The Downward Road of Dumpster Diving

If the trend line to homelessness starts with ‘dumpster diving’ I was on the downward road 30 years ago. Luckily I have avoided it, for which I am infinitely grateful.

My dumpster diving started when our daughters were young. One of my customers owned a print shop and I regularly delivered artwork to him. He was in an industrial mall and the unit next to him was an office supply place (before the retail behemoths moved in). They had the best dumpster EVER! In those days office furniture and file cabinets came with tons of lumber around them protecting them during shipping. So any time I was there I would check out that dumpster looking for wood. I would toss it out of the dumpster, knock it down as much as possible to fit it into our Toyota Tercel, and then drive home with much of extending out of the back end of the car. It was so awesome!

I built lots of stuff out of the salvaged lumber. This is a playhouse I built for my daughters.


Oh sure, I could have bought one of those big pink plastic ones, but this was not only free, I made it! Do you know how many times I just stood staring at that beautiful but poorly constructed monstrosity? It was filled with a variety of playhouse-sized furniture and things  salvaged from other peoples’ garbage. The beauty of living in suburbia, especially in a city full of wealthy people, is the great stuff that people just throw out. And we were in our ‘pay-off-the-mortgage’ and ‘get the hell out of dodge’ mode, so there was no budget for a plastic playhouse.

I built lots of shelves and all sorts of other ‘practical’ items, all incredibly ugly, all works of art. There are many still in use 25 years later like this one.


My dumpster diving took a hiatus when we moved to the country because it just wasn’t practical. But after planting my high-bush blueberry patch I began to get coffee grounds. I would call the coffee shop before I left on my drive to the city and ask if they would save me their coffee grounds that day. Sometimes it was pay dirt, sometimes not so much. And I always had to stand in line waiting to get to be served. Often when I asked, “Do you have any coffee grounds you want to get rid of?” I was met with one of those “Oh help me, a crazy man is at the counter” kind of looks. Unless the staff member had been there long enough to have had other gardeners ask for their grounds, these encounters were probably traumatizing for staff. Little did they know that coffee grounds make your soil very acidic and that many berry plants, especially blueberries, thrive in acidic soil.

Recently though, my patience for standing in line has deteriorated and my awareness of where their garbage bins are kept has increased. So often the employees are busy and I feel guilty asking them for grounds and I don’t get many. So now it’s official, I just walk up to those garbage bins and start rummaging. I should be embarrassed, but I’m not. I believe the coffee chain in fact should pay me since I save them having to pay for thousands, and I mean thousands, of pounds of waste going to a landfill. The last time we were there I struck pay dirt! There was a huge bag of coffee grounds but it was way at the bottom. So after some creative organizing (removing the garbage on top) out it came. The other bags then went back in. In a place like this the “garbage” is pretty sterile. Once I wrestled those bags of heavy coffee grounds to the trunk of the car I started craving coffee. I’m convinced I could run hot water through enough of those used grounds and get a reasonable cup out of it. But we haven’t quite got there yet.

On our next stop at other one of these coffee places on our way out of town I happened to grab not only grounds but also a bag of food. A whole bag of expensive, gourmet sandwiches and stuff. The best-before date was that day, so I guess that’s why they were thrown out. The chickens enjoyed the muffins and biscuits and Jasper the Wonder Dog, enjoyed some of the sandwiches. Michelle was paranoid about whether or not they had been kept refrigerated but it was a cool October night and none of the pets got sick from these treats.

Supposedly about 40% of food in North America is wasted. My recent dumpster diving haul convinced me of this. Why this coffee shop wouldn’t have found an institution to donate this sort of stuff to is beyond me. I’m sure there are regulations. I’m sure there is the perception that it’s demeaning to those who are in a situation where they need it.

I, on the other hand may ramp up my pursuit of such hidden treasure. I’m thinking maybe if I got a half decent suit from a thrift store and wore a tie while doing this people would mistake me for one of those rich people you hear about who live like they are penniless and then leave a ba-zillion dollars to a charity when they die. Now if I can just keep my inside voice from becoming my outside voice while plying the waters of garbage bin inspection, I may avoid people leaving coins near me. Although ….



The Happiest Chickens on the Planet Live Here at Sunflower Farm

As you probably know, I’m not one for hyperbole or over-the-top bragging and self-promotion, but I am comfortable with the claim that the happiest chickens on the planet live here at Sunflower Farm. Nope, no hyperbole there.

Adding to the decor of the front porch

Adding to the decor of the front porch

I say this because I’ve read a few articles recently how industrial agriculture raises chickens, and it ain’t pretty. I’m not faulting the farmers here, or the consumers of eggs for that matter. It’s just the way it is. In their quest to reduce costs and produce food as cheaply as possible, often times the welfare of farm animals suffers. Or perhaps I should phrase it that the spiritual and emotional side of animals may be over looked when we raise animals too close together.

Sitting pretty

Sitting pretty

There’s a good article in Harper’s Magazine (November 2014 issue) called “Cage Wars” that describes the appalling conditions of most chickens. (

People need food and they like it cheap so economies of scale dictate that the most cost efficient way to it is to pack them in tightly.

