Squatters on Our Property?

There could be squatters on our property! There might be an entire family of people living in the woods at the far end of our land. We don’t know that such a thing is happening, but that’s not to say that it’s not possible. We might have such a thing.

Here’s the back story.

We own 150 acres. I know. It’s fantastic! I have to pinch myself regularly to remind myself of how lucky we are. It’s like our own personal conservation area. If our acreage were in Manhattan we’d be worth like a ba-zillion dollars! But it’s not, and we’re surrounded by bush and hunt camps and an undeveloped provincial park, which is the only reason we could afford such a wonderful chunk of land.

I’ll always remember the time Michelle and I walked down a lane at the east end of the property when we were just thinking about buying this place. We simply couldn’t get our heads around this concept. 150 acres. Our lot in the city was 40’ x 108’. We had to drive to a community garden plot in order to grow a few vegetables. Then we found and bought this place. The wonders never cease!

When we moved here I explored the land a lot. I also ventured out a lot for firewood. There had been a gypsy moth infestation of the oaks several years before we bought the place. There was a lot of dead oak and it’s an amazing wood to use for firewood so I cut a lot of them. I tended to go into an area and cut, and then haul the logs out on sleds in the winter to where I could get to them in the spring with the truck.

In the last couple of years though I’ve been tending to cut wood just around the house. As we’ve expanded the gardens for the CSA I am trying to push back the woods. The darn trees just keep popping up but I keep taking them down so that more sunlight reaches the gardens. Most of the trees near the house are poplar. I used to be a bit of a snob about poplar when I had so much oak to cut. But the dead oaks are all down now and I realize that there’s nothing wrong with softwood like poplar, you just need to burn more of it for the same amount of heat.

The CSA is the other reason we don’t get out in the woods as much anymore. It just takes up every minute of every day it seems. Last spring I intended to get out to a spot where I had cut some maple in the spring of 2013. I had cut the maple into 1” thick discs and my daughter Katie and her husband sanded them to use as the bases for their wedding centerpieces. But with the increase in membership in the CSA I just kept focused on the gardens and I didn’t get out to the woods. I wanted to walk the property a number of times this past summer but I just kept focused on the gardens. Then this past fall, that was going to be my time to walk in the woods. But …. there was just so much cleaning up and organizing and a million little jobs that needed to be done that I hadn’t had time for in the summer, and presto, my fall was gone.

When my daughters were home over the holidays there was talk about a walk in the woods but, well holidays being what they are, more calories were consumed than expended. This is when I began theorizing that there could in fact be a family of squatters on our property. They could have been there for a year and we wouldn’t even know about them. We do have a gate on the road on the east end of the property. This was the road put through by the township in the 1930s to circumvent the floating bridge that horses and buggies and cars kept falling off of into the bog. I have heard of “squatter’s rights” – that if you live someplace long enough, and no one tells you to leave, well, it’s like, you can stay. Okay, I think I’m making this up, but it was a fun story.

Finally the other day Jasper the Wonder Dog and I ventured out into the bush to see what was happening on our property. And low and behold it was the same as it ever was. No squatters. No meteor impact craters. Just some downed trees and limbs.

We went down to check the status on the maple I had left near a swampy area. Even 18 months later it was in great shape. I shall return with a chainsaw and cut it into more manageable lengths so I can haul it out. We finally have some snow on the ground so I can get to it with a sled.

Jasper had a blast. It was like he had pent up “run like a crazy dog through the woods” demand. He just couldn’t run and jump and prance and put his nose to the ground and follow smells more if he tried. At one point he got up high on this rocky ridge above me and sat looking down at me, kind of like when Snoopy used to do this whole vulture on the doghouse thing. I made some comment to him, something along the lines of him considering himself king of the world, at which point he leapt into the great void, came tearing down the slope, over some ice at which point, as he always does, he plowed into me like a linebacker then turned and sprinted back up the ridge before I could show him any affection. It’s like he was saying, “You can pet me at home, but in the meantime I’ve got places to go!”

Jasper's-eyes

As I stand in the forest I must say the wonder of where I live never leaves me. We tried long ago to get away from the whole “we own 150 acres” idea. We consider ourselves temporary caretakers of this land now. It will be here long after we’re gone. I believe as long as electricity poles never come down our road it will continue to be the quiet, isolated, enchanted place it is.

So there was no family of humans living down our road. I do know a number of families of beavers that love to turn the forests into fields around several of our ponds. I can show you the place in the hemlock grove where deer seem to love to hunker down at night. They leave impressions in the snow where they slept. I think our property is just full of families of all shapes and sizes. It is simply a magical place.

I should resolve to walk the property at least once a month to keep my eye on it. But I won’t. I know come April that’s unlikely to happen. I’m thinking it’s time to buy one of those drones with the video cameras so I can collapse after a day in the garden and watch my property on TV. And yes, that must sound like such a waste to someone living in the city who is longing to live in the woods. All I can say is ‘save your money’ because if have to earn an income and you grow food at the scale I do at the age I am it is just not compatible with regular long leisurely walks through the property. It just makes it all the more special when I finally do.

aerial view

 

The Best 65¢ Loaf of Bread Ever!

I am  blessed to have an exceptional wife. She was a teacher, has several university degrees, home schooled our daughters, runs our businesses, does our accounting, sets up websites, edits and posts my blogs, works on groups in our community … oh, and she’s an exceptional cook. And, even better, an awesome baker!

