The Best (and only) Solar-Powered, Off-The-Grid, Zero-Carbon, All You Can Grow, Living Independently, Ready for Rough Times WORKSHOP

Since Michelle and I moved off the grid 16 years ago we have answered a lot of questions about how to do it. Eventually we saw the need for more complete answers so we published The Renewable Energy Handbook and a few other books about living independently and sustainably (which are available to order on the home page of this website.) The challenge with books though is that they are kind of static, and the information doesn’t always have the same impact as seeing it in action.

So how do you heat independently and not produce any extra carbon for the atmosphere? How many solar panels and batteries do you need to live a comfortable life? How much actual space would your gardens take up if you were going to grow a good chunk of your own food?

This is why each fall and spring we offer our Solar-Powered, Off-The-Grid, Zero-Carbon, All You Can Grow, Living Independently, Ready for Rough Times Workshop here at Sunflower Farm. It lets people see everything in action and get the real scoop on what it’s like living off the grid. What sacrifices do you make? What are your dirty little secrets about how you cheat sometimes? Do those chickens that you say are really part of your family sleep in the kitchen when the temperature drops below zero? Okay, I’ll answer that one, NO they do not.

We have refined the workshop over the years and they run very smoothly with less clutter. By that I mean when I started, I used a PowerPoint presentation in the living room just to give some context on why people might want to start making some changes. This had come from the fact that originally I had offered these workshops at colleges and felt I had to have PowerPoint, because, well, that’s just what you do. Even though it was early in the day and we had lots of coffee available, I noticed people starting to fade out right away. It probably didn’t help that the workshops are usually in November and the woodstove is still warm from the morning burn. I was used to people nodding off at about hour 5 in my college workshops. But this was brutal.

So I’ve scrapped the PowerPoints. We just get right into how we run this place. We go over each system in the house in terms of heat, power, hot water, pumping water, appliances, batteries, generators, etc. We tour each system, I give the spiel and then people ask questions. After lunch we tour the gardens while I give the spiel and people ask questions. And then after the afternoon break we discuss other issues related to all of this like fiat currencies, security and some stuff that always surprises me. I say that because at these workshops there are often a few quiet people. It seems like they’re thinking, “This Mather guy is completely full of crap.” But as the day progresses and we hit the afternoon discussion they ask the most amazing questions or share the most wonderful information and it’s like wow, where did that come from? It’s awesome!

People also seem to like meeting other people who have the same outlook on the world. It’s fun to watch strangers connect with each other. We’ll be over at the wind turbine talking about the pros and cons of installing a wind turbine and I’ll notice a little group over by the chicken coop intently discussing something. I think it’s great. If you aren’t going to put up a wind turbine you won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t act polite and nod at my lame wind turbine antics. Okay, they’re not lame, they are insanely funny. I believe I should have an off grid show on the Comedy Network.

All that said, if you’ve been toying with the idea of moving to the country, or going off the grid, or installing some renewable energy equipment, or growing more of your own food, or want to reduce your footprint on the planet, or you want to live more independently, or you want to see if you really can life a typical North American lifestyle producing all your own energy, then attending this workshop would be time well spent.

We have met some really wonderful people in our workshops. I see lots of people exchanging emails over lunch. Michelle makes awesome food. Great people come. Lots of information is shared. Lots of knowledge is gained. Lots of fun is made of Cam, it’s all good. Everyone seems to leave happy and then Michelle and I collapse from exhaustion.

We have one workshop organized for a group on November 1st but there are spaces left in it. Depending on interest we could also set up another date so if you’re interested send Michelle an email (m.d.mather at gmail dot com). Here’s the link: http://www.cammather.com/off-grid-retreat/upcoming-workshops-at-sunflower-farm/november-1-2014-workshop Be sure to check out comments from previous workshop participants here; http://www.cammather.com/off-grid-retreat/upcoming-workshops-at-sunflower-farm

Fall-2004-tour

Why It’s So Great to Have a Son (-in-law)!

I am hesitant to write and publish this blog. Someone far more knowledgeable than me on this sort of thing is likely to post a comment about how this is the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen, that it will never work and that I am a blithering idiot to have undertaken such a project. Until next spring this will remain to be seen.

I have an endless “To Do” list, and one of the items that has been on it since last spring is to deal with the flooding in our basement. Our basement floods each spring with wonderful clean snow melt water. After last winter’s “polar vortex” we got lots of snow along with epic spring rains, and the floodwater rose to epic new levels. Eventually even our freezer began to float even though it was up on 2 layers of concrete blocks. You might remember this blog post in which I share the joys of working in freezing cold water to add another layer of blocks under our freezer.

As far as I can understand the flooding is caused by what is referred to as “hydrostatic pressure.” As the ground thaws in the spring there is a tremendous weight of water pushing down through our sandy soil, which filters the water wonderfully. When it gets near our house it encounters our sump well, which it sees as a big a hole without a plug, and that pressure pushes the water up into our basement.

