The Great “Downton Abbey vs Super Bowl” Dilemma – aka ‘Go Panthers!”

(First off, an apology from Michelle. We use WordPress for this site and they went ahead and upgraded us on Tuesday. On Wednesday when I posted Cam’s blog about “An American Experience” I realized that no one had received a notification about it. This has happened before when WordPress upgrades us, and so I tried the usual tricks to no avail. I even tried re-posting a few times. Apparently WordPress was just being slow and it appears as though our subscribers received multiple notifications on Wednesday night. I apologize for flooding your IN box. My fingers are crossed that the issue has been resolved!)

Now for today’s blog post…

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On Sunday nights great forces are at work. The kind of forces that realign planets, that shift orbits, that change reverse gravitational pulls, whereby we humans realize we are but specks of dust in the cosmos.

This Sunday night I have to decide between The Super Bowl, and Downton Abbey.

We disconnected our satellite TV about a year ago, but they started it up again unbeknownst to us, until Michelle noticed that a payment had been removed from our bank account. So we disconnected it again but they ended up owing us two months’ worth of TV.

So on the Sunday before Downton Abbey started in January, we reconnected. This was coincidently just as the NFL playoffs were beginning.

I love Downton Abbey. Sure, it’s just a soap opera with really rich, pretentious people, and the poor people who serve them, but I think it’s great. This is surprising when I realized that my name comes from Britain and a Mather would most likely be downstairs doing the back-breaking grunt work for peanuts and waiting on the well-to-do people upstairs. The show is just so well done, though. The scenes are gorgeous to look at, the location is amazing, and as hesitant as I am to admit it, I love the costumes. They are simply amazing. The people researching them must have had a blast but I can’t count how many times I’ve said to Michelle “Look at the dress on Lady Mary!” or “That dress on the Dowager Countess must have taken a year to make!”

On the flip side, I also love football. In fact, I love the NFL. I know what you’re saying.

“But Cam, it’s blood sport.” I understand. “And players with concussions can have problems later in life.” That is a most unfortunate situation. “But the teams have an enormous carbon footprint flying around North America for games, and all those people driving to the stadiums, think of the impact!” Unquestionably, so bad.

Did you notice that I have yet to apologize for liking something that every left-leaning, socially democratic bleeding heart tendency tells me I shouldn’t? I know. I’m terrible. I just love it. I love the strategy. I am in awe of the physical capabilities of those who excel at it. Suddenly players are catching passes with one hand as they hurtle through the air. It defies logic.

So, since we’ve had TV back I have made of point of telling everyone that we reconnected so that “Michelle could watch Downton Abbey.” It’s very charitable of me, I agree.

I love the NFL but I love the Super Bowl commercials even more. Really, if we have people over I insist on radio silence during the commercials. How ironic eh, someone who rants about the damage capitalism has done to the planet, going out of his way to watch 30 second sales messages. Don’t try and understand it. I’ve given up trying.

But Sunday night, forces of nature collide and both shows will be airing simultaneously. Often the Super Bowl will be well decided by 9 pm when Downton Abbey starts, but last year it went down to the last play. You remember, when Seattle that had this awesome running game needed about 2 yards to score a touchdown to win the game, and through an interception? I’m still sick about it. And yes, last year I was a Seattle fan because New England was starting to look like a franchise, but now they’re out, so I get to pick my next favorite team.

Anyway, I have an even greater interest in this game. The quarterback of one of the teams was named after me. Cam Newton. I know. It’s pretty hard to believe. Apparently his parents started reading my blog 22 years ago when he was born and loved it so much they named him after me. Ya, ya, the internet didn’t exist 22 years ago. I get it. I can dream can’t I?

Cam is quite exceptional though and so I will be a big Carolina Panthers fan this weekend. To my readers who align themselves with other teams, let me apologize in advance. I am not an opportunistic fan of the Panthers, I just love that their quarterback has such a great name. He inspires me to be way more aggressive in my ‘frisbee’ passing that I play with Jasper the Wonder Dog. Truly there is nothing more beautiful that tossing a 75 yard throw and watching my dog leap into the air and come down with a reception. Touchdown! Mather wins the Super Bowl again!

I am in the process of negotiating with Michelle right now. If there is less than a 10 point spread in the game at 9 pm, I’m bucking to wait and watch the repeat showing of Downton Abbey the following Sunday at 8 pm. This will be a hard sell. I will need to be sweet and charming all weekend. “No Darling, I’ll do those dishes.” “Now give me that broom, I should be sweeping since I make all the mess with the firewood I drag into the house.”

It’s gonna require strategy, and finesse, much like a drive down the football field. I’ll have to read the defense. I’ll have to try and spot weakness in the opposing side. I’ll have to cope with some surprises that the coaching staff hadn’t anticipated. I think have a shot because Michelle has seen the video of Cam Newton leaping and flipping over the opposition, landing on his feet to score a touchdown. I just have to assure her that this will happen repeatedly during the Super Bowl. Go Cam! Go Panthers!

And since I don’t have a photo of Cam Newton, here’s Jasper the Wonder Dog showing off his speed!

jasper running

A Canadian’s “American Experience”

I love PBS. It was the only thing I missed when we disconnected satellite TV (other than Modern Family, which we can now watch on-line). We have TV back for two months to watch the final season of Downton Abbey on PBS. At least, this is what I’ve been telling people, while Michelle argues that it was so I could watch the NFL playoffs.

PBS has these great shows like “Frontline,” “NOVA” and in-depth news coverage worth watching. I was watching “American Experience” the other night. I am grateful that Americans let a Canadian like me watch their shows.

The episode was about the drive to organize West Virginia coal mines at the turn of the last century. This is where I learned that “Mother Jones” isn’t just a magazine, she was in fact a woman who was immersed in the drive to organize labor at this time. She got involved after her husband and 4 children all died. I cannot imagine the anguish some humans have had to overcome.