The chickens here at Sunflower Farm, have room to roam. We started with 4 laying chickens and are up to 26 right now. My attitude is that 24 chickens are as much work as 4, so the more eggs we produce and sell to our friends, hopefully there are fewer chickens out there living in cramped quarters. I spend just as much time getting up and letting the ladies out, and bringing them food, and herding them back into the pen after they’ve free ranged and cleaning up the coop and pen whether I have 4 or 24.

Spread out

Spread out

Our vegan readers will question why we have chickens at all, but as I’ve blogged about in the past, the biggest mistake I made when we moved here was to not buy a tractor while I had the money. So I do a lot of manual labor and a big plate of eggs and potatoes for breakfast is my fuel. I’ve replaced diesel fuel with happy chicken animal protein. The chickens don’t seem to mind and as a bonus we get great manure for the gardens that provide produce to for our CSA.

When we first got chickens Michelle started following other chicken blogs and discovered which foods they like. So our ladies get a bowl of warm large flake oatmeal and sliced bananas first thing in the morning. They devour this. Our local grocery store sells their over-ripe bananas at a reduced price and low and behold these are the ones our ladies like. Easier to digest!

As the day goes on they get a steady stream of treats. They love rice, which I imagine they think of as insect eggs. They go ga-ga over rice. They get cooked potato peels. Right now they are getting the ugly sweet potatoes that we cook and mash up for them. They devour sweet potatoes. They often get pasta if we have leftovers. I imagine that they think the spaghetti is a worm and they love it. During the growing season they get all of the trimmings from our harvests of lettuce, etc. As we’ve been cleaning out the garden this fall, they have enjoyed all sorts of leftover lettuce, spinach and almost anything else. It turns out that they love broccoli leaves. They don’t like cauliflower leaves, just broccoli. So every time we harvest some broccoli we pull the plants for the chickens and it sets off a feeding frenzy in the pen.

Fighting over broccoli plants - Note the one on top of the coop!

Fighting over broccoli plants

They have a very large pen with lots of room to roam. After they’re done laying around 11 am we open the gates to they can free range. They love grass and clover and bugs and will happily spend hours scratching and digging everywhere. Later in the day we herd them all back in and they tend to sleep or dust bathe and generally take it easy for the afternoon. They put themselves to bed around dusk and seem pretty happy in their coop. It’s warm and cozy but they all seem to have enough room.

Tucked in at bed time

Tucked in at bed time

Posing near sunflowers

Posing near sunflowers

We heard a kafuffle outside one morning this summer and discovered a red fox on the other side of the pen watching the ladies. Jasper the Wonder Dog tore after the fox. I thought the fox was a goner because Jasper is a very fast border collie but by the time he had chased it through the corn patch and across the back garden, the fox was out in front and looking back at Jasper, with a look that said, “is that all you’ve got?” Jasper didn’t stand a chance. Foxes are very fast.

The pen is large enough that I cannot enclose the top, and I also often change the boundaries. One recent morning there was commotion and when I went out to check a large bird was flying away. It might have been a hawk or some other bird of prey (I didn’t have my glasses on). The ladies were freaked out and spent most of the day cowering under their coop and gawking at the lilac bushes where I presume the hawk had come from. We did a head count and luckily everyone was present and accounted for.

Hiding from the hawk

Hiding from the hawk

Short of installing a TV in the coop with Chicken Netflix, which would consist of endless loops of grasshoppers jumping and grubs being dug up out of the soil, I’m not sure what else we could to enrich our chickens’ experience here at Sunflower Farm. They would enjoy the “grub TV” since they spend many hours following me around wherever I’m digging and uncovering unseemly insects. And it’s quite a panic watching a few of them chase a grasshopper across the lawn. It reminds me of being a kid when someone brought one of those really bouncy “super balls” to school and threw it at the pavement and we all ran around trying to figure out where it would come down.

I love the eggs we get from the ladies. I love buying straw to line their coop. I love selling their eggs knowing I’m displacing eggs from chickens not being allowed to live up to their potential the way our ladies do. For a city boy from the suburbs I think I’ve come pretty far!

Sitting on some hay

Sitting on some hay


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A Wedding!

Guest Post by Michelle Mather

Saturday was a Red Letter day for us, as our daughter Nicole was married. It was a wonderful, low-key event and we were so pleased that they chose their own way to celebrate their union. First, a very simple but lovely ceremony at City Hall was witnessed by a small group of immediate family and close friends. The officiant could not have done a better job of saying all of the things you would want to be said in a wedding ceremony. It was short and sweet and to the point!

Afterwards we all headed to one of Nicole and Will’s favourite restaurants. After a few short toasts and one longer speech the delicious food began to arrive from the kitchen. It was family-style, meaning large dishes were served and we all helped ourselves. What an appropriate way to celebrate the union of our two families, by sharing food from the same dishes.

Will’s mom had been asked to propose a toast but she went a step further and re-wrote a very special children’s book that had been published the same year that Nicole & Will had been born (1986). The book is “I’ll Love You Forever” by Canadian author Robert Munsch. If you don’t know about this book be sure to find a copy and read it to a child you love. Both Nicole and Will have fond memories of this book being read to them, and it holds a special place in my heart because I actually got to hear Robert Munsch tell this story long before the book had even been published.

Once we had all enjoyed way too much food and toasted the happy couple with ample glasses of wine, we headed to the newlywed’s favourite pub where we met up with more friends and family members.