I won’t regale you with stories of pies and desserts, because, well, I have been doing just that for years in this blog. When we lived in the city we had a breadmaker but I never really liked the bread that it made. When we moved off-the-electricity-grid almost 20 years ago (or more accurately 17 years ago as Michelle will point out) we gave away the breadmaker. Since we live too far away from a pizzeria to get delivery, Michelle started making her own pizza dough. It has become legendary. And then she started baking bread.

A while back she tried a “no-knead”, 4-hour loaf of bread and it was one of the best breads I’ve ever enjoyed. I absolutely love it. I base my diet around plant foods … ones that includes gluten predominantly … like bread, pasta, pizza, buns with subs and veggie burgers inside, quesadillas (although they may be corn based) … so always having great bread around is a real treat.

We try to buy as much of our food on sale, including our flour, and at one point Michelle did the math and calculated that these awesome, gourmet, artisan, fantastic loaves of bread she makes cost us about 65¢ a loaf! What? The cheapest loaf of bread you can buy at the store is about $2 and well, it’s a store bought loaf of bread. Michelle’s cost more when she uses more whole wheat flour or raisins and things, but it still costs a fraction of what it would if someone else made it, and you can eat it warm out of the oven. Could there be anything better?

And so, without further ado, I have convinced Michelle to share her technique for the easiest, tastiest, awesome-est, 4-hour no-knead loaf of bread. Even if you’ve never had luck with bread, try this! I’m not one for hyperbole, but really, it changed my life!

Michelle’s Bread Notes

This recipe isn’t original but it is a compilation from many different baking blogs and websites. Here’s how I make Cam’s favourite loaf of bread.

Ingredients

  • 1-2/3 cups warmish water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsps. instant yeast
  • 3 cups flour
  • extra flour for dusting and oil for pan

In a middle-sized bowl put 1-2/3 cups of warmish water. Not cold and not hot, just warmish. (If you need to know EXACTLY I am sure you can google it and get an exact temperature.) To this add about 1 tsp of salt and 2 tsp. of instant yeast. I use a whisk to stir this up so that the salt and the yeast dissolve in the water. Now add 1 cup of flour and use the whisk again stirring to remove as many of the lumps of flour as possible. Add the remaining 2 cups of flour and use a spoon to stir this up.

The dough will be “shaggy” at this point but don’t worry! Cover it and put it in a warm spot, out of drafts, to rise. The original recipe said to let it rise for 4 hours until it has just about doubled in size. When my house is warm I’ve had it double in just 2 hours, but I actually like to leave it even longer. We have discovered that the longer you let it rise, the better flavour it has!

dough

Once it has risen, prepare your baking dish. If I want a sandwich loaf I oil a loaf pan. If I want a round loaf of bread I oil a round baking dish and I sometimes sprinkle sesame seeds or cornmeal on the oil.

Now, on a floured board, plop the dough out of the bowl and using floured hands shape it into the desired loaf format. If it is too sticky at this point, just sprinkle flour on it to make it easier to handle. If you enjoy kneading dough, as I do, you can knead the dough at this point to your heart’s content! Then form it into the desired shape.

 

Now let the dough rise again, for at least 30 minutes or longer if you have the time. Again, I find letting it rise for a longer time makes for a better loaf but if I am in a rush, 30 minutes is just fine.

(Sometimes at this point I brush melted margarine or butter over the loaves. I did this for the loaves below and also sprinkled some fresh rosemary on the round loaf.)

Pop it into a 400°F oven for 30 minutes. By the end of the bake time it should have a golden crust and if you tap on the loaf it should sound hollow.

Remove it from the oven and take it out of the baking pan and place it on a wire rack to cool.

sandwichloaf

blackoliverosemary

As Cam mentioned, I sometimes use a combination of white and whole-wheat flour. I’ve done 50% white and 50% whole wheat and had great success. I also like to switch it up from time to time and add other ingredients. One of our favourite loaves of bread from a local trendy bakery is a Cherry Almond Loaf. It’s very pricey but I find that by adding about ¼ cup of dried cherries and about ½ cup of whole almonds to my bread dough (at the same time I am mixing in the flour) I can make a similar loaf for a fraction of the price!

Some other combinations that work are black olives and rosemary or cinnamon and raisins (for this one I roll the dough out flat, sprinkle with cinnamon and raisins and then roll the dough up into a loaf shape.)

Home-baked bread really does taste so much better!

sliced

 

The Music of a Community

Michelle and I did something last Saturday night that we don’t do very often. We went out!

Woo hoo! Look at us … going out on a date!

We went to a concert in the village near us. It was a wonderful trio of women called “Trent Severn.” (http://trentsevernband.ca/) The concert was sponsored by the Tamworth and Erinsville Community Development Committee that Michelle and I are active in. Mark and Barb do a fantastic job of getting amazing groups to come and play in our village, which is pretty remarkable given the size of our village.

I think that one of the reasons we’ve been lucky at having such great musicians come to our little village is that it is harder for musicians to make money via recording contracts and selling CDs. So they have to get out and perform. When you play a gig, you get paid. Maybe it’s also that we’re a good stopping place if they’re playing Ottawa and Toronto. Why not play in Tamworth on the way through?

