Trying to Survive These Challenging Times

By Cam Mather

We published “The Renewable Energy Handbook” in 2003 as a personal project. At that time, Michelle and I were earning a modest income from a variety of sources. We were doing some electronic publishing for corporate customers. We started up a magazine called “Private Power” and after successfully encouraging Bill Kemp to write an article for the magazine, we were then able to convince him to write an entire book on the subject of renewable energy. As book sales grew and we added other titles our “hobby” began taking more and more of our time. Eventually we cut back our electronic publishing business to serve just one main customer near Toronto, and we put all the rest of our energies into publishing books and DVDs about sustainability.

By about 2007 Aztext Press seemed like a viable business on its own and we made the decision to go “all in” and make it our major focus. We recognized that we needed to devote more of our time and attention to the business in order to be able to promote the books and DVDs and get them out there. We knew that by getting important information into the hands of our readers and viewers, they would be able to make the changes in their lives and in their homes that would have a positive impact on the planet. It was a dream come true to be able to earn our modest living publishing books and producing DVDs that promoted sustainable living. Well it was actually our second dream come true, the first being our move to 150 acres off the grid.

It was a huge step and not one that we took lightly. The reality was that while we were earning our modest income from one main customer, it was destroying my soul. I had to drive through the Greater Toronto Area about once every 4- 6 weeks for meetings with my client. Time and again I was faced with the reality of a sprawling, urban nightmare that kept swallowing farmers’ fields as quickly as the bulldozers could plow them up. It also meant keeping plugged into the “real” business world. Doing catalogs. Updating websites. Producing corporate videos. Trying to act interested in seeing constant, unending, cancer-like economic growth. It didn’t help that I had a major personality conflict with my main contact at the company.

So we finally decided to cut the umbilical cord. And for a while it was awesome. Being able to focus entirely on our books and DVDs was wonderful. Then reality hit. With the economic collapse in 2008 came a dramatic hit to our book sales. We sell about 90% of our books in the U.S., and people very quickly realized that books are a luxury. If you’re underwater on your mortgage or concerned about the stability of your job, then suddenly buying a book about putting up solar panels doesn’t seem to be a priority. I understand. I don’t blame people for making the right decision. Our book sales are about a third of what they once were. And so now we are scrambling to try to find other ways to earn an income. While our needs are small, we still have taxes and some expenses. So I understand the disillusioned feeling that many Americans have today. How did this happen to me? What did I do wrong? What happened to the concepts of having a job for life, pensions, stability and ever-increasing house prices? All the things we had come to accept as the norm were suddenly out the window.

It was probably easier for me since I was partially the architect of my own economic demise. I had a choice. I could have taken the safe route and kept driving through h*ll to see my customer and kept being a complete phony pretending I cared about their industrial products. I could have just shut up and kept quiet and kept taking their money. Not only did my work for them compromise my worldview of us all needing to have less, but also I had to drive 3 hours each way to get there which made it even more soul-wrenching.

So now I have my pride and soul intact, but I’m poor. Much of the time this seems like a really stupid move. Security? Retirement? Stability? Nope, they’re all out the window for me. Self-imposed poverty. But then there are the moments where it seems like it was the right thing to do.

Michelle blames me for writing a book called “Thriving During Challenging Times.” You want challenging times Cam? Well here they are! How you do like them now? Yes, it served me right, but it has given me a huge new perspective on the plight of so many Americans. I do not believe the official U.S. unemployment rate of 9% since if you don’t find a job in 6 months you’re not counted as unemployed. I think it could be as high as 25%. Only 47% of working age Americans has full time jobs.

http://www.businessinsider.com/real-employment-rate-47-percent-2011-1

Nearly 15% of Americans or 46 million Americans are on food stamps!

Holy crap! What happened to the American dream? Well, all I can say is that for the last few years of my life I have some appreciation for what these people are going through. I’m certainly not that badly off, but I can empathize somewhat. I know how disorienting it is. How easy it can be to get discouraged. And as if wasn’t bad enough to have our income drop off a cliff, Michelle got breast cancer last fall just to kick us in the head while we were down.

But I’m starting to try and scratch my way back up through the storm clouds and see some sunlight again. We are infinitely grateful that all of Michelle’s treatment went well and she has a clean bill of health. And thanks to our exceptional healthcare system in Canada, Michelle’s cancer treatments didn’t put us into massive debt. I am starting to reorient myself to a whole new reality of living with less. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact from an environmental point of view, it’s essential. I think most people, including environmentalists, have trouble with this. We all need to buy less stuff, and do less stuff, and stay home and spend less money. In our case we were already headed in this direction, and now we’ve just taken it to the next level. And it’s not that bad.