Cam and I are thrilled to welcome our new son-in-law Will to our family. Will is wonderful young man and as an added bonus he is very politically minded and he and Cam can converse for hours on the subject! Cam joked in his toast that not only did he gain a son-in-law but also a campaign manager for the next time he decides to run for the Green Party!

Nicole and Will met when they were in high school.  Since Cam and I also met in high school and Cam’s parents met in high school, they are carrying on that family tradition!


Photo by the wonderful Kam Mudhar of Flashing Lights Photo Design (

Extreme Thrift Shopping

You know what really annoys me? Seeing high-end cars parked near thrift shops. Don’t the owners of those luxury automobiles know they shouldn’t be there? They should be out buying new stuff, and then donating it to the thrift shop after a week or two, once they’re bored with it. Then I can buy it for 5¢ on the dollar. There should be biometric eye scanning income tests when you walk into a thrift store just to make sure you’re not in the “one percent” and don’t belong there.

I have probably rambled on too much about thrift shops, but frankly, I love them. I hate buying anything new anymore. And I revel, simply revel in some of our finds. I don’t think I’ve ever come home from buying something new as excited as I have about some of my finds at thrift shops.

Like the time I found the book “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis in hard cover about three months after it was published. I paid $2 for it! No really, a $35 book for $2! Best day EVER!

I know I drone on about thrift stores too much because recently Michelle’s laptop was in for repair. Robert, our favourite Apple Technician (and reader of this blog apparently) fixed our computer and as we were leaving he said, “And now you’re off to shop at some thrift stores …” or something along those lines. Really? Are we that predictable? Do we have so few activities that you have us pegged? Well, I have news for Robert. I found a totally awesome book for him at one of our favourite Thrift Shops and the next time I see him I will toss that book at him and say “There, how’s that for your ‘thrift store shopping’ mockery?” Well, okay he wasn’t mocking us, but it’s a fun illusion.

I recently broke a small vacuum head that I like to use. Yes, we live off grid but have several vacuum cleaners. Mind you, they are not Dysons, so I like use a small nozzle to try and concentrate what little suction there is. Alas, the only way I could replace it through traditional retailers was to buy a bag of all the attachments for $29.99. Come on. Really? Well, this seemed like a perfect thrift store challenge to me.

So last week we were in a thrift shop and there was such an attachment but is seemed too small and was attached to a hose that I didn’t want. I asked a clerk about the price, since it wasn’t tagged. She found an older gentleman working in the back and when I explained what I was after he said, “Come with me.” I waited the “Employees ONLY” door where all that magical stuff emerges from, and low and behold he produced a big plastic tub full of wayward vacuum accessories. I rummaged through it and when he said, “Which one do you want?” I said … “All of them!”

So for 50¢ each, I got three of what I wanted. I’ve been grinning ear-to-ear ever since.


I also wanted some white mini-blinds. I need a set for the battery room, which doesn’t have anything over the window, so on sunny days I can keep the room a big cooler. And years ago I brought home some mini-blinds from the dump and we cut them up to use as labels for the seedlings we grow in the spring. I’ve been working on putting rigid insulation on the chicken coop and I can cut up mini-blinds to use as great washers to screw through and keep the screw from penetrating too far into the insulation. Sure, I can buy little fancy plastic washers made specifically for this purpose, but really, where’s the fun in that? Thank you thrift store, for having such cheap mini-blinds.

During CSA season from May to October we rarely leave the house, so having some time now to visit thrift stores is awesome. Well, it’s awesome for the first time. After 6 months the books have turned over nicely and there are lots of new titles to choose from. Of course you’ve got to wait a month in between anyway to make sure you’re not looking at the same ones over and over again.

I like to wear long-sleeved cotton shirts when I am working outside. I don’t like being exposed to too much sun and I don’t believe in sunscreen, so they offer my arms some protection. Last time at our favourite thrift shop there was a rack of men’s clothes labeled “50% off” so I grabbed two $1 long sleeved shirts. Yes, that means they were 50¢ each! I can’t stop looking at them! And wearing them!

One of the shirts is black and has a beautifully sewn embroidered logo for the “Black Knights” on it. It turns out that the “Black Knights” are sports teams from LaSalle Secondary School, which I attended in about 1974 when our family lived in Kingston. How cool is that! I doubt I could go out and buy one of these shirts from the school if I wanted one. I probably wouldn’t have thought to try but when you find one for 50¢, it’s like finding a $20 bill in some jeans that have been in your drawer for years.

And yes, the reason those jeans were in my drawer for years was because I have too many pairs already, because I keep buying new/used pairs because I find them so cheap at thrift shops. It’s a vicious circle. I know. I’m trying to cut down. I’m doing much better. I’m walking away from way more stuff.

You know from reading this blog, that I am very fussy about my coffee mug. My old coffee mug was great, but it doesn’t hold enough and so I keep having a second cup, which is never as good as the first cup. So I’ve been looking for a larger mug so I didn’t have to go through this routine. I found this awesome rooster cup for 50¢. My morning coffee is better than ever these days!


I don’t think it could ever get much better than thrift shopping! Well, never leaving the house is pretty great, but if you have to leave, this is a great reason.

The Oregon 40-Volt Battery Powered Chainsaw (Solar Powered!)