The concerts are held at the local Legion Hall which sounds, well, pretty small town. But Mark says that the musicians who have played hear love the “acoustics” and “sight lines” of our Legion. I think they also like how ‘responsive’ our small town audience can be. Not in a rowdy, drunken kind of way. The venue is small enough that everyone can see the performers and the performers can see us!

(Michelle and I have now seen two female folk music trios there, the previous being “The Good Lovelies.” http://www.goodlovelies.com/site/)

These exceptionally talented singer/songwriter/musicians all tend to play multiple instruments, so as they change instruments between songs they like to tell stories about where the songs come from. Which gives them lots of time for banter. And humor. And it just makes it a very up close and personal kind of experience.

Tamworth is very fortunate to have a number of great retail businesses for a village of 700 or so people. We have a bank, a grocery store, a liquor store, a pharmacy, a bakery, several restaurants and of course, my favorite … a hardware store. So when Emm Gryner commented between songs that she was at the hardware store that afternoon, I obviously had to make sure it was in fact THE Tamworth Pro Hardware, which it was. My night was made. Em Gryner shops at the same hardware store I do! She also later thanked the woman who works in our liquor store for ‘carding’ her, which I assumed meant asking for her I.D. to ensure she was of legal drinking age. Only in Tamworth!

I must admit I really love the vocalizations of a female trio. I have several Waylin’ Jennings CDs. On Saturday night Emm Gryner played a bass ukulele which was very cool, as well as guitar. Laura C. Bates played the fiddle and produced sounds I’d never heard from one before. She was the first violinist to receive a Bachelor in Jazz and Contemporary Music from Humber College, but when she plays folk music, it seems more like a fiddle. Dayna Manning played guitar and periodically switched to a banjo, and I just love banjo.

Trent Severn is a very Canadian band. They sing songs about their experience of living in Canada, and this really improves their connection with the audience. They sang about Highway 400 that Michelle and I used to drive to escape the Greater Toronto area to cottage country in the North. It’s always nice to be reminded that we no longer have to escape where we live. We live in the kind of place that city dwellers escape to on the weekends. They sang about a discovery of a burial pit in the Yukon from the Clovis people I believe they are called, the first people to come across the Bering Straight land bridge via Alaska to North America. They did only one cover song and that was a Gordon Lightfoot song they had performed at a show last year in his honor. You can’t get more Canadian than Gordon Lightfoot.

There is something unique about live music. I’m sure it goes back many generations to what we did around campfires at night. Although they were all ‘acoustic’ instruments they all had electric pickups and when I looked at the lights and buttons and the Mac computer and other equipment of their sound engineer, we have come a long way in terms of the sounds we can produce and the music we can make. In one of the songs I was sure I heard a tambourine but all six of their arms were occupied so I couldn’t figure it out. Finally I noticed Laura had a device on the ground that as she put her heel down banged a tambourine. So how do you remember the notes you’re playing on the fiddle, while singing, and still remember to tamp down on that tambourine thing? In the correct rhythm? The wonders never cease.

The other thing these evenings do for me is to help reinforce the sense of community where I live. The longer we live here the more people we have to chat with and get caught up with before the show and during the break between sets.

Our Tamworth crowd was most appreciative of them visiting our humble village and bringing some warmth on a cold January evening, so they got a prolonged standing ovation. Some might argue that the audience did this to elevate our blood flow before we all went out to start our cars in below zero temperatures. I think it was genuine appreciation. And Trent Severn returned without their instruments. They did an acapella version of “O Canada,” our national anthem, which they had performed in front of the Canadian Parliament buildings in Ottawa last Canada Day. You can listen to it here. http://trentsevernband.ca/o-canada/ (the acapella version is the third selection down the list) Heck, you can even listen to it in French! So Canadian!

I was so impressed to hear such a unique take on our anthem. This is something you don’t hear very often. I see American singers doing their own unique interpretation of the American anthem all the time, generally before sporting events. This was most refreshing.

It was such a lovely way to spend a cold winter night. Such a uniquely human experience. We really must do it more often.

Legion Trent Severn-006

Photo courtesy of Barry Lovegrove. (www.barrylovegrove.ca)

One of THE Most Exciting Nights of My Life… EVER!

On Christmas Eve we were invited over to our daughter’s new in-laws. I will be the first to admit I am a creature of habit and do not give up old traditions or start new ones effortlessly. But her in-laws are wonderful people and so the invitation was much appreciated.

They had prepared a buffet dinner fit for royalty, with the plant-based foods displayed prominently to make it easier for those of us who choose to focus on them. And there were pies! So many pies! I decided that evening that I could become a “pie-a-tarian”. In fact, I’m going to experiment with this increasingly in the future. My son-in-law’s grandmother had made these oh so delightful celebrations of fruit and she is a pie artist in the truest sense. Could there be a more perfect food than pie?

During dinner it was announced that there would be games played after dinner. I am so old! I had to internally roll my eyes because frankly, nothing sounds lamer than playing games. Then it was announced that the game would be BINGO. BINGO. Really? BINGO? That game that people play using those ink daubers in gigantic halls? Don’t you have to be over 70 to play BINGO? “B-9, O- 24…” I could feel a sudden illness coming my way, which would require a quick exit from the whole game-playing portion of the evening.

