Posts Tagged ‘Off-Grid’

The Homesteading Retreat Weekend

(or more specifically the “Dispelling the myths and showing the realities of the homesteading, independent, sustainable, independent ‘life in the country’ dream” totally awesome weekend!)

Michelle and I have had great success with our one day workshops over the years. We are grateful to the many people who’ve come for the day to learn about our experiences and outlooks on energy systems, food production, the economy, security and the reality of living the homesteading dream.

People have often traveled great distances to get here, and then they have to travel home on the same day. Some, especially our American guests, have stayed in nearby motels. I’m sure this allows them a chance to wind down before they head back to the city, and so Michelle and I have often discussed allowing people to stay overnight here to avoid this.

One of the reasons we don’t usually offer an overnight stay after a workshop is because of my voice. For many years I did workshops at colleges where I’d have a morning workshop followed by an afternoon workshop which meant 6 hours of talking loudly, as well as the whole before/lunch/after informal chatting. I believe in keeping people awake, so I talk loudly (and much to Michelle’s consternation …’quickly’) and spend a lot of time shouting and cajoling and doing my best Sam Kinison imitation which ends up with me collapsing on the floor … just to make sure that people are paying attention to the part on … energy efficiency, or the basics of home security, or the world according to Cam in general.

Anyway, my voice was usually gone by the end of the day and I would have to spend most of the following day (usually a Sunday) not talking. Michelle LOVED IT!

The result is that I’ve learned I need to be more careful with my voice and it seems to be working. I do way less yelling and friends say they miss the old ‘angry Cam.’ Alas.

So we have decided to offer our first “Homesteading Retreat Weekend.”

I’m also calling it the “Dispelling the myths and showing the realities of the homesteading, independent, sustainable, independent ‘life in the country’ dream” totally awesome ‘this must be just like livin’ in paradise’ weekend. I have never been one who believes in being short and concise. Long-winded and convoluted is more my style.

For this workshop our guests will be able to arrive on Friday night, which means they won’t have to get up really early and commute to our place. We’re excited about that.

The weekend will include three meals on Saturday, beginning with our totally awesome Sunflower Farm breakfast, which I rave (and blog) about constantly because it’s my favorite meal of the day. Then we’ll do the workshop as we have in the past. We focus on energy in the morning – all elements of it including solar, wind, wood heat, solar hot water, hot water production in general, propane back up, geo-thermal, etc. After lunch we focus on food – first on production with extensive tours of our gardens, then discussions of all areas of food preservation and storage. Then after the afternoon break we talk about all those things most people at the workshops seem to want to talk about most – economics..i.e. alternative currencies, security, and how do I tactfully put it…ah….er…sensible preparation for potentially temporary disruptions to those modern luxuries…i.e. electricity, water, heat.. that we often take for granted.

At our past one-day workshops, it was at this point in the day that this seemingly divergent group of people in our home would begin to find out what they have in common and that is when the best sharing would take place. So this time at our weekend-long retreat, the discussion gets to go right into dinner and beyond. I’m very excited about that. At our lunches once people get talking I often find it hard to drag them away from their conversations with complete strangers who they are now the best of friends with, to get out to the gardens to talk about important stuff … like horse manure.

On Sunday morning, we’ll enjoy another utterly fantastic life-altering Sunflower Farm brunch (OMG Michelle absolutely hates it when I build stuff up and create unrealistic expectations) … did I mention you’ll use this brunch as the standard for which you’ll compare all other brunches for the rest of your life, none of which will be up to scratch? Nope, no pressure here.

And after that you can do what you want on Sunday. Hang out and chat. Get the hell out because you are soooo tired of hearing me drone on that you feel that you’ll need some sort of brain cleanse to ever think clearly again. Go for a bike ride, canoe on Fifth Depot Lake, help me weed the garden, load a box up with vegetables to take back to the city … you name it. I think what I’ll do is offer a long walk on the property. People only get to hear me wax poetic about the magic of being temporary custodians of our 150 acres of paradise, so this weekend I’ll have the chance to take guests out and explore it themselves. If you’re desperate for bird watching or hope to see deer or otters, we’ll leave Jasper the Wonder Dog at home. Or we can take him and he will sprint miles ahead of us and sprint back to us and bound and leap with the joy that a border collie just seems happy to spend his day doing.