And from adversity comes inspiration. Ever since we moved here we’ve been talking about using the guesthouse as a retreat for people to come and learn about sustainable and independent living. And now we’re doing it and have started to generate a small income from that. It’s pretty great to get paid for something you’re so passionate about.

Suddenly we’re celebrating earning the smallest bit of income. Coming home from selling vegetables in town with $200 is like winning the lottery. And it’s pretty cool. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford a new car, but heck, I made $200 selling stuff I grew! How great is that!

And I’m happy to say that all the things I recommend that people do in my book “Thriving During Challenging Times” works. Michelle and I are able to survive on a radically altered income because we used all the strategies in the book. And I’m pretty proud of that.

So there you have it. People don’t usually like to talk about their income. This is a personal thing. Admitting that your income has tanked makes you look like a huge failure. Well I’ve taken an early retirement, but I just forgot to have any money set aside for it. And I’m scrambling to find a way to earn an income that doesn’t force me to drive back and forth to a big city and do soul-destroying work that I don’t believe in. So, if you order a book or a DVD from us and there is personal note in it telling you how much we appreciate the business, we really do. It makes a huge difference. Thank you!

I will continue to write about the realities of country life, both the ups and the downs. I believe that my personal economic reality is one that most of us will face soon as the converging challenges of peak oil, climate change and the ongoing economic collapse continue. I hope to try and continue to share tips and strategies for dealing with this reality. I have a whole new first person perspective on it.

If you enjoy my blog, have ever learned something from it or read something that made you smile, I hope you’ll consider using the “Donate” button on the right-hand side at www.cammather.com. I will be appreciative of any amount you care to offer.  Let me assure you that the money will be well spent. It will not be going into a midlife crisis sports car. It’s more likely to be used for more hose for my drip irrigation system to help my garden make it through the drought or a new four-pronged cultivator for the berry patch, to save me the 5-minute round trip walk to and from the main garden to retrieve the one I have. Using a cultivator that I really like is one of the little pleasures that make life so great, and I shall continue to share the joys that we experience daily here at Sunflower Farm.

Thanks for listening. A blog is better than a therapist. And way cheaper!

13 Responses to “Trying to Survive These Challenging Times”

  • Neil:

    In terms of alternate income sources, I hesitate to mention this one because I have mixed feelings about it but up in my area of northern Grey County I’ve noticed that quite a few landowners have taken to selling off rocks. Big and small, they end up in landscaping places often down in the GTA. Farmers, and people with woodlots on what was abandoned pasture, often have fencelines of rock, as well as random piles built by the poor pioneers who settled the land (with little machinery!) Better jump on this one before the economy worsens too much ‘cuz I think landscaping and beautifying will become discretionary expenses for most people!

    Another income option I would like to explore one day is making rustic twig furniture: something aesthetic *and* practical. My understanding is that if you use materials from your own woodlot (e.g., say you have a stand of cedar) it may qualify as a farm operation because you are harvesting and adding value to what you are growing on your property.

  • Neil:

    It’s a testament to your clarity of vision how so many of the economic realities you foretold in “Thriving…” are evolving to de facto reality with each further day, month, and economic quarter that passes. I describe myself as a realist; some others say pessimist… when we started emerging from the last recession and most people were saying “phew!” I was saying “it wasn’t bad enough” and what I mean is that people (and business, and government) did not learn their lesson. Although some lost out big-time, the majority went back to the same old consumptive, credit-based ways. I believe the last “recesssion” was really like the tremor that precedes the big quake. And when that quake hits, people like you and Michelle who are largely self-sufficient and minimally consumptive (bye bye Orange Juice) will be the rich ones.

  • I agree Cathy! I think we are happiest when we stay away from the city and all of that consumerism. Even though we aren’t a part of it, it is hard to watch, as we all know what it is doing to our planet and our economy and to everyone’s state of mind too! ~Michelle~

  • Hi Rita! We have certainly learned the disadvantages of that ramp door! Our next coop design will be different! Thanks for your suggestions!