Then it was explained that there would be prizes. My interest was piqued somewhat. And there was a twist. When you got a BINGO, you could either take a gift bag with contents that were unknown, or you could take any of the prizes of the previous winners. Now that sounded absolutely diabolical. All right, I was in! No faking of sudden on-set illness required!

We were allowed to play with 2 or 3 cards. As a competitive type, I obviously took 3. I also assumed this would force me to pay more attention and keep me from nodding off. It was, well, BINGO after all.

And so began the suspense. How is it possible to have so many matches on one card but none in a complete line? Then others began yelling “BINGO!” The prizes were awesome and I wanted one. In fact, I wanted all of them. Within minutes of the first few BINGO’s being called, I was overwhelmed with the desire to win.

I have never wanted to win anything so badly, in my life… EVER! It was downright ugly.

When I finally got a BINGO I chose a wrapped gift, which turned out to be a Christmas decorative candleholder and some After Eight mints. They were lovely. But I had my eye on the pile of prizes that were accumulating around my son-in-law’s brother, Jordan. His success at winning so many prizes reeked of some sort of collusion with the BINGO caller. No one could be that lucky. But I decided to not make my suspicions public. I was determined to win regardless of the hopeless odds stacked against me.

One of Jordan’s prizes was a pair of winter weight boot socks, the kind that keep your feet warm in below-zero weather. In the snow. They looked great. I was jealous. I was envious. In fact I began a very public discussion of the fact that if I won another BINGO he would in fact be forfeiting those socks to me. Now I really wanted to win. It didn’t help that when I yelled my first BINGO I jumped up with such vigor that I knocked my cards off my lap and spilled all of my chips, so that I had to start again from scratch. No matter, I would win those socks, come hell or high water.

As the game progressed from that point on basically every number that was called led to a BINGO because everyone’s cards were very full and the prizes were quickly diminishing. NOTE TO SELF: Next time you win a BINGO don’t knock all your markers off the board! I was getting quite frantic about my NEED to win those socks!! Finally my younger daughter won the final BINGO prize. So the pressure was on her. What would she do? Take the unknown prize or usurp those socks from Jordan, which had been elevated to epic proportions. There was much back and forth. There was public coaching from all sides. Pros … Cons … But because of her excellent parenting she made the right choice and took the socks. And then surprisingly, the following afternoon I unwrapped the now truly historic most awesome-est work socks … EVER MADE! Best Christmas EVER!

On Boxing Day the new in-laws were at our house for brunch and as I was helping Michelle serve it was surprising how often I was able to work into the conversation how warm and comfortable my feet were on our cold, 1888 farmhouse-hardwood floors, thanks to my new, totally unbelievably awesome socks. I was quite merciless, in fact.

Luckily I had a backup plan. As I am wont to do once in a while at this time of year, I may have in fact purchased a package of 4 outdoor, thermal boot work socks for myself. So before the in-laws arrived I had wrapped them up and gave them to Jordan in the spirit of family harmony.

I believe the greatest hope for humanity lies in all of us adopting a new spirit of unity and cooperation to take on the challenges that lie ahead, especially environmental. Our “winner takes all, top of the heap” attitude of competitiveness must change. Cooperation and not competition is the solution. And because of this I am most disappointed in my display of hyper-competitiveness playing BINGO. Perhaps I would have been better if we didn’t have the ability to take someone else’s prize. Perhaps I would have risen above the fray if the prizes weren’t as good, or if those darn work socks hadn’t been included. I must do better. I must defeat this evil competitive streak that lies deep within.

In the meantime I’m off to add Jordan to my friends list on Facebook so that I can post photos of me in deep snow with sub-freezing temperatures, raving about how warm and toasty my feet are! Look at me; I’m king of the world! I won at BINGO! Best night EVER!

bingo-cards

The Price of Oil is Scary

So have you noticed the price of oil lately? Pretty great eh? Cheap gas! Yee ha!gaspistol

I think not. I don’t think this is a good thing. I guess I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy but I think something is amiss and I don’t think it’s going to end well.

A barrel of oil has stayed above $100/barrel for quite a while now. Then last summer it started this crazy nosedive to its current level of about $50. And it frankly just doesn’t make any sense to me, on so many levels.

First off, it is just such an amazing commodity; it shouldn’t be this cheap. The potential energy in a barrel of oil is mind-boggling. Three tablespoons of oil is the equivalent of a human working manually for 8 hours. If you spent your whole life toiling in the fields (which I lovingly do every summer) your whole life’s energy expenditure would be equivalent to 3 barrels of oil. 3 barrels. So if the world is burning through 80+ million barrels of oil everyday, you can appreciate just how much work that fossil fuel is accomplishing for us.

Now some (like me) would argue that much of it is wasted commuting long distances or flying to exotic places. Some would argue (like me) that we have to burn less of the stuff because when you use a liquid hydrocarbon like this, it releases sequestered carbon from under the ground into the atmosphere, and on a large scale that’s not a good thing. Some organizations like 350.org or even the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggest that if we want to have any hope of stopping the planet from warming more than 2°C we basically need to leave three-quarters of the known fossil fuel reserves that energy companies have on their balance sheets, in the ground.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with cheap oil. Some countries seem to be pumping it likes there’s no tomorrow, to generate cash, and this stuff is too precious to sell at a discount.petrol-pump-icon

There are lots of great theories as to why the price has collapsed the way it has. One is that countries are trying to punish Russia, which relies heavily on oil revenue, for it’s incursion into the Ukraine. I tend to take the more classic economic perspective and that is that demand is simply not there. The media loves to remind us of how great the economy is doing and why we should be so confident and get out there and run those credit cards up making ourselves happy. But I don’t things are as rosy as we’re being told. And I think the plummeting price of oil is the proof.

