potato Patch

I thought I’d provide an update on what we’ve been up to for the CSA this year at Sunflower Farm.

This is, of course from the perspective of the “I hate to buy new stuff/hoarder/make due with what I have/reuse/repurpose” person who runs the joint. I am honestly to the point where I experience a negative physical reaction when I am forced to purchase new things, so whenever I can make use of what I have on hand, I’m up for for it.

For instance I have a tote for water storage that I got from a neighbor 4 or 5 years ago and it was probably already 5 years old at least at that time. You can tell it’s one of the older ones because the external metal cage is made of steel rather than aluminum. Over time plastic gets brittle and last fall as I attempted to remove a hose out of this one the whole water delivery extension broke off … and the tote was full of water. As sad I was to see it break, I felt a childlike joy watching the water gush out of that sucker. ‘Come Ma quick!, the dam has bust!”

With the force of the water in a full tote there was no way to repair that section. So I tipped in on its side, and drilled a new hole in the top, screwed a tap into it, and now it’s working fine. Now, I will qualify that I practiced a number of times on the top (near the break) because there is an art to screwing a brass threaded tap into plastic. I have done it before, but if you drill the hole too small … it won’t fit … too big and it leaks. This time I got it just right and the repair bought me another year or two to use this one. Just one less hunk of plastic at a landfill.

practiceholesdrilled

watertoteonside

watertoterunningwater

Two years ago my neighbor Sandy gave me an old portable garage frame that had crumpled under some heavy wet snow that hit unexpectedly a couple of Novembers ago. This was the same heavy wet snowstorm that bent my PVC hoop house like a fine leather horse saddle. Luckily my PVC bounced back, but this metal did not. So I bent some of the steel and asked my other neighbour Ken to weld a few of the places where it had broken.

Then when the grocery store in town was replacing the plastic on their greenhouse that they use to sell plants from in the spring, I of course was first in line for the old plastic. And yes, I could probably scrape together some money to afford a new greenhouse, but why buy a shiny new thing when you can hack together something that looks like crap, but is functional nonetheless?

So last year I threw the plastic over the garage and had a greenhouse. Turns out the plastic was way too long. Plus I had only put one door in the greenhouse which just wasn’t enough during really hot spells to get proper ventilation. So this spring I moved the metal frame, then doubled the size with my own “wooden” supports, fashioned, obviously from scrap from my neighbor Don’s millwork business. If you were thinking that I’m probably getting a reputation as a scrounger in my part of the woods, you would be absolutely correct ….”Who ya gonna call…”

The greenhouse is now twice as big as it was last year and has doors in each end. The new section I built is big enough for the rototiller to fit through so I can actually till inside the greenhouse. Sometimes my brain hurts with my ingenuity. Is there an “Inventors Hall of Fame” I should nominate myself for? A “Scroungers Hall of Fame?”

Regardless, the greenhouse seems huge and every time I walk in I say… “I did this!” I should’ve made the door even wider to fit my inflated head through.

new greenhouse metal frame

newgreenhousewoodenframe

One of the other experiments I’m trying this summer relates to our melons. We are far enough north that I am challenged to have much success with melons, water or musk…i.e. cantaloupes. We just don’t seem to have quite enough heat, or else I keep picking the wrong cultivars.

Our main garden surrounds a huge granite rock outcropping. As I do so often, I saw this a bad thing. I had expanded the gardens close to it, but still had a ‘weed death zone’ where grass and weeds would encroach on the garden. So last fall I got Ken and his tractor to push that expanse of weedy mess into the garden. I hacked and dragged out all the weeds and grass and was left with some good soil. So now the garden goes right to the rock.

On a hot sunny day that granite really absorbs the heat. So I put all the melons in hills around it, hoping they may like that heat, and even get a little latent heat kicked back out on those cool nights we often have. What d’ya say… is this a brilliant concept or what?

And as an even bigger bonus about the whole process, I now have a big rain collection area, so when it rains, all this additional moisture drains down the rock into the surrounding soil, improving its water retention potential, which when you’re growing “water” melons I’m thinking is a pretty big deal. Sometimes my ability to turn a bad situation into a good one is just amazing!

rock for heat

We’ll see how this goes. I planted my first garden in the subsoil clay of a subdivision in Burlington Ontario when I was 16. So I’ve been putting seeds in the ground for 40 years now. Every year I try some new things and every year I get a little bit better. When I plant my last seed at 92 (or 58, we’ll see that goes) I will in fact be the most knowledgeable food grower in this part of the world, in eons. The daughter of our late neighbor Florabelle will dispute this fact I assume. No one will know, except me. But is there a “Food Growers Hall of Fame” I could get nominated for?

If my melons are fabulous this fall, rest assured you, along with our CSA members will be the first to know. If you never hear about this experiment again, I’m sure you figure out the rest. A million other factors will influence how well those melons grow, but at least I feel I’ve given it my best shot to tilt the odds in their favor. Heaven knows with the way our crazy weather is going, the odds seemed to be constantly stacked against those producing food.

Meanwhile, I shall keep my eyes and ears open for the next best thing someone is going to throw out, so that I can incorporate it into our food production system. I am blessed that my amazing wife will just roll her eyes at me, accept the chaos, and not leave lock and stock and barrel back to the comforts and organization of suburbia. I am a lucky man.

* * * * * *

Thanks to T.H. for his recent generous and most welcome donation! I think you can tell from Cam’s various posts that donations are never wasted on new items when something used can be repurposed!

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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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