I have been unable to ascertain if flooding was a problem after the basement was put in 80 years ago. But I do know that the sump well was chiseled in by a plumber who had no experience with off grid power systems and who probably shouldn’t have put it in. I have enough power to run a sump pump in July or August, but alas, we are usually in a drought during those months. In March and April when my basement floods I simply don’t have enough electricity to run a sump pump, because a sump pump requires an enormous amount of energy to run 24 hours a day for 3 or 4 weeks.

So on my summer “To Do” list I decided to fill in the sump well. I chose the summer because the basement is cool, so I thought what a great time to spend time in the basement. And I have a son-in-law who likes to get exercise when he visits here because he works all day in an office engineering big wind turbine blades. So it worked perfectly to have Dhruva help with the concrete. And when I say, “help” I mean, it worked great to have Dhruva carry the concrete bags and mix the concrete and dump the concrete … while I supervised.

Dhruvamixing

I like to have a “Plan B” so I put a 3” pipe with a clean out plug on it, so that in a worst-case scenario, if the whole thing goes terribly wrong, I can hopefully get it to drain once the hydrostatic pressure outside has subsided. I, of course, have no way to verify this. I could call a plumber, but they got me into this mess.

thehole

So I have ticked one more item off of my “To Do” List for the year. Come next spring I will be waiting in the basement with bated breath to see whether or not the whole concept was misguided. But even if it is a horrible failure, as I see it, it couldn’t be any worse than having a big 20 inch whole in my floor, just calling out to all the wandering water to come on up and have a party in Cam’s cellar. The bags of concrete seem to have plugged it up fairly well. Water will seep in. There will be some water. How bad could it get?

thedirtywork

Stay tuned. There will be updates next spring. Of course I could always keep the area all around the house cleared of snow all winter in order to reduce the hydrostatic pressure around the cellar. But that’s not gonna happen. I think I’ll see how the plug holds first.

finished

 Thanks to our wonderful son-in-law Dhruva for all of his help with this project!

 

 

Cam Bakes a Pie

I am famous for my pies, especially my peach pie. They are legendary in the family.

Did you notice, that I said I was famous for my peach pie, singular? I did not say peach “pies” because, well, up until last weekend there’s only been the one. But it had taken on mythical proportions.

There was a time back in the early 80’s, when Michelle was attending university and I was selling radio advertising, that I started baking pies. Many young men on their own for the first time drink, carouse, go to questionable entertainment establishments, and drink some more. I never developed a taste for alcohol so bars were never my thing. But eating pies was something I enjoyed and well, if you want a good pie, you need to make it yourself.

I tended to make apple pies but one time on a trip to visit Michelle’s family I took a peach pie that I had made. Michelle’s mom made awesome pies. It was worth spending time with my in-laws just for the desserts. She liked my peach pie. In fact, she started to talk about it a lot, to the point where it truly took on mythical proportions. Years later it was “Remember that peach pie Cam made” or “Cam is an excellent peach pie maker.” But there really had only been the one peach pie.

Our daughters, who were both born long after the now epic peach pie, heard about this mythical peach pie that their father had made one time and so they decided to carry on the tradition of reminiscing about it.

This past Labour Day weekend both of our daughters came home with our son-in-law and our soon-to-be other son-in-law. The Ontario peaches are great this year, so I bought some extras with the intention of baking another pie. I have to admit; I was getting kind of the tired of the relentless mocking my family was putting me through. And rightly so. Michelle is a superb chef and outstanding baker. She is a wizard with pastry. Or just about anything else she makes. So as a feminist I get kind of the tired of the attention being on me and my one alleged pie, versus the hundreds Michelle has made since. I am contemplating the title for my next book with will be “Eating the All Pie Diet and How it Helped Me Lose Weight.” This is actually mostly truthful (obviously I don’t eat an “all pie diet”) but the key is that you have to run a CSA in the heat and humidity of an Ontario summer for the diet to actually work.

Michelle coached me on the piecrust because surprisingly, not having made a pie since 1982, I seem to have forgotten the technique. Here’s an interesting point. The Crisco vegetable shortening recipe from the back of the box called for ¾ cup of shortening, and their brick of shortening comes with a handy dandy measuring device on it, but nowhere is it conveniently divided up for ¾ cup. Crisco, are you listening? And yes, vegetable shortening is not good for you, but neither is Dr. Pepper and that hasn’t stopped me yet. I was going to make a peach crisp but by the time you get through putting all that butter and sugar on top so that it will make a crispy top, you might as well just make a pie.

 my world is pastry

To verify that I had in fact made the pie I asked Michelle to photograph the process numerous times, and being a man, I put my initials on top of the pie. Michelle has made hundreds of pies and never put her name on any of them. That’s what men do. I am not proud to be a man.

 peach pie repair work

There also was some repair work required on the top crust but I was able to hide that reasonably well, and I added some pastry peaches as well, just to put it over the top!

finished peach pie

My older daughter’s future in-laws came for brunch on Sunday they took a photo of me and my pie. I was wearing my “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt, not because of the pie but because of an earlier discussion of the relative merits of white water rafting with men vs. women. But I guess it was appropriate for the whole pie-baking episode.

Camandpie

I have now made two peach pies in my life, about 30 years apart. It will be interesting to see how long I can get my family to keep talking about this one!