This blog might seem like a commercial endorsement, but let me explain. First off, here is a short video I made about the Oregon 40-Volt battery powered chainsaw which I’m really impressed with … actually I really love this chainsaw!


 (PLEASE NOTE: When using any piece of power equipment, proper protective gear should be worn. For this short video I did not put on my regular equipment mentioned below)

Recently as I was working on an article about living off-grid for Mother Earth News (available here) I got a sense that I should be exploring battery-powered chainsaws. I have an electric chainsaw that I blogged about here which I use a lot. In fact I try and cut my wood in three log lengths in the bush, then ‘buck it’, or cut it to woodstove-sized lengths with my electric chainsaw. This helps me use up excess electricity in the winter on those cold sunny days and it helps me reduce my carbon footprint.

Heating with wood is ‘carbon neutral.’ The tree used photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide from the air and store it as woody mass, and you release it when you burn it. You’re just speeding up the process. The problem is that most people cut firewood with a chainsaw that uses gasoline (fossil fuels) in a two-stroke motor where you mix the gas and oil, which is one of the most polluting engines you can use. So by using my electric chainsaw I significantly reduce how much gas I burn, but with 150 acres to cut trees I’d need a really, REALLY long extension cord to use it much in the bush.

So I was intrigued with the idea of a battery-powered chainsaw. I have been slow to adopt such a technology which is surprising considering my positive experience with the lithium battery that powers my bike which gets me to town and back, a 26 km (16 mile) round trip. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t think a battery-powered chainsaw would work, but more a case of inertia, in that my gas-powered chainsaw works and after 16+ years of living off the grid I get tired of constantly adopting new technologies.

So I asked Oregon if they would let me evaluate one of their saws for the article I was writing for Mother Earth News. I have used many Oregon products, namely their chain saw bars and blades and so it’s a brand I’m familiar with.

The saw is nice and lightweight but has some real torque. Torque is that word they always use in those big honkin’ pickup truck commercials about pulling horrifically big trailers and loads. It’s like, wow, it’s battery powered and it really cuts wood. So I’m officially impressed. I really love this chainsaw.

It allows me to do two things. First off, I can cut trees in the bush without gas, which saves me money over the long haul and reduces my carbon footprint. I think it’s probably a lot healthier too. When you use a chainsaw you are very close to the exhaust of the engine, and gas and oil and who knows what else is being vaporized right beside where you’re breathing. So this wins on a number of fronts.

It also helps me cut wood close to the house, which might be in “extension cord” distance from the house, but if it’s cloudy (no sun) or not windy, I may not want to use my electric chainsaw. And there are times, like taking down a small tree or trimming some branches where I don’t want the hassle of gassing up the chainsaw and getting it started, which can often be an adventure in itself. Starting a gas chainsaw can be a hassle.

This way I can just grab the battery powered chainsaw and go. And it starts as soon as I hit the button. Plus it has a ‘self-sharpening’ function, which is pretty great. I have to study it more but in principal it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Just so we qualify that this is a properly critical review, there are downsides.

First is that this saw does not have the torque of my gas powered chainsaw. This should not be a surprise but I state it regardless. I would probably not have tackled that tree with the 3-foot base that was shading the garden that I took down last winter. The upside of this is that it’s much quieter and less intimidating. I actually convinced Michelle to cut with this chainsaw, something she has never done before!


Second is that it’s a battery, and batteries run out. It charges quickly but that can be a hassle. But nothing is perfect so I just accept this. I would probably look at investing in a second battery to reduce this frustration. I did an experiment and started with a charged battery and I cut wood until the battery died and it did a really big pile of wood. It was quite amazing for such a small battery.

You might say, why have to deal with battery run time, just go with the gas one. And for the reasons I’ve suggested I’ll probably keep both. In terms of how long I work with the chainsaw now I find I’m using it for shorter periods of time. I read once that most skiers break their legs on the last run of the day, when they’re tired. Since then I’ve been acutely aware of my fatigue level anytime I use the chainsaw. I don’t mind getting overworked in the garden because I have yet to seriously injure myself with my hoe. But a chainsaw on the other hand, a miscalculation is a ‘career decision,’ or more appropriately a life decision. There is no more lethal tool humans use regularly than a chainsaw. I wear a hardhat with ear and face protection. I wear chainsaw boots and chainsaw pants. I also am fully aware that some unanticipated kickback or other unintended movement can quickly severe an artery or do other similar damage.

My friend Gary told me about a chainsaw accident he had and commented that emergency room doctors and surgeons “HATE” chainsaw injuries. That was enough to convince me of the need for extreme caution when using one to avoid having to enlist their services.

So this Oregon battery powered chainsaw is a pretty great intermediate step. It’s not good for a full day of cutting, but it’s great for some cutting and performs well once you get used to it. For someone just getting started with a chainsaw it’s perfect. And for someone with a slighter build it is far less intimidating that a gas powered one.

And I’ll be like those business commentators on the PBS Nightly Business Report when then talk about stocks and then declare whether or not they own it. I will be approaching Oregon to see if they will sell me this evaluation chainsaw. If their price is right I will buy it. I am at a stage where I am loath to purchase another consumer product unless I feel it has genuine utility for me. This is a product I can see myself using. And of course when you live off grid, it becomes “a solar powered, battery powered, electric chainsaw” and what could be cooler than that!