So there you have it. How’s that for a sales pitch? Two nights, 4 meals & refreshments, the undivided attention of 2 individuals who have lived the homesteading reality for 2 decades and will give you their honest assessment of what’s realistic and what’s not, and time for reflection by a pond and recreation in the heart of “Land O’Lakes.”

The cost for the weekend is $700/couple. We’re saying ‘couples’ because so often at our workshops people say, “Oh I wish I’d brought my spouse because ‘they’ need to hear this…” This way you both experience it so you lose the personal bias when get home and say “Homesteading is totally awesome!/totally unrealistic!”

We offer home cooked meals, peace and quiet, infinite perspectives on your retirement goal of moving to the country/quitting your job and moving off-grid/getting out of suburbia and earning an income away from the rat race, etc. It’ll be a blast.
We’re doing this the weekend of August 18-20th. The lakes will be swimmable (i.e warm enough.) The garden will be at its prime which means much of your food will be picked hours before its cooked. Hopefully it will be great weather for your bike ride or walk in the woods and to hear the loons on Sixth Depot Lake at night so you can you turn off your white noise machine. That weekend falls just before a new moon which means if there aren’t clouds you can spend the night in complete darkness realizing just how puny and insignificant you are in comparison to the expansiveness of the universe and its billions and billions of stars you see from our front yard. And you’ll be able to pick a box of veggies to take home with you to enjoy all week long.

We are going to limit this to 3 couples. We think this is the most workable. I’m thinking from the interest we’ve had in the past it will be booked quickly and I think we’ll only offer this once this year. Send Michelle an email at m.d.mather at gmail.com to ask questions and reserve your spot. I’ll give our blog readers a few days to respond before we put it out there to the rest of the ‘interweb.”

Hope to see you soon! For some photos of our place be sure to check out www.sunflowerfarm.ca

(If you are interested, but that particular weekend isn’t good for you, let us know and we might be able to change the date.)

 

 

 

The Fabulous, Actual and “For Real” Off The Grid Weekend at Sunflower Farm

So, I’ve noticed a term that’s becoming really, really over used in our world today, and that’s “off the grid.” I hear it in movies and on TV and read it everywhere. Come on, enough!

I suppose it’s a good thing because it makes what we’ve been doing for 20 years seem hip and cool, but at a certain point, as an ‘off-grid’ purist, well, it’s getting overused and misused, a lot.

So often in movies and TV right now it seems to be kind of a generic term for anyone who’s trying to be a little less ‘out there.’ It more often refers to people who are trying not to have an online presence, as opposed to someone who lives without power lines to their home. Of course, I can’t remember any specifics right this minute, but I can see “The Dude” character played by Jeff Bridges in 1998’s “The Big Lebowski” saying he lives off the grid, mostly to avoid his past. I finally watched this movie, which people have been raving about for years, when it came out on Netflix and it’s pretty good. But really, Jeff’s apartment in L.A. has electricity … that’s not “off the grid!”

Do I sound petty and bitter? Well of course. Living off the grid can be a royal pain, so people usurping the term devalues it. I paid my dues. I want the kind of respect and admiration I’m due. (What a blowhard like me deserves!)

Now that Michelle and I are offering people the opportunity to stay at Sunflower Farm, you too can experience what it’s like, to live … and I emphasize ‘authentically’… off the grid.

What does that mean? Well, first you can dispel the image that we live in a yurt with dirt floors … not that there’s anything wrong with yurts or dirt floors. Will you have to use an outhouse? Do I have an outhouse? Yes. Do you have to use it? No. In fact, you can stand in the bathroom and flush the toilet repeatedly. I’d rather you not and I’ll explain why, but hey, if that convinces you this ‘off-grid’ thing is for real, then bring it on. I would rather you do that in July than December though and I’ll elaborate when you’re here.