Blended Chicken Families, Chicken Sleepovers and “Sing us a song you’re the banana man…”

Well it’s official. We have a blended family. But not in the traditional sense … the members of this family cluck and lay eggs.

We purchase our Red Sex Link chickens from our local feed mill at 20 weeks of age so that they begin laying eggs shortly after they arrive. We’re finding that they lay quite reliably for almost 2 years, and then their production drops off. Here at Sunflower Farm they go into early retirement and live the life of leisure. (From what I understand at other farms they might end up in the soup pot once they have stopped laying.) I guess they are bred this way but they go downhill pretty quickly after their production ends. We’ve had 5 elderly chickens pass away and in every case they were fine one day, stopped eating and got very quiet and were dead the next day, usually curled up somewhere in the coop.

This spring most of our ladies were getting on in age, so we ordered another 12. With the CSA we’re finding more people interested in purchasing our eggs so we felt it was a good time to expand the flock. We also watched a few documentaries recently, including this CTV W5 episode (http://www.ctvnews.ca/w5/undercover-investigation-reveals-horrific-conditions-within-egg-industry-1.1503296) on the conditions of commercial egg farms and it seems pretty brutal to me.

Our ladies live a great life, have room to roam in their pen, get out and free range after they’re done laying at 11 am, put themselves to bed when the sun goes down and eat like queens. Sometimes I wish I were one of our chickens!I also decided that there are economies of scale here. I’m up at 6 am (during the summer months) to let them out of their coop and we coddle them all day, regardless of whether there are 4 of them or 24 of them. So we decided to double our flock and added 12 new ladies this spring.

Then one of our neighbours got 4 chickens and discovered she was really allergic to them, so we offered to take them and added another 4. We’re paying her for them with eggs. So now we’re at 27 chickens … and it’s pretty awesome!

Michelle insists on keeping old and new chickens separate for a few weeks to make sure that they are all healthy and won’t be spreading any illnesses. So we put the new ladies into the new coop I fashioned from a shed I got from our neighbor Alyce. We kept the two groups apart for about a month or so, and gradually introduced them by letting them free range together. Then I fenced in a walkway between the two pens and the blending started. When one of the new ladies ran into one of the old ladies on their daily walkabouts there was some tension for a while. I’ve blogged about how many terms in our language come from chicken behaviour … “flew the coop,” “hen-pecked” or in this case this case the ladies were just establishing the “pecking order.” After a while this was established and they started getting along just fine.

chickenrun
At dusk the old ladies retired to their coop early, but the new teenaged chickens stayed out as a late as they could. This summer they drove me nuts, because I was ready for bed way earlier than they were!For the last few weeks as I’ve opened up the old ladies’ coop, which I do first, I noticed that several of the new ladies came out of it. It was like they were having a sleepover. Some of the older ladies were already using the nesting boxes in the new coop so we decided it was time to force them all to sleep in the one larger coop. I bribed them all into the new pen before dusk and then closed off the walkway. And low and behold all 27 ladies were snuggled up harmoniously on the two roosts in the new coop. It was pretty cute.
ladiesalllinedup
Oh yes, and I have a new theme song. In the morning we serve the ladies bowls of large flake oats with sliced ripe bananas and warm water. Michelle likes to come up with new treats for them from the chicken blogs she reads. So once I’ve let all the ladies out I head over to their three bowls and fill them up with their breakfast. They love this but it is very hard to walk with 27 chickens milling around my feet, anxious for their bananas and oatmeal. So I have now absconded with (I was going to say that word that ends with jacked and starts with hi, but I’d have the authorities down on me) Billy Joel’s song “Piano Man,” which is an awesome song, but I’ve changed the lyrics to “Sing us a song you’re the banana man, sing us song tonight, cause we’re all in the mood for … some bananas… and you’ve got us feeling just right..”
swarmofchickens
Then I put the bananas in the bowl and stand back because I could lose a finger… or a hand pretty fast with the feeding frenzy that ensues. Our chickens are spoiled. They spoil us with their awesome eggs. Life is good on Sunflower Farm.
oatmealtime

The Zombie Apocalypse Comes to Sunflower Farm

This was a title suggested by a blog reader for a past blog so I decided to trot it out again officially.

For much of my life I was unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is zombies. Then a few years ago my daughter suggested we watch the movie “28 Days Later” in which a guy wakes up in the hospital after the zombie apocalypse and he’s one of the few humans left. Later we watched “Zombieland” with Woody Harrelson and Emma Stone and it is a totally awesome movie, except for all the blood and guts, but since they’re zombie blood and guts, it’s well, easier to handle.

Then someone suggested I watch “Shawn of the Dead” which is a take off on “Dawn of the Dead” and it’s an awesome movie too. I kept reading about Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” and what a financial disaster it turned into, but I really like it. I have to admit it wasn’t until I started watching it that I finally realized the “Z” stood for zombies. Duh. Seriously Cam? You hadn’t thought that one through? Nope, I can be a vacant as a … well .. as a zombie sometimes.

One of our daughters suggested “The Walking Dead” TV series about the zombie apocalypse and it’s not bad either. Zombies are everywhere! What’s with that?