And best of all, I don’t need ear protection because it doesn’t have the deafening roar of a gas one. My neighbor Ken will offer to rig me up some speakers and an iPod so I can play the “Deafening Gas-Powered Chainsaw Shrill” song when I use it to feel like a real lumberjack.

The Devil You Know and the Status Quo (or Whoops I Did It Again!)

I ran for municipal council in our recent election … and just so I don’t keep you perched on the edge of your seat, I’ll just put it out there … I lost.

And that’s okay. I’m down with that. The great news is that 3 out of the 5 councilors elected in my township are female, and that’s a great step forward. In Ontario all of our municipal elections occur every 4 years, so just so you know what kind of celebrity this entails, this was the same election in which Rob Ford, sorry, I mean Rob Ford’s brother Doug, did not get elected as mayor of Toronto.

Once I had submitted my nomination papers I began to realize the limitations of municipal council. I lost some of my motivation to win.

I had decided up front, as I did when I ran for the Green Party in the last provincial election, that I wasn’t going to use lawn signs. We have an enormous riding and I’d have to spend a fortune on them to make any difference. And my attitude is that if you’re just going to vote for me because I have the ‘most’ or ‘biggest’ signs, well then I really don’t want to participate in that kind of democracy. The great news is that my friend John Wise, the organic farmer that grows the organic strawberries for our CSA, got re-elected, and he didn’t use signs either. John also got the most votes, which is even better news. So much for the sign theory.

I decided to use the ‘Anita Roddick’ school of promotion as the basis for my election campaign. Anita started the retail store “The Body Shop” when she was a single mom as a way to earn a living. As it grew she never advertised, and yet it became massively success worldwide. She tended to source natural ingredients for her personal care products, and when she found a sustainable source of say, cocoa butter in some remote village, she would promote this with local media and would inevitably get promotion for her store without having to purchase advertising. I met her many decades ago when she did a book tour and she was very much an inspiration for me.

So I decided that I had a certain profile in our community based on activities I’ve organized such as a number of Green Energy Fairs, along with the writing I do in the local paper as well as my Green Party campaign last spring. I might have printed a campaign brochure and put it in mailboxes but after the first All Candidates Meeting I realized two things. First that I would be only one of 7 votes on council and I would have to create consensus for anything I wanted to accomplish. I’m sure you’ve got a sense that someone who lives off the grid, homeschooled his kids, eats a plant-based diet, etc. etc. etc, I don’t always play well with the other kids in the sandbox, so this may have proven problematic for me.

Secondly, township councils have to work within heavy guidelines or constraints mandated by the provincial government. So it seemed challenging to want to move forward with an agenda that may be outside of council’s mandated responsibility.

If you’ve read my book “Thriving During Challenging Times” or followed this blog for long, you have probably realized that I believe that we are all, including our governments, in the midst of a period of abrupt change which will require outside-of-the-box thinking. Our weather is getting much more extreme, we have run out of easy to find oil and what’s left requires a whack of energy to get it out, and most of our governments are heavily in debt if not bankrupt, thereby limiting their ability to deal with these crises.

Last spring our township had the worst flooding anyone remembers. This requires a rethink of how we run our local government. Our township has an enormous number of roads to maintain, and a relativity small population to support them. I love living in a sparsely populated area, but it hurts our ability to raise taxes to maintain those roads. About half of all taxes in our township goes to roads. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on just diesel fuel alone so we have to rethink how much we can afford to put into our roads.

I made this central to my campaign platform – that we had to start reducing how much money went to roads. I suggested we start by rolling it back 5% in the first year. This would send a signal to staff and taxpayers that the days of constant tax increases to pay for increased services were going to end. I’m just not sure people wanted to hear this. This certainly was the case in our last provincial election. The Liberals, who have ruled for 10 years, have run up an almost $300 billion deficit. The Conservatives said that to bring spending in line with revenue, they would reduce the civil service by 100,000 people, which had grown by 300,000 in the last decade under the Liberals.

Voters gave the Liberals a majority. Apparently we either like the status quo or all the services the government provides. In Ontario, the government will provide $12 billion more in services than it will generate in revenue. This doesn’t seem to faze anyone. I guess when you look at the fact that Canadians are up to their eyeballs in debt, like Americans were in 2007 before the collapse, it’s understandable we don’t mind our governments behaving the same way. Or maybe that’s why we’re so comfortable with that debt because our role model is doing it.

At the All Candidates Meeting I discussed how severe weather as a result of climate change required action on our part and that peak oil with the number of road miles we have to maintain required action. I just don’t think voters want to hear this. They want shiny happy stories, and I’m afraid I won’t tell those stories.

I also made a commitment to get our fire stations provided with proper backup power generators. Right now in my town if there is a power outage, which often occurs during severe weather like ice storms, basically the only way the fire station can keep the lights on is if our volunteer firefighters bring in their own generators. That’s pathetic. And sure, rural people should have their own independent power systems. But some people can’t afford them. And sometimes, older residents don’t have them or have family they can rely on to help them out. So I believe our community should have one place where people in distress can go to get warm and seek refuge from the elements. And so off I go to figure out where to find money for a big ‘ole generator for our fire station.