There is a hard cold reality of cheap oil and that is that many North American producers are no longer profitable. Fracked shale oil and Alberta tar sands oil are really expensive to get at. At $120/barrel there is an economic incentive to do this. At $60/barrel, well, not so much. And some of these investments we’re talking about are long term. So if you take drill rigs out of the fields and scale back investment in looking for new supplies, eventually you’ll have a drop in supply, which should bring the price back up. But I don’t think you can replace lost supply that quickly which means a huge price spike later on. More pain after the short-term gain we’re experiencing.

In a perfect world the price of oil would have just kept going up indefinitely. This would destroy demand and get consumers to switch to alternatives, many of which use free energy, like the sun and wind. A high price of oil is good for the environment. But economics being what it is, this whole supply and demand thing doesn’t seem to fit with an ever-increasing price of a commodity. Sooner or later the bubble bursts and prices come back down to earth. And customers shopping for new cars see cheap gas and buy big honking’ vehicles that will be on the road for 15 or 20 years. (These same consumers will be on the nightly news when gas goes back up in price complaining at the cost of filling up their inefficient vehicles!)

I may be out in left field on this one; in fact I’m sure I am. I simply can’t understand how such an abrupt price drop in oil can be a good thing over the long haul. Something’s up. I just can’t get my head around exactly what that is. But I don’t think it’s a good thing. Or, quoting the title of my friend Joe Ollman’s book “This will all end in tears.”

 

My New Year’s Resolutions

So here are my New Year’s Resolutions.

First, to drink less Dr. Pepper.

Second, to eat less pizza.

Third, to watch less TV, Netflix in particular.

Fourth, to get more exercise.

Fifth, to put less carbon into the atmosphere.

NOT! Ha ha, I’m still laughing at this, cause I ain’t doin’ any of this.

First off, Dr. Pepper is a health food and essential for life. It is made from corn. Corn is good for you. If we have a summer hotter than the last one, I will in fact drink MORE Dr. Pepper.

Next, pizza and veggie burgers are also essential for life, so there’s no way I can give those up. And since my kids and neighbors started supplying me with the “Kirkland Garden Burger” from Costco, made with mushrooms and cheese and lots of other yumminess, we may have to add a second “burger night” at Sunflower Farm. Two winters ago Costco stopped stocking this burger (because I guess only people who eat beef burgers eat them year round) so this fall I was prepared and stocked up on them before the winter burger drought hit to avoid my pent-up Costco veggie burger demand that followed last winter’s depravation. Better New Year’s Resolution … buy a bigger freezer!

Now that the ground is frozen I have a bit more time on my hands so I have been reading like a fiend … fiction, non-fiction, heady stuff and trashy stuff. But I’m not giving up TV. I can’t stay awake for 20 minutes if I try reading after dinner so the magic glowing blue light from the box in the corner of the living room shall continue to dominate my evenings. To all those people who say “I don’t watch TV” or “I’m too busy for TV” I say … TV is awesome. You don’t know what you’re missing! Right now we have the Smithsonian Channel for free for a month! So intellectual! But then again, there’s that Kardashian Marathon over on “E”… (kidding!)

I am blessed to be able to heat my home with wood and to have 40+ members of our CSA that depend on me to grow their veggies. Growing this much food requires an enormous amount of physical effort, so I don’t need to get anymore exercise. I spend each and every day trying to figure out how to conserve my strength, optimize the calories I eat and do things more efficiently. Hopefully my awesome neighbor Ken will finally be proud of me. His past criticism of me was that I always found the hardest way to do things!

I think we’ve finally got our carbon emissions in order. We still make some. We have a car. Our car is AWESOME! This little shiny metal box allows us to drive to our local village or the nearest big city and do amazing stuff, like shopping at thrift stores. We find that we drive less and less all the time, but when we do go somewhere, I am in awe of the potential energy in that magic liquid (gasoline) that propels our little four-wheeled miracle machine. What an amazing time in human history we live in.

We still purchase some propane for cooking and hot water in the winter, but I don’t see us cutting that back much further. Someday we’ll have a wood-burning cookstove, but not right away.

Carbon dioxide is what’s heating up the planet and I do put some carbon out there, but not much. We’re close to zero-carbon but I won’t kid myself that I’m there yet. I’ll keep trying.

Here’s what I take from my lack of desire to make any resolutions about changing my behavior, and I don’t say this with any degree of hubris (extreme arrogance). I think it means I’m pretty happy with what I’m up to. I love where I live. I love how I live. I love what I do to earn an income. If I won a lottery I’d give most of it away (and yes, this is a way to tempt fate to finally allow me to win because, well, if I’m just going to give it away surely I should win, right?) I’d buy some more solar panels, enough to charge an electric car. A few things like that, but nothing major.

So much for New Year’s Resolutions. Apparently life at Sunflower Farm is pretty good.

