Snakes Overhead

Sunflower Farm is crawling with snakes! They’re everywhere, and it’s awesome!

I love snakes. They eat things smaller than themselves, which generally are my garden pests, like mice, moles, voles, and grasshoppers.

Most of our snakes are garter snakes, which I am fine with. They don’t freak me out, although, unlike Michelle, I don’t go around picking them up. I pulled a square bale off the top of this pile recently and apparently garter snakes like this place because there were many of them. There was also a rogue non-garter snake in the pile but I’m not sure what kind it was.

1 lotsasnakes on hay

The snakes really seem to love our old hay that I have around for mulch. They like the big round bales and the small square ones, and the hay I have spread for weed suppression … they just love hay.

1garter and brown snake wrapped

I had this big, tough, rugby playing guy helping me move round bales (by hand) recently and every time we rolled one and the requisite 8 snakes slithered off he ran screaming. Okay, I exaggerate his reaction, but he did freak out. I, being the wise old tough guy didn’t flinch. And yes, they were harmless garter snakes so it’s not saying much.

1garters on hay3

We have some larger water snakes near the pond that seem a little more intimidating. They are a very dark color and seem kind of scary. And we have rat snakes that seem to be the size of pythons even though they aren’t, but I’m surprised they haven’t swallowed a cat yet.

The other day a garter snake was in the chicken pen and I was trying to chase it out before the “ladies” decided it was a good candidate for a game of ‘keep away’. It kept getting stuck in the chicken wire fence. It could get the first half of itself through until it hit the bulge in its middle, which I assume was a semi-digested mouse. Eventually it was able to contort itself enough to get through the fence.

I will admit to being briefly… mildly… freaked out when I see a mike snake. It has a unique marking pattern that looks like a rattlesnake. I know we don’t have any poisonous snakes in our part of the world, but that never occurs to me when a milk snake is nearby. It’s bad enough that it looks like a rattler, but they shake their tails and will be very aggressive and strike out at you if you disturb them.

I believe there is something in our DNA that instinctively tells us that we need to be cautious around snakes. Humans over the eons have clued in that encounters with these things can end very badly for the two-legged ones. I tell myself that when I see a milk snake. “It’s okay to be scared Cam, it’s in your DNA. It’s primal. It’s not your fault.”

This week I was weeding the glass greenhouse (read about it here) which has a about a million places for a snake to get in and out, especially up and around the storm windows on the roof that rest on the old barn foundation wall. After walking back and forth a number of times I eventually stood up and came eye to eye with a milk snake, coiled over a beam. Clearly it was conspiring for the best time to drop on my head, bite me and render me paralyzed while it figured out the best way to ingest me. Or maybe it’s a constrictor.

1milk snakes in glasshouse

Regardless, I decided it made a great photo up there so I walked back to the house and got the camera. After the lens had defogged from the heat and humidity in the greenhouse I realized there were two of them, clearly plotting to combine their resources to take me out.

I gave them lots of clearance and finished up in the greenhouse, perhaps faster than originally intended, and they were gone when I was back there later.

I am always grateful for the volume and variety of wildlife at our place, especially amphibians and reptiles. I know they can be challenged by a changing climate, so it’s always comforting to see them thriving here … as long as they’re not dropping from the ceilings of greenhouses onto my back while I’m weeding … apart from that it’s awesome.

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How Did You Do It?

I just read a great article in The Guardian about how scientists sometime use science fiction to help them find direction in their research. It also talked about how some of the best science fiction writers were in fact scientists, like Isaac Asimov.

This got me thinking about one of my favorite movies of all time, which is “Contact.” Jodie Foster played the main character and it is based on a book by Carl Sagan. I’m old enough to remember seeing Carl Sagan on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and talking about the “billions and billions” of stars. Johnny then mocked him about that line for weeks afterwards, in a fun kind of way.

I took my two daughters (then aged 13 and 11) to see Contact because Jodie Foster plays such a strong role as a scientist determined to make contact with life on other planets. The three of us thought it was so great we dragged Michelle to it a few nights later. I don’t think I’ve ever paid to see a movie in a theatre twice, other than “Contact.”

Michelle recently began using our daughter’s old iPhone and one morning she showed me some video she had just shot and posted on Instagram just panning around the house. The sound of the birds was outstanding. The quality of the video was amazing. All from a box in the palm of her hand that I’m sure has significantly more processing power than NASA had to put a person on the moon. And I thought about that big honking video camera I used to lug around when our daughters were small children that made me feel like I was a news cameraperson because it was so big. Now when we watch those videos we cringe at the poor quality… especially compared to what an iPhone produces.

As I read The Guardian and other publications and see what incredible technological feats humans are up to, I am constantly reminded of a comment by Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, in the movie. A news reporter asks her what she would ask an extraterrestrial, if she met one and could only ask one question. She replies, “Well, I suppose it would be, how did you do it? How did you evolve, how did you survive this technological adolescence without destroying yourself?”

It is a profound concept, written by one of those great minds like Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, who really nailed how the future would play out.

We have these marvelous machines, this amazing technology, we’ve mapped the human genome, somehow we’ve been able to feed 7 billion people, we have backup cameras on our cars and smart phones we can talk to, and video conference with our loved ones on the other side of the world, but still, somehow, we seem to be on a collision course with our mortality by ignoring what the scientists who invented all this cool stuff we use everyday are telling us about climate change.

I don’t believe there is a technological fix to the mess we’re making of our atmosphere. I don’t believe we’ll figure out a way to remove all the extra CO2 that we’ve pumped out, and I don’t believe we can geo-engineer ourselves out of this mess.

I just don’t understand how a species that is so darn smart can be so darn stupid.

I think those of us in the developed world simply need to live with less. Less energy. Less travel. Less stuff. And with all the money we save from this, we need to make ourselves energy independent using renewables and stop giving our money to companies that use fossil fuels to make our heat and power. Michelle and I have done it and it’s pretty awesome.

But then again, maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe they’ll be a last minute “Hail Mary” fix and everything will be all right. I have to admit in the last month there has been a huge change in the amount of press climate change has been getting in the media. As I go through the day-old and week-old papers I get from town for free there is a huge amount of coverage on how putting a price on carbon in Canada is a given. It’s just a question of when and how. Angela Merkel at the G7 pushed to have western economies de-carbonized by 2050 but certain countries got scared and pushed it back to 2100. And then there was Pope Francis’s long-awaited encyclical on the environment, in which he warned of ‘serious consequences’ if the world does not act on climate change. So that’s a great thing. I mean, he’s the Pope!

Regardless, Carl Sagan knew the right question to ask that other civilization from another planet. “How Did You Do It?” And best of all, he left the response ambiguous. It’s never really answered.

This always reminds me of a great quote from Gilda Radner one of the original Saturday Night Live cast members, whose character Rosanne Rosanadana always ended one of her rants with “It’s always something.” (I provide this for our younger readers since SNL started 40 years ago and I watched it from the first show … I’m so old!)

Gilda Radner said, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

Pavarotti of the Woods

I am an amazing singer. This is an undisputed fact. In my head, when I sing, I sound great. And I sing quite a bit. Out loud, that is.

I remember years ago reading a news report on a study that found that people who sing are happier. It releases endorphins and all those great things. So I find I sing outside an increasing amount. Our nearest neighbor is 4 kms away so they haven’t complained. The woods that surround us are still full of wildlife, so I haven’t frightened them off apparently*. And I don’t mean that I hum, I mean singing at the top of my lungs kind of singing. The kind that makes you think that maybe you’re losing it, which just makes it all the more awesome.

There should have been embarrassing moments, but frankly I’m not embarrassed about it. Like when the courier truck sneaks in and Jasper the Wonder Dog is asleep at the switch or sees the intruder but forgets to bark and so I come around the corner of the house wailing at the top of my lungs. Whoops! Never mind. Just ignore that guy, where do I sign?

In the summer we occasionally have cyclists ride by on the road because we have an awesome road that’s in good shape and doesn’t have a lot of vehicular traffic. So it’s always weird to suddenly hear voices on the road. No one has booed me yet.

My song choice is related to my interest in music for the past 40 years and there rarely is an event that doesn’t lead to singing.

Recently I was in the barn foundation where I have been storing my scrounged glass doors and windows, which I have used to build greenhouses. Our back screen door handle is broken, so I went to retrieve one from a salvaged door. Can you guess the song that I sang as I did this?

“A screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves… like a vision she dances across the floor as the radio plays, Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely, hey that’s me and I want you only…” Okay, you got it (if you’re 50) it’s Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen. It terrifies me how many lyrics to songs I know. Do you have any idea of how much of my gray matter is wasted with stuff like this? If I could dump it all I could probably cure cancer in about an hour. Although I watched that 3 part series on PBS on cancer recently and it seems that a lot of people with a lot of brainpower have been working on it and they aren’t there yet, so maybe not.

One recent morning there was a truly Canadian event, so our American readers might not get this song. A floatplane flew fairly low overhead, probably to land on Fifth Depot Lake, 3 miles from here. So, can anyone guess the song that popped into my head? Tragically Hip? Anyone, anyone…

“Bill Barilko disappeared that summer
He was on a fishing trip
The last goal he ever scored
Won the Leafs the cup
They didn’t win another till nineteen sixty two
The year he was discovered
I stole this from a hockey card
I keep tucked up under …”

Sorry, this is probably obscure to people who aren’t Hip or hockey fans. And yet somehow, planting peas I can hear a floatplane fly over and feel obligated to sing this song … over and over and over … “My Fifty Mission Cap.”

Here’s the video if you want to sing along;


The other day Michelle went thrift store shopping with our neighbor Deb. Deb calls it “Goodwill Hunting.” How clever a name is that? So that morning I couldn’t stop myself from singing,

“I wear your granddad’s clothes
I look incredible
I’m in this big *ss coat
from that thrift shop down the road …”

It’s my new favorite song by Macklemore called “Thrift Shop.” It has the best lyrics ever!

This is a fun video, but DO NOT watch it if you’re offended by bad language. It’s really bad!

Years ago I got a load of rotten hay that had hemp seeds in it. So now I get hemp plants growing in my raspberries. I try and pull them out but like all weeds, they always win. So there’s a song I sing that goes like this;

“I done two tours of duty in Vietnam
And I came home with a brand new plan
I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico
I plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road …”

I can sing this Steve Earle song all day.

Right now I work in the greenhouses first thing in the morning, before the sun gets too high and heats them up. I take the walkie-talkie so that Michelle can let me know when breakfast is ready. We have a new game we play now where we try and come up with breakfast related songs, for her to sing when breakfast is ready. How about this one… “Don’t you forget about me…” It’s the theme song from the movie, “The Breakfast Club” by Simple Minds.

The ramp that runs up to the top of the barn foundation, where farmers many decades ago would run hay up to the barn, has been taken over by ‘stinging nettle.’ This is an amazing perennial plant (weed) which helps build the soil but which, you guessed it, stings unbelievably when you touch it. I wear long pants and work boots so I only encounter it when I’m weeding or harvesting stuff and miss the ones that sneak into a row. Years ago when I played guitar I liked a Neil Young song, which I have modified. Now I sing, ”Oh to live on, Stinging Nettle (should be ‘Sugar’) Mountain, with the barkers and the coloured balloons…” I’m constantly going up and down this area to the rain barrels that I use to irrigate the greenhouse, so I sing this one a lot.

It’s been years since we watched “The Sopranos”, but since we’re surrounded by hunt camps, and hunters periodically shoot guns… either to hunt or for target practice… I tend to sing the theme song “Woke up this morning… got myself a gun” a lot.

There you have it, a mindless blog post about a mind full of mindless lyrics that no one (except Michelle periodically… oh and Jasper the Wonder Dog constantly) gets to hear. Watch for concert ticket details here soon.

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* In fact on Sunday morning we discovered moose tracks all over the vegetable garden. On Monday morning I got up at 5:30 a.m. and happened to look out the back window. The moose was standing at our back door! I managed to snap this photo through a window. Michelle took the photo of the footprint. The moose walked through a row of newly germinated carrot seeds, among other things! This is only the 3rd time in 17 years here that we have seen a moose.

moose on the loose

mooseprint

Best Workshop Results … EVER

We had our spring workshop at the end of April and it was awesome. I find that I enjoy these workshops more and more. It’s not that I ever didn’t enjoy them; it’s just that as we refine the workshop I spend less time worrying about getting through everything and more time getting to know the cool people who come to them.

This spring we had international guests! They came from Baltimore, which is quite a hike from our place and it was very flattering. It’s also fun for us Canadians to have Americans at events like these so we can give measurements in metric to trick them … “No, I said 17 kilometers an hour not miles!” or gloat about how having our Thanksgiving in October is just so much better than having it at the end of November only 4 weeks before Christmas. Like come on, who thought that up?

I really like having lunch and asking our guests to introduce themselves and share their background and why they came (if they feel like it). Dave, our international guest, mentioned that he works for Agora Financial, a financial publisher that I have used as a resource for years. It was cool because Dave had spotted some of Agora’s books on my bookshelf. One of the principals in Agora is Bill Bonner whose books I have enjoyed and in fact I quoted in my book “Thriving During Challenging Times.” I remember specifically emailing them to ask permission because it was a fairly long quote, but one that I thought was quite brilliant.

I think it sums up how I feel about fiat currency and where we might be headed in the future. I’m hoping Mr. Bonner won’t mind if I quote it again here. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to read his book, “Empire of Dept.” http://agorafinancial.com/about/our-books/

Once people were able to create money at virtually no expense, no one ever resisted doing it to excess. No paper currency has ever held its value for very long. Most are ruined within a few years. Some take longer.”

Some paper currencies are destroyed almost absentmindedly. Others are ruined intentionally. But all go away eventually. By contrast, every gold coin that was ever struck is still valuable today, most have more real value than when they first came out of the mine. – William Bonner. Empire of Debt.

It is a simple and brilliant concept. If it speaks to you, you may want to become more familiar with Agora’s books and services. It is hard for many people to accept this concept that those paper dollars that are no longer backed by gold could one day lose their value, dramatically. But history has shown us that this is always the case. And hence, my emphasis on hard assets in my books, along with precious metals.

While Dave from Baltimore was up here at Sunflower Farm, the event leading all the newscasts was the rioting in Baltimore, not far from his home, as it turned out.

Dave is the editor of Agora’s “5 Minute Forecast,” which I’ve been reading for many years. http://agorafinancial.com/publication/5min/ It was like having a rock star at Sunflower Farm! A financial rock star!

Dave wrote about coming to the workshop a few days later. That was even cooler!

http://agorafinancial.com/2015/04/27/a-surreal-feeling-of-helplessness/

It was quite amazing because there was a whole new group of people exposed to our website and our books. And when I see how accurate Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin have been in some of their commentary about how things unfold financially over the years, I think it’s a really good idea for our readers to be familiar with their information.

In the meantime, Michelle and I got to meet some more great people. They got to discover that living off the grid today is well, pretty normal. Indoor plumbing including flushing toilets! Television. A fridge and freezer. High speed internet. Pretty typical for a North American home. Oh, but no electricity bill. But really, who doesn’t love their electricity bill?

If you are interested in attending our next workshop visit http://www.cammather.com/off-grid-retreat/upcoming-workshops-at-sunflower-farm/october-24-2015 for more details and to register.

Here’s a link to the book I mentioned;

 

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Special thanks to our thoughtful and generous readers A.M.S. and G.B. for their recent donations and to R.H. for his monthly contribution to the tip jar!

 

 

Hey Kids I Just Planted Your Inheritance! Hope You Like Raspberries

I kind of talked about this in a previous post, so we could call this Part Two of the Great Raspberry Saga. And a few years back I blogged about our investment in high bush blueberry plants. I believe I referred to those as my children’s inheritance. They should outlast me, which means that by the time they are in their prime of production, my daughters and their families should be enjoying the fruit of our labor, as it were.

I planted the blueberries in a really sandy part of the garden and they seem to be growing in suspended animation. Man, are they slow! I dump manure on them, coffee grounds by the garbage bag and I’m even putting sulfur on them periodically to make the soil really acidic. (Berries like an acidic soil.) Meanwhile, they grow in slow motion.

Raspberries on the other hand have always done well here. We have a traditional cultivar, which produces fruit right after strawberry season is over and the raspberries last about 3 weeks or so, early in July. This winter Michelle and I decided to invest in some ever-bearing or fall-bearing canes which should give us berries in August and September.

We ordered them from “Strawberry Tyme Farms” and by the time we paid for shipping it made most sense to order 100 canes.

So off and on for the last month I’ve been preparing their home. I took a spot in the paddock with no topsoil. It is sand. I turned over the sod that was there and put in three 75-foot rows. Then I started filling each trench with topsoil that I hauled from a 2,700 feet vertical drop, down by the barn foundation. Okay it’s not quite that deep, but it’s a big uphill haul in the wheelbarrow. In the first row I put pots of raspberries I had transplanted last fall from one of our existing plantings.

I’ve also been rounding up excess hay to kill any grass between rows. Plus I had some extra manure put aside to top dress them with. I want the raspberries to feel very welcome here. I want them excited about their new home. I want them to feel pampered, because I have high expectations from them.

The canes arrive bare root via courier. Then it was a made dash to get them into the ground and watered. With the dry spring we’ve been having it meant lots of hand watering with cans from the rain barrels and then on to drip irrigation to really give them a boost. (Luckily we had a nice dumping of rain here on Saturday afternoon and into Sunday as well. It seems weird to have been hoping for rain as I read about what was happening in Texas and other parts of the continent.)

bareroot raspberries

I am very excited about our new raspberries. They don’t look like much now, but give them a few years and I expect some big things from them. Our two existing rows continue to produce really well. They also continue to spread like the plastic bloom in the ocean. You are supposed to do a number of things with raspberries.

Many people suggest you cut them right back in the fall. I do not do that. I periodically prune out the dead canes, but like so many of my best intentions in the fall, I often just don’t get around to everything on my TO DO list. Our friend John Wise, from whom we buy our organic strawberries, spoke this winter at our local Grassroots Growers event about perennial fruits. He made some derogatory comment about the need to keep the rows in check or they just meander and take over and you basically are a Second Class farmer if you don’t keep them under control. Mine are out of control, I do not follow any guidelines or protocols on them, I do not do anything I’m supposed to do and yet each year we get buckets of awesome raspberries. So for now I have no intention of changing my strategy.

With the new ever bearing raspberries I may try an experiment and cut down part of one of the new rows. We’ll see. I have long had a philosophy of not fixing things that aren’t broken, or at least that are working. We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime I hope my daughters are excited about their inheritance. I have few things to leave to them. There is no pot of money, just our 150 acres. There is no great step forward in science I have participated in. Just small-scale organic farming. I am politically active in a party that has yet to hold to power in Canada. Hopefully that will change this fall. But I’ll remain active regardless because getting a price on carbon is too important.

And in my small way I hope things like the time and effort and money Michelle and I put into raspberries are a great leap forward. We will fill up many containers with them and store them in the freezer. This is after we have provided most to our CSA members. They will stay frozen in our solar-powered (because we’re off-grid) freezer to be used all fall and winter and spring in baking and desserts. And the pies. Oh the pies. Could there be a better legacy to leave than to have hauled 250 wheelbarrows full of topsoil to a new patch of raspberries to allow us to bake raspberry pies?

Hey Michelle, you edit these blogs before you post them so I know you’re reading this. I saw one more container of raspberries down at the bottom of the freezer last time I was there. What do you say? Is today a pie day? Lots of sunlight. We can use the electric toaster oven. The solar-powered-electric-toaster oven. To bake a zero-carbon pie. A zero-carbon raspberry pie. Come on; let’s make a political statement. Let’s bake a pie. Okay, how about you bake a pie and I’ll eat it for the cause!

planting the new patch

cam in front of new raspberry patch

cam at back of new raspbery patch

That was a Waste of a Month!

Have you ever watched a boxing match and seen a fighter take a first punch then a second one right away? Or a fight scene in a movie where a guy gets punched then kicked in the gut on the way down. That’s kind of how I was feeling on Saturday morning. Well, not that way physically, but mentally.

This has been a very difficult spring to run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where we grow a basket of produce each week for our members. As is the new normal we seemed to go from winter to summer in one fell swoop and I spent much of the early part of May in full summer heat wave mode. I quickly learned to keep a bottle of water handy to try and keep myself somewhat cool. Those cool, wet days of spring when I would experience frozen fingers while planting peas never happened. Instead it was hot and the rain didn’t come and I so was devoting too much of each day to watering, rather than planting.

First I water an area with watering cans to get the soil at least damp enough to plant, and then I set up all of my drip irrigation systems. This is a big job that I’m mentally prepared for in July, not May.

And the rains did not come.

And my soil got dryer and dryer and on one cloudy day I felt it spit … twice, but no moisture fell from the sky. My rich wonderful ‘soil’ from early in the spring has turned to dust.

In my growing area the Victoria Day long weekend (usually around the 23 – 24th of May) is the traditional date that most people feel comfortable planting most of their stuff. We have usually passed the chance of frost. I know that we will continue to have cool evenings so I’ve learned to only plant peppers and tomatoes in the greenhouses, and I won’t put the sweet potatoes in until June, but traditionally the other plants have been safe.

Last Friday night (May 22) the forecast was for the chance of frost. The ‘risk’ of frost in outlying areas, which usually means me. I’d like to cover everything up with tarps or sheets but I’m growing for 30 members and so it’s just not possible. Plus, everything that is up now is generally pretty frost tolerant. The alliums like garlic and onions are very hardy. Spinach doesn’t mind cool weather. I’ve had radishes handle really cool nights and I thought I’d be fine with the lettuce that was up.

I was wrong. When I got up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning it was -2°C, or 28°F. The thing I like about using the Celsius scale is that zero degrees Celsius is the point where water freezes. So for garden plants, anything below that is a bad thing.

After 35 years of growing food, 20 years of it fairly intensely, nature proved to me once again that she bats last, and that nothing was safe. Basically everything got nipped. My peas. My radishes. My spinach. My lettuce. Then I noticed many of my onions had been kicked in the teeth. They might still have one stalk standing, but many of their big outer leaves had toppled over.

pea frost damage

Frost-damaged pea shoots

pea patch 2105

My pea patch

And then I looked at my garlic. A big chunk of the patch had taken a huge hit. Every green leaf you see on a garlic stalk represents one layer of skin under the ground enveloping the head. Many of the outside leaves had dropped. A number of whole stalks were now flat. Now that’s weird. Garlic is extremely cold tolerant. I plant it in October and November. Often there will shoots start before the snow covers it. Then as soon as the snow melts in late March and April, it’s away to the races. It’s off! It’s indestructible. If it can handle snow and April frosts, surely a late May frost is going to be a walk in the park for it. Clearly not. We’re just not dealing with weather the way we used to. Clearly it’s broken.

Garlic frost damage

Garlic frost damage

Then as I walked the property I started noticing other things that got hit. All the sumacs got nuked. Sumacs! They are like large dandelions … I can’t stop them from spreading. All the ferns around our front door. You know, ferns, that live in the woods, the things you see in fossils because they’ve survived a ba-zillion years. But not this frost. I have some mid-sized black walnut trees. All their leaves and shoots are dead. This frost clearly eats shoots and leaves.

Sumac trees

Sumac trees

We had an ash tree growing next to the house that I meant to take down years ago because it was too close to the house. Well, in fact, it is up against the house. I don’t have to worry about taking it down. Mother Nature did it for me.

This spring has been a huge challenge. The heat and the lack of moisture have been brutal. But at least I had some stuff started and could now focus on everything else. Only now I can’t. I’m back to square one. I have to replant everything. Prior to the frost at least I felt I had a bit of wind in my sails with some stuff started that I only had to worry about irrigating. Now that months’ worth of work is wasted and I have to plant, everything… NOW. Some it of ‘again’.

I decided to focus on running a CSA because I really feel it’s one of the lowest impact ways one can earn a living. We all have to eat. The more local the better. I also felt it helped me really address the challenges of growing food in a climate change challenged world. That sounds great, until you walk about your fields of what was once soil but now looks like a desert, to look at your recently emerged, formerly healthy green peas that have been turned to brown mush by a freakishly late killing frost.

Some days driving down to Kingston to work in a factory or a warehouse selling stuff looks pretty good.

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.

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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."
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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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