I learned an enormous amount about municipal government running for office. I learned a lot about provincial government running in our last provincial government. Now all that’s left to learn a lot about is federal politics …

The Veggie Dude

I have been called many things over the years. Some names are good ones … father … son … husband. Some have not been so good … whiner … pacifist … “Mr. Big Rush” (this was in a bank lineup one day) … that S.O.B. environmentalist (from the gang at the back of one provincial election All Candidates Meetings as they booed me for suggesting climate change was a threat.) I particularly revel in that one because I live in a country where people can still do this without threat of imprisonment. How nice that we can disagree but still cohabitate in such a great place.

As I reflect on supplying our CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) members with vegetables over the growing season there are few highlights.

First was how much broccoli and cauliflower we had early in the season thanks to the cool wet weather. Second was how great the sweet potatoes did, regardless of the cool wet weather. Third was the great feedback we got from members during the season. Lots of nice emails and comments when vegetables were picked up.

My favorite moment came one day in the midst of the season. I was delivering to The Centreville Store south of here where several of our members picked up their boxes. Usually by the time we got the vegetables all picked and washed, and the boxes packed I was pretty exhausted for my trip to Napanee. On this particular day as I walked into the store, Valerie the owner, who was also a CSA member said, “It’s the Veggie Dude!” That made my day. I can’t think of anything better to be referred to than “The Veggie Dude.” I’m thinking of getting a T-shirt made up.

One of the other fun comments came from the twin daughters of a member. They refer to me as “Cam, Cam, the Vegetable Man.” How cool is that?

veggie dude

Kids say the greatest things in this regard. One of our CSA member families has a child fighting a very serious illness. I probably shouldn’t admit it, because Michelle and I are obsessive about ensuring each of our members gets an exact equal share of the produce each week, but I know that this one young member likes berries, so there may have been the odd week she got a few extra. In light of her challenges I believe our other members would support this marginally preferential treatment. I am often overcome when she waves at “The Farmer” from her car seat. I cannot offer medical care but I can try and provide the healthiest produce available to help her in her journey.

As the season winds down it’s weird not having to be out in the garden so early each morning. There is still lots to be done but now that weekly deliveries are over the pressure is somewhat reduced. I do have a long list of stuff to do that I’m behind on. It’s getting pretty chilly here and I had hoped to have most of it done before now. This never changes. I never feel on top of this, I’m always behind the 8-Ball. The challenge is just doing my best and accepting this constant state of playing catch up.

Much of it will have to wait now as I begin planting garlic. I always fantasize about doing it on those warm sunny fall days. Inevitably I don’t get around to it until a cloudy windy November day when my hands freeze up as they break apart the heads of garlic and plunge the cloves into the wet ground. It could be worse though. I could be living in a city sitting in a chair working at a computer. I am most grateful destiny has brought me to this place and time and situation.

I remind myself of this constantly. Running a CSA is a huge challenge. It’s a logistical nightmare growing that much food and getting it fresh to so many members. It’s a physical challenge well beyond a summer of marathons because it lasts six months and it’s every day without a break. But with such a challenge comes the reward and in all the many pursuits I’ve had in my life, it is without question the most rewarding. That’s right … that’s me … “The Veggie Dude!”

* * * * * * *

Reminder from Michelle

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Potassium Iodide Pills and That Whole Fukushima Thing

Like so many things I disagree with, I have resigned myself to nuclear power. The Province of Ontario (home of Toronto and mayor Rob Ford!) where I live uses nuclear reactors to generate more than 50% of our electricity. The Green Energy Act has inspired a huge buildup in solar and wind power, but we aren’t going to continue to live the way we do now with renewable energy for a while. Which begs the question; can we keep living this way? That is a topic for another blog post.

After watching the Fukushima meltdown I am concerned about the hazards of radioactivity in a worst-case scenario. I remember reading that Scandinavian countries that were proactive when they discovered radioactivity from the Chernobyl meltdown had much lower rates of thyroid cancer. What had they done? So with 18 or 20 nuclear reactors in the province, and bits and pieces of information about previously unknown fault lines and potential earthquakes near Lake Ontario, I thought I would educate myself about the hazard.

I stood talking to one of our CSA members last summer and when she said she grew up in Pickering where there is a nuclear plant I said “Well I hope you didn’t live less than 5 km from it” and of course she was quite close. She told me that every year in public school they had a least one “drill” where the sirens went off, each kid was given a pill to take, they were watched to make sure they took it, and then they were loaded on to buses and driven a safe distance away. I suggest to anyone who doesn’t want to live near a large wind turbine because of health effects that they should move their kids to Pickering. But what was that pill?

The pill is potassium iodide. If there is a nuclear accident radionuclides are released that head right for your thyroid and promote thyroid cancer. The main one is iodine-131.

Potassium iodide, which is a ‘stable iodide’, saturates the thyroid to prevent radioactive iodine from getting in there. It lasts about 24 hours so you would need to take a pill once a day.

My interest coincided with my research for my book The Sensible Prepper so I began to look at how to get the tablets. I found that it’s surprisingly hard to get a human voice on the phone at any of the province wide emergency disaster phone numbers. So I sent emails and made calls. Eventually I discovered that if you live within 10 kms of a nuclear plant, and there is a disaster, you can go to a local pharmacy to get potassium iodide. It’s not widely publicized because hey, you don’t want to start a panic right? I called some of the pharmacies and asked if I could get the pills. I came clean. I said I didn’t live that close but I did drive through the area when I visited my daughters so I wanted the pills. No dice. I was told that doesn’t count.