I watch all these shows with my “Lorne” lens on. Lorne was Michelle’s father. He grew up on a farm in the 1920s with 12 siblings, was in Italy in World War II, and came home and made steel his whole life. He belonged to Local 1005 of the United Steel Workers of America and went on strike several times. He earned a good wage making steel. The company he worked for was able to make a profit even while providing its workers a living wage.

I think about what it must have been like for a worker in the early 1900s when industry was growing and they were treated poorly. You can understand the desire to unionize. They had a vision for a better future for their children and workers in our economy. They fought hard for a better, more fair future.

My father-in-law Lorne lived for that brief shining moment where the vision was realized. He earned a good wage for an honest day’s work. He was able to own a home, buy a car, and raise kids. He devoted a great deal of his spare time to the union and the social democratic movement to pay his good fortune forward.

So I watched this show and wondered what these people think of where we’re at today. WWLT? (What Would Lorne Think). It’s like that line from “Saving Private Ryan” where we see the soldier who lived through the mayhem of D-Day ask in his old age, “Did I live a good life?” i.e. did he honor those men who didn’t make it.

There are two levels to look at this. The first is this growing gap today between the rich and everyone else where they seem to just keep accumulating illogical amounts of wealth, while everyone else stagnates. I’m sure someone who saw their family starving while they walked a picket line for a better wage a hundred years ago would be severely disappointed.

But then you look at the other side of the coin and we have done fairly well. Most of us are warm and have enough food, can usually access a doctor, and many of us actually have luxuries that a striking coal miner could never have imagined. And so you ask yourself, what would that person think about how we spend our time now?

What would they think of how many of us have the luxury to fly to warm locales for holidays, or across the country to visit friends and family? What would they think about how big our vehicles are, or our houses, and what would they think about not only how much free time we have, thanks to the miracle of cheap fossil fuels that do all the heavy lifting today, but how we spend that free time?

How would they relate to the millions of us who disappear for the weekend in the grand distraction of football or NASCAR, both of which I love to watch (but not too much)? Or soccer, or people chasing little white balls around a golf course, or frozen black chunks of rubber around the ice? What would they think about how much time we spend playing video games, or flushing our energy down the internet’s endless time-wasting vortexes? What would they think about how much time we are distracted in the media by news items that really just don’t matter?

As my father-in-law got older he spent more time watching television. It was always CBC Newsworld. He continued to watch the world unfolding as long as he could. And so I analyze my own actions through this lens of “What Would Lorne Think.” I ran as the Green Party candidate federally and provincially because I know he would have approved. I continue to try and live as close to a zero-carbon life as I can. When I drive to see my grandson I know I miss that target, but I’m hoping I get cut some slack.

As you start replacing things you do with fossil fuels like heat your house and hot water, with things that don’t put carbon into the atmosphere, you realize it can take an enormous amount of time and in my case physical effort. So my time is increasingly devoted to producing less carbon. With what’s left I try and undertake activities that don’t impact the planet any more than they have to. I haven’t been on a jet in 25 years and never plan to again. I hope this focus means that my actions will have less of an impact on others of less means who often live in regions more likely to experience the negative impacts of too much carbon in the atmosphere.

I hope that if that striking coal miner was teleported ahead in time and he (most likely “he” since it seemed to be mostly men in those days) arrived at our farm, and he got to see what had become of the world, and how I engaged in it, he would think I was doing okay. I’m hoping he would think that of all the myriad of activities I could be engaged in, growing food and trying to minimize my impact on the planet, would be something he would respect. I believe a titan of industry from a hundred years ago would think I was wasting my potential. And if I am able to impress just the regular guy who had a regular person’s hopes and aspirations, well, then, I’m thinking I’m on the right track.

Cam in garden 2014

The Greatest CSA Training Workshop … EVER!

Many thanks to Ian, Peter, Trish and the 16 other commenters on my last blog post. It was fun to see the response and now I just need to get Michelle’s help in signing off of Facebook!

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In my all-encompassing quest to radically understate activities that I organize, I decided to restrain myself in using any hyperbole when referring to my next workshop… but it will in fact be, the GREATEST CSA WORKSHOP….EVER!!!

We contributed to an article in the latest Mother Earth News magazine about earning an income doing what you love. Read it by clicking here.

I realized as we were putting the article together that although running a CSA is becoming second nature to me, there is a lot involved. If we had known then what we know now, we would have saved a lot of time and energy.

So that’s the nature of this workshop.

I believe there are many people sitting at desks, working on computers, fantasizing about getting out of the rat race. And the biggest hindrance is always that income thing. It is much easier to earn an income in the city. So you can be happy and poor in the country or wealthier and miserable in the city. I’m sure there are in between states, but this seems to be the dichotomy most of us discover.

Running a CSA allows you squeeze an income out of a relatively small space. Yes, it’s a whack of work, but really, why were you put on this earth? To make money doing something you hate and then being too burnt out when you retire to do anything about it, or to just say “I’m going for it” and go where you want to go?

So we decided to set up this course on how to run a CSA. And we decided to make it intensive and spread it out over a week here at Sunflower Farm. We’ll get into all the stuff you need to know about running a CSA in detail. And you’ll get to meet other people who are in the same place. And there’ll be lots of time for discussion. I’m going to get other farmers up to talk about how they run their CSAs (i.e. the whole week won’t be the ‘World According to Cam’ which can be so tiresome’). And we’re going to use Michelle’s expertise at setting up websites, so that you’ll leave the week with a website up and running. You’ll be ready to go … you can ‘hit the ground running’ and all those other business clichés.

We also decided to set up regular weekly on-line meetings for the first year after the workshop so that everyone can get together every Sunday night to talk about their progress…what’s working them…what challenges they’re facing, etc. I think that having a network of like-minded people doing the same thing and having the same experiences can be absolutely instrumental in success in a new venture like this.