If anyone knows someone in the company that makes Dr. Pepper, please pass along this blog to them. I believe Dr. Pepper should officially be sponsoring this blog. I feel like I mention it about once a month at least! I suppose it would have been better if I had acquired a taste for beer. I think I’d have more luck finding a brewery to sponsor me.

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Thanks to S.S. for the recent generous donation!

 

 

 

 

Season’s Greetings from Sunflower Farm

It’s been a very cloudy December, especially noticeable for those of us living off the grid in Eastern Ontario. We welcomed the arrival of the solstice and the anticipation of longer, sunnier days ahead!

We’ll be celebrating the season here at Sunflower Farm with a Tofurky, lots of veggies from our garden, some pumpkin pie and all of our favourite Christmas cookies.

To all of our wonderful blog readers, we wish you a

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year too!

Cam, Michelle (with Will, Nicole, Dhruva & Katie)

MatherFamilyXmasPhoto2014

The Ultimate Chicken Sunroom

My latest project combines two of my interests. The first is to see things ‘repurposed’ that were otherwise not being used or were destined for the landfill. The second is that I like to see that my family members are comfortable and well looked after. All of our pets … dog, cats and chickens … are part of the family. As we approach another Canadian winter I was not looking forward to the chickens’ daytime activities.

Last year the polar vortex, which I believe was caused by the warming arctic screwing up the jet stream, dumped a pile of snow on us … all winter. It seemed like we got a new dumping every other day. The chickens do not like snow. Eventually they’ll go out in it, but some days they insist on staying inside the coop. Their little coop was great for sleeping, but its only source of light was the door, so it was pretty dark. And if the wind and blowing snow was coming from the wrong direction I was hesitant to leave the door open and let all of that blowing snow inside.

This year we re-purposed an old ice fishing hut into a new coop. There is a large door that allows us to get in to clean and gather the eggs. But during the winter I wanted to be able to keep the big door closed so I put a small trap ‘chicken’ door just big enough for the ladies to get in and out. So the coop has two doors. Do you know why a chicken coop has two doors? Because if it had 4 doors it would be a sedan. Awkward groan. Yes, that was an exceptionally funny joke.

I also put a window in it so that on the cold but sunny cold days the ladies will have lots of light and hopefully the sun will help to warm up the coop as well.

Last January my amazing neighbor Alyce was selling a farm. She was the source of our new coop which I blogged about here. At some point I had helped her and Ken to put up electric fencing around the property and so I knew there was a pickup truck cap out in the middle of a field. It was probably about 25 years old and it was one of those things you know is just going to rot or be dragged to a dump. So I asked Alyce if I could have it.

It took me about an hour last winter to dig it out and free it. Then I tried to drag it on a big plastic snowmobile sled, but I couldn’t balance it on my own. Plus, with so much snow, walking was really hard. So I convinced Alyce and her niece Amelia to help me to drag it. It was a real ordeal but the 3 of us managed to get it to the driveway where I could throw it on the back of the truck. It was my intention to turn it into a chicken sunroom eventually.

This fall I got a load of square bales from my neighbor Heidi. After the CSA was over I was taking the cap off the back of my pickup truck and I was about to unload it on to some pallets when I suddenly thought of a way to make use of it during the winter. So I took it over to the coop and unloaded it onto hay bales. Then I put the second cap next to it. And I’ve got to say, I’m pretty darn impressed with this sunroom set up!

chicken sun rooms

The salvaged truck cap didn’t have a back window, but I fabricated one out of scrap lumber and a chunk of scrap plastic from an old greenhouse. It ain’t pretty, as none of my projects are, but it’s functional.

pickup truck cap

Chickens love dirt. They love to scratch in the dirt. They love to peck at the dirt. They dust bathe in the dirt. They just love dirt. I can’t imagine what it’s like for chickens in large barns kept in metal cages where they never get to do what is in their DNA … scratching in the dirt.

sunny warm and no wind

Last winter they didn’t get to see any dirt for months. This year, they’re going to have dirt all winter! And as you can see by the photo the sunrooms are really bright! And best of all they break the wind, which is so helpful to keep them warm. And the warmer they are and the more sunlight they get the happier they’ll be. I must admit, this means we get more eggs to sell. But I feel much better when I know my chickens get to enjoy themselves every day. In the sun, digging in the dirt.

inside the chicken sun room

If I were a chicken I’d want a big bright coop. Our chickens have that.

I’d want the straw to be cleaned regularly. Our chickens have that.

I’d want a varied diet that includes warm oatmeal and ripe bananas for breakfast. Yup, they get that too.

I’d want room to roam. Our chickens have that.

And I’d want a sunny, cozy place to scratch in the dirt. Done. Done. Done.

Life at Sunflower Farm is pretty darn great, even for the chickens.

* * * * * * *

Thank you to everyone who took advantage of our recent book sale. Today is the last day of the sale so please email me for a shipping quote. See this blog for more details.

First Skate of the Season and Ken’s Best Sunflower Farm Quotes … Ever

I’m writing this on Wednesday December 10, 2014. Hopefully Michelle will post it shortly afterwards. I note the date because regular readers will probably say “I’m pretty sure I read this post this time last year … and the year before …”

You’re probably correct, but I’m not going back to check the archive. Frankly it doesn’t matter to me, because I just enjoyed my first skate of the season and it’s a pretty big deal to me.

