My New Grain Mill!

Guest Post by Michelle Mather

As you might know from my previous post, I like baking my own bread here at Sunflower Farm. I try to use as much whole wheat flour as possible but as many others have probably discovered, whole wheat flour is not something you can stock up on and use over time. I learned this the hard way about 20 years ago when I first began using more and more whole-wheat flour in all of my baking. My whole-wheat loaves often had a weird aftertaste to them, and in time I began to realize that my whole-wheat flour was going rancid and causing the less-than-desirable flavor in my baking. UGH!

I began buying whole-wheat flour in smaller quantities and either refrigerating or freezing it to keep it from taking on that rancid smell and flavor. Both of these seemed to help.

Then one summer Cam decided to attempt to grow wheat. He describes his Great Wheat Growing Experiment here. He also posted a video of his attempts at separating the wheat from the chaff here. (We chuckle every time we hear him talk about separating the wheat from the “chafe.”) Needless to say we both gained a whole new appreciation for the miracle of the modern combine harvester! (There are other posts on the subject of growing and eating wheat such as the one here and here.)

A couple of years ago some friends of ours did a lot of research and purchased an electric grain mill. They demonstrated it for us and shared some freshly ground whole-wheat flour with us. We loved it! We thought about buying our own grain mill but they are not inexpensive (I believe their mill was in the $400 – $500 range), and as you probably know from reading this blog, Cam and I live on a rather modest income. Our friends offered to grind grain for us, but they live an hour away and so it just didn’t seem feasible.

Then a couple of weeks ago we hosted a half-day consultation for three people. They had wanted to come to our spring workshop but the date didn’t work for them. Instead they decided to come for a half-day consultation (details here.) Some times these half-day consultations actually work out even better than coming to a workshop, especially if you have very specific interests or questions you want to explore.

At one point while the guys were in the battery room discussing the nitty gritty details of the off-grid electrical system, Maureen came into the house to chat while I put together our lunch. Maureen is also a keen baker and we talked about using more whole-wheat flour and grains in our baking. I mentioned my desire for a grain mill as well as my limited budget. Maureen pointed out my KitchenAid stand mixer (see below for a story about it) and said, “Why don’t you get the grain mill attachment for that?” I had known that KitchenAid offered lots of attachments for their stand mixers. I had seen the pasta maker and the meat grinder, but I had never seen a grain mill. Maureen insisted that one existed and so after they left I went online to explore and lo and behold, she is right!

It turned out that a nearby Canadian Tire store had one in stock. (Why had I never noticed it while killing time in the kitchen section while waiting for Cam?) Even better, it was on sale, at only $149.99 instead of the regular price of $189.99! Then when I got home and went online to register the product I discovered a current rebate offer and signed up for a $20.00 rebate!

But the big question was – Will it work?? I bought some organic wheat berries and assembled the attachment, read the instructions and turned it on. Eureka! Freshly ground whole-wheat flour!

I’ve baked 2 loaves of bread using half whole wheat and they were fantastic! I’ll keep increasing the ratio of whole wheat to white until I get just the right balance of whole-wheat flavor and goodness and texture. This grain mill will also grind corn, rye, oats, rice, buckwheat, barley and millet, so I have a lot of fun experimentation ahead of me! And now that we have this step of the process figured out, Cam has a renewed determination to get back into growing our own wheat!

Cam and I have often remarked to each other that we always learn from our guests and workshop participants and this was just another example of that. Thanks Maureen!

The story behind my KitchenAid stand mixer – A couple of Christmases ago I asked “Santa” for a KitchenAid stand mixer but I let it be known that I would wait patiently for a sale before it was purchased. Finally in February the model I wanted came on sale and Cam went off to purchase it. He came home and proudly announced that he had purchased my Valentine’s Day gift! Nice try!! I had to remind him that it was in reality a late Christmas gift!

Today is my birthday, so I guess I could consider my new grain mill a birthday present to myself!

 

 

I didn’t take a picture of my grain mill but here is a link to the product on amazon …

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That Load of Topsoil… Waiting in the Woods

I’m cheap.

No, wait, I’m frugal. Well, all I know is that I hate spending money, and I only spend it when I really have to.

Over the years I have purchased dump truck loads of gravel for the driveway and in other places to cure some drainage issues, and this spring I was thinking about getting a load of topsoil.

Our gardens are expanding at an ever-increasing rate for our CSA. Last winter Michelle and I decided to invest in 100 new late bearing raspberry bushes. I was going to put them in an existing garden where I had been building up the soil for years. But the more I thought of it that garden was better suited for vegetables for our CSA members and I needed to find a new place.

I decided to put the new raspberries in our paddock. The paddock is a fenced area where the previous owners, Jean & Gary, kept their horses. It’s connected to the horse barn. In the fall my neighbour Ken plowed up the area with the best soil for our new greenhouse. It still left a large expanse in which to plant the raspberries.

The challenge is that this lower area is basically sand. Jean had had someone push all of the topsoil to the upper area, leaving sand in the lower section. She had jumps for the horses in this sandy area, the concept being that if you fall off it’s better to hit sand to absorb some of the shock as opposed to just hitting grass.

This was a dilemma. I wanted to plant the raspberries in this sandy area because I want to plant them far apart so that they can grow into big, vigorous rows. A load of topsoil was the solution. I got a ballpark price of about $400 for a load of topsoil, which when you consider the $250 investment in the raspberries and the decades of raspberries we should get, seems like a reasonable outlay.

And here’s where we come back to that ‘cheap’ thing.

The main challenge of ‘topsoil’ is the definition I use, versus the person providing it. In our part of the world where sand is the norm, anything marginally darker than sand is deemed topsoil. My definition is somewhere closer to a dark, blackish, rich, manured, loamy kind of topsoil. The end game is obviously my disappointment.

Plus I’ve had challenges with these issues in the past. Several years ago I got some manure from a local horse stable. The problem was they dumped their wheelbarrows full of manure on to gravel when they mucked out the stalls so what I got was a load of manure “and gravel”, or should I say a load of gravel with manure mixed in, and believe me with my soil I do NOT need anymore more stone. I will be picking it out for decades.

Then I thought about a special place in my woods where I could get some topsoil. Years ago, as I was exposing the barn foundation, which had become overgrown like a forest, I hired a backhoe to come in and pull out some stumps. Ultimately he pushed them all way back into the woods and took with them some awesome soil. My garden all drains down towards the barn, and the soil around it is dark and rich from the natural drainage of nutrients and the years of animal manure.

But like everything in my life, it would not be easy to get to it. Because when I say it’s ‘down’ in the woods, I really mean… “DOWN!” So it meant pushing every load of soil uphill the elevational equivalent of the hike from Base Camp to Camp 1 through the Khumbu Icefall for people who try to summit Mt. Everest. Why couldn’t the soil be on the top of a hill? Then I could just let the wheelbarrow pull me downhill with inertia. But nope it always works the reverse.

So here’s where I’ve been working for the last couple of weeks. I load up the topsoil from here.

topsoil from the woods1

Then I push it up to this rock outcrop where I rest. Then I push it through this soon to be bulrush swamp and up past the new greenhouse and I rest. Then I push it up through the garden to the new raspberry patch.

topsoil from the woods2

If I had been smart the first thing I would have done when I moved to our homestead would have been to buy a tractor. We had a little money left over from the sale of our city home, so I could have. But “I” didn’t “need” a tractor. I could do everything myself. And I wouldn’t be producing all that CO2 from a diesel tractor. That plan has worked exceptionally well for the last 17 years, but now that I’m 55 and running a CSA, it’s become stupid. But it’s too late, there is no tractor coming to Sunflower Farm. So shut up and shovel Cam.

topsoil from the woods3

Which leaves me and my rapidly declining physical prowess to get the soil from the valley to the hilltop. I pace myself. I only do 2 or 3 loads a day. And I usually take one load to one of the greenhouses to build up the soil there. And so each morning for breakfast, I have one of those commercial, deep-fried potato patties, that are probably horrible for your health and weight but frankly I don’t care. I call them “diesel fuel.” If I don’t have a tractor, at least I’m going to make sure the motor I have to work with has enough calories to get it up that hill a few more times.

topsoil from the woods4

I don’t know what the end result of your daily effort is. Perhaps an awesome new report printed and collated. Maybe it’s 500 cups of coffee served, which made many people happy. In my case it’s the trenches I dug in the sand for the new raspberries that are a getting filled up with some awesome topsoil. The soil has been built up for eons and is healthy and vibrant and rich and dark and just ready to nurture some raspberry plants. The raspberry plants with produce wonderful organic, bright red, sweet, juicy, delicious raspberries that will be awesome on granola, or in muffins, or of course…PIES! And the raspberries in the pies will give me the energy for the next stubborn, cheap, physical undertaking I take on when I realize I’m too stupid or poor to spend money and will figure out a way to find whatever it is I need somewhere on our amazing 150 acres of bush. Topsoil to raspberries to pies to energy for the next load of topsoil. It’s like “Lion King.” It’s the cycle of life! With pies!

the new raspberry patch

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Cam’s book “Thriving During Challenging Times” has been out of print for a while but we continue to get requests for it. So we added it to “Createspace” and so it is now available as a “Print on Demand” title through amazon. Use this link to purchase it and we will receive a very small commission on anything you purchase on amazon.

The Title Fight for Battery Supremacy

Ever since Tesla announced their new Powerwall, we’ve received lots of emails and messages asking us for our opinion on this new product. So here is my quick response. Now I am heading back out to the garden!

The Tesla Powerwall

Ladies…. and. …Gentlemen (said with long pauses, like before a boxing match) … Welcome to the premier event in the battery fight world!

In this corner, weighing in at … well… not much… using state-of-the-art lithium-ion technology… backed by a financial and tech super-heavy weight… with more hype than sliced white bread when it was first introduced… Elon Musk’s Tesla Superwall Battery for the Home!

In this corner, weighing in at… well… a bazillion pounds… using a 100 year-old lead-acid technology… backed by… well, no one really, with media hype that is … well… non-existent… Cam’s Off-Grid Deep-Cycle Lead Acid Batteries!

And there you have it. In 17 years of living off-grid and many years of doing workshops on off-grid living and blogging… I have never had so many people ask me my opinion about anything… let alone something as cool as battery technology that the manufacturer says would work great with solar panels charging them. How awesome is that!

But I have to remind myself of the caveat. Most of these same people are probably aware that solar panels cost about a tenth of what they cost when I started buying them. They are crazy cheap right now, but we still haven’t seen a widespread adoption of them by individuals. Generating electricity is still something that, for most people, someone else does for them.

Everything I read tells me that the Tesla batteries are great. And there will be early adopters. But the hype seems to be related to this paradigm shift they will spearhead in which individuals will take personal responsibility for powering their own homes. And I’m not sure how likely that is.

My batteries that cost about $5,000 are a deep-cycle lead acid technology that is designed to be cycled up and down many times. I should not let them go below 50% of their charge so I have to watch their state of charge and I have to periodically add distilled water to the electrolyte. So they are not maintenance free. Each of my batteries weighs 270 pounds, so when I leave the house I do not worry about intruders stealing my batteries. They came with a 10-year warranty and if I treat them really well, I should get 17 to 20 years of life out of them. At that time someone will purchase them from me for the value of the lead in them, which will be recycled into new batteries.

off-gridbatteries

The Tesla battery will be lighter and have less maintenance. That’s awesome.

I’m not sure they will meet most people’s expectations though. In my case I know I can get through 3 cloudy days in November, as long as I switch all my thermal (heat) loads to propane and wood. If I’m just running the fridge and freezer, TV, computers, lights, and small electric appliances I’m fine.

The problem will be someone in an urban environment who is not into the whole “paying attention to their energy use thing”, and the family may try and switch to the batteries and someone in the family will warm up a pizza pocket in the toaster oven for 15 minutes and suddenly the potential of the batteries will not meet the hype. A few times of not being disciplined to watch your electricity use could quickly dampen your enthusiasm for the product.

If you use them just to run non-thermal electric loads they will be awesome, but from an environmental point of view here in the north and for the northern parts of the U.S. 60% of your home’s energy use is for heat, 20% is for hot water and the remaining 20% is for appliances. So if you heat with natural gas or oil, and make your hot water this way, then installing a set of these batteries only helps with 20% of your energy requirements. What you should be doing is installing a geo-thermal/ground source heat pump to stop burning natural gas for your heat. What you should do next is install a solar domestic hot water to reduce your natural gas use to produce hot water. Then you should install one of these battery banks and some solar panels to charge them.

This is exactly what happened in the province of Ontario with the Green Energy Act. We had very low carbon electricity because of our nuclear plants and hydro. They introduced incentives to put solar panels on roof-tops and they killed the solar domestic hot water and geo-thermal industries. People didn’t do the right thing. If they had just put a price on carbon, the market would have sorted this all out. When government meddles they inevitably get it wrong.

We moved to our off-grid home the year after the 1998 ice storm that devastated this part of the world. As I did workshops at colleges throughout the area I’d ask people to raise their hands if they’d been without electricity for a week. Most hands went up. 2 weeks? A lot of hands. 3 or more weeks, still a fair number of hands. Then I’d ask how many people had bought backup generators. Very few hands.

There’s this inertia that keeps people from doing what they should do. “Well, another ice storm is highly unlikely, so I’m not worried. And besides for the price of a generator I can get an all-inclusive week in Cuba, so I’m takin’ the personal gratification now baby! And that includes booze!” Because really, who wants a gas generator sitting in their garage that they may never have to use? And really, not being able to keep the lights on, heat your house, have a hot shower or keep food cold, really it wasn’t that bad.

If you want backup power for an electricity blackout, a $700 gas generator is a better investment than $3,500 for the Tesla Powerwall. Not good for the planet, but better bang for the buck. If you want to save the planet, look at how you heat your home and hot water first. These are by far much greater contributors to our environmental challenges.

So there’s my rant. I wish Elon Musk all the best. The lithium-ion battery in my new 20V drill and 40V electric chainsaw are awesome! I can hardly wait to see how these batteries perform. We have been early adopters of new technologies since Michelle bought one of the first Macintosh computers to roll off the line in 1984. She bought it because she had a good job and I kept bouncing around from sales job to sales job. By being early adopters we helped drive down the cost of solar panels that people should be buying today, because it’s an existing technology and it works. But for most people that vacation abroad or that new deck’s worth of outside living room furniture, or that newest type of coffee maker that uses non-recyclable pods and plays your favorite music while it brews is by far the sexier choice.

Once some developed country’s politicians have the intestinal fortitude to put a realistic price on carbon and then start ratcheting it up, products like this will fly off the shelves … just like all those other new and exciting ‘must-have’ consumer products.

Here’s Elon Musk introducing the new Tesla Powerwall, just in case you missed it!

Those Lovely Spring Bird Songs… NOW SHUT UP!

(I actually wrote this a couple of weeks ago just as spring was starting. Then we had a few days of summer heat and humidity so I posted that blog first. Thank goodness we have gone back to cooler temperatures.)

Ah spring. Such an awesome season. The warmth. The green. The sounds. The frogs. The spring peepers. The birds.

I love the sound of red wing blackbirds. They always mean spring is really here. We have a pond near the house where the blackbirds like to hang out.

And lots of spring peepers live there too. The spring peepers start up when it gets warmer. And they just sound amazing.

If you go down to the pond at dusk at the height of their mating activity the sound is deafening. Luckily the pond is far enough away that it’s just wonderful background noise at bedtime. (The video below is an entire hour of spring peepers so it will give you an idea of what it is like trying to fall asleep at my house in the springtime.)

I love being able to sleep with my bedroom window open in spring. Hearing those sounds is so soothing. There are loons on the lakes around us and they spend a lot of time calling out to each other this time of year, perhaps looking for companionship. The sounds are so haunting. And so Canadian. I have to pinch myself that I get to hear them every night, not just on a weekend canoe trip like when we lived in the city. We feel very blessed to live where we do.

We also get owls in the spring. We tend to hear them more in the winter but we have a couple that are quite active right now. Lying in bed is like a symphony of nature sounds.

Then along come the whippoorwills.

Michelle and I had never heard whippoorwills until we came up to meet Jean, the woman we bought the house from. She agreed to meet us after the sale closed and show us the ropes of the off-grid power system. We lay in bed that first night in our new house completely enchanted by them. It’s an amazing call and so unique. Just like their name. You can really hear their name in their call.

And such a strong call too. It is so loud I think they can hear each other in the next province. And they seem to like being near our house. They must climb on the closest trees they can find to the house to do their calls. And they call. And they call. And they call. And it’s loud. And it’s endless. They can just go all night. And unlike the gentle background noise of the peepers, it’s like having a punk band practicing in the neighbor’s garage all night. A bad punk band. With really loud guitars.

And so we have a love affair/hate affair with whippoorwills. I know we’re lucky to have them. I feel blessed. I really do. It’s just that they like to start up about 1 or 2 or 3 am, when you’re in a really deep sleep and it’s like being awakened by an tsunami alarm, only we don’t live near the sea. I have to say, there are some nights I just want to lean out the window and scream at the darn things to shut up!

I will not do that though for several reasons. As Michelle constantly points out to me, “They were here first.” She says that often when I start complaining about our resident beavers and the “construction” projects they complete around our property. We’re just visiting so we need to respect their territory. It’s their field of dreams too.

The other reason that I never yell at the whippoorwills comes from some karma in our house and I am loath to risk tempting fate. Our neighbor Dave Ackerman (who passed away several years ago) had known the various owners of our house over the generations. I’m thinking that 60 or 70 years ago the whippoorwills were an active part of the landscape and apparently having the same effect on the man of the house, Philip Higgley, at the time. (At least I think it was Philip but perhaps Ken and Madeline Snider, who lived in my house many decades ago and read this blog may be able to confirm the identity in the comments below.)

As Dave told the story, the whippoorwills liked to hang out in the lilac bushes just below the bedroom window. (The lilacs are still there outside of the window that was our youngest daughter’s bedroom when she lived at home.) Back then before Jean and Gary did the renovation the windows would probably have been the type that had counterweights to make them easier to raise and lower. But in a wooden home, with the changes in humidity those windows often got stuck.

So one night poor Phillip had had enough of the racket so he opened the window to yell at the whippoorwills. He was one of those farmers who chose not to bother with the encumbrance of pajamas in warmer weather. Upon leaning out the window to politely ask the birds to move on, the window came down, pinning him halfway in and halfway out. Because he was bent over he couldn’t get the leverage to unpry the window. He therefore had to summon his wife who obviously found the image of the naked man pinned in the window pretty darn funny. Unfortunately this was in the days before digital cameras and cell phone cameras so no photographic proof exists to substantiate the incident. Just the story our neighbor Dave passed along to us. It probably happened in black and white.

And with that I take my cue that the volume of the whippoorwill call is my problem and not something to complain to the whippoorwills about. Luckily most nights are still cool enough so that I can just get up and close the front window where most of the sound comes from. And really, after working all day in the garden I can’t see a good nights sleep being that important anyway. I need to just let the birds do their thing.

Some nights I long for the city and the sirens and the drunken teenagers and the cars drag racing down our street. So quiet and relaxing in comparison to the whippoorwills.

The Absence of Spring

Apparently we have missed May and June here in our part of southeastern Ontario and went right to July!

Every spring planting season is unique here at Sunflower Farm. Some are too wet. Some are too dry. Some are too cold. And sometimes they are just right.

Our planting is fully underway for the CSA. Each year I get better organized and feel more in control and less frantic … as much as that is possible with my personality type. I have a number of gardens in various places as opposed to a large field, so it’s kind of cool the way planting comes together organically. I use ‘organically’ in many senses of the word.

We don’t apply any chemicals or weed killers or insecticides, so we grow ‘organically.’ But where things get planted just kind of comes together as the spring progresses. We obviously rotate things from garden to garden. Last year one garden had beans, a legume, which improves the soil, so this year it can handle a crop that is a heavy feeder.

Last year’s corn battle with the raccoons ended in a draw with them exacting heavier losses than I would have liked, even though I camped out in the patch a few nights with the dog to try and convince them to go and eat something natural, in the woods, where they belong. So this year the corn will be closer to the house, in a part of the garden that got enhanced with horse manure, and a second smaller patch will be right by the house in a spot that was part of the chicken pen, so you know it’s been well fertilized.

As exhausting as it is I do so love this time of the year. Everything is turning green and I get to spend my days in constant motion, much of it with my hands immersed in the soil.

The challenge this spring has been the weather. It’s too hot and dry, which is ironic considering we had one of the coldest winters on record. Part of my spring ritual is the gradual shedding of layers over the weeks as the temperature warms. Being surrounded by woods we go through periods of black flies, then mosquitoes, but in a typical spring this is no problem because I wear a bug hat and I don’t even notice them. But a bug hat in hot weather can be cumbersome to put it mildly.

The past week here has been 10°C above normal, which means is should be about 15°C (60°F) but it has averaged 25°C (77°F). Now I’m sure our readers in the south will laugh at me. Come on, 77°F is downright chilly in your part of the world. I get it. But I’m from Canada. The frozen north. So I don’t have the DNA to handle this heat. Or at least I am better able to handle it in July, or June, but not the first week of May. Right now my hands should be really chilled when planting peas. This week as I’ve grabbed the metal pipe pounder that I use when making fences for the peas to climb, I’ve been burning my hands on the steel handles. That’s not normal. This weekend its supposed to hit 30°C (86°F) which is a July heat wave. And it sucks.

And it’s dry. I have very sandy soil that looks wonderful and rich and dark, when it has moisture. But when it dries out, it looks like … well, sand. So I have been expending an inordinate number of calories watering after planting anything. Usually I can just plunk in the peas or onions and move on to the next thing. Now I’ve even been prewatering an area before I plant so it’s not so sandy, then planting, then watering. I’ve even had to resort to irrigation in some of the dryer parts of the garden. It’s such a pain. I am resigned to it but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.

This is a conversation I have had with many people here in the north. More often than not, we don’t have a ‘spring’ anymore. We just go from winter to summer. I’m hyped to work in 30°C+ (86°C+) heat in July. That’s what’s July’s for. That’s what tomatoes need. And by then Fifth Depot Lake is warm enough for swimming, so I can push on through the heat knowing that before dinner I get to cool off in a lake. But not now. It’s just brutally hot and I’m not in a swimming mode. Oh, and the ice has only been off the lake for 2 weeks, so it’s less refreshing and more hypothermia inducing.

There are those that will say that we’ve always had warm springs. We’ve always had dry springs. You can’t infer climate change is happening because of one weather event. Agreed. On all counts. But this seems to be a trend, this absence of spring. And I don’t like it a bit. I love three seasons … fall, winter, and spring. I tolerate summer, but I am not a ‘heat’ person. I would rather it be -30° C (-22°F) below zero than + 30°C. I can always get warm by putting more wood on the fire. I can put on more layers. I can work harder outside to stay warm. But I cannot escape the heat in the summer. I have to work outside all day, so I will tolerate it, but don’t ask me to embrace it. Ain’t gonna happen.

One of the reasons I’m glad to have cut the satellite TV is so that I don’t have to watch those obnoxious weather people waxing poetic about how awesome this heat is! You know, the ones in the suits in the air-conditioned studios who drive to work in air-conditioned cars and go home to air conditioned homes and buy their food in air-conditioned stores. Oh but this weather is awesome to have a drink outside on the patio at their favorite restaurant! Ah the bliss of urbane living.

So I miss the spring. I miss the gradual transition. I miss the way it used to be.

And so when our federal election is called this fall, I will work diligently to get the Green Party message to the masses. Climate change is real. It’s happening now. It’s causing extreme weather ‘elsewhere’, and it’s screwing up our weather here. I suppose a spring like this for a farmer is an extreme weather event. If we don’t get some rain soon, crops will suffer. So this is no longer an existential, distant, sometime in the future, happen to someone else kind of thing. This isn’t our grandchildren’s problem. This isn’t our children’s problem. It’s our problem. Vote Green. Support Spring.

News Junkie Goes Cold Turkey

The other day my normally calm, levelheaded, non-confrontational wife began ranting about how everything on TV was crap and it was just a huge waste of time and money. It was hilarious. I am still mimicking her relentlessly about it … “everything on the radio is crap” … “everything in the newspaper is crap” … “everything on the internet is crap”… I could go on and on … oh yeah, I do.

And so began our odyssey to live like people envision us living, little house on the prairie style, without satellite TV. I’m sure at some point I had the dream of going back to the land, growing a pony tail, wearing Birkenstock sandals, growing food, entertaining myself with my guitar … and writing poetry. I’m halfway there, minus the ponytail and poetry writing. Oh, and my guitar broke. But I do grow food.

Except for a period of time when our daughters were young and we wanted to encourage them to do anything else but watch TV, we have always had that signal beaming into our home, creating that blue glow in the living room and we zoned out like the rest of the developed world. If it’s any conciliation we had cut back to the absolute most basic satellite TV package, but it was still almost $50/month. And even thought it seemed to offer hundreds of channels the same shows were repeated … in low def, in high def, and then in high def in another channel range. Half the time the Canadian channels just rebroadcast what the U.S. networks are airing, so at any given time you have the same show on 14 channels. Now that’s good value.

So it really comes down to PBS and the news. We are kind of into a groove watching the 6 o’clock news. It’s our comfort zone … although with what’s happening in the world on any given day … what did John Lennon say? “I heard the news today, oh boy…” Since I participate in the political process I feel it’s worthwhile to stay up on what’s happening in the big wide world, but as Michelle points out, yelling at the morons and imbeciles on the TV is kind of huge waste of time and energy, because, get this, they can not hear me! Drats! Who knew?

This was also somewhat prompted by my mindset of late winter, which leaned somewhat to the melancholy side. I’m sure a lot of it was caused by our brutally cold February. We were still having cold weather alerts in Toronto the last week of March. And the world doesn’t seem to be making as much progress on capping carbon emissions so that can be frustrating. I’ve also chosen to remain friends on Facebook with Paul Beckwith, a climate scientist from the University of Ottawa who constantly posts terrifying things, but I have turned his notifications off in my news feed. While I believe I need this information to try and motivate people in a political forum, too much of it can be ‘counter-productive’ to the cause.

And with that, we are now free of the “plug-in drug” of TV and have $600 a year to spend on flights around the world, or DVD rentals from Tamworth Village Video. I haven’t flown in decades but I’m presuming $600 flies you around the world, several times at least. (For our new readers, rest assured that I do not fly. I am being sarcastic.)

When Michelle called to cancel our satellite TV, the person on the line commented on how long we’d been satellite TV customers. I’m not necessarily proud of that. We were paid up for a week or two but I wanted it to stop immediately. As long as the darn newscasts were on, I couldn’t stop watching them. I’d made the commitment and I didn’t even want to know that it was available if I fell off the wagon. But the weird thing was that the satellite feed didn’t get turned off right away. We continued to watch the news the next night and then the next. Then on Sunday night, at 7:10 pm they cut us off. Really, 7:10 pm. Not midnight. Not on the day 10 days in the future we were paid up to, they just arbitrarily picked Sunday night. It was like they have a crew of geeks who sit around and say, “Yea, this is an obnoxious time, let’s do it now… he he he!” It doesn’t exactly inspire loyalty, but hey, we just cancelled our contract, so what did I expect.

I am full time in the garden now. The CSA memberships are rolling in. We’ve had some days above the seasonal norm, so I’ve been working in a t-shirt. The chickens are clucking with joy and anxious to get out and roam, and so we let them out at around 11 a.m. after they have finished laying. They sprint from leaf pile to manure pile scratching and reveling in the exposed earth. So my mood along with the ladies has been lightening by the day.

When we aren’t in town to rent videos we’re tracking down some new shows to watch on Netflix. And since there are no commercials I don’t get those stares from across the room when I channel surf during commercials … not that that ever happened before. I’m just saying, IF I did that I might have gotten those looks.

I can’t even say I’m going to miss Brian Williams, since he’s taking a holiday from the news along with us. I’m not sure we’ll be back when he’s back. But season 6 of Downton Abbey, which should be on PBS next January, that’s a different story. I’m not sure Michelle will be able to miss that. Oh well, for people who don’t travel, a little adventure can be exciting!

The Blog Where I Explain the Meaning of Life

(Sorry for the delay between posts. Now that Cam is back to working outside from dawn to dusk, we’ll be back to a once a week schedule for the blog.)

Isn’t there a Monty Python movie about the meaning of life? It’s kind of a big question. I think I came up with the answer.

My epiphany started while I was sorting the recyclables in the garage. This is a big deal in my world, because we only go to the dump 4 or 5 times a year. Eventually the recyclables start to pile up and I start running out of room in the garage and I snap, have a hissy fit and rant about it being time to do a dump run.

We have a fairly good recycling program because we only take one bag of garbage, but the car these days is weighted down with the other stuff, especially since we started a decluttering campaign. Turns out if you save magazines for ….17 years, they really pile up. Here’s that goes on in my head; “Well, I might refer to them at some point. No you won’t. Recycle them. Okay.”

Michelle and I have been recycling for 30 years, so it’s not like this is new to me, but for some reason on this recent morning it all just seemed kind of pointless. Why am I doing this? What’s the purpose? Where did all these things come from? Do I not have something better to do with my time? When humans figured out how to save some seeds and begin agriculture and harness fossil fuels to free up our time to do other stuff, was this the end game? Was this what all the innovation and sweat and toil and blood and tears for? So I could spend an hour and a half in my garage tying up old magazines and sorting the glass from the metal and the soft plastic from the hard plastic?

Is this all there is? Is this my ultimate purpose on this planet? Is there no grander plan that I’m involved with, or is it just this?

And there you have it. My existential moment. I use the word constantly, have never figured out what it means, but I think it fits here. I think this is the meaning of existential.

It was kind of a strange time to have such a moment. I am an environmentalist. I hate wasting stuff, so sorting recyclables should be no big deal. In fact, since the end result is a trip to the dump, which can be a pretty exciting excursion, there was no real basis for this emotion. But there it was.

I told Michelle about my existential crisis in the garage, but she didn’t seem too concerned. I got one of those “just suck it up and get on with your miserable life” looks.

But I shouldn’t get these. I live in paradise. I live at one of the greatest times in human history. We have iPhones, we can Skype, we have backup cameras on our cars (well ours doesn’t, but I hear that other people’s cars do) we buy can buy Meals Ready to Eat … where the meal comes in a package and cooks itself, in the package!

The good thing was the moment did pass. But it just kind of sat there at the back of my consciousness for the next few days. I kept coming back to it.

At breakfast the next morning Michelle and I began sharing memories of our honeymoon, when we drove from Eastern Canada to British Columbia and then down to California. We camped and were away for a whole summer. Michelle reminded me of waking up on Mount Rainer in Washington State in July, with frost on the tent and not wanting to walk to the washrooms because of the fear of bears. We had arrived the day before and the mountain had been covered in fog. We woke to a beautiful sunny day and the view of the mountain was spectacular.

At one point in our conversation Michelle said, “it’s been quite an adventure, leaving the comfort of suburbia.” I thought she meant our trip out west, but what she was really referring to was our move to our off-grid home in the woods 17 years ago. And it truly has. It’s been fantastic. It’s been frustrating and terrifying and mostly utterly brilliant.

I spent the rest of that day rototilling gardens to get ready for planting for our CSA. It was a beautiful spring day without a cloud in the sky. I worked from garden to garden, thinking about what had been planted where over the last few years so that I could figure out what should go where this year. And where to put the corn to prepare for the raccoon apocalypse that will descend upon us once the corn is ready to pick.

I sweated a lot. I drank a lot of water from our well. Our crystal clear well without a home or farm or business for 100 miles around that might contaminate it. As I worked the chickens roamed the gardens scratching and pecking in the soil. And I thought about the people with jobs in the city. I thought about the work I used to do, promoting businesses, to help them sell more stuff. And I thought about the drive home those suburban people would have, and the traffic, and the exhaustion they might be feeling when they came through the door and still had to cook dinner.

Later that day I walked in the door in time to help with dinner and I was exhausted. The kitchen floor was kind of covered in dirt because eventually I just got tired of taking my muddy work boots off every time I came in. Oh, and the cat had been rolling in the straw outside and then tracked it through the house, so I wasn’t the only offender.

After dinner I went out to work on the new greenhouse in the barn foundation. And a million birds were singing. And a thousand spring peepers were peeping. And I could hardly walk I was so tired. And I walked from garden to garden that were now ready for planting. And I walked by the two new beds I’ve made for the 100 new raspberry stalks that are on order. And then I dragged the tire from the manure trailer that loses pressure over time down to the pond to see if I could spot the leak.

And finally I dragged myself on to the porch. And there it was. The answer. To the question. I make next to no money. But I do live like a king. And I grow food, the most basic thing that we all need and really, the lowest common denominator for someone trying to earn a living and yet have the lowest impact they can. We all have to eat. And I grow food as sustainably as I can. And I use organic growing methods and human power where others use chemicals and fossil fuels in their tractors. I work at a small level. I work at a level I can tolerate. I can live with what I do. I love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Our adventure continues everyday. And I never regret leaving suburbia. I’m so glad I did when I was still strong enough to work like I do.

Life is good.

The recyclables … they’re just a little nuisance along the way.

aerial view

Right in the middle of this aerial view, you can see our house and guesthouse. This was taken in early fall, as you can tell by the changing colours.

Let’s Try This Again – Running For the Green Party That Is

I have decided do to that whole “trifecta” thing and run for the Green Party in the upcoming federal election in Canada. I enjoyed running provincially and liked running for municipal council so I don’t think I’d be politically complete unless I took a shot federally.

https://www.greenparty.ca/en

The timing is good. We have an unpopular Prime Minister who is obsessed with selling tar sands oil to anyone who’ll buy it and who kind of went “all in” on having the Canadian economy a Petro state. That was working great when oil was $100+ /barrel, but now with oil around $50/barrel … not so much.

The Green Party of Canada’s leader Elizabeth May is very popular and without question the most intelligent, articulate leader of any party in the country. She’s a lawyer and someone who is passionate about both the environment and democracy, both of which the major parties seem anxious to ignore and degrade. Now that she has been in Parliament a while she has radically increased the profile of the party and won accolades like “Parliamentarian of the Year” as voted by her peers, as well as a number of other credits, so Canadians are starting to become well aware of an option to the “business as usual ‘blah blah blah” of the traditional parties.

In our rural riding the boundaries have just switched. We were in Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox & Addington and we are now in Hastings-Lennox & Addington, a riding with the same geographical territory of, well, about Europe. It would take the better part of two days to drive from corner to corner and yes I exaggerate but it does pose unique challenges in terms of getting the message out.

Michelle and I, along with another devoted Green Party supporter, established an EDA or “Electoral District Association,” a fancy name for a riding or constituency association. As with all things political because of the abuse of the system over the years there seems to be an enormous amount of paperwork and hoops to jump through. When I sit back and look at it, running in an election is the easy part of the whole process. But I guess it’s the price we pay to live in, well, what did Bruce Cockburn call it… “… and they call it democracy.” Our current Prime Minister won a majority with about 38% of the popular vote. Gee, this ‘first past the post’ parliamentary democracy really works!

I’m extremely excited that we have just had a rock star join the team. Or at least she’s a rock star in my world. Claire Martin is a meteorologist with the CBC (radio and TV network here in Canada.) Claire used to work in Toronto doing the local and national weather and now she works in British Columbia. She has a high profile and brings with her a unique perspective on climate change.

Climate scientists tell us that no single weather event can be linked directly to climate change, or at least they used to. But now I’m not so sure. A warmer climate holds more moisture; more moisture leads to more extreme events. A warmer ocean intensifies hurricanes. Two summers ago Calgary received 3 month’s worth of rain in two days. The jet stream is no longer as fluid as before so now it gets blocked and stays put and does damage when it doesn’t move. Our last two winters have been brutal here in Eastern Canada. We went almost 40 days without a single day above zero this February. Yes, we have always experienced cold spells, but usually we get warm spells that give us a few days’ reprieve from the frigid temperatures. The blocked jet stream this year didn’t allow that.

Now meteorologists don’t want to talk about this on a weather forecast. But it’s interesting that one of Canada’s best-known meteorologists has decided to run for the Green Party. It tells me that something’s up and we need to take some drastic action.

I’m totally pumped about the campaign. The Green Party has an awesome platform, a two hundred-page policy book that makes recommendations on how to improve every part of government policy. But it has two things that speak to me.

First off, it calls for a balanced budget. We have a provincial Liberal government that seems hell bent on bankrupting the province with its spending. We have a conservative, or a “Conservative” federal government that was handed a budget SURPLUS and has been in deficit ever since. That always seems strange that the political party of “small government” can’t help but spend like a drunken sailor. I run a balanced budget personally and the Green Party will do it when it forms the government this year. I wouldn’t run otherwise.

The second policy is a “fee and dividend” to deal with climate change. This was a concept to price carbon that I first learned about in NASA Climate Scientist James Hansen’s book “Storms of My Grandchildren.” You simply charge for all carbon as it leaves the ground … coal, natural gas, oil … put that money into a trust account, and cut every family a check for their share of it once a quarter. No government meddling. No guys in suits in trying to get a cut. No government betting on technology. The price of fossil fuels will go up and you let the market respond. People can take their cheque and fly to Europe, or they can upgrade their insulation, put a solar domestic hot water heater on their roof, or buy a more fuel-efficient car. It’s brilliant.

So I am totally pumped about the election, due in October, unless our cynical prime minister sees an advantage and calls it early. Doesn’t matter. I’m ready. I’m going to win this thing and spend 4 years in Ottawa shaking things up! We’re going to paint that town green.

For our Canadian readers here’s where you can find your local candidate or least the ridings where we’ve selected one.

https://www.greenparty.ca/en/candidates

 

 

Stop the High Tech Roller Coaster – I’m Getting Off!

My Dad has a friend who is a techno-luddite. Well, Luddite infers that she is anti-technology. It’s more that she just can’t be bothered with having a computer, or a cell phone, or anything like that. Can you imagine? You’re reading this, so you probably can’t.

I must admit though I am finding myself increasingly envious of people who have made this choice. It’s starting to look like it might be the best one. And this is the case on so many levels.

I’m plowing through a batch of my dad’s old “Economist” magazines. They are heavy going and I find myself skipping to the later pages which just have book reviews and cool scientific stuff. But the July 14, 2014 issue has a big section on cyber security. And it’s terrifying. Do you know how much energy some people on the planet put into hacking into the computers of the world? And do you know by extension how much energy and money companies and governments spend to prevent their systems from being hacked? The mind boggles.

What I find most mind-boggling is that so much of our critical infrastructure, like the electricity grid, now seems to be connected to the internet, which allows people to hack into it from outside. I’m sure those who control the grid work very hard to protect it from this happening but really, who thought it was a good idea to hook up the support systems of modern life to a computer network that allows people to create havoc from a computer keyboard on the other side of the world?

And of course, now there is the ‘internet of things’ as the appliances and things we buy like fridges, cars and furnaces, are all getting hooked up to the internet, so we can, you know, control our fridge while we’re at work I guess. There hasn’t been a confirmed case of anyone hacking into a car and crashing it, but can that be far off? Even Dick Cheney had to have special capabilities built into his pacemaker so someone couldn’t hack into it, since he was one step from the most powerful office on the planet.

The December 13, 2014 “Economist” has a review of a book called “Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon.” Stuxnet was the program designed to disable Iranian nuclear centrifuges. The mind boggles.

I’m re-reading a great book that was given to me by a friend from Chicago called “Immoderate Greatness, Why Civilizations Fail” by William Ophuls. It’s a great book because it’s small, which means he writes concisely to get his point across. He notes, “As civilizations encounter emerging limits, they will of course make every effort to innovate their way around them.” In our case we do this by adding layers of complexity, and by thinking that printing money can mask reality.

It’s similar to the theory of Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies” which is that as societies begin to run into natural limitations, such as food or energy, or droughts or other events that make growth impossible, they add layers upon layers of complexity thinking that these are solutions. We have clearly run into the natural carrying capacity of the planet. We probably reached it 5 to 10 decades ago. And now that we’ve used up the easy to find ancient stored sunlight in fossil fuels, and now that planet is starting to tell us 7 billion is way too many people to be using up the resources on the planet, we seem to be following in all the footsteps of advanced societies that have collapsed in the past.

Which brings one back around to the James Kunstler mantra, that we have to simplify our lives and economies. We have to get smaller. We have to get more local.

I am able to live a typical advanced civilization lifestyle off the grid because of the technology in my solar panels and inverters. I am able to plug into the matrix from my laptop using a modem sending my digital bits to a satellite in space and then back into the internet on earth, in milliseconds. I marvel at the wonder of it all daily.

But I am increasingly moving to earning an income growing food on a very low-tech, non-complex level. I do not own a tractor. I do no use fossil fuel derived chemicals and fertilizers. I would miss the internet and satellite TV, but I think I could get by pretty well without all these things. We have a whack of fiction on our bookshelves that I have yet to get through.

The challenge though is that the system does everything it can to try and prevent you from unplugging from the techno-matrix. It becomes increasingly difficult to obtain information from organizations unless you have internet access. When I tried to open a new bank account recently you get a sense they pretty much don’t want to ever see you, they just want to you to do everything online. You know, where you access your account through the internet, along with all those other people who might be trying to access your account too. If you want an account where they update a passbook each time you make a transaction, they charge you an additional monthly amount. Sorry, but I like those passbooks. They provide what accountants call an “audit trail” so when their systems fail I ‘ve got a record of how much of my money they have.

Then again, if their systems fail on a big enough scale, how much ‘virtual’ money you have sitting in a ‘virtual’ pixel based whack of silicon and metal will be pretty much useless. Then it just comes down to what’s in your root cellar. No hacker has yet infiltrated my root cellar. Last fall’s potatoes and onions are still doing exceptionally well. I can relax.

 

That Maple Syrup Country Cliché

When we lived in suburbia there was a weekly paper that basically just repeated the same stories over and over again every year. The paper was essentially a flyer holder posing as a newspaper and clearly, people in suburbia wanted the flyers because shopping is what they ‘do.’ The cover photo in the first week of September would show kids on their way to school …then at the end of October it would show kids dressed up for Halloween … then in December kids getting ready for Christmas. This went on, month after dreary month, year after year until I got to the point where I could predict what would be on the cover of the newspaper each week week. It was shiny Happyland. Maybe most people would say, ‘isn’t that amazing to live in a such a superficial time that this is all there is to report about?” None of that dark stuff. None of that stuff that was really going on in the world, like violence and depression and poverty. Nope … just kids at the Easter egg hunt! Now who would have predicted that would be on the cover of the paper during the week before Easter? Nope, not me!

Clearly I was not properly programmed to live in the pre-programmed Stepford family sort of mold that was suburbia and I wanted to get out to the chaos and trauma of trying to figure out how to live in the bush, off the grid.

So I have always been sensitive to ensure that this blog never gets into a predictable rut so that readers start saying, oh it must be ‘fill in the blank time’ so Cam will be blogging about ‘fill in the blank.’

Well, I have blogged about maple syrup before and today, I am blogging about it again, so it’s probably time you do what I did, escape the bland repetition that is suburbia (or my blog) and find yourself a cabin to homestead on, with no internet so you’re not exposed to my endless ramblings about maple syrup and other mundane trivialities.

But here’s the problem. We get new readers all the time and I know that some of our readers tell us that they work at jobs that don’t inspire them and they like to actually hear what they might be doing if they lived their dream. We readily remind them that this dream will include a precipitous drop in their income, but I digress.

Our neighbors Don and Deb Garrett have a small, commercial scale sugar shack and they make maple syrup. We use it a lot, so it’s kind of a big deal during the spring when they’re making it. I know what you’re saying, “Really Cam, is that what I have to look forward to when I move to the country? Maple syrup? No fancy ethnic restaurants or all night art installations where I can stay up all night trying to figure out the relevance of the artist’s use of 12 million plastic water bottles to depict … well … I don’t know what, what is that?”

To which I say, yup! Here at Sunflower Farm maple syrup time is kind of a big deal. I love maple syrup. I love pancakes and waffles and crepes and Michelle uses it when she makes my granola and I like it on veggie sausages and when we come home with our case of 12 bottles to last the year I’m sure it’s with the same glee others get when they bring home a case of some fancy wine. Only my bottled treasure is made just up the road, by my neighbors … and it’s sweeeettttt! Not alcoholic… so it won’t be bad for my liver… although at the pace I consume it along with the high fructose corn syrup in my Dr. Pepper, I’m sure I’m days away from being diabetic. But really, do you want to live longer or do you just want it to seem longer?

I grew up on the fake maple syrup, which I loved growing up, but Michelle was raised on the good stuff. I never understood this since her dad was a steel worker and obviously they didn’t have buckets of money to waste on real maple syrup. (Michelle’s note: Apparently my family had good taste!) It took me a while to start to prefer it, but I’m at a point now where I am loath to order pancakes or French Toast in restaurants if they don’t have real maple syrup for me to use.

And so recently Michelle made her yearly trek to D&Ds for what she tells everyone, and I mean everyone, including the courier that dropped a package off that day, for her “maple-scented sauna.” Our other neighbor Sandy also has some maple trees so they tap them all and combine the sap and boil it all together. That’s Sandy loading the firebox.

Sandy loading the firebox

Sandy at the evaporator

I have learned to leave my glasses in the car when I visit the sugar shack because when you walk in from the cool spring air they fog up to the point of being useless. The heat warms you to the bone. The smell is divine. And the humidity feels amazing after a long dry winter. And yes, I’m sure I’m exaggerating a lot of this because the evaporator is sending the water that has been boiled off in the form of steam up the chimney, but it still feels awfully good for the skin.

Then we break up into the gender stereotypes that shouldn’t exist, but we do. I ask questions about the sugar content of the sap and what that valve does and why is that liquid bubbling but that liquid isn’t. Michelle and Deb discuss new and exciting ways to use maple syrup. Eventually I ate one of the 4 maple tarts that Michelle had made the night before to finish up last year’s syrup. I received infinite abuse since Michelle had taken them for Don and Deb and Sandy to enjoy. But by my math there of 3 of them and 4 tarts, so I was just ensuring that there would be no conflict later about who gets the 4th tart. A battle over a maple tart could turn into one of those famous family stories of resentment and ill feelings henceforth known as the “4th Tart Debacle.”

Deb offers maple syrup ‘shots’ in little paper cups. Michelle loves these and gladly accepts a second one, but I don’t indulge in them. I do not enjoy drinking maple syrup straight up; it has to be enhancing something else. Michelle on the other hand, who uses next to no syrup on her pancakes, can pound back these shots like a cowboy at a bar drinking bourbon after a year on a cattle drive. Nope, no exaggeration in this blog.

After we return from our field trips to the sugar shack I have a weird public school driven desire to make a construction paper picture to send to Don and Deb to thank them for the tour of their fine operation. But splitting my own firewood for next year gets in the way.

And now our pantry is stocked with a year’s worth of maple syrup. And each time I put it on pancakes I know it was made locally, and came from maple trees, so it has to be good for me. If the pancake isn’t swimming in a pool of syrup, then you’re not doing it right.

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OUR FALL 2015 WORKSHOP
Our next workshop here at Sunflower Farm will take place on Saturday, October 24th. We call it The Hands-On, Solar Powered, Off-Grid, Personal Independence and Resilience, All You Can Grow, Ready for Rough Times Workshop. Covers just about everything doesn't it? For more information and to register, use the pull down menu "Visit Sunflower Farm" where you will find a tab for "Upcoming Worshops."
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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