Here’s the link to register in the workshop:

http://www.cammather.com/workshops/running-a-successful-csa-workshop

So, if you know anyone who’s been talking about dropping out of the rat race and growing a pony tail and wearing Birkenstocks all day, learning to play the guitar, sing Neil Young songs and grow food, then this workshop is for them. Please pass the information along. It’s gonna be a blast!

P.S. The pony tail and Birkenstocks are optional. I have very short hair and never take my work boots off. In fact, if you’re pounding on a shovel all day, sandals are not such a good idea. Okay, just grow the pony tail.

sunflower sorting station

 

My Facebook Experiment (aka Signing Off of Facebook)

So I’m quitting Facebook. Gee Cam, that’s earthshattering.

I’m probably not the first person to do it. Ya think?

I have been finding Facebook very unsatisfying of late. It seems every third post that comes up is an ad. And I find people can be kinda nasty when they comment on stuff. People will write stuff that they would never say to someone face to face. I don’t like that.

And some people post stuff I just don’t find all that interesting. Coming from a guy who can write an entire blog post about pulling weeds, I know, that’s a stretch.

It is a huge time vortex. It is just so easy to waste so much time hoping that as you scroll down you’ll find something interesting.

My displeasure with Facebook solidified when I watched the documentary “Terms and Conditions” on Netflix. It basically explains what you agree to when you accept those terms and conditions that you never bother to read from all the ‘free’ services on the web. As they say, “if something is free, you’re the product.” (My son-in-law provided that quote for me.) And I’m tired of my info being sold. I’m tired of other internet services approaching me with knowledge of me they could only have from another service that I use … for free.

Recently we were visiting with a friend and they were kind of feeling down about their life, especially in comparison to others of our demographic. We all have a tendency to judge a lot of other people based on their postings on Facebook. So think about it. How many people post the stuff that makes them look bad publicly? It always, “Here I am on my cruise,” “Here’s my new sports car,” “Here’s my meal at a fabulous high end restaurant …” blah blah blah selfie selfie selfie. You rarely see a selfie with “Here I am after another bender … wasted another day barfing in the porcelain thing in the bathroom” or “Here’s me leaving the health club for the last time because I have failed miserably at losing weight so I’m just going to head right to the nearest burger place to eat fries!”

So just before I left Facebook I did a little test just to see what kind of reactions I’d get to more realistic postings.

First I posted this picture with the line, “House is falling apart. More of the roof blew off last night. The money pit gets deeper by the day.”

cam fixing roof

Then the next morning I posted this picture with, “Piece of crap truck falls further apart every time I turn the key. I spend more time under the truck than driving it.”

cam fixing trucik

And then later that day I posted my favorite, “Another year with less income and no hope of a vacation. Best we can do is a day in this trailer that our neighbors gave to us. Sigh.”

sad cam by trailer

I figured, what the heck, at least I can try and make other people feel good about themselves before I quit Facebook, because anything is better than what that Mather guy is going through! People who follow this blog or know me I figured would realize that I love where I live, have no desire to go on vacation and enjoy the challenge of fixing stuff … most of the time.

The response from my Facebook friends was quite interesting ranging from jokes about being handy rather than handsome to offers to help out (if they ever won the lottery!) A good friend quickly emailed offering his help with my roof! Both of our daughters messaged Michelle to ask, “What’s up with Dad’s Facebook posts?” It was very much a George Bailey “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment, with me realizing there does seem to be a lot of people concerned about the welfare of others on this grand human experiment.

I got a kick out of how many of my friends “liked” these negative posts. As we discussed recently over brunch with some friends, how do you respond when someone announces a loss (death) on Facebook. You want to show your support but should you “Like” the post?

I’m also trying to bail on the free email service which I use. Once again, if something is free, you’re the product and I’m creeped out when I see what other companies know about me through mails I sent. I have learned so much from Edward Snowdon.

Another thing that annoys me right now is when I phone someone and leave a message, and they respond via email. If I’d wanted to correspond via email I would have. I phoned you. You need to phone me back. I don’t check email that often and some days not at all. Use that crazy technology Alexander Graham Bell invented a century ago. It’s awesome! Then I can hear your voice, and neither one of us will misinterpret an attempt at humor or AN INCORRECT KEYSTROKE!

So if we’re friends on Facebook and you notice that I have defriended you, please don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s me. I bailed on everyone. If you want to be my friend, call me. Most of my friends have my phone number, but if you really want it you can find it on my website. If you phone me and I’m not here, I will phone you back. If I say something inappropriate you can tell me on the phone, and I will apologize.

Another way to communicate with me is to leave comments on my blog. We always read the comments on this blog. Thank you for leaving them.

If I sound like I’m becoming a misanthropic (people hating) hermit, well, maybe I am. But mostly I want to communicate with people I like, face to face. Or at least I want to hear the sound of their voice. And I don’t want someone trying to sell me something based on my history of activity on the internet. I can find enough stuff to buy on my own. All by myself. And as far as I know none of the thrift shops where I shop are tracking my browsing/shopping history to figure out how they can sell me more stuff, or monetize me by selling my history to other thrift stores. That’s something I can waste real time doing all my myself.

 

 

 

Taking Not Buying Stuff to New Heights

Years ago when we bought new snow tires for our Honda Civic, I bought wheel covers for them as well. They just seemed to make the car look, a little more, well, finished. I believe they were about $11 each from Canadian Tire. So for $44 (plus tax which is outrageous in Canada to pay for our awesome universal healthcare system) the car looked a little better in the winter.

I remember seeing other cars with snow tires without wheel covers and looking at them very smugly. “Really, you can afford a car but you can’t afford a few more bucks for wheel covers? COME ON!”