I did everything I could to get the government to give me some pills in case there was ever a nuclear emergency, and they just didn’t seem to want to.

After weeks of this I finally asked one of the pharmacist how many tablets I would get if I lived in “the zone.” She said “One.” ONE!? Seriously? Are you kidding me? You mean if a local nuclear plant melts down you’re going to have hundreds of thousands of residents lining up patiently every day to get their “ONE PILL!??” Have these emergency organizational people never seen a zombie movie? Don’t they realize as soon as the crisis hits, everyone heads for the local drugstore and they don’t stand patiently in line waiting to be served!

Eventually someone in the federal government gave me these two websites with brand names and dosages etc..

So we ordered a bunch of pills. And I gave some to my daughters who live closer to the nukes or would be driving past them on their way to safe and organic Sunflower Farm. It used to be that I freaked them out when I did this sort of stuff, but now they just roll their eyes. And I’m happy about that. I had put off ordering these pills for months. Then one day I thought you know what, now that I have this information, can you imagine how much I’d beat myself up if when I had the chance I hadn’t ordered them? Because when you need the pills you need them quickly, and if you want to order a bunch all of the sudden you can bet you won’t be the only one and they’ll be sold out pretty quickly. Or, you could just go and stand in line at the local pharmacy, for your ONE pill a day.

So I can tick that off my list. Fear of nuclear fallout. Check. Now if we can just figure out how to stop the radioactive tritium from leaking, and how to store the waste from nuclear plants safely for 100,000 years until it’s no longer lethal, all will be well with my world.


Cam’s Addendum: I actually posted this blog a month ago but then decided to “unpost” it. But recently, several of Canada’s largest media outlets including CTV News and The Toronto Star have reported on it. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has recommended what I was attempting to do a few months ago and just distribute the pills to everyone in the zone:

The Garbage Barge that is Capitalism (or A Trip Down Memory Lane Through Decluttering)

We have a guesthouse here at Sunflower Farm that was built by the previous owners, Jean and Gary. It’s pretty handy when we have guests and I have used one of the three upstairs rooms as my office since we moved here in 1998. Now that we have switched our focus from publishing books to growing food, I had an epiphany that it was time to clean out my office. All I really need is place to sit with my laptop to write a blog once in a while.

The problem with having a guesthouse the size of another home is that it allows you to accumulate stuff at an alarming rate. So I have been spending any recent spare moment decluttering. Michelle pointed out that one of my daughters had expressed her fear of having to clean out my hoarded mess after I finally drop dead in the potato patch, and since I love my daughters very much, I decided that leaving a big mess isn’t fair to them. So dam the torpedoes, if something isn’t useful anymore, it’s time to get rid of it.

I started Aztext Electronic Publishing in 1987 and over the years I’ve had a lot of customers and done a lot of artwork for them. So I had an enormous number of files, both hardcopy in file folders, and on “media.” I say media, because over the years we have used so many different storage technologies, the mind boggles. Floppy discs, single sided diskettes, double sided diskettes, Zip Drives, SyQuest 88 mb removable disks, bigger SyQuests, CDs, DVDs, external hard drives … just let me know when you’re bored and I’ll stop.

I’ve been single handedly filling up the paper-recycling container at our landfill with file folders full of paper. And I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with all of the electronic media, since I’m always just a bit concerned some old customer will come back and want something from years ago, even if that seems pretty unlikely now. Then there are the boxes of cables. So many cables! So much stuff that was so crucial to my business and my life at one time that is now completely obsolete and useless. Just a lot of plastic and metal and crap that no longer has any value.

I’ve been finding a lot of stuff that makes me kind of sad. Like the binders full of notes that I wrote on the 50 or so software programs that I was licensed on. Oh ya, remember when PageMaker had that bug that caused it to crash and burn just before I sent a file to film and I would have to stay up all night trying to rebuild it? I’d kind of forgotten about all the stress and consternation of running a software- and hardware-dependent business for 25 years.

I do not miss that stress. I miss the income, but not the stress. In fact every day I’m grateful that I was able to run the business, but that I’ve let it slide now. But cleaning out the office is making me kind of nostalgic for those days.

I am also appalled at how wasteful capitalism is. It wasn’t enough that the bulk of what I did for much of the time was create artwork that ended up being printed on paper. That was bad enough I suppose. But the mountains of material that I’m trashing and recycling now I find quite depressing. When I take what I’m doing and extrapolate it by all the business in North America, and then the world, well, it isn’t pretty.

I’d like to think that the move to digital everything would be helping, but we’re just shifting the burden from paper stuff, which is recyclable, to electronic stuff. I am pretty skeptical when it comes to safely separating all the bits and pieces of metals and plastics and all of the other stuff that makes up our electronic gadgetry.

Then I look at the number of laptops we’ve gone through since we bought our first one 15 years ago. The amazing thing is that the first two Apple laptops we bought still work. (You can’t do anything on them of course, but they still work.) Basically every one since then has crapped out and often within just a few years. I think with the pace of innovation, companies build stuff cheaply because they know how quickly it will become obsolete. And with how often you have to update browsers, which need more memory and faster processors, you’re stuck in the game. Unless you can unplug from the matrix. This has real appeal to me after this office purge!