I love skating on our pond. It’s one of the many things that make living here awesome. We’ve been corresponding with a lot of readers lately who say “Oh, I just dream of living like you do.” Many seem to work at jobs they’re not overly enamored with. So let me state, just to make you feel better, that I have no plan on how I’m ever going to retire. I’m going to have to keep working until I drop dead in the potato patch. And really, not a bad way to go I think. Better than wasting away in some institution.

camskatewindtower

That being said, since we moved here 15 years ago, when I was 40, I’ve had a pond to skate on, and I love skating on my pond. I am overjoyed when I skate on my pond. Just going round and round and round and zoning out and smiling like a mad man. It helps that the pond is right under the wind turbine. “I” put that up! I did that! And it powers my home, especially at this time of year when the solar panels do much less of the “heavy lifting.” I can see both of my solar arrays from the pond too. “I put them up! I did that! OK, I did all that with the help of my neighbor Ken. He’s awesome too!

I’m not sure where this love of skating came from but ‘the force is strong in this one.” I spent part of my childhood in a house along the St. Lawrence River, which drains the Great Lakes into the Atlantic Ocean. So I grew up skating on outside ice. There were the rare times when the ice would freeze thick enough to skate on without any snow on top. You could cross country skate. If you wound up and slapped a puck as hard as you could it would take you 10 minutes to catch up to it.

After we moved away from that house we spent many Christmases at my parents’ cottage on a lake and I always shoveled a rink. So when we moved here having my own rink really was a dream come true. When I skate on my rink I do not think about my lack of retirement funds, or just how long it will be before we’re burning the furniture to stay warm. I just think how lucky I am to have this little bit of frozen water beside my cozy little house off the grid that I can skate on … whenever I want … for as long as I want … in whatever direction I want.

bigrink

I do think about the monetary value of this rink. What do you figure it costs to build a hockey arena today? Half a million dollars? A million? So the way I figure it, as I skate around, I’m worth a million bucks! Take that evil mutual fund companies that run ads trying to scare me about the terror of retiring without sufficient funds … in the stock market … which always goes up in value … forever … right?

I particularly like skating at dusk. There is nothing like the feeling of zipping around on a pond where I can see our cozy little house all toasty warm-looking, lit by the batteries charged by the sun and the wind, heated with wood that absorbed carbon dioxide as it was growing. It’s simply magical.

Pond skating is a very Canadian (and northern American) thing to do. There is a great song by Tom Cochrane called ‘Big League’ with the line “Sometimes at night I can hear the ice crack, it sounds like thunder and rips through my back…” Our pond cracks and makes horrific sounds when we skate on it. Joyful fright.

jasperthehockeydog

In our book “Little House Off The Grid” I talk about our neighbor Ken who has been so instrumental in the evolution of our home to one that runs so smoothly. One night before we had completely moved here I came up during an ice storm to test a generator. It was winter and I was dressed in arctic survival gear, constantly in fear of running the truck off the road and freezing within minutes. Ken stopped in on his way home from work. Despite the freezing ice pellets that were being blown around, Ken was dressed in leather shoes with a leather jacket that was undone showing a cotton shirt and tie underneath. He skated across the frozen lawn and said, “Well at least there’s no black flies!” BEST… LINE… EVER!

When we moved here I had a backhoe come in and dig out the spot where water had sat the previous spring. It was a natural indentation so I thought if I scooped out some soil/sand, we might have a shot at a pond, and therefore a rink.

Then a few years later Ken was over one day with his ATV and offered to clear the rink after a big snow. He couldn’t get much traction so his brother-in-law Cyril stood on the back of the ATV. Still not go. So I got on. There we were, 3 people on a one-person ATV, 27,000 lbs on newly formed ice with a great weight of snow on it as well. I was lucky that I was perched precariously on the very back of the machine so I could jump off the moment it all went crashing through the ice. I was wishing I’d put a rope near the pond so I could pull Ken and Cyril out. And how were we going to fish the ATV out once it plunged to the bottom? Ken, as always, is never fazed by any of this. He gets a kick out my constant state of panic.

As we were plowing the rink Ken turned to Cyril and said, “Cam made this!” referring to the pond. I would never take credit for the work of nature or some Supreme Being or life force, but I have to say it was the SECOND BEST LINE EVER. “Cam made this!” And that’s why I love Ken like a brother. And why skating on my rink is a joyful, joyful, joyful thing to do.

NOTE: Thanks to everyone who bought books recently. We really appreciate it. We have extended the sale on our books for one more week. Here’s the post with all of the details. There are rock bottom prices on our books, including “Little House of the Grid” which Cam referred to a few times in this post.

Everyone Loves a Parade

I love the village near where I live. It’s 14 km (8-1/2 miles) away but I still feel deeply associated with it. Our mailbox is there and it’s where we go to purchase all sorts of necessities like food! I belong to a group that meets regularly to promote economic and other activities. Michelle and I also belong to the GrassRoots Growers, which organizes educational events around food production and gardening.

There are two parades a year in our village, one on Canada Day and one on the first Sunday in December with a Christmas theme. For many years I have participated in these parades. I’ve dressed up as Super Solar Man, a solar-powered Christmas tree and even as some blueberries! Parades are a weird concept, but they can be pretty awesome. They seem to be one of those events that help to define a place. They help build community. And they can be a lot of fun.