As time went on the wheel covers began to show the wear and tear of being installed in the fall and removed in the spring. They are made of plastic but a tight piece of steel kept them in place. So each spring I had to wedge them off. The plastic got more fragile. Last spring when they came off one of them broke, so that was that.

This year, thanks to the mild start to the winter, I was able to hold off on installing the snow tires.  And when I finally did put the snow tires on there were only three wheel covers … well two good ones, one questionable one, and one busted one.

The situation reminded me of the classic “All in The Family” episode in the 70’s in which Archie and his son-in-law Michael (who Archie called Meathead – thanks to the readers who pointed out when I mistakenly said “Meatball”) were sitting on a bed putting their shoes on. They were from different generations and couldn’t agree on anything. Archie put both socks on, then his shoes. Michael put one sock, then a shoe, then the other sock and the final shoe. Archie was infuriated by the idiocy of Michaels’ approach to putting on shoes and a huge argument ensued. Archie’s final rationalization for his ‘correct’ method of doing it, was that if there was suddenly a fire and he had to run outside, at least he had socks on both feet. Michael’s rationalization was that if there was a fire and he had one sock and one shoe on, at least he could hop through the snow and not get frostbite. You’ve gotta love good sitcom writing.

So, using the Michael theory I decided to put the wheel covers on just one side of the car, front and back, rather than having just one on each side … which I think would be very un-Feng-sway-ish. I chose to put them on the driver’s side because I get into that side more often, and at least if I am on the highway, since I tend to drive in the slow lane, someone passing me would see my wheel covers and I think was one of them. But in the ‘you can’t win’ department I realized that my car is usually parked front ways near the garage door, and so most of the time I look at the car and see the passenger side with no wheel covers and realize I have now joined the ranks of those people who apparently just don’t give a hoot about what other people think and they don’t bother with these things. I must admit that car looks a little more aggressive without the shiny happy covers.

It comes down to this. I could afford wheel covers. A decade after I bought the first set I probably won’t get the exact same design, but I could get two new ones and since you can’t really ever look at both sides of the car simultaneously, no one would be the wiser. The reality though is that I am just sick of having to buy stuff. Really, really sick of buying stuff … that’s made from oil, or was mined from the ground, or was cut down from a forest … I’m just really tired of the whole process.

withoutrims

withrims

This was further brought home when Michelle pointed out that we were on the last vacuum bag. Apparently the vacuum we’re using is no longer produced so you can’t get bags to fit it. (We bought the last 3 bags available at Canadian Tire and Michelle has looked online for others but they are outrageously expensive.) When I see how many different brands and models of vacuums there are, I guess this doesn’t surprise me. Then you have the whole ‘Dyson’ factor, with a new technology making all the older technologies obsolete. We have discussed purchasing a Dyson and like the idea of not having to buy bags, but they seem outrageously expensive and our current vacuum works okay. It’s not the world’s best, but we have a dog, 2 cats, we heat with wood, use straw for bedding for our chickens (most of which seems to get tracked into the house) plus plus plus…. We have mostly hardwood floors so we mostly sweep. Michelle says all sweeping does is move the dirt around and deposits it into the cracks between the boards in our 1888 hardwood floors. My response is … “and that’s a problem because…?”

So I am trying a new test. I took the last bag which was filled to overflowing, and pulled all the stuff out it and dumped it in the woods. It’s mostly dust and animal fur … and little pieces of straw. It will return to nature fast enough and won’t take any room in a landfill. And now, voila…. I have a bag for the vacuum which will extend its useful life!

emptyvaccumbag

I know, you don’t have to say it. I have started down the long, slow road to questionable sanity and eventual homelessness. All I need is a shopping cart and I’m on my way.

And this is not to diminish in anyway the plight of people who end up in these situations. From an environmental perspective, they are awesome. They live very lightly on the planet and are often making good use of objects which others no longer find useful but which have much usefulness left in them.

I’m kind of determined to not buy a new vacuum. I have a shop-vac vacuum which I bought to vacuum up water when the guesthouse floods. If it can vacuum up water, which is really heavy, I’m sure it can handle some dust and straw.

From the constant on-going buying frenzy that I see at the Big Box stores I don’t think there is any chance of a mass “I’m not going to buy stuff anymore” movement. I think we are too hard-wired to like spending money and bringing home new stuff. I readily admit that when we moved off-grid 18 years ago I brought more than my share of new power tools, and was pretty happy with the whole process. But now I’ve had enough and am going hardcore making do with what I’ve got. Retail executives should be aware, this could be the straw that broke the camel’s back and starts an avalanche of anti-consumerism. Or just the straw that gets swept up in my broom and tossed out the back door.

Ted Koppel is a Prepper

Ted Koppel has a new book out called “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.” Yikes!

 

Now don’t be all “Cam you’re just a pessimist …” I didn’t write this book. I just happened to notice it was out there. I don’t know much about Ted Koppel. He hosted “Nightline” on ABC for years, which I think came on after the 11 pm news, which meant it started at 11:30 pm, just 2 ½ hours after my bedtime. So I just know him from when he hosted the main ABC News. But he seems to be a well-respected journalist.

Somehow he came upon this topic of what would happen if the electricity grid got hacked. Again, not my idea. But I certainly have touched on such a scenario in my books “Thriving During Challenging Times” and more recently “The Sensible Prepper.”

First off, who ever thought it would be a good idea to tie our valuable and critical infrastructure into a human constructed computer network, prone to being taken over by unfriendly individuals or organizations? No really. Think about that.

But that’s a moot point. It is what it is, and apparently this is now a reasonable possibility, or at least reasonable enough that a well-known journalist with a great reputation deemed it important enough to research into book form.

And he seems to have found enough experts who feel it’s not a matter of ‘if’ the grid ever gets hacked, it’s “when.”

The book description on the Penguin Random House website talks about how the book talks to some ‘preppers.’ I’m on the waiting list to get it from the library, so I haven’t read it yet.