  • Hi! Thanks for the suggestions. I have actually been selling my homemade granola at our produce stand and people are buying it and enjoying it! We will continue to look for other things to sell (Cam has been potting up little evergreen trees that are in bad spots here and selling them to local cottagers). Every little bit helps! ~ Michelle ~

  • queen of string:

    Hi Cam, I will donate something this week to help in the tiding over. My DH is going back into the rat race after a year at home, because the CIC want to see a sponsor for me with a “proper” job. We are consolling ourselves with the idea that’s it’s only for now, not forever. I was wondering if you had considered the idea of offering an added value product or two at your farm stand? We sell cookies at our local farm market. Other than baked goods, canned items also attract a premium price compared to the effort exerted. If either of you have talents in these directions it might be worth experimenting with. So many people these days dont bake or can and appreciate others’ efforts and will pay for them. Am happy to share cookie recipes if needed 🙂

    Your blog and other output are so useful, I sincerely hope the universe sees fit to send you a way to make what you need shortly.

  • rita:

    And don’t forget to change that ramp door to the chicken coop to a side hinged jobbie, or one day you’ll be popping that ramp/door off and it’ll be a huge emergency.

  • rita:

    See if there are colleges that need a distance education instructor in sustainable farming and living. Distance ed is the way of the future because that’s a sustainable alternative to all those students travelling all over at all the same times.

  • “Thriving…” is wonderful book. I think I need to revisit it again. Thanks for all you great work Cam, blog included.

  • Cam, this is a very powerful post with many themes and it has provoked a lot of thought on my part. And I donated something small. Antoinette and I have benefited so much from your and Michelle’s examples and knowledge over the years – from workshops, books, DVDs, a consulting visit, and the blog. We sure would like you to succeed in overcoming this present challenge.

    One of the revenue-generating services that I recommend to anyone within driving distance of Sunflower Farm is the consulting visit. For a very reasonable fee, people can visit Cam and Michelle and learn from the farm and from their knowledge about sustainable living. I’d recommend you find a way to market that service throughout southern Ontario. I also think you could write a version of a ‘donate please’ blog post on a reasonably regular basis. I think the CSA model will really help next season. Then there is probably more to explore financially on the lecture circuit. You might need to look for a business agent to promote and book speaking opportunities, especially over the winter months. Another, more long term idea, is for you to become involved in turning Tamworth into an RE centre. I’m just now writing a blog post on the German rural village of Wildpoldsried, that have become a very financially successful RE centre. Google it and put on your thinking cap. I know how hard you two work and there’s only so much time in the day, so all of this is easy for me to say!

    Best wishes,
    Antoinette and Gerrit
    Sustainable Living Blog
    http://www.gerritbotha.com

  • Thanks so much for describing your lifestyle that portrays a couple living their way and not having to be well off to do it. It’s a hard thing to leave an income stream, even though it tends to go against what you believe in, but I’m glad to hear you did it.

    My husband and I are also trying to make a living by working from home and there’s lots of potential, but not too much money yet. Yet for some reason I still think we’re doing the right thing. It’s more important to us to live with less and be at home more. Be at home with our children; be at home because we don’t have to travel; and be at home to get the most from our 50 acres of land.

    I love hearing what you and Michelle are up to and looking forward to getting to the point where we’re living of the grid too, among other sustainable milestones. Thanks for all your information!

  • Neil B. Orleans:

    Once again a great blog Cam.

    I read the Rice Farmer, The Automatic Earth, James Kunstler, etc. but not all the time. I read your blog every time. There is something in your blog that strikes a cord with me. You are doing

    The value to the general community, and the value to me personally, I have made a donation in appreciation of your blog and your life choices.

    Thank you and keep up the good work!

  • Cathy:

    It seems to me that nearly everyone has been suckered in to believing the “American Dream”. Unfortunitely it is not realistic or sustainable. Credit and materialism have created a consumer not a steward and a disposible mentality/culture. It is a trap for millions of American who have been brainwashed into believe the stuff they bought, (on credit) would make them happy, successful, give them status, etc. Over the past decades we have infected the world with this pandemic selfish waste. Nobody needs a new car. Know the difference between wants and needs and have no regrets.

    You, as always, have hit the nail on the head with your blog. But you are still infected with the haves and have nots. The more you stay away from the contaminated cultured city the cleaner your life and thoughts will become. Fresh air, sunshine and a little dirt therapy is my remedy and I suggest you get as big a dose as possible every day. I admire the Amish who have seriously shunned the American Dream.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. 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 available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people 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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