Can you bring your curling iron? Yes, of course. Can you use it? Yes. Can you bring a window air conditioner? Yes. Can you use it? Well, if we can find a window it will fit in, sure. But I’ll think you’ll find the guesthouse cools off very nicely at night during the summer. There’s lots of windows to get a great airflow and nights cool off much better in the woods than in the city, because cities are big concrete heat sinks. So yes, if you have a regular appliance that plugs into on a 110V wall outlet, you can bring it. How long you run it, or how much ‘energy’ it uses … we can discuss that. Mostly we think we’ve got everything you’ll need.

Sunflower Farm was featured on the cover of Mother Earth News October/November 2014 issue and we had lots of enquiries after that with people interested in learning more. Read the article here;

 

Some people just have a general interest in being off-grid, others are interested because they’d like to do it themselves and want details of the reality of the process.

Now you have the opportunity to come and check it out for yourself. Stay overnight or for a few nights and get a feel for our reality. It’s pretty normal but you will come to understand its limitations, or how we approach our reality versus someone living on the grid.

We have a spring workshop planned and lots of people have attended those, but technically I could kind of cheat on those i.e.. I could run the generator for days before and since that workshop is during the day and we usually have some sun and wind and don’t need too many lights on, our place might just ‘go dark’ as soon as everyone leaves at night. Those big honking batteries I showed might have been empty and Michelle and I just sit around at night and read books by candlelight! Ha ha, that isn’t going to happen. There’s too much great stuff on Netflix and YouTube to watch! And we love lights.

Regardless, if you want explore this concept of living off the grid, book a stay at Sunflower Farm and come and live the dream … at least for a day or two.

Visit sunflowerfarm.ca for all the details and while you are there check out our other awesome theme retreat experience packages!

 

 

The Net-Zero-Carbon House … almost

Years ago, Michelle and I did a ‘green’ show in a big city and a person perusing our books informed us she had gone “completely solar” in a somewhat, dismissive, ‘that was soooo easy’ sort of way. I was intrigued. We’d been off-grid for a decade and were still a long way from being completely free of fossil fuels. After several probing questions, I was able to qualify that what she meant was that all of the calculators in her home were now solar powered … and I’m pretty sure that even back then it was hard to buy a calculator that wasn’t.

I just made the mistake of reading a great book by Andrew Nikiforuk called “Slick Water, Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry.” It’s about the challenges of living in a place like Alberta that has a huge industry fracking to get at natural gas. (http://andrewnikiforuk.com/)

It reminded me that we must have hit ‘peak fossil fuel energy’ for companies to be putting so much effort (and energy) into forcing out things like shale oil and natural gas. It also reminded me that the choices we make, in our purchasing decisions and how we choose to live, impacts other people. The book follows one woman’s challenges with the results of fracking around her rural home, and the lawsuit she eventually launched to try and draw attention to the impact of resource extraction.

As I read a bit more each day and went further and further down the rabbit hole of modern day energy production I was getting more and more critical of what I was up to in my own home. In July we just breeze by being completely “solar,” and I mean more than just using solar-powered calculators. I mean everything from cooking to hot water, and this is a big deal. We are very proud of it. It feels great.

In November and December, it’s much more of a challenge. As I remind people in my workshops, in the northern U.S. and Canada (according to Natural Resources Canada) 60% of your home’s energy requirements are for heat, then 20% is for heating water, and the remaining 20% is for all your other electrical needs … washing machines, toasters, TVs, computers, electronic toast butters … all the essentials.

We’ve got the heat covered by heating with wood which is carbon neutral and which I’ve blogged about … on and on … ad nauesum. The real challenge right now is hot water. We have a Solar Domestic Hot Water (SDHW) heating system which we invested $5,000 in. But it is pretty ineffective when the sun is only up for about 2 ½ hours a day and barely clears the tree line because it’s so low and basically gives us zero hot water. So, we improvise and use our marvelous woodstoves for hot water. I say woodstove (s) plural because we one in the house and one in the guesthouse.

Every second day or so I heat up 4 or 5 stock pots of well water on the woodstove for our bath. Michelle has the first bath because she can stand it scalding, and then a while later when the water is humanly tolerable I use the same water. Then we leave that bath water in to heat the bathroom in the cast iron tub, because the bathroom is on the north side of the house and a long way from the woodstove. In the morning I use the bath water to flush the toilet. Sure, it’s “Little House on the Prairie-ish” but I love it. It just feels right. We are in complete control of all the inputs, including the massive amount of energy required to heat a bath full of water. When you live in a typical house and just pay energy bills and turn on taps and get hot water out of them, you never really have a handle on the enormous energy required to make that possible. And you never think if you heat with a fossil fuel, what the impact is on someone who lives near the well where that propane or natural gas came from. I strongly recommend you read “Slick Water” to give you some perspective.