In the olden days zombies seem to just walk around slowly, in a daze, with their arms outstretched, and it was easy to run away from them or hit them with baseball bats and things. Now, like everything in our society, zombies are extreme. They’re fast. They’re smart. Those zombies in World War Z run like cheetahs! How can you escape zombies that can run faster than you? Apparently you need superior intelligence, which is kind of in keeping with our current false reliance on technology. Zombie attack? Oh, there’s an App for that.

So you have to wonder what’s with the obsession with zombies? I know humans have always liked to be scared, but this seems like more than that. I sense that many people use “zombie apocalypse” as an anachronism for something more that just zombies. I think many people believe that we are vulnerable to systemic shock these days and zombies are just the personification of that … although I guess I can’t say personification and should say zombification of this belief. I think this feeling is something new to many people today. If you lived in the 1930s you knew what a system in collapse looked like. If you lived in Europe in 1913 or 1938 you knew that an apocalypse was coming and that it was going to be a big deal. Heck even people in the ‘50s and ‘60s expected the nuclear apocalypse at any minute. So the darkness a the edge of town has been around for much of the early to mid 20th century, but not so much since the 70’s.

Times have been good in my life. When I was teenager we seemed to have dodged the nuclear war bullet. AIDS hadn’t hit yet. No one had heard of climate change. And the thought of a global economic collapse like 2008 just wasn’t on the radar. My world was just cars and music and me, me, me.

Hopefully this time around we’ll dodge the bullet again and everything will turn out just fine. Interesting that gun stores sell “zombie killer ammo.” And websites that offer printable shooting targets include zombie targets along with the typical bull’s-eye ones. How I know this I will not say. But I will say I do have a baseball bat beside my bed. I actually had one before I’d entered the zombie culture, but now it doesn’t look so bad. Our solar domestic hot water tank is in our bedroom so when we have workshops people probably notice my bat beside the bed. But now I can be all like “Oh that? , that’s for the zombies of course” and people are all like ‘oh, yes, correct, for the zombies.”

Our dog Jasper hates zombies. Well he hasn’t encountered one in person (in zombie) yet, but I know he would not like them. He is very tuned into the smallest sounds or disturbances in the force. It’s usually when I’m sitting reading and he’ll hear something outside or we’re visited by one of the spirits that has lived in our house since it was built in 1888 and his bark is deafening and seriously, the fact that my heart hasn’t exploded yet as I fall off the couch is a miracle. He really scares the stuffing out of me. And this is good. It’s good training for the zombie apocalypse.  You always have to be vigilant for an impending zombie attack. Jasper the Wonder Dog is ready. That first wave of zombies doesn’t stand a chance. By the second wave I’ll have my baseball bat, so we should be fine here at Sunflower Farm.

The Zombie Apocalypse indeed. How quaint. Bring it on!

I Am Happy

The Key to Happiness in 1,000 words or less

I am happy.

This is a pretty trivial statement.

It is also a most profound statement.

And I guess I could just leave it that. I have found the key to happiness, thanks for stopping by. The end.

But instead, like the man on the mountain I shall share the key to happiness, or at least, what worked for me. Plus, I’m verbose so why keep it short, especially when readers often come for gems of wisdom, or an opportunity to roll their eyes and say what a waste of 3 minutes that was. So I shall try to explain how I came to this mundane/profound conclusion.

It happened recently one CSA delivery morning as I was washing lettuce. I know, not a particularly profound activity to be engaged in when this bolt of spiritual inspiration hit. I was not meditating on a mountain. I was not jumping off cliffs opening my parachute just before hitting the ground. Nope, just washing lettuce.

I believe I have generally been a happy soul, but like everyone I go through ups and downs. It’s hard to be well versed in climate change trends and not get down sometimes.

I have been much happier since moving to our 150 acres of paradise in the woods 16 years ago. And much less angry. People miss ‘Angry Cam.’

On the particular morning of my realization the loons were being quite chatty, with one on 6th Depot Lake north of our place calling out to one on West Lake near our house. It’s like “You come here… no you come here…” There was no sound, no wind, just the trees and the call of the loon.

And then a vehicle drove by around 6:30 am. And I wondered where my neighbor worked and how long their commute would be. I wondered if they watched the clock until quitting time when they could finally start to live their life. I wondered if they had to drive on Highway 401, which seems to be in a constant state of closure from accidents recently.

I recalled maintaining our electronic publishing customers in the Greater Toronto Area for many years after we moved here and the stress involved with the periodic commute back to the big city to visit them. We gave most of these clients up in 2007 to go full time into book publishing, just about the same time the book industry collapsed in 2008. I recalled the scramble to replace our income from books, which now has tapered off completely.

There I was, up to my elbows in water, washing leaf lettuce which requires a great deal of time right now to remove all of the brown leaves caused by all of the moisture earlier this season. I am happy to painstakingly try and make each weeks lettuce as pretty as possible because I am infinitely grateful to our CSA members whose support allows us to earn a modest income from this little outcrop of marginal soil amongst the rocks of the Canadian Shield. And I am grateful to have a wife who was prepared to leave suburgatory and take a flying leap of faith going off the grid at a time when there was no book you could read on how it was supposed to work. I’m grateful we met Bill Kemp and convinced him to write that book.