But I did watch an interview with Ted on TVO’s “The Agenda” the other night. You can watch it here:

http://tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/ted-koppel-looming-cyber-disaster

After you get over Steve Paiken being awestruck meeting one of his idols (apparently he’s better at staying up late than I am) Steve gets into the whole ‘prepper’ thing. And Ted basically says that, yes he’s a prepper. Well, he says he has food stored, has water stored, and has a generator … but since ‘prepper’ seems to carry a negative connotation, thanks to shows like “Doomsday Preppers”, he seems reticent to just come out and say yea, I’m a prepper. He’s just prepared I guess.

And you know what. Being a prepper is a good thing. Being a prepper is what humans have done since we started walking upright. Our grandparents were preppers, only they didn’t call themselves that. They just knew that if there was an ice storm, it was no big deal. As opposed to today where an ice storm represents a huge emergency, with a huge chunk of the population in dire straits very quickly.

So from all of this I suggest we roll back the clock to 1979 when this commercial was playing.

As someone who often blathers on about the joy of drinking Dr. Pepper, this is a natural fit for me. And of course it’s where I discovered that I was ‘unique’ and cool for drinking a soft drink. Who knew?

So I say we all take this song and sing it, substituting ‘pepper’, with ‘prepper’… in other words “I’m a prepper, he’s a prepper, she’s a prepper, wouldn’t you love to be a prepper too…”

To which you should answer, yes, I want to be a prepper too.

To which I respond, alright then, you won’t regret it. And yes, here comes the inevitable pitch, I believe “The Sensible Prepper” takes a logical, realistic approach to the topic. You don’t have to break the bank with a 20-year supply of freeze-dried food. That would be great if you can afford it, but I think there are lots of easier and cheaper ways to do it. And that’s what I talk about.

I believe we should all strive to be like our grandparents and get to the stage where an extended power outage is no big deal. We have the technology; we just need the will to get started. I would suggest that when the Ted Koppels of the world start waving the ‘prepper’ flag, it’s time to get crackin’. And yes, any good prepper supply strategy should include copious quantities of Dr. Pepper, because, really, you should be happy during the glitch in the matrix. And the sugar buzz will allow you to be way more productive than you otherwise would. Now bring on the zombpocalypse!

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Thanks to SS for her recent generous donation to the Tip Jar!

Reflections on the Solstice

We had a marvelous solstice at Sunflower Farm, as we always do. It was filled with great food and great company and much warmth.

I absolutely love this time of year. My daughters and sons-in-law are home. We eat so well. And everything just feels different … and more awesome!

At this point I am usually raving about how great the skating was, or snow shoeing in the bush. But not this year. It was bizarrely warm. Grossly warm. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were T-shirt warm, when we should have been bundled up and skating. I hate to admit how much I equate a great festive season with cold weather, but I do. During the past two years we had great rinks thanks to the effects of the polar vortex, but this year we could have swum in any of the lakes or ponds around here … granted in polar bear swim mode.

The highlight of our holiday was that our grandson was here for much of the festivities. At 4-1/2 months he is not into the commercial side of the season … he just smiles when he’s happy, which usually occurs when he is near his mom or dad, or when his aunts and uncles or his grandparents make embarrassingly silly faces and chatter at him. Our daughter entrusted him to our care while they journeyed to the city to see the new Star Wars movie, so we had some special one-on-one time. When he began to get fussy at nap time we debated trying the ‘put him in the crib and let him cry’ 1950’s style parenting strategy … okay we never even considered it for a minute! Instead I walked around with him in my arms and let him admire the LED Xmas lights which basically occupy every square foot of our off-grid house, lighting up such a dark time of the year. He was asleep in minutes. I would then gently lower myself to the couch and sit there as still as can be to keep him asleep. There is something about sitting on the couch with your sleeping grandson which elicits a profound contemplation of family, and generations, and continuity, and the spiritual side of life we don’t always contemplate, and the reason we continue to try and live as low- carbon a lifestyle as we can.

We had a number of big get togethers with family and friends. When we ordered our dining room table when we bought this place 18 years ago, we had it made from pine by a local family-owned company, and we ordered three leaves. We needed all 3 several times during the holiday season and it was wonderful.

Xmastable

 

There is nothing quite like a table covered in delicious food in a warm cozy dining room. There is no product I could ever own, or place I would rather go, that could beat how much I love this place, especially when it’s crowded with the people I love.

The chickens got spoiled with lots of special treats like warm potato/sweet potato peel mash, or warm apple skin stew after the pies were made. They dive into this stuff with great gusto. They also seemed to really enjoy the straw bale jungle gym we made when we found a great local source for the straw. Happy chickens = amazing eggs.

The deer had a fantastic season in our garden. The warm weather meant that the kale and Brussels sprouts were still plentiful, as were some small brassicas that never matured. They started tentatively nibbling on a few leaves each night, but now they have gone ‘full bore’ and anything green is officially history. Luckily we got lots of kale and Brussels sprouts before the deer went all ‘eat til they’re gone’ on us.

eaten down kale plants

We continue to experiment and learn with our greenhouses. I had transplanted kale, spinach and lettuce to our new greenhouse against the barn foundation. I have two layers of floating row cover fabric on them and they lasted quite well. We had a -8° C (17° F) night in December and we just had a -22°C (-8°F) night last night, and yet we’re going to have a Creamy Cashew Caesar Salad made with kale for dinner tonight (January 5). (Our daughter shared this recipe with us. Find it here; http://itdoesnttastelikechicken.com/2014/05/28/creamy-cashew-caesar-salad-dressing/)  I continue to have spinach in my scrambled eggs each morning. The thermal mass of the barn foundation walls, and the protection provided by the plastic cover and the floating row cover have really maintained these crops well. It’s great to know we can ramp this skill up to really extend the months that we are self-sufficient in food.

kale and spinach in greenhouse

 

We got a light cover of snow a few days ago, and after a few really cold nights you can walk on the surface without falling through. Jasper the Wonder Dog and I have been enjoying how much easier it makes our walks in the woods. I hate to admit that with my 56-year-old knees, I don’t relish those walks where you punch through an icy layer with each step you take. Great if you’re training for a marathon perhaps. I am not training for a marathon.