Last year Michelle used a big cardboard box and cut out and painted and decorated it to look like a Christmas tree. I wore it in the parade. We walk with The GrassRoots Growers. We carry a lot of fun signs to promote their mission along a seasonal theme like “Bok Choy to the world,” “Hoe Hoe Hoe” and “I Be-Leaf in Santa.” And we give out locally grown apples to the children along the parade route. I would protest but there is already lots of candy being given out by everyone else that I guess it’s okay to have one healthy thing.

Michelle put a lot of work into the tree so I could not bear to throw it out last year and so it ended up in the horse barn. Bad idea. It just kicked around and got in the way all summer long. So I decided to dust it off for this year’s parade before dismantling and recycling it. On the morning of the parade I was having one of those, “Ahhhh, I really don’t feel like going into town” kind of days. I just wanted to hang out and split firewood. But Michelle had promised to bring the signs and our wagon so off we went.

As we walked around as the parade was being assembled we had a chance to see the other floats and people involved. It’s fun to see so many of our village friends gathered in one place at the same time. My friend Don was pulling some of his vintage snowmobiles that were all decked out. There were line dancers. The school always enters a float with kids, as do the churches. As I walked past the pick-up truck carrying all of the freshly elected township councilors I was kidding them that I wish I’d won the election so that I could be on the “cool kids” float. We have a local Gaeltacht group that promotes the Irish language, culture and traditions and they had a great float in the parade this year. They often have events that include Irish dancing which gives our town so much character, especially since it was settled by Irish immigrants a century and a half ago.

One of our local farmers was in the parade driving his awesome truck from about 1930. He drives it in every parade although it rarely makes it to the end. I chatted with him about how we had started a pool placing bets on how far he’d make it in this parade. I’d bet a kilometer and a half (about a mile for our American readers). Eighty years ago when the truck was built, clutches were not what they are today and there is a big hill in the latter half of the parade. Sure enough, this year the H&H Farm truck ended up following behind Santa because he just couldn’t get that truck moving slowly up the hill.

This year was a big deal for our village because we had a band! I know, it sounds obvious that you’d have a band, but at this time of the year there is lots of competition for bands to attend all of the various parades and we are a pretty small village, albeit with an awesome parade. So the parade committee this year decided to spend some money and get a band. And you know what? It was worth it. A parade is so much better with a marching band. This year’s band was a pipe band and as I walked by and they were warming up their bagpipes I was thinking about how I’ve always wished that I learned to play the bagpipes. It means you get to walk in parades. And be part of a group. A group of bagpipe players. And parade marchers. When I suggest things like this to Michelle she reminds me that I do belong to many groups and I already do march in the parade! Yes, I know. But I still wish I were in a bagpipe band. What does a set of bagpipes cost anyway? I’ve got some time this winter.

My Christmas tree costume had a wardrobe malfunction, or should I say the whole thing was a malfunction. It was poorly thought out, having a tree at the front and the back. It meant I couldn’t take very long steps. It was more like shufflin’. I carried a bag of pine boughs and whenever I saw someone I knew I’d stop and drop some and say, “You can tell I’m a real tree, look, I’m shedding!” They were laughing with me … right?

 

Photo by Hannah McDonald

Photo by Hannah McDonald

Parades are fun. What’s the most fun is figuring out whether the people are pointing and laughing because they recognize you, or they just figured out what you were trying to do, or they were just plain pointing and laughing. And if my rather tired, wardrobe-malfunctioning Christmas tree thing makes people laugh, well, then it was worth it!

 

Photo by Hans Honegger

Photo by Hans Honegger

I drove my truck into town so that I could bring our wagon to carry the apples that we were giving out and I parked it near the ball diamond. The people parked beside me were from the next town over and they had this amazing horse and buggy. The buggy was a “doctors buggy” because it only held one person. Can you imagine a doctor racing to someone’s house in a horse and buggy? Their horse had been given to them after a championship career of racing, and had obviously come to a great home for its retirement. You meet the greatest people and learn the coolest stuff at your local parade.

All day long the village hosts a craft fair of local artisans, from honey to jewelry and everything in between. I wish I could win a lottery so I could buy something from everyone. It’s amazing stuff and the people put so much work into their crafts. It is always a good excuse the support the local churches and school with their baked goods. I can’t help them out enough!

This year’s parade was particularly good. It gets better each year, but I think that’s just because I get to know more people and have more people to talk to. With retailers starting to bombard us with Christmas messages before Halloween now, I find my holiday fatigue sets in earlier and earlier. Michelle and I have both had a hard time getting into the holiday spirit this year. But then I strung our LED X-mas lights all over the house, which helped to make the house brighter. And then we participated in the parade and suddenly I feel festive! Not in the “time to go out and buy crap” way, but in the “we should invite some guests over” way and the “I can hardly wait ‘til our daughters and sons-in-law come home for a visit.” And maybe, just maybe, if I’m a good boy there’ll be a set of bagpipes under the tree! Although that is one thing I have yet to find at a thrift shop.

Photo by Hans Honegger

Photo by Hans Honegger

Thanks to Hannah McDonald and Hans Honegger for providing these photos!

~ TIP JAR ~
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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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