Every day I am in awe of the wonder of living a lifestyle that is similar to everyone else in North America except that ours is powered by the sun and wind. I do not flip on a light switch or turn on a tap and watch water come out that I don’t wonder at the miracle of it all.

I am grateful to have healthy children and a healthy wife. I am grateful to live in a country where you can actually have Green Party candidates get elected and where 50 years ago the United Auto Workers and others decided to fight for a universal healthcare system, rather than one that just benefited their members.

I am grateful for every morning that I stretch my body ready for the marathon of gardening that awaits me, and am still relatively pain free.

I am grateful for the incredible luxury that is my one cup of coffee at breakfast, which accompanies the eggs our happy, happy (happy!) chickens provide us with.

As I wash lettuce I am very aware of the fact that there is absolutely nowhere else on earth I would rather be. I am also very aware that there is absolutely nothing else on earth I would rather be doing. There are times where the 12-hour days that I am now working, 7 days a week, seem a bit much. But I’ll spend 20 minutes with a book on a Sunday morning only to realize that keeping the beans weeded gives me more pleasure right now. Reading is becoming a wintertime activity.

To be happy I think you need to be in the place you were meant to be, doing what you meant to do. And it should have meaning.

And you should be grateful for the peculiar set of circumstances that lead you to be where you are at that moment.

I have no real retirement plant, no real idea of how much longer I can keep up this pace, no real idea of how much the population of the planet can keep growing and how much more carbon our oceans and atmosphere can handle.

And many days I just don’t care. I’m here this morning doing what I love and doing my best to have a marginal impact on the planet.

The asteroid that the scientists missed may be about to impact and I have no regrets. I have done everything in my life I hoped to do, and right now every day I do what I love. I am grateful. I am fulfilled. I am happy.

* * * * * * *

Michelle’s Note: As I edited this blog post, I couldn’t help but hear this. Warning! It gets stuck in your head on a continuous loop!


 

 

 

 

The World’s Greatest Most Totally Awesome “How to Start and Operate a Successful CSA” Workshop

One recent Tuesday as I was pulling out of the driveway with the truck fully loaded with boxes of organic berries and produce from our garden I had an epiphany. Last year we had ramped up from 12 members our first year to almost 40 members, and too often as I pulled out of the driveway back then my feeling was one of panic. Something must be wrong. I’ve forgotten something. The box isn’t full enough. Members will be disappointed. We worked very hard to avoid this outcome and judging by our year-end survey our members were by and large very happy with the product. There were things they would have liked more of and things they would have liked less of, but with 40 members and 40 varieties of berries and vegetables, it would be hard to please all of the people all of the time. We analyzed the feedback and tried to improve for this year. Continuous quality improvement! More internal systems to ensure everything is working. I sound sooo corporate!

This feeling of contentment and calm that I experienced on a recent Tuesday is a great accomplishment.  (I’d use the word ‘Zen’ here but Michelle says I overuse it, so pretend I’m not using the word ‘Zen’ even though I really want to.) Growing this variety of food on this scale really takes a lot of skill and great planning. Michelle is without question the brains of the operation. She coordinates with our members, starts all of the seeds that we later transplant, figures out which boxes go where, then picks and washes and packs and organizes the boxes each delivery day. She gives me a clipboard and tells me where to deliver and to whom and off I go, just like a vegetable delivery guy. I do stay focused on the growing side and this division of labor works well.

Michelle and I have spent many years sharing the knowledge we have acquired. We started speaking at conferences on the environment and homeschooling a quarter century ago. I started workshops on renewable energy and sustainable living at community colleges and conferences throughout the province after we moved off the grid 15 years ago.

A decade ago we convinced our friend Bill Kemp to write “The Renewable Energy Handbook, the book that we wished we’d had when we moved off the grid. (This book is now out of print but we actually just came into a case of the second edition if you don’t already have it in your library!) Then we wrote a number of books and produced some DVDs that allowed us to share what we’d learned with a broader market.

So with this background in information dissemination we’re launching our latest endeavor, The World’s Greatest Most Totally Awesome “How to Start and Operate a Successful CSA” Marathon Workshop. As always we are adverse to using hyperbole in describing our projects.

I am totally over-the-moon about putting this one together! First, because I know I’ll meet some awesome people who come to take the workshop. Second, as blog readers will be aware, I believe growing food sustainably is THE most important work you can do. Yes, curing horrible diseases and figuring out how to suck carbon out of the atmosphere is important, but everyone needs to eat and if you grow the food well you can provide good health to people and the planet.

We decided to offer the workshop in January to give me time to prepare the material. It’s also a ‘down’ month for vegetable farmers and just about the time that CSA farmers should be starting some seeds indoors.

I realize it’s unlikely that this workshop will be of interest to our regular blog readers. It’s a fairly targeted specific potential market. Since we assume people will be coming a distance everyone will stay at our place. So it will be a great week of learning from sun up to sun down (and beyond since it’s January).

We also decided to condense it into one week. I think this will be kind of a cool team-building thing. Sorry, that sounds so corporate I even regret writing it. It will be a great way to build a network of support to get everyone through his or her start up years. I know that thinking about starting a CSA is a daunting concept. I believe having a network of like-minded people to help you through those first years will be critical to people.

Michelle and I have followed the evolution of CSAs since we ran an organic vegetable co-op out of our garage in Burlington 25 years ago. CSAs come and go. Often young passionate people start them but get overwhelmed with the work involved and the challenges. That’s unfortunate. One of the things that our modern food production system does is make it difficult for young people without a lot of capital to get started. You need money and/or lots of credit. And when you and your bank buy your big tractor you’re going to need a lot of fossil fuels to power your operation, and probably treated seeds and things that ensure you get your return on investment.

That model has worked marvelously well up until now and just at the time when farmers are getting bigger and there are fewer of the them producing our food, we reached the peak of easy to find and extract oil. One more credit crunch like 2008 and the whole model gets shaky which is why it’s so important for there to be young farmers growing on a smaller, less fossil fuel and credit intensive scale to pick up the slack.

And we hope our workshop will provide a few more of those farmers with the skills and tools required to make a go of it.

If you know of someone who might be interested please send him or her a link to our workshop information (http://sunflowerfarm.ca/how-to-start-and-operate-a-successful-csa-workshop/) . And when the workshop is complete I’m going to try some of the stuff I learned running for the Green Party. I’m thinking about setting up regular Sunday night live online video chats (I’m sure they have a more techy name) where everyone can ask each other questions and bounce ideas off each other. I got some of my best materials for All Candidates Meetings during those video meetings.

I really think this is going to be an awesome thing. Michelle keeps rolling her eyes when I come up with new elements to it, which means I’m on track! And there’s only 6 months ‘til it happens! Now, where am I going to make the cross-country ski trails for everyone, and I’ve got to map out the menus, and each day’s work, and how will I keep the rink skatable until the third week in January, and …

cam in front of shelves of veggies

 

 

Saving Seeds, Feeding the World & the Vanishing Bees

I have friends on both sides of the whole “colony collapse disorder” situation with honeybees. I have two friends; both named Karen, who produce honey. Both have suffered losses to their hives, which seem to be growing worse.

Recently I watched “The Vanishing of the Bees”, a documentary on the situation and it was really hard to see grown men in tears as they discussed the extent of their losses. It was personal. They clearly have a connection with their bees. I actually didn’t finish watching it since, like all documentaries, it got too depressing.

 http://vimeo.com/16570483

On a related, seemingly unrelated topic, here is a picture of my corn this year taken the first week of July. I know, it’s kind of pathetic, all staggered with big gaps … it’s the “Motley Crew” of my garden.

organic saved seed corn

It looks bad for a number of reasons. I save my own seed, which means that fewer seeds actually germinate. Commercially sold seed is treated to make sure it germinates consistently. It’s also rough looking because I stagger the planting, hoping that by having successive plantings I’ll maximize the number of weeks I have fresh corn for our CSA members.

The third reason for the gaps in the rows is pests. The bulk of the damage was done by cutworms … obnoxious caterpillar-like demons that live in the soil and find anything green once it reaches about 2” at which point they lop it off. In a perfect world I can spot them from the holes in the rows but when running a CSA I just don’t have the time to get to everything. I replant those sections the cutworms have trashed but it’s often too late for the replant to amount to much, so holes remain.

This photo is what ‘real’ corn looks like. This is what corn looked like in the pioneer days … hence the title of our book “Little House Off The Grid.” This is what most corn would have looked like prior to World War II at which point chemical companies switched from producing chemicals for the war effort and turned their attention to our domestic food supply, which would have been largely organic at the time.

This is what a field of my friend Eric’s corn looks like. I took this several days before I took the one of my corn. Kind of makes me feel like a major loser. Well, not so much a loser but someone growing within the limits of nature. I am in awe of what commercial farmers with commercial seed are capable of. This is why the world population has grown from 3 billion in 1959 to 7 billion 54 years later. It was all made possible by chemicals and fossil fuel based ‘cides’.

erics corn

There have been many articles on the issue of disappearing bees. The bulk of scientists believe that neonicotinoids, a pesticide on corn seeds are chiefly responsible. Needless to say the corn growers association talk about the dollar cost if we were to stop using this class of pesticides. Here’s a link to one of the recent articles;

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/controversial-pesticides-linked-to-wave-of-bee-deaths/article19330959/

And this is where it gets difficult. Do you want to feed the world or do you want to have the fruits and vegetables pollinated by bees? This is where it gets really dicey for politicians. I would do what Europe has done and ban this class of pesticides. If the price of corn goes up, so be it. Since a great deal of corn ends up being cycled through animals it would raise the price of meat so people would eat less, which would be better for their health and according to the United Nations really reduce their contribution to climate change through methane emissions.

A lot of hard-core green people see a monoculture field of corn or soybeans and wheat as a bad thing. I look at a massive field of corn, all the same size, without a single cutworm fatality, and I am in awe. I do see the down side to this type of agriculture and if we don’t scale back or eliminate neonics, cereals, which don’t need bees to pollinate them, will be all we’ll be eating. Don’t get me wrong, I love cereals. I structure my diet around them. I call myself a ‘wheat-a-tarian’ (or a pizza-a-tarian). I love bread, and pasta and anything made from wheat. Sub-buns…veggie burger buns. pizza… But I also love fruit and so many of the other tasty green and colored things that bees play such an active role in growing.

We’ll need a new perspective on what a field of corn ‘should’ look like though if we stop using some of these chemicals. I’m going to get the ball rolling by announcing the first annual “Ugliest Corn Field in North America” competition. I’m a little slow off the mark promoting it this year, so I’m the only entry but it doesn’t matter, because with a field of corn as ornery looking as mine, I was going to win hands down anyway.

* * * * * * *

After publishing this blog post, reader Jim Cherry sent us this photo with this explanation. Thanks Jim! That’s some really tall corn!!!

“This is my father’s crop of corn he (standing in the foreground) grew on new ground back in 1936 at a place about 60Km inland from Byron Bay, the most easterly aspect of Australia. This was open pollinated corn and before the days they knew anything about chemical pesticides or fertilizers.”

old corn crop

1959 – Tanzania – Major Tom

OK, I’m getting tired of the whole waiting for the ‘coincidence thing’ to pay off.

Remember the book “The Celestine Prophecy”? It was one of those blockbuster new-agey type books. I liked it. It has some nice ideas. One was that we take great energy from natural things like trees. I live surrounded by trees … so much energy! And I think green is identified as an important thing too. When we sit at our dining table we have windows on three sides. At this time of year the view is completely green with the trees in the background. So ‘feng shui!”

The biggest thing that I got out of the book was that we need to put more emphasis on coincidences. In other words, there are no coincidences … which sounds like the little monk-like kid in “The Matrix” bending spoons with his mind .. ‘there is no spoon.’

So since reading the book, any time there is a coincidence in my life, I put huge emphasis on it. As you might remember from previous blog posts I see coincidences as signs that I should buy lottery tickets. So when I experience a coincidence I load up on lottery tickets, knowing that the universe is telling me I’m going to win. You might be wondering how that strategy is working. Well, I’m still blogging and earning less than minimum wage running a CSA. So yea, the coincidence thing is crap. But I still like to dream.

On a recent Tuesday I was in Napanee waiting for our CSA members to pick up their boxes. I like getting to meet them and having a chance to chat. One of our members told me about her daughter who had been to Tanzania. She was the last member to pick up just before I left at 5 pm. I got on the road home shortly after and the second song that came on the radio was by Tom Cochrane. He’s that Canadian guy who did the song “Life is a Highway.” The song playing on the radio was from his first band, Red Ryder, and was called ‘White Hot.’ There’s a line in the song that goes … ‘for selling faulty rifles, to the thieves, in Tanzania.” COME ON! What are the odds of that? This stuff just doesn’t happen. There is meaning here. I have to figure this out.

On the next night we watched the movie “C.R.A.Z.Y.”  This is an awesome movie that our eldest daughter recommended to us. It’s from Quebec and it’s about a family of 5 boys (yikey) as they grow up through the 60’s and 70’s and so on. Since I was born in 1959 it really speaks to me … the fashions … the home décor … the family dynamics … and the music especially is awesome! At one point in the movie one of the brothers is singing and playing air guitar to the song “Major Tom” from David Bowie. It turns out that the neighborhood kids are watching his performance. I can associate with such awkward moments …

Then on Friday night we rented the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” from Tim at our local video store. Ben Stiller has resurrected this old movie with a modern theme. And there was Kristen Wiig playing the guitar and singing “Major Tom” as Ben jumps on a helicopter. COME ON! I haven’t heard that song in years. What are the odds? There’s a message here! Just what is it? I need some help.

Years ago, before I took the blue pill and figured out what the matrix really was, I used to read “The Globe and Mail,” which is kind of like Canada’s version of the “Wall Street Journal.” We only bought it on Saturdays and it was huge … like 500 pages. It took me all Sunday to read it. And every time I read it I could find the date 1959, the year I was born. I put great meaning in this. I would read out sentences to Michelle to show her how often the year of my birth showed up in the paper. Michelle just rolled her eyes … a lot. But I kept finding it. Some business had started in 1959, some law had been passed in 1959 … there was always some reference to 1959. Really, what are the odds? In every issue, 1959. There it was. Carl Sagan’s alien friends were messing with me.

So I won’t give the movie away, but there is a photograph that features very prominently in the movie and in the photograph is “1959.” COME ON! Fate is talking to me. No, it’s yelling at me. There is something important happening here. Planets are aligning. If I read horoscopes I’m pretty sure this would be considered like a code red … “Get ready for a major life change …” blah blah blah.

All these messages. All this epic karmic stuff. So many questions. No answers. I’m hoping that the Yellowstone volcano, that they now realize is way bigger than they previously thought, isn’t about to blow. I power my house with my solar panels and I’m thinking all that particulate in the air won’t be helpful. Although it may slow down global warming for a while.