The challenge is that we use hot water for other stuff. Like dishes. I only do them with a kettle of hot water heated on the woodstove. And shaving. I only shave with a kettle heated on the woodstove … first sink full to shave, second sink full to rinse the soap off. Hand washing … well, our bathroom is so far from the hot water tank that we’re used to washing with cold water by the time it gets to the bathroom taps, so I just wash them really well occasionally with hot water … from the woodstove.

So … heat … check … net-zero-carbon. Hot water … check … net-zero-carbon.

Cooking … ZZZZZT (loud gameshow buzzer sound when you get the answer wrong). We have a propane cookstove. A woodburning cookstove is in the plans, but right now in the kitchen there is a beautiful, monstrous piece-of-art propane stove reeking havoc on some poor fellow human who moved to their piece of paradise not realizing they were near a coal-bed-methane deposit.

So breakfast preparation starts an hour prior to eating. Kettle for coffee goes on the woodstove. Hashbrowns and eggs are cooked in cast iron pans heated on the woodstove. Bread is toasted in a cast iron pan on the hottest part of the woodstove. This is my favorite way to eat toast because it’s less dried out than using the electric toaster. I do so love toast. Michelle makes the most awesome bread to toast!

After breakfast, dishes are washed in woodstove-heated hot water. Water for the chickens is warmed up using water heated on the woodstove. Ugly sweet potatoes and potatoes that I’ve had in the root cellar go into a stockpot on the woodstove, boiled until mashable, then served warm and mashed to the chickens. They love these and devour them, especially on a cold day.

There are some days when it feels like I spend the whole day trying to live a typical North American lifestyle in terms of what we accomplish, while doing it pumping no carbon into the atmosphere, so feeling like I am living on the prairie a hundred years ago … but with internet and Netflix.

So if your response to reading this is “Well, see, you can’t realistically live without fossil fuels so why even think about the impact of their extraction” I would suggest that’s simply not the case. Most of our readers live plugged into the electricity grid and could be heating their home, which uses 60% of energy needs, with a ground-source geothermal heat pump. This provides some hot water as well. If you live in a state or province where electricity is generated with coal, you could purchase zero-carbon energy through an intermediary in Canada like “Bullfrog Power.”

Yes, you will pay a premium for these options, but it’s not usually a large premium. If you like and respect your neighbors like I do, you could never imagine doing anything that might impact them, such as digging up your yard if it was going to affect their water supply. If you start thinking on a bigger picture basis about your purchasing decisions, making these changes is much easier. And with a geothermal system your spouse won’t roll their eyes at you as you come up with new and more complex ways to use less or zero fossil fuels. It can be a fun game, until it’s not. Then you’ll need to clean the bathroom or something to get back in their good books, and no one wants to go down that road, least of all me.

(p.s. We do fall down as we do use a bit of propane and I still own and drive a car … but I’m working on it)

Mommy’s Alright, Daddy’s Alright, They Just Seem a Little Weird

When you’re a parent there comes a time when you have to look back and think about your parenting choices and their impacts on your kids. And how did they perceive you as a parent? The song lyric from the title is from the band Cheap Trick. It was on their 1983 Live at Budokan album and the song is called Surrender.

I played it the other day and was taken back to a day when I was pretty young and my parents called a family meeting, which they rarely did. We all sat in the living room, with the so hip deep red shag carpet (it was 1968 or thereabouts). They then proceeded to tell us that they were selling the house and were going to buy a sailboat and we were going to sail around the world. What? No school? Can we leave tomorrow?

I do recall it being brought up that they had never sailed a day in their lives, but we lived near Kingston, Ontario which was swimming with sailors, so really, how hard could that be? I had sailed with my neighbor Paul in his “Laser” which required locking your feet through this seat belt strung down the middle of the hollowed out leