2016: The Year of the Tomato

Just so I’m not accused of being totally negative about the summer of 2016, aka the summer of the drought….the spring/summer/fall of our record breaking drought…the summer of the soul-sucking drought from h*ll … this was an awesome summer for tomatoes.

It was an awesome year for all our heat loving crops – peppers, eggplants and tomatoes.

Our previous two growing seasons (the summer of 2014 and 2015) followed ‘polar vortexes’ (vorti?) and so they were relatively cool and wet. Awesome for the grower working in the fields all day, not so great for heat-loving vegetables.

One recent summer our entire tomato crop was decimated by some sort of blight. (Read about it here.) That was heart breaking.

So, since I never know what kind of summer we are going to have, I used my usual ‘carpet bombing/cover all bases’ strategy of cultivar selection this past spring. In other words, I plant a whack of as many different varieties as I can. My assumption is that surely something will work.

And this summer the Best Boys worked, the Beefsteak worked, the Early Girls, the Glamor, The Roma, The Cherry, The Healthkick, The Amish Paste tomatoes…every single type of tomato that I planted thrived.

So we have had truckloads of tomatoes! The tomato season starts off so joyfully! We reveled in each and every tomato! That first harvest day when we carried buckets full of beautiful, cosmetically perfect, blight free, healthy tomatoes into the house to wash was just amazing. As our cardboard flat trays filled up with tomatoes it was fantastic. Carrying them all out to the sorting station on CSA delivery day was just joyful. I was over the moon.

It is quite surprising how quickly the shine can come off the bloom or whatever the expression is, after a few days of hauling tomatoes. By the second week I was harvesting every second day and the haul was usually about 8 buckets. Each delivery morning, I was getting up earlier and earlier so I could lug the tomatoes out to the sorting station for Michelle to start filling baskets.

And then this week hit. I convinced Michelle to take some photos just so we’d remember what our summer was all about. I was carrying flats out by 5:30 a.m. which at this time of year was dark. So I had on my headlamp as I carried them from the cold storage out to the sorting station. Michelle suggested that I should use the truck but by the time I got them loaded and drove such a short distance it seemed easier just to haul them out by hand.

lotsotomatoes

 

Weeks later the darn plants just keep pumping out the darn tomatoes. It’s like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. They’re never ending. I keep saying “Well this should be the last heavy week” which just ends up ludicrous on delivery day as the flats roll out endlessly. What an awesome problem to have!

tomatoes1

 

This summer really proved the value of greenhouses to me. Our greenhouse tomatoes were much earlier than our outside ones, and they were much nicer cosmetically. Not a blemish. Hardly a zipper or bruise. They were a work of art …thanks to Mother Nature and the heat.

camandtomatoes

I cannot recommend enough getting a greenhouse if you live a more northern area like me. And not a big fancy greenhouse. I’ve built all of mine from scratch. Just ask a neighbor for that portable garage frame that lost its cover years ago that’s been sitting beside their house, and order a sheet of 6 ml plastic to put over it. The tomatoes will thank you.

newgreenhousewoodenframe

The greenhouse BEFORE the tomato plants took over!

We have tons of tomato plants outside of the greenhouses that were slower to ripen but are going like crazy now. I had used most of my good steel cages in the greenhouses, so I had staked the outside plants. And of course, every Friday it was my responsibility to prune the tomatoes and tie them up. Yea, how’d that go? It never does. Even in regular seasons I fall down in this responsibility and with the drought this year and watering and irrigation taking all my time, they really suffered.

I had a couple outside plants in cages and I was amazed at how much better they did than those that fell over. While I got tons of tomatoes off the plants that eventually toppled over, the number of blemishes and marks on them is unbelievable compared to the ones that stayed upright.

So if you take nothing from this blog other than this it should be worth having read it. If you want great tomatoes, put them in a cage or stake them and keep them tied up properly. When you’ve been growing food for as long as I have you sometimes forget stuff, but Michelle walked over at one and point and said “Yea, it’s because the water (from the rogue raindrops that fell twice this summer or watering can water) splashed the disease up on them from the soil.”

It just made sense. I’m pretty sure I wrote about this in my gardening book, but at my age you just keep staking and caging because you always have. You forget why sometimes. I do discuss the benefits of pruning tomatoes and other stuff too in our gardening book which we still have copies of.

I do believe our CSA members are probably getting sick of tomatoes and I must say, I’m pretty proud of that. Now if Michelle and I can just take a few minutes away from the brutal heat that is continuing this fall and throw a few in our freezer, we’ll be able to appreciate them this winter too.

And here’s some of our pretty peppers too!

greenpeppers

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A couple of reminders from Michelle – Do you shop at amazon? If you do, please do us a favour and access amazon using the link along the righthand side of this page. It doesn’t matter what you purchase. By using our link, all of your purchases will pay us a very small commission, which helps us to pay for the hosting and URL of this blog.

And, as always, if you enjoy this blog and want to leave a “tip” to show your appreciation, the TIP JAR is on the righthand side too. Thanks!

Down the Wishing Well and My Coffee Can Solar Tracker

Several years ago, in the month of May, I was talking to one of our off-grid blog readers in California who has become a friend. We were discussing the California drought and she said “Oh we won’t see rain now until probably November.”

May to November without rain. That was my worst nightmare. And in the words of Alice Cooper, this summer at our house it’s been “Welcome to my nightmare.”

I will admit that I wrote this in the middle of August and we were getting the tail end of the rain that caused all the flooding in Louisiana. For us the rain was glorious. Too little, too late, but I welcomed it. (And since then we’ve had a few showers, never amounting to more than 3 or 4 mms. My garden still resembles a giant sandbox.)

Part of my “Embrace the suck, move the ‘heck’ forward” in the mess that was our summer running a CSA in the worst drought for 100 years, is my newfound knowledge of our wells. Mostly the ‘dug’ well near the barn foundation which provides the bulk of the water for irrigation.

The well was ‘dug’ by hand, in 1936. We know this because the builder put his name and date in the concrete and we know his son Ken, a former resident of this wonderful place, who is in his ‘80s ’90s now (see comment below from Ken’s son Lynn!).  The well is about 15 feet deep and how they managed to dig such a deep hole by hand, and then build forms and mix everything up by hand and add a foot of concrete all around boggles my mind.

When we arrived here almost 20 years ago the last vestiges of the shed that was built over the well had just fallen over. I used one of the walls as a cover for a few years, then built a better fitting one about 10 years ago (with scrounged wood of course). It was just spruce and softwood and had started to rot a lot, but like so many of the odd jobs around here I just kept telling myself, “I’ll fix it next year.” Human inertia is a powerful thing.

I use a 12V DC pump, which I just hook up to an 80 Watt 12V solar panel, to pump from this well. I used to move the panel around a frame I made, but it was cumbersome, so this year I built a tracker. I call it my “Coffee Can Solar Tracker”. I just put a cedar post in the ground, and bolted the solar panel to a coffee can that sits on top. It has worked marvellously all summer. Very low tech. No software has failed on it or had to be updated.

Version 2

Version 2

The pump is rated to only suck water from 8 feet below. This is fine early on during most summers, because the water level is high. But over most summers it gets pretty low and the pump basically loses prime constantly. This year with the drought this started happening earlier than ever before.

So I ripped the cover off the well. Then I built a frame, put the pump on the frame, and lowered the frame into the well. This way the pump is now closer to the water level so it doesn’t have to ‘pull’ the water as much. These pumps are great at pushing water once it has reached the pump, just not so good at pulling it up to the pump.

Version 2

It still loses prime sometimes and my trick to get it going is just take the intake pipe and ram it into the water a few times and off it goes. Once the pump was down the well though this technique wasn’t available. So I put an aluminum ladder down the well and so I have to regularly climb down the ladder to prime the pump.

I don’t think I’m claustrophobic, but there is something about being deep down in a well. I think it’s because of all those televised news events where a child falls down a well and has to be rescued.

As the water has gotten lower it’s allowed me to solve the great mystery of what is at the bottom of the well. There is some water-logged wood, and like all things immersed in water, they are pretty creepy. I, of course have been straining to see something shiny … something of a precious metal nature … because I’m pretty sure that’s where people used to put their valuables 80 years ago … down the well. Just makes sense, right?

Version 2

Since we moved here almost 20 years ago, I’ve wondered what was at the bottom of this well. Thanks to our awesome drought, I am now intimately knowledgeable on the well and all its workings. Just another reason the lack of rain has been so awesome. (Please note there is a lot of sarcasm in this blog).

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Version 2

Version 2

Thanks D. C. for your recent contribution to the TIP JAR. It is very much appreciated!

My Epiphany in the Pond

A few weeks ago Michelle posted the mid-season update that we sent to our CSA members. It was pretty bleak. We’ve been experiencing an historic drought.

First they said it was as bad as the one we had in 1959… the year I was born. Then they said it was the worst … like … ever … worse than the one in 1888…the year our house was built. It’s like, come on, is it really my fault? And who was measuring droughts in 1888?

We’d had basically no rain for 8 weeks here. Since that blog post we have had 5 mm (less than ¼”) one day, 24 mm (almost an inch) a few days later and then another 10 mm (less than ½”) last Sunday. All of Eastern Ontario is experiencing it although most places have had more rain than us. Everywhere you look as you drive around the corn crop is brown, the soybean fields have withered … and around here many trees are brown and dying, especially if they are growing in thin soil. Bleak bleak bleak.

I have been trying to put into practice my new mantra, which I learned from Tina Fey’s awesome movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” It’s a military expression … “Embrace the suck, move the ‘heck’ forward” (heck replaces that bad ‘f’ word you might use in combat that offends so many people).

It’s easy to have these mantras, but when you spend the day becoming more and more exhausted, watching your plants wither in the brutal heat, and become more and more parched because it doesn’t matter how much you water, you can’t replace a wonderful rainfall by Mother Nature … well, it’s easy to give in to the laziness of despair.

I have started to take some positives from it though. I knew this day was coming, this epic drought, and I meant to prepare better, but I didn’t. There is an inertia to human existence, and one tends not to be as proactive as one should be. It seemed as though during each previous drought, just as the wells were bottoming out, we got enough rain for me to say “Well, we dodged that bullet.”

So this time the first thing I did was borrow my neighbor’s gas-powered water pump. Then I started to learn about them and bought myself a Honda 2” pump, and Princess Auto 1” pump. Then it took 47 trips to 26 different retailers to get all the bits and pieces and hoses and fittings I needed to get them set up the way I wanted them.

I have the main 2” pump in a pond we call “The Hockey Pond,” because we are, well, Canadian, so it’s our natural tendency to refer to any body of water large enough to freeze as being related to hockey. It’s a long way from the house. It was created by beavers and their ingenuity continues to amaze me. It’s in a natural low spot surrounded by rocky hills. Just two dams and voilå … a great pond. It’s a pretty awesome spot. I try to remind myself of every time I make the trip there to run the pump.

thepond

 

When I was using Sandy’s pump I had put it a spot that looked like it had enough water, but with the ongoing drought the pond receded. So with my new pump I decided to get it to a spot where I hope to get a few more weeks out of it. Once I had the spot picked out and had dragged some beaver-felled logs over to it, I wanted to dig it out a bit to make a spot so I could put a big flat rock under the foot valve, and still have it covered in sufficient water.

So it basically meant being in the mud up to my knees while I dug with a shovel. I don’t own hip waders, so I took down an old pair of rubber boots that leak. I didn’t want to work in sandals because it would be hard to stomp on the shovel with them. Water leaks into the boots, and yes, creepy crawlies can get in but I figure it’s harder for the leeches and things to get to me this way. And so far, so good. The fact that it was brutally hot actually made it quite enjoyable.

When I was in high school in the 1970’s I belonged to an outdoor group called Intrepids and one day we were in groups hiking cross country to learn how to use a compass. We kept arriving ponds that weren’t on the map. By the end of the day we just waded through them up to our necks rather than walk around. This project takes me back to those great days.

I have a small posse of frogs that observe my every move.

lotsoffrogs

Correction, I have a huge posse of frogs watching. This pond is swarming with them. It is so absolutely fantastic to be in a place with so much life.

Plus, I have danger around every corner. With the drought, humans have more contact with wildlife … like bears…so I’m assuming sooner or later I’ll have to go swimming to avoid one. And of course, being a fan of movies, as I dig through the lily pads and mud I know it’s just a matter of time before some huge anaconda emerges and wraps itself around my legs, requiring a lot of struggling and hitting it with the shovel to escape. So many anacondas here.

My security backup of course is Jasper the Wonder Dog. Many people see him and think he could easily win “Best in Show”. This would require months of training and grooming. Sometimes I try and keep Jasper on the sidelines, but the few times I’ve been down there digging in the mud, I imagine that he says, “Forget that, I’m going for it!” at which points he immerses himself in the pond/swamp water and proceeds to spend the next half hour vigorously chasing frogs or anything else that moves. This would include bubbles he has made, hence his face being basically black here, because, with the drought, where he’s playing it’s just mud. Oh what fun he has.

Jaspercatchingfrogs

Jasperinthepond

I’m not good at reading pet emotions, but I can tell when Jasper frolics in ponds, he is joyful. I try and learn from him everyday. He’ll be a very smelly dog for many days to come, but really, who cares? It’s hot, and he’s having a blast. I’ll take him down to the lake in a few days to let him swim in fresh water. I will try and be more joyful like my dog.

So I’ll be trying out the new pump and the 124 different pipes and adapters tomorrow. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Here are a couple of photos of the woods I have to walk through to get to the hockey pond.

walktopond

walktopond2

I know, pretty tough eh? This is where I work. I wish we weren’t in this drought, but it’s forcing me to spend time in the magical woods that we’re surrounded by.

I’m not a big fan of that “A bad day at the golf course is better than a good day at the office” bumper sticker, but when I think of my life in suburbia, and look around where I spend my days right now, I realize how pathetic whining about the drought is. Because really, in the words of David Lee Roth …” This must be just like living in paradise…” and his next line is “…and I don’t want to go home…” But I AM home.

I am “moving the ‘heck’ forward”.  Now just a little rain more please.

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Thanks to NB for his recent generous donation. We appreciate not only your ongoing support but your friendship as well!

 

 

Flexed Arm Hangs

Michelle’s Note: We got 6 mm of rain on Saturday, the day after we posted Cam’s blog about our 8-week-long drought, and another 24 mm on Tuesday. Apparently Cam should have asked our readers for help a lot sooner! Thanks for the rain dances / the prayers / the positive thoughts that you sent our way. They worked!


And now for Cam’s blog post ….

The big news in Canada is that Gord Downie, the lead singer of “The Tragically Hip” has terminal brain cancer. Gord is from Kingston, which is where I grew up and live near now, and I’ve always loved their music so it’s a bit of a bummer. But as they say on the Zero Hedge website “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” For some people, their timeline is just a little more defined than others.

They never got very big in the U.S., but ‘The Hip’ have been filling (hockey) arenas across Canada for decades. I saw them at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto once and then in Hamilton …  back during my concert-attending days. I’ve even written about them here on this blog once or twice. (Check out this post for example.)

Downie has always written great songs about Canadian stuff. “50 Mission Cap” is about a hockey player named Bill Barilko who disappeared on a fishing trip after scoring the goal that won the Toronto Maple Leafs the Stanley Cup in 1951. That was back when the Toronto Maple Leafs actually won.

They also have another song called “Wheat Kings “about David Milgaard who was wrongly imprisoned for 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit.

Their song “Three Pistols” is about the Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson who went missing on Canoe Lake which is where we used to start our canoe trips into Algonquin Park. Another song called “Bobcaygeon” is about a town in cottage country where I used to sell radio advertising for the station I worked for in Peterborough.

“38 Years Old” talks about the 1973 prison break from Millhaven Penitentiary, near where I live. It happened because there had been a riot at “KP” or Kingston Penitentiary, and inmates were moved in before it was ready … so obviously they found a way to get out.

I’m about the same age as Downie so a lot of his lyrics talk about stuff from my youth. In “Fireworks” he talks about watching the Canada/Russia hockey series on a black and white TV at school.  You see, hockey is so important to Canada that it was part of the core curriculum when I grew up. Later in the song he says “Next to your comrades in the National Fitness Program…” This was one of those fitness tests from when I was a kid. You had to do sit-ups and stuff. “Comrades” is a great word because it sounds very socialistic … you can just see the old black and white movies of skinny kids doing jumping jacks and stuff …for the good of the country … of the mother country.

The next lyric is “… caught in a perpetual flexed arm hang …” The flexed arm hang meant doing a chin-up, usually on the pipe that held up the basket ball net, and seeing how long you could hang there in the upper chin-up position. The longer you hung on, the more points you got. I know I only got the “Bronze” crest, which I’m pretty sure was one of the first ‘participation’ type awards ever. In other words, ‘Hey kid, you’re weak and useless, but you showed up, so here, sew this Bronze crest on your jean jacket (or don’t unless you want to get picked on!) The great thing was that the Bronze Crest was basically the same color as the Gold crest, you couldn’t really tell which is was. Bonus for me. Downer for kids who got gold.

I was never a strong kid so I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do the flexed arm hang, or maybe the gym teacher, Mr. Pool,  gave me a boost to get me into the chin-up stance, whereby I immediately began my descent to just hanging by my arms. “Get down Mather!” “Sorry Mr. Pool.” Some of my friends like Teddy King could have hung there all day long. Sigh …

Not being able to do the flexed arm hang always bothered me. And once I was able to do a chin-up… later in life… not sure when that was… I vowed I would always be able to do a chin-up… until they put me in the ground. No really. It’s a little commitment I’ve made to myself. As I kid when I bought a package of gum there were advertisements in the gum package about not being the 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in your face by the big strong guy at the beach. So from then on it was like “Never again.”

When I stop being able to do chin-ups I have asked my family to put me on an ice flow and push me off into the sunset … never to be seen again. This is the Canadian way. You can look it up.

Just to prove that I can finally do the flexed arm hang, I got Michelle to take this photo as proof. And no, she didn’t just knock a chair out of the way. I put this old wagon axle up in the horse barn expressly for the purpose of doing chin-ups years ago.

I debated posting this photo. It reeks of vanity. But how else can I prove that I’m not just full of crap because it’s pretty easy to say “oh yea, I can bench press 450 kgs, but I don’t have my equipment here right now so I can’t show you.”

IMG_0079

No chin-up-ee… it’s the ice flow for you. “Take that Mr. Pool! How do you like me now!”

And with that you must ask yourself, how did a blog about songs from The Tragically Hip turn into Cam doing a ‘flexed arm hang?” If you follow the blog, this shouldn’t surprise you. If you just follow the blog for folksy homesteading off-grid info… well…the horse barn has an old wagon axle in it… how cool is that! Oh, and off-gridders got picked on as kids like everyone else.

And if you’ve ever had one of those experiences when you were young that you always looked back and wished you could change, well, this was mine. Thanks for listening.


Michelle’s Follow-Up: And yes, we’ll be watching (on TV) along with the rest of Canada on Saturday night when The Tragically Hip performs their last concert, in Kingston!

Heat + Drought + Pests = Exhaustion

Note from Michelle: It’s been a while since our last post. Even at his busiest, Cam usually finds the time to unwind in front of the computer screen and type out a post. As many of our readers know, we run a CSA (community supported/shared agriculture) during the growing season and we grow enough vegetables for about 30 member families. Beginning in late winter/early spring we start seeds, we spend the spring preparing and planting our many gardens and then during the summer months we weed and water and harvest and provide a box of fresh veggies once a week to our members.

This summer has been a bit different. Here’s a note that Cam wrote to our members. He writes an update 4 times over the course of the growing season. This was Week #8 so we are halfway through our CSA.

 

Hey Everyone

Are we having fun with this drought yet? I’m not!

In my last update a month ago I said that I had heard the drought was the worst since 1959, the year I was born. Now Michelle tells me that it’s the worst since 1888, the year our farmhouse was built. (http://www.thewhig.com/2016/08/10/region-in-midst-of-driest-summer-since-1888) I have this funny feeling somehow I’m responsible for the thing. We have had no rain since my last report, including no thunderstorms. They have all missed us, although 10 millimeters of rain when you need 80 would be inconsequential at this point. It just would have been a nice dust suppressant for half a day before it evaporated.

Regardless, things are not going well here. We have 4 things to deal with. Lack of water. Excessive heat. Pests. Exhaustion. Where do you want me to start?

1) THE DROUGHT.

Both our drilled well at the house and dug well by the main garden are the lowest they have ever been. This is restricting how much we can physically water, and believe me, everything needs water, and lots of it right now. Michelle and I brainstormed on how to deal with this. We contemplated buying truckloads of water but we’d need a reservoir they can dump it in fast. We looked into a couple of reasonably priced swimming pools from Canadian Tire, but all the stores in Eastern Ontario were sold out. Can you believe it? Waiting ‘til August on the hottest summer … ever … only to discover they’re sold out. What’s up with that?

We borrowed a neighbor’s gas water pump. (Thank you Sandy!) The pond by our house is a puddle. The next closest pond 300 or 400 feet from the garden, which has always had water in it, is gone. We have a deeper pond we call “the hockey” pond, which still has water in it, but it’s 700 feet from the house. So this is what we’re using. So, it’s walk 700 feet through the bug-infested woods to start the pump. Walk back, fill up totes and rain barrels. Walk back 700 feet through the bush to shut it off. Walk back. Rinse. Repeat. Hence, item number 2…

2) EXHAUSTION

The heat is starting to catch up to me. I can handle a hot July. I can handle some heat in June and some early in August, but things got really hot in May and haven’t let up. I think Michelle said we’ve had double the normal number of days over 30°C. It seems every day is that way to me. Normally, running a CSA is a marathon that I love. This year, we’ve added constant watering to our usual TO DO List. I have a lot of drip irrigation in place, but with our set up it often works best for me to fill up rain barrels throughout the gardens with our dug well pump, and then water specifically with watering cans … and it turns out … again to my surprise, water is heavy! Who knew?

We’ve had the added bonus of our “War with the critters” in the corn patch which means that despite our exhaustion, nights are sleepless. Last year we had no raccoons. This year we’re getting it from the ground, the air and below. Birds and chipmunks are being very aggressive with the corn. Raccoons are back every night, and I think we have groundhogs tunneling in, because a lot of the lower ears are eaten on the stalk which I’ve never seen before. Which ties into our next issue…

3) EXCESSIVE HEAT

Over a certain temperature plants just basically shut down as a defense mechanism, and a lot of our plants are doing that now. This will be our only week for corn. I’ve had to cut our losses with the heat and lack of water and corn uses an enormous amount of water. Plus, much of the corn is showing signs of both heat and water stress, turning brown, and not producing ears. The corn in this week’s basket was irrigated but I can no longer do that. With the number of bean plants I had planted you should have had another week or two of them, but again, they have just packed it in with the heat.

With our limited water we’re having to choose what we think we can keep alive. Some things like potatoes and onions are done growing for the season. Usually they’d still be going strong but they basically have said “OK, so… no water…that’s it for me…I’m done for this year…” The harvest will be greatly reduced, but at least I focus on watering other things. I won’t even get into my inability to rototill because of the dust and hence the number of weeds that are going to seed, which will be problematic next year. The challenges just never end this year.

4) PESTS

Apart from the battle Jasper the Wonder Dog and I have been waging in the corn patch with furry and feathered creatures, insects surprisingly seem to love this weather … who knew that organisms that have been around for .. like …ever… could adapt so easily to an epic drought? The big insects like the grasshoppers and locusts, have always been problematic, but at least they used to have grass and areas around the gardens to feed on when they were chased away screaming in fear for their life by me and my trusty badminton racquet. But alas, there is no grass or much of anything else nearby to eat, so they are pretty determined to eat much of ‘your’ food before I can harvest it for you.

We have a good crop of fall brassicas (broccoli and cauliflower) in the ground and if I can keep the little critters off it and keep the water to it, we might have a shot.

The bottom line is that I’ve been growing food for 40 years and never imagined something like this. I have been very proud of what we’ve been able to provide our members for the last 5 years. This year I am having to live with great disappointment and I will not be able to provide the volume or quality I would like. It is always a challenge when you are working harder and feel like you are not providing an optimal end product, but nature is winning the battle this year. I have gone through all the various stages of grief like denial and anger with the drought and have finally reached acceptance. We’ll do everything we can with the resources we have to salvage what’s left of the season.

It sure would have been a great summer to spend at a cottage by a lake. What was I thinking deciding to grow food instead!

Thanks for listening.

Cam

The photos below show just how hard we’ve been working to keep everything alive!

Progress in the Potato Patch

I thought I’d provide an update on what we’ve been up to for the CSA this year at Sunflower Farm.

This is, of course from the perspective of the “I hate to buy new stuff/hoarder/make due with what I have/reuse/repurpose” person who runs the joint. I am honestly to the point where I experience a negative physical reaction when I am forced to purchase new things, so whenever I can make use of what I have on hand, I’m up for for it.

For instance I have a tote for water storage that I got from a neighbor 4 or 5 years ago and it was probably already 5 years old at least at that time. You can tell it’s one of the older ones because the external metal cage is made of steel rather than aluminum. Over time plastic gets brittle and last fall as I attempted to remove a hose out of this one the whole water delivery extension broke off … and the tote was full of water. As sad I was to see it break, I felt a childlike joy watching the water gush out of that sucker. ‘Come Ma quick!, the dam has bust!”

With the force of the water in a full tote there was no way to repair that section. So I tipped in on its side, and drilled a new hole in the top, screwed a tap into it, and now it’s working fine. Now, I will qualify that I practiced a number of times on the top (near the break) because there is an art to screwing a brass threaded tap into plastic. I have done it before, but if you drill the hole too small … it won’t fit … too big and it leaks. This time I got it just right and the repair bought me another year or two to use this one. Just one less hunk of plastic at a landfill.

practiceholesdrilled

watertoteonside

watertoterunningwater

Two years ago my neighbor Sandy gave me an old portable garage frame that had crumpled under some heavy wet snow that hit unexpectedly a couple of Novembers ago. This was the same heavy wet snowstorm that bent my PVC hoop house like a fine leather horse saddle. Luckily my PVC bounced back, but this metal did not. So I bent some of the steel and asked my other neighbour Ken to weld a few of the places where it had broken.

Then when the grocery store in town was replacing the plastic on their greenhouse that they use to sell plants from in the spring, I of course was first in line for the old plastic. And yes, I could probably scrape together some money to afford a new greenhouse, but why buy a shiny new thing when you can hack together something that looks like crap, but is functional nonetheless?

So last year I threw the plastic over the garage and had a greenhouse. Turns out the plastic was way too long. Plus I had only put one door in the greenhouse which just wasn’t enough during really hot spells to get proper ventilation. So this spring I moved the metal frame, then doubled the size with my own “wooden” supports, fashioned, obviously from scrap from my neighbor Don’s millwork business. If you were thinking that I’m probably getting a reputation as a scrounger in my part of the woods, you would be absolutely correct ….”Who ya gonna call…”

The greenhouse is now twice as big as it was last year and has doors in each end. The new section I built is big enough for the rototiller to fit through so I can actually till inside the greenhouse. Sometimes my brain hurts with my ingenuity. Is there an “Inventors Hall of Fame” I should nominate myself for? A “Scroungers Hall of Fame?”

Regardless, the greenhouse seems huge and every time I walk in I say… “I did this!” I should’ve made the door even wider to fit my inflated head through.

new greenhouse metal frame

newgreenhousewoodenframe

One of the other experiments I’m trying this summer relates to our melons. We are far enough north that I am challenged to have much success with melons, water or musk…i.e. cantaloupes. We just don’t seem to have quite enough heat, or else I keep picking the wrong cultivars.

Our main garden surrounds a huge granite rock outcropping. As I do so often, I saw this a bad thing. I had expanded the gardens close to it, but still had a ‘weed death zone’ where grass and weeds would encroach on the garden. So last fall I got Ken and his tractor to push that expanse of weedy mess into the garden. I hacked and dragged out all the weeds and grass and was left with some good soil. So now the garden goes right to the rock.

On a hot sunny day that granite really absorbs the heat. So I put all the melons in hills around it, hoping they may like that heat, and even get a little latent heat kicked back out on those cool nights we often have. What d’ya say… is this a brilliant concept or what?

And as an even bigger bonus about the whole process, I now have a big rain collection area, so when it rains, all this additional moisture drains down the rock into the surrounding soil, improving its water retention potential, which when you’re growing “water” melons I’m thinking is a pretty big deal. Sometimes my ability to turn a bad situation into a good one is just amazing!

rock for heat

We’ll see how this goes. I planted my first garden in the subsoil clay of a subdivision in Burlington Ontario when I was 16. So I’ve been putting seeds in the ground for 40 years now. Every year I try some new things and every year I get a little bit better. When I plant my last seed at 92 (or 58, we’ll see that goes) I will in fact be the most knowledgeable food grower in this part of the world, in eons. The daughter of our late neighbor Florabelle will dispute this fact I assume. No one will know, except me. But is there a “Food Growers Hall of Fame” I could get nominated for?

If my melons are fabulous this fall, rest assured you, along with our CSA members will be the first to know. If you never hear about this experiment again, I’m sure you figure out the rest. A million other factors will influence how well those melons grow, but at least I feel I’ve given it my best shot to tilt the odds in their favor. Heaven knows with the way our crazy weather is going, the odds seemed to be constantly stacked against those producing food.

Meanwhile, I shall keep my eyes and ears open for the next best thing someone is going to throw out, so that I can incorporate it into our food production system. I am blessed that my amazing wife will just roll her eyes at me, accept the chaos, and not leave lock and stock and barrel back to the comforts and organization of suburbia. I am a lucky man.

* * * * * *

Thanks to T.H. for his recent generous and most welcome donation! I think you can tell from Cam’s various posts that donations are never wasted on new items when something used can be repurposed!

Installed a New Clothes Dryer!

(Cam is busy 24/7 these days getting everything planted for our CSA but luckily he wrote this post a few weeks ago.)

Yup, we installed a new clothes dryer! Nothing to it. Pick up the phone. Have the appliance company deliver it. Set it up. Presto! Keep working until you’re 97 to pay for the energy to power it. Well, you knew that wasn’t going to be the case for us!

We used a clothesline in the city so it wasn’t a leap for us to use one in the country… with the added bonus of a lot less diesel particulate from city buses. You can have a dryer in an off grid house, but it would be powered by propane and I am too cheap to buy that stuff. And the concept of burning fossil fuels and blasting the heat out into the atmosphere, to accomplish a task that the sun and wind will do just as well … albeit somewhat slower… seems ludicrous to me. Anyway, if you’re not a clothesline user now, I’m not going to convince you, so I won’t try.

Our existing clothesline was giving up the ghost and was easily 25 years old. Last year when it was clear it needed to be replaced I just built a support to try and hold up the 3 sagging lines, which kind of worked, but kind of didn’t and was kind of a huge stupid waste of time, which I’m noted for in these situations. Why bite the bullet and just fix it right when you can dick around and do a half ass job a number of times and use 3 times as much mental energy?

I knew it was going to be a big project. We picked a new spot which meant digging a couple of new 4 foot holes by hand. In our sand this is no big deal. Then I had to get the new cedar posts. My goal was to have the job done by mid-April so it wouldn’t interfere with the CSA at all … but the guy that I buy my posts from had eye surgery which held us up, and I got distracted with this job and that … and so I was two months late finishing it.

Gary has tons of cedar on his property and he cuts it in the winter and sleds them out on the snow. Debarking the posts is the responsibility of the purchaser and it was a slow process.

removingbark2

 

removingbark

Then to get them into the holes I lifted each post off the ground about 6 inches at a time while Michelle slid the sawhorse under the log and closer to the hole with each lift. When Michelle described the operation to our daughter she said it sounded like something “Ma” and “Pa” in “Little House On the Prairie” would do. I took that as high praise.

Then I cemented them in place with two bags of ready-mix for each post and topped up what space was left in the hole with our stone.

Then I had to cut the notches in for the cross pieces. Then I had to put in the eye rings and string the clothesline. I found this awesome attachment that allows you to tighten the clothesline by turning this reel around, then clipping a hook over the line to hold it in place. It’s quite brilliant because now I can tighten it any time I want, without having to use tools.

And voila, it’s done! And I have to say, I’m pretty impressed. The posts are so strong they feel like if I drove the truck into them at highway speed, the truck would fall to pieces … which with the age of my truck may not be far from the truth. But they do feel as though they were built to last.

newclothesline2

newclothesline

When I was talking to my neighbor Ken about it and he offered his tractor and post-hole digger (which I declined because by the time I got that attachment on, and drove it here and back, it was just easier to dig the hole with a shovel) he said “If you build it right it should outlast you.”

That kind of freaked me out on many levels. The mortality thing obviously. But then there is the pressure to build it right. But the last cedar posts lasted 25 years and these new ones are even thicker. So I’m 56, add 25 and boom, I’m 80+ and dead. Yup, that makes sense. I would think with my life of smokin’, drinkin’, and late night carousin’ and red meat eatin’, I’ll be lucky to make 60. But my clothesline shall live on. (I actually don’t engage in any of those activities.)

Someday my grandson, as a young man will be at the farm grounding himself in the real world to escape his job of programming apps for the space teleporter he works on, and he’ll hang his towel after a swim in the lake on that clothesline and say “My grandfather built that!”

Of course he won’t, he won’t have any idea who built the darn thing. Since there was barely enough room to get the concrete down the hole, let alone have a level surface area at the top to sign my name I’m thinking I’d better weld up a plate identifying that it was me and “I did that.”

I’ll leave the final word to Michelle who will be the person making the most use out of it, since she says that I am “clothes hanging challenged” which apparently is a real thing and not just a typical male ploy to avoid the drudgery of hanging clothes on a line. Okay, that’s a lie too. I’m not good at it because I hate it.

Michelle’s Review: “The new clothesline is awesome! Thanks Cam! You are not only handsome; you are handy too!” (I always tell Cam when he’s attempting to hang the laundry out, “Hang the bottoms from the top and the tops from the bottom” but for some reason he keeps getting it wrong!)

 

 

 

 

Stumping Around the Property

(A story from the early spring before CSA season began.)

Michelle and I are temporary caretakers of 150 acres and it is an amazing place. It is 140 acres of forest, 5 acres of ponds and about 5 cleared acres. I marvel at where I live. And I marvel even more at the farmers’ fields I see south of here as we drive to the city. They were once all forests like most of our property, and someone cleared them. And they weren’t cleared by bulldozers and backhoes. Nope, they were cleared by human sweat and horse power, the original horse power … horses. And probably oxen and anything else that a person could throw a bridle (or a yoke?) on to and get to pull.

As we’ve expanded the gardens for the CSA I have moved a few stumps. Last year I had a stump from a spruce tree that I had planted. The base of the tree was less than a foot wide, but the root was incredibly stubborn. I dug around it, and whacked it with an axe. What a great way to deal with anger issues by pounding roots with an axe.

One day I whacked it hard enough that I broke a blood vessel in my eye. It was terrifying to look at. I assumed I’d be dead by sundown. But it healed itself within a week.

And I learned a lesson from this. This is no way to remove a stump.

This past winter I cut down another spruce that was close enough to the house that it would have hit us if it fell in a big windstorm. And I’m getting more and more paranoid about climate-change-induced droughts and wild fires, so the less there is to burn near the house, the better.

My usual tactic is to leave a stump for a few years and then try and remove it. What I have discovered is that basically our stumps never rot. They have some magic sap or something that keeps them robust for decades.

So I started digging. And once I got enough of an area dug out, I chain-sawed the exposed part of the root. I used an old blade because every time you hit soil or sand it trashes the blade. And I dug, and I cut, and I tunneled under it, and finally I got it free.

stump1

 

stump2

This inspired me to tackle two more interconnected stumps in the garden that had been there for almost a decade, again, showing very little sign of ever rotting.  And I dug and cut, and dug, and tunneled and cut and finally I got them loose. They were brutes though so I planned to use a come-along to get them out, but I put a rope on the first one and hauled it out with the truck.

I cannot believe the embedded energy in gasoline. It’s quite unbelievable. When I tried to roll the stump when I got it close to where I wanted to leave it at the edge of the paddock, I could barely budge it. But the truck didn’t seem to flinch while dragging it. Or the second one either. What amazing times we live in that we have access to such power.

As I drive around this part of the world I look at the hay fields surrounded by piles of rock. First someone used their horses to cut down the trees and remove the stumps. Then they had to drag out thousands of tons of rock, by hand and back. The fields are relatively small when you think of the prairie vistas, but they really were carved out of the bush.

There is a new trend in the area and that is to remove the hedgerows to make the fields bigger. This allows bigger tractors and equipment like combines longer runs without having to turn around. It’s the natural flow of capitalism, but it’s not a good thing. These hedgerows are great wind breaks, which will become more and more important with extreme weather events. And they are home to an array of birds of animals. In our part of the world a very vocal group screams whenever someone tries to put up large wind turbines (because of the bird deaths) but no one seems to notice massive bird habitat being removed in the name of progress when all of the hedgerows are removed.

Every stump I remove gives me a huge respect for past generations that worked this land. I am in awe of what humans are capable of.

When we lived in the city I listened to an Australian band called “Midnight Oil” and they had lots of great angry young man protest songs. They had one called “Blue Sky Mine” lamenting how capitalism forces us to accept industrial progress, like mines. The song had a lyric “Nothing’s as precious, as a hole in the ground.”

I concur. Especially when the hole is what’s left after you’ve spent two days removing the stump that was there. I could stand and marvel at the hole in the ground for days. But it doesn’t take long for me to want to fill it back in, grab a few loads of soil to replace the volume that was taken up by the stump and get the rototiller through the area.

I believe they refer to politicking as ‘stumping’ or being out on the stump. I’ve done the political thing. I much prefer the real stumping.

Vote for Me!

* * * * * *

Thanks to Neil for a wonderful blog post about us! www.peacockforest.wordpress.com/2016/05/27/cam-mather-saved-my-back-and-lungs/ If you don’t follow Neil’s blog yet, be sure to sign up for updates!

My Grandson … Future Farmer?

My daughter and son-in-law just moved back closer to us and it’s awesome. I love spending time with them. And I also love spending time with my nine-month-old grandson.

The timing is terrible and terrific. It’s prime planting season so it is my absolute busiest time of the year. I would love to spend every day with them but I simply can’t. Luckily my daughter has been bringing Liam up to visit us regularly, and it is wonderful.

I love my daughters very much and they know that. The love of a grandchild is different, and special. While I don’t have all the responsibility of his care he is a huge part of my life and I wish great things for him.

Best of all, he’s happy and healthy and I am infinitely blessed.

I like to give my daughter a bit of a break from him when she visits, especially since he’s just starting to make overtures to walk, but at 24 pounds he’s quite a load to carry. So on a recent visit I took my cue from eons of humans (women) who haven’t had the luxury of ‘daycare’ and I strapped him on my back as I went about my work in the garden.

I have an image of women planting and harvesting with babies in slings in front of them so they can see each other, but after carrying Liam around in my arms I realize that would be harder on my back. With him in a backpack carrier I can distribute a lot of the weight to my waist through the belt. It reminds me of doing portages on canoe trips that we used to take before we moved to where I no longer feel I need them.

I will admit to indulging Liam initially with a tour of the garden and our latest innovations. He seemed to like the greenhouses. We discussed the solar pump and how crucial water is for us, and one of my new watering systems.

Then we carried on with the watering since it’s dry here already. I was watering newly planted rows using a watering can that I fill up from a rain barrel. While the water level was high I made sure he got to spend some time playing with his hands in it.

And then we worked for a long time, and he seemed quite content.

It was perfect.

Liam on Back

 

It reminded me of all those ‘events’ people participate in now, ‘extreme’ type marathons where they carry logs around on their backs and crawl through mud. Every day right now seems like a marathon to me, planting and working all day. Doing it with 24 pounds strapped to your back is well … like … EXTREME!

So far, my impression, from what I can tell from a 9 month old … is that Liam likes the whole food growing thing. Or at least he likes to watch other people do it. I hope he will aspire to do it himself at some point. There will be the lure of modern jobs and ‘writing apps’ and the draw of the city. But there will always be a big garden for him to help out in at Sunflower Farm. A really big garden. And if it’s going to contribute to feeding him, when I see how big he is at 9 months of age, “we’re gonna need a bigger garden!”

Liam Watering

Off-Grid: So Awesome! And So Much Work!

I was reading The Toronto Star recently and was excited to see a documentary by Jonathan Taggart called  “Life Off Grid” and then I became even more excited when I realized that we are in it! … well sort of …

Here’s the link to the article;

https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2016/03/24/documentary-shows-canadians-living-off-the-grid.html

Professor Phillip Vannini from Royal Rhodes University in Victoria visited us a few years ago when he was doing a study on why people live off grid. He was accompanied by Jonathan Taggart who was making a film about living off grid.

We saw some “proofs” of it early on a while back and as I told Michelle, I didn’t like it “because I wasn’t in it enough!” So there you have it, life with a narcissist. And now that I’ve been brutally honest, I also was a bit disappointed because there seems to be too much focus and emphasis on people who really fit the ‘off grid’ kind of profile. Long grey pony tail, pop-bottle house, goats in the living room, no communication with the outside world, Bob Marley t-shirts … you know the image. And this is all fine and good, I get it.

Our experience though is that people like Michelle and I are, well, just kind of bland. Our house looks like the little white house with the dark green trim in the Anne of Green Gables books. Inside our regular toilet flushes, the regular fridge keeps food cold, the regular TV watches regular Netflix, I prefer my hair short, don’t find Birkenstocks conducive to our winters and mosquitoes, so we’re, just kind of… too “normal.”

We had a journalist here a few weeks ago and he asked if I could recommend other people living sustainably that he could also interview for the article. And I couldn’t. This is partially my choice to be a bit of a hermit (except for political campaigns) and also because I feel at times like the whole sustainability ship has sailed. There was that blip in the 80’s where people wanted to recycle, and that blip in the mid 2000’s where people wanted to put up solar panels, but there doesn’t seem to have been a huge follow through. It kind of feels sometimes like the big box stores won the war.

And I get it.

At many times of the year, I find myself questioning the whole living sustainably thing. And there is a clear distinction between someone who lives off grid to be sustainable, and someone who just does it because they don’t like paying utility bills. A lot of people move off-grid and on to propane for their thermal or heat loads (home heating and hot water) which make up 80% of your home’s energy requirements in the north. So really, you’re just switching which utility you send the cheque to each month.

Michelle and I continue to try and be as close to ‘zero-carbon’ as we can. Since I haven’t got off my ass and added pumps and a loop through our woodstove, our baths come from water heated in stock pots on the woodstoves. Decidedly low tech but also nothing to break.

The wood we heat with we harvest from the property and cut and buck and split with increasing amounts of solar and wind generated electricity. It’s way easier to use gas, but we take the time and put in the additional effort to keep our ‘carbon neutral’ wood fuel source as close to carbon neutral as we can, with very little gas burned in the process. So this takes extra long.

As the weather has been warming up of late I don’t crank the woodstove in the morning so it takes longer to get it hot enough heat to boil our water and cook our breakfast. Living the way we do just sometimes seems to take an inordinate amount of time. So I understand why people take the easy route and use fossil fuel derived energy. It’s so easy! It’s like powering your house with heroin… so easy and it just feels great to have so  much time to do other stuff.

But something keeps us at it. I’m not ready to throw in the towel and move back to suburbia and a natural gas/nuclear powered existence just yet.

I checked the weather network one morning to see how much of next winter’s wood I could cut and split with the solar powered chainsaw and wood splitter that day. The Weather Network had a little information note beside the forecast along the lines of “Brutally warm winter has arctic sea ice at lowest level on record .. read more here …” Ya, like that sounds like a great way to start your day before you jump in your car and start your hour long commute to your job selling stuff.

The reality is that the arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet. We’re to blame. I’m to blame. I used to commute back to the GTA for years after moving here to visit customers. I took the kids to Disney World when they were little, twice! I used to run my generator … a lot … before I cashed out retirement money and put up more solar panels and a proper wind turbine. So I’ve done my part.

But I have the information now and know there is an alternative. If governments would just show a little resolve and put a price on carbon most people would also seek out these alternatives.

The other day I was starting the fire so we could have a bath and I was thinking to myself, what an inordinate amount of work. Why am I doing this? I have a hot water tank. If I wanted to, I could just run the hot water out of the tank and let propane do the work. Most days right now we have enough sun that our solar domestic hot water system will actually have heated up the in-line hot water tank so that by the time it gets to the propane it doesn’t have to come on. But on dark days, so the choice is zero-carbon firewood or propane.

As I get down on my knees for the 11, 560’th time this winter to start the woodstove (there may be some exaggeration there) I think to myself ‘why AM I doing this again?’

Then I think about the people in the Maldives islands in the Pacific who are rapidly losing their homes with the rising seas. And then I say “Hey Cam, shut up and stop your whining and do the right thing.”

And then I do indeed stop whining and become extremely grateful that I have the opportunity and ability to do it the old fashioned way and try and impact other people as little as I possibly can. If I had a therapist she would say “… and how did that make you feel?” and I would say…

You can find Jonathan Taggart’s website; http://jonathantaggart.com/projects/life-off-grid/

And here is the trailer for the movie.

‘Life Off Grid’ trailer from Jonathan Taggart on Vimeo.

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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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