The great part of this time of year is that I am able to get out and enjoy the property. Most months of the year I am totally focused on the 3 or 4 acres right around the house where we grow, as opposed to the 150 acres I should be exploring. Every time I get out I marvel at this property and that I live in such a quiet, remote, peaceful place. I am infinitely grateful that we bailed on the city and moved here when I was young and strong and ambitious enough to make this whole off-grid/renewable energy/sustainability/earn an income where it’s really hard to/low-carbon project actually work. If I were just retiring from a city-dependent job right now I don’t think I’d have the same motivation.

I also wouldn’t be as intimately aware of and connected to this little piece of paradise that we are the temporary stewards of.

Sarah Harmer has a great song that includes the lyrics, “holidays are for reading.” For me it’s ‘holidays are for peeling potatoes, keeping woodstoves going, doing dishes, cooking hash browns…’ but most of all spending time with people I really really love to spend time with. For me it’s also a time to throttle back to a lower gear for a few days and get out and be in awe of where I live and how fortunate I am.

Our circumstances continue to evolve and change constantly, but this year I made the same statement I make every year… Best Christmas Ever!

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Special thanks to NB for his recent generous and much-appreciated donation and RH for his monthly contribution to the Tip Jar!

The Chicken Cabana Room

I don’t know when I started liking animals, but it started later in life. I didn’t grow up with dogs or cats. Michelle introduced them to our family. But they become a part of your life pretty quickly. I was looking at some video of our previous dog “Morgan” the other day, and I got very melancholy. Now Jasper the Wonder Dog is a very big part of my life. He just wants to be with me, ALL THE TIME, so I don’t go anywhere outside without him. And if I’m inside he wants to be there too.

jasper-in-the-truck

As we started migrating our diet to a more plant-based one I started to think about how animals raised in larger industrial settings spend their lives, and it’s quite sad. We decided to acquire some chickens because I still like some animal protein before working outside all day and we wanted to be sure that our eggs were coming from happy, well-cared-for chickens. I still put cream in my coffee but Canada still has a “Supply Management” system with our dairy (something free trade agreements hate) so our dairy farmers can still earn a reasonable living with manageable herds. As I drove the area during the last election you can always tell a dairy farm, it’s well maintained, and they usually have large screen barns to keep the cows comfortable in hot weather. Even I don’t have a screened in porch, so I believe there is an economic incentive here for farmers to keep the cows happy. I’m sure the TTP will dispense with that.

As our chicken posse has grown we’ve continually upgraded their facilities. We started with a small coop, which got added onto until we finally converted a shed for their coop. Last year I was so proud of our ‘sunrooms’, which were two pickup truck caps. They spent most of the winter under them able to dig in the dirt. (Read about the sunrooms here.)

This summer we added 10 more chickens. Instead of the usual “red sex links” we chose a variety of chickens, some barred rocks, etc.  So we were up to about 30 chickens and I noticed that on rainy days this past summer the one remaining truck cap was getting pretty crowded.

So this fall we moved the portable garage (that we use all summer for shelter when packing our CSA boxes) to beside the coop for the winter. Our daughter’s wonderful in-laws, Bill and Susan, helped us carry it over. So now ‘the ladies’ ae going to have a much larger area to roam and dig in the dirt all winter. I get sad thinking about how most of the worlds’ egg laying chickens spend their lives, in multi-shelved layers of cages, without much space, spending all day and night in artificial light. The smell and noise must be pretty intense in barns of that sizes with the numbers of chickens in them. When I go into our coop the morning of a cleaning (which I do twice a week) the smell is pretty strong and if even just a few of our chickens are making their morning clucking announcements, the sound is deafening. I can’t imagine a big barn full of them.

So once I got the garage cover on I was starting to get a sense about their winter. Sure, they got a fair amount of space, that’s good. Sure they get some natural light through the cover, excellent. Most importantly, when you see how chickens love to dig in the dirt, and give themselves dust baths, well, this new arrangement was going to allow them an awesome winter. But something was off and I couldn’t figure it out.

Then it finally occurred to me. They couldn’t actually see outside. They couldn’t see their lovely surroundings. They are still allowed out to free range right now since we have no snow as of today (December 17, 2015), but once the ground is white, they won’t leave the covered garage. This got me thinking.

The other challenge was that Jasper the Wonder Dog spends a good chunk of his day watching the chickens. Since the door to the shelter was on the north side I made it out of solid wood to keep the cold north wind from blowing through. So suddenly my very good buddy Jasper was going to be cut off from one of his great joys … “chicken TV.”

At that point my ‘scrounging’/cheap reflex kicked in and voila, the ladies had a new panoramic window/viewing area. Or as I shall call it … “The Chicken Cabana”, because really, compared to spending the winter huddled in their tiny coop, this is going to be like a vacation on a beach … a sandy beach they get to dust bathe in. I can just see if now, chickens taking selfies buried in the sand … on their chicken cell phones. Whoops, Cam’s getting delusional in an attempt at humor… or is he?

I used two cedar fence posts I had removed from around the garden, and I was able to dig holes for them in ground that was frozen two weeks ago but is now thawed again, thanks to the wonder of a warming climate. Then I dragged over some windows Bill gave me last spring that I had hoped to incorporate into a greenhouse, that never happened.

chickendoors

It’s pretty cute. I often see the ladies looking out the window when they are having their ‘inside recess’ time, since they stay in until about 11 am when most of them have laid their eggs. And then anytime I’m out feeding them Jasper is always at the window monitoring their status. I can see him doing a mental inventory… 3 white chickens … check… 2 black chickens … wait… Is there one missing? Border collies are herders I’m told.

I have lots more plans for the ‘cabana-room’ over the next few weeks. They are going to need a climbing structure. The chicken love to climb. In fact, they were climbing on to their trap door exit from the coop onto the door to the cabana-room to make periodic escapes. And maybe I’ll add a swing. For now, they get to free range and are still being spoiled with what’s left over from the garden … pumpkins, kale, some ugly spinach, and broccoli plants … the chickens devour broccoli leaves like there’s no tomorrow. I understand these are becoming very trendy at upscale food shops. Yea, my chickens eat them ‘all the time’, not that I’m bragggin’. Top this up with warm potato and sweet potato soup/stew (ugly not really fit for human consumption potatoes that they love) and they have a pretty good life.

chickenplaystructure

Do chickens like soccer balls? Could I get a game of ‘keep away’ going in there this winter? Heaven knows they love to play keep away with leftover spaghetti noodles and things.

If I am reincarnated in a lower form and come back as a chicken, my hope is that it’s in a place like Sunflower Farm. Apparently we put waaaayyyyy too much effort into maintaining the quality of life of our chickens. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Those chickens are providing us with darn fine eggs. I believe their mental state can only benefit that whole process.

The Myth of Relaxation When Homesteading

I think there is a myth out there among people who live in urban areas and work in jobs that they aren’t overly enthused about. The myth involves the glamour and romance of a move to a rural homestead. I get it. I had it for many years before we moved off the grid. And perhaps it’s not just the image of sitting and drinking tea by the fire while reading novels that attracts people. Sure, we all know there will be work involved, but sometimes I think many people don’t realize the scale of the work that is involved.

If you consider the original homesteaders 150 years ago, they worked from dawn to dusk, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, then probably died at about the age of 29. Today we have all these amazing modern machines that make our lives so much easier, but we still have to power them. If you use gas/diesel/propane, you still require an income to purchase them. So you’re either doing the work yourself manually, or working to earn an income to purchase these miraculous (personal) energy savers.

You can go off-grid like us, and generate all your own electricity, but to generate it in the volume you require to live independently requires a massive capital outlay on equipment upfront. So most off-gridders make a casual deal with the devil. We try not to sell our entire soul, but just enough of it to put some gas in the chainsaw and some diesel in the generator for the cloudy months (like right now) when no amount of photovoltaic panels will allow you to live anywhere near a typical North American lifestyle. Oh, you can go all ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on The Prairie” and have a hand pump for the well and read by candles or just go to bed at 5 pm, but if you’re used to those luxuries … like refrigerators and lights … then you have to make some compromises.

Michelle and I have the added challenge of trying to get our house to as near zero-carbon as we can. Many people move off-grid and simply switch all their thermal or heat loads (hot water, cooking, clothes drying…) to propane. This is an expensive fuel, and if you move off-grid partially for environmental reasons, then you just lost the battle. Sixty percent of a northern home’s carbon comes from heating, 20% from heating water, and 20% from all those other electric needs like refrigeration, water pumping, TV, etc. So really, just putting up some PV for 20% of your home’s energy requirements is a huge waste of time if you switch the other 80% (heat and hot water) to a fossil fuel.

Michelle and I heat with wood which is carbon neutral except for the cutting and splitting of it, and we are increasingly moving to more ‘solar powered’ electric chain sawing and splitting. We have a solar domestic hot water (SDHW) system which provides about 60% of our hot water using the sun, but then we have to make up the difference without using propane. Again we use carbon neutral wood.

So here’s a typical day for me right now.

I get up early and start the fire in the woodstove. I put the kettle and some cast iron fry pans on for our eggs and hash browns. Then I feed the chickens. Then I bring in firewood. Then I start breakfast which takes a while since I juggle multiple items on the woodstove. If we experiencing a really dark period, as we have been for the last two weeks without sun and not much wind, I also use a cast iron fry pan on the woodstove to toast our bread. (We like to call it ‘the griller’ using a horrible fake British accent.) For 11 months of the year we use the electric toaster but during some dark periods I do everything I can to avoid using electricity that will require me to run the generator (gasoline) more than absolutely necessary.

After breakfast we do the dishes with hot water heated on the woodstove. Then I shave with water from the kettle that I pour into the bathroom sink rather than using the hot water tap. I don’t use the hot water tap because there has been so little thermal energy from the sun, the hot water tank (propane) is lukewarm and I don’t want the propane to come on and heat up 40 gallons of hot water. And yes, I should have an on-demand hot water tank but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.

I usually also put on a pan of our lower grade potatoes and sweet potatoes to cook for the chickens. They like a warm treat first thing in the morning and sometimes before they head to bed (their roosts in the chicken coop.) After breakfast I head outside and right now I continue to do work in the gardens and greenhouses. Even in mid-December the jobs seem endless. Once the ground freezes, which it did 2 weeks ago but thawed again recently, I’ll switch my daytime activities to cutting firewood. To minimize my use of gasoline, I bring down trees with the gas chainsaw, then drag them in longer lengths back to the house to be bucked into woodstove-sized logs with the electric or battery powered chainsaw, and then split with the electric splitter (all carbon neutral).

If it’s bath night I fill up big pots of water and put them on the woodstove by late afternoon so they’re ready for that night’s bath. I also fill up buckets of cold water and let it sit during the day to warm up. Baths take forever by the time I run the bath, clean out the pots to try and minimize the mineral build up on them from our hard water, and dry the buckets I filled during daylight hours. We leave warm water in the cast-iron bathtub overnight to dissipate heat into the bathroom, then I flush the toilet the next morning using buckets of bath water. It ends up in the same septic system and this way I get one more use of the water that required electricity to pump it up out of our well.

Some days I also peel and boil some potatoes to be ready for the next batch of hash browns, and do another load of dishes. Michelle is busy putting away the laundry that she dried on racks inside the house since it’s too cold for the clothes line outside. One little job after another, and the next thing I know my whole day has passed by!

I am not complaining. I love living the way I do. I love everything I do. I can’t imagine living any other way. There are times during these activities though that I think to myself “Holy cow this is an immense amount of work!” I am constantly trying to find more labor saving techniques to minimize what we have to do each day, but I think I’ve picked all the ‘low hanging fruit.’ Most other options involve the use of fossil fuels.

We have bookshelves full of books, many I have yet to read, and many that I want to re-read. By the time dinner is done though, picking up a book is a sure way to put me to sleep while sitting straight up on the couch! Netflix, on the other hand, or a video from the video store will keep me awake and entertained until 9 pm which is finally official bed-time. Yup, we’re a pretty wild and crazy bunch here at Sunflower Farm at night. Now that I think of it, we’re pretty boring and mundane all day too. Just the way I like it.

the-warmth-of-a-woodstove

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Step Away from the Store

It probably won’t surprise any of our readers to know that I don’t consider myself a “consumer,” as business pundits refer to people residing in capitalist societies. I buy stuff, but as little and as seldomly as possible, and only stuff I really, really need. If you follow the blog and have seen the state of my clothing in photographs, well … let’s just say that thrift stores are my happy place.

Last week I needed a part for a machine, and Michelle was busy on Thursday and Friday, so Saturday was the first day we could head off to our nearest large city. Last Thursday of course was American Thanksgiving and Friday, well, it was a ‘black’ day as it were.

A few years ago this wouldn’t have been a big deal for a Canadian, because we Canadians didn’t celebrate “Black Friday.” Our Thanksgiving is in October (where it should be, well away from Christmas) and retailers were smart, they didn’t really offer discounts until “Boxing Day”on December 26th. Now from a business perspective think about how illogical Black Friday is. You take the one time of the year where (most) people feel they have to buy stuff (presents) and you offer massive discounts. Huh? People are going to spend money anyway. Why would you discount at a time when people are forced to spend? It’s so weird.

Now though, Canadian retailers have been sucked into the “Black Friday” vortex because so many of us would head to the U.S. to take advantage of the sales. For many years this was a good thing because with our strong Canadian “petro” dollar meant it made sense to spend the money on the gas to get there. But now our Canadian dollar is worth about 75¢ U.S. so the sales would have to be massive to make it worthwhile. And Canadian retailers now start discounting to compete with the U.S. and of course “Cyber Monday” allows you to take advantage of sales anywhere you live.

Sorry for the digression, but anyway, I found myself at “Canadian Tire” (how Canadian is that?) on the Saturday after Black Friday and I realized as I approached the parking lot that I’d made a huge mistake. And low and behold, I had only been in the store for about 10 seconds when I told Michelle I was “SO’d” (shopped out) and needed to go home.

I did persevere long enough to get the part that I needed, and we even hit a nearby thrift shop that was very, very quiet, presumably because everybody else was shopping at regular retail stores looking for the bargains.

This disdain for shopping started when I lived in the city. Well it was actually suburbia and 20 years ago it seemed to me that was what people did in suburbia, they shopped. That was how they defined themselves, by what they bought. And many seemed to hate their jobs and spent their weekends buying ‘stuff’ as a reward for putting up with a job.

When we moved to our little piece of paradise I have to admit I did ramp up my consuming for a while as we upgraded, well, just about every system in our off-grid home. And when you put up a wind turbine it turned out that it helps to have some specialized tools, and when you learn to do your own plumbing you need some tools. So Canadian Tire did become my happy place for a while. I was lucky enough to be able to learn what I needed and I often borrow tools from my neighbor Ken, but you get to a point where once you’ve borrowed something often enough, you realize it wouldn’t hurt to own it the next time something breaks, so I would wait for it to go on sale before I bought it. It’s part of  the ‘independent’ mindset that starts to creep in when you’re off grid and start looking at the big picture state of the world.

But now I seem to have just about every tool I need. And I still have the “Ken Tool Lending Library” just down the road if I’m desperate. And I seem pretty set on clothes … for… like…ever. Canadian Tire came out with some new fiberglass handled shovels a few years ago and I tried one and liked it (because it is easier on my rapidly ageing elbows). So when they went on super sale I bought a couple so I can have one in various locations. At my age the 7 minute walk back from the “old wind turbine/potato garden” to the tool shed to get a shovel and the 7 minute walk turns out to be 15 minutes and “X” number of calories that are not well invested. Jasper the Wonder Dog loves the walk, or in his case full throttle sprint, back and forth, but me, not so much.

So I will now stay out of retail stores for the next 6 weeks or so. They are crazy places at this time of year, and I feel this immense cloud of depression come over me as soon as I walk in. Where did all this “stuff” come from? From the ground, from trees, from stuff that was mined, plastic from oil … and how soon before it all ends up I a landfill? I’m just better to not see it at all.

I’ve read a few reports that suggest that the holiday frenzy was not up to previous year’s madness. It could be that the middle class has been so hosed over the past decade they just don’t have the money or available credit to keep up the pace. In Canada a whack of people spend so much on their housing with our on-going housing bubble that they just don’t have as much money or credit left over to jump into the feeding frenzy contact sport that has become holiday shopping.

Or maybe, just maybe, more people are starting to clue in that ‘buying stuff’ is kind of a shallow way to try and fill up your life with meaning. There is more out there and the best stuff doesn’t necessarily come from a store. I can dream can’t I?

In the meantime, if I get one of those “let’s go shopping” moments in the next few weeks I will either try and distract myself working on next year’s firewood, or hit a thrift shop which seems to be a much quieter place at this time of year. Do you think my new grandson will notice if that toy isn’t in a shiny new box?

TheBestThingsinLife

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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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