As always, I shall have to wait until the last page and the conclusion to have this whole coincidence question thing answered. And who was on the grassy knoll? It’s kind of cool to think that all of these loose ends might get cleared up at some point. I’m not rushing though. I’m sure the super big gulps worth of high fructose corn syrup beverages I’m pounding back during the recent heat waves aren’t helping.

My Redneck Green Side Turning Blue

or Why Debt Matters

Debt. It’s kind of a big deal, but governments don’t seem to think so.

It was interesting to discover that during our recent election I was tending more towards the ‘conservative’ side of the political spectrum than the ‘liberal.’

The “Liberals” have governed our province for more than a decade. They have hired about 300,000 civil servants since they took office, many after the economic collapse of 2008. From a Keynesian economic perspective, I get the whole governments needing to spend during downturns to keep things rolling along. It’s one thing though to invest in infrastructure programs, which create jobs for the short term, versus hiring permanent civil servants, because once you hire a full time employee it’s hard to get rid of them. And it would be great if we could all work for the government and have their awesome benefits and pensions, but in all of the places where this has been tried, it hasn’t worked out that well in the end. George Orwell really nailed it in his book, “Animal Farm”… ‘All the animals are equal… but the pigs are a little more equal.’

My Conservative opponent in the All Candidates Meetings carried around a government regulation book that was as thick as the New York City phone book. He liked to quote the number of regulations that the book now included versus a decade before and it had grown a lot. It just kind of follows that if you hire civil servants they’re going to come up with new regulations.

Now I understand why we have regulations. Civil society needs them. Workers need them. We want clean water coming out of our taps and governments can try and ensure this. My problem with the current ruling Liberal government is that they really have no idea how they are going to pay for all the money they spend. They have a $12 billion deficit this year (they are spending $12 billion more than they are taking in through taxes) and that will be added to an accumulated debt of $280 billion, or quarter trillion dollars. That is a crazy number. When you see it calculated out on a per capita basis it’s comparable to some of the worst-case countries in the Euro-zone like Cyprus and Spain.

So at what point does a responsible government say, “Houston we have a problem” and get their fiscal house in order and have a balanced budget and start whittling away at the debt? We’re 5 years past the economic collapse. Some would suggest things are more stable economically so we should start to get our house in order.

But we have an “activist” premier. This is how she has been referred to. That’s great, there was a time for that. Like the 1960s and 1970s when money just poured into government coffers. It was easy to do cool progressive stuff because the economy was generating enough excess that the government would siphon some off and it would keep growing. But now we have this stagnant economy. In Ontario our manufacturing sector has been decimated, so we’re losing those high paying middle class jobs. Governments are competing with each other for companies to come and open so they all keep reducing corporate taxes, so that source of revenue is dropping.

At what point does a government get mature about the situation and say “you know what, we have to start living within our means”? We have to start spending money that we actually have. We need to have some money in the bank for a rainy day. Heck, we need to stop spending a third of the money we take in paying interest on the quarter trillion dollars of debt we took on borrowing money to live a lifestyle we can’t afford anymore. You can be an activist all you want, but sooner or later the cold cruel hand of reality is going to slap you upside the head and say ‘ENOUGH!”

I guess what concerns me the most is that the Liberals came out of the election with a majority. This means that most people voted to keep a government around that loves to spend money and really doesn’t seem to care about ever paying off their credit card. Is this how most households work so they’re comfortable with a government that behaves the same?

The Conservatives said they would eliminate 100,000 jobs from the government. First it was just a broad statement but when they got blow back they said they’d eliminate them over time through attrition, as people retired. Too late. The damage was done. The Liberals jumped on this and got everyone scared about the scary Conservatives. Really? How is reducing the number of civil servants by 30% of what was hired in the last half decade such a scary thing for people? It seems we were doing pretty well with the number of civil servants we had before we hired 300,000, so why would it be such a scary thing to say we’ll only keep 200,000 of those new hires?

Remember, I have nothing against civil servants. I have been very left on the political spectrum for a long time, but frankly I’m tired of governments that have no intestinal fortitude and are unable to make tough decisions. Personally I have no debt. I spend only what I make. (And as I have willingly shared in many previous blogs, my income is below the poverty level, so it isn’t like I have a slush fund of money to play around with.) That’s the way it should be for governments.  And they should have a rainy day fund for the next economic crisis that comes our way, not have some massive debt that will make them incredibly vulnerable to interest rate hikes or other nasty consequences of a world gone mad about credit.

The Green Party believes in a balanced budget. This was one of the reasons I was comfortable running for them. We also believe that you have to be honest with people. May, 2014 was the hottest May ever, worldwide.  Houston we have a problem with the climate, a huge one that threatens EVERYTHING else. But we keep electing governments that can’t seem to stand the idea of being the least bit unpopular. Or giving up power. Or doing what’s right rather than what keeps them in power.  I think the Liberal Party of Ontario that governs this province should be ashamed of itself rather than patting itself on the back for buying its way back into power with debt.

Debt catches up to you. I’m going to buy the Liberal government a DVD copy of “The Sopranos” and show them what happens when Tony Soprano lends you money and you can’t pay him back. It ain’t pretty.

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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 business, Aztext Press. 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 a sought after speaker for conferences and keynotes and has motivated thousands 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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