Michelle seems okay with keeping up, so I’ll just rely on her to keep me in the loop with what’s happening in the world. She already does that most of the time.

We had a houseful of guests over the Thanksgiving weekend, so I wanted to get the office cleaned out by then. This was good. As soon as I decided to get it finished in time for Thanksgiving my waffling over what to spare and what to recycle decreased dramatically. I basically decided to get rid of it all. Oh, except that cute little squishy “Smack-a-Mac”, oh and that file of sketches showing how we came up with the Aztext logo from the stylized Aztec calendar icon, and those copies of the first printing of The Renewable Energy Handbook, and …..


Michelle’s Note: The “Smack-a-Mac” is up for grabs. Know someone collecting Apple memorabilia? Make an offer!

On the Cover of The Rolling Stone… or Mother Earth News

During high school in the 70’s I was into music. And girls, but music was a big thing for me. I think it was for a lot of us. And why not? We missed the whole polio/nuclear winter thing and hadn’t even contemplated AIDS, climate change, peak oil, 7 billion people, yadda, yadda, yadda … it was bliss!

During the 70’s a typical suburban first world problem was finding someone with a car to hitch a ride to the Grade 12 Phys. Ed. Unit on bowling, which was held at the bowling alley, of course. My small suburban town had no transit system to speak of. Bliss indeed!

There was band call Dr. Hook that had a song about their goal of getting their photo on the cover of a Rolling Stone Magazine. I didn’t think it was a great song but it was a great concept with some great lines …”gonna get my picture on the cover … gonna buy 5 copies for my mother …”

I learned to play the guitar in my late 30s as an ‘interest,’ which one often pursues in the luxury of a city, in a home heated by natural gas and food grown by ‘someone else.’ (In other words I had a lot of time on my hands back then.) The pinnacle of my guitar playing was mastering the acoustic version, including the intro, of Eric Clapton’s unplugged “Layla.”

That and changing the lyrics to “The Times They are A changing” by Bob Dylan so that they were suitable for anyone having a party… 40th birthday.. baby shower.. etc. I could be counted on to not only come up with alternative lyrics but to perform them at the event. The one thing I never deluded myself about was the possibility of making it on to the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. I have no natural musical abilities, although when I play “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town” I am light years better than Eddie Vedder … at least in my head… and just using “C” “G” and “A” chords!

When we moved off the grid and started heating with wood and growing food and publishing books about sustainable living, the guitar, like the canoe, was put aside and gathered dust. I no longer have the time or desire to use it. We enjoy magazines like “Harrowsmith” when we could find old issues from before about 1980 when there were long detailed articles. Mother Earth News magazine also became an important resource for us. The articles were detailed and relevant to what we were doing. After we published “The Renewable Energy Handbook” we started pitching the magazine with story ideas and got several published. There’s nothing like picking up a magazine you respect and flipping pages to a story you’ve written. It’s awesome!

I’ve continued to suggest story ideas and a while back they liked the idea of one about avoiding some of the pitfalls of going off grid. When we moved here 17 years ago there was very little knowledge about using renewable energy sources and everything was very expensive. So we made a lot of mistakes. We share these and how to avoid them with people who attend our workshops and there seems to be a lot of interest in it, even if people aren’t going off grid but adding some renewable energy to their homes.

As we were working through drafts back and forth with the magazine editor, they mentioned that they were considering our article for the cover story. I was surprised because I had noticed that their covers tended to be beautiful photos of baskets of tomatoes and things and that they didn’t focus on individuals. So I pushed the thought aside so I didn’t get my hopes up.

Michelle has taught me over the years to lower my expectations. I have a tendency to expect too much. Years ago, if I was going to a conference, to speak at or just attend, I would start mentioning how much I was looking forward to the coffee and danishes at the breaks. This would ramp up to historic portions to the point where they could have had a European bakery full of chocolate éclairs and donuts, and it would not have lived up to my hopes. When I went to the AGM of the Green Party of Ontario last year they had fruit and veggies for breaks. No really! Vegetables! Blurg! I just about quit the party because of it. I can eat vegetables at home. I don’t, but I COULD. At a conference I want sweet, fatty carbohydrates that will cause me to have a metabolic crash shortly after consuming them.

But this time I didn’t need to lower my expectations or worry about getting my hopes up. This time our little piece of paradise has made it on to the cover of Mother Earth News! It’s kind of big deal and I’m over the moon about it! I feel we’ve hit the big time of sustainable living magazine-dom! It’s interesting too that in the age of declining print readership Mother Earth News readership continues to go up. So if you’re going to be on any magazine cover, this is the one!

Mother-Earth-News-October-N jpg

And unlike getting our photo in “People” magazine we don’t have photographers hiding in the bushes taking our photo. There is no paparazzi in our bushes, and Jasper the Wonder Dog would constantly charge at the tree line with that terrifying bark of his to ensure that any photographers stationed there would high tail it.

So I highly recommend you purchase a copy of this outstanding magazine … the October/November 2014 issue of Mother Earth News. If we get single copy sales up high enough I’m sure they’ll ask us to be regular contributors. Maybe a column. Or advice for country living.

My mother died over a decade ago, so I won’t be buying her 5 copies, but I will buy one for my Dad… and my daughters… and our post mistress … and that guy who said “Good Morning” to me on the street the other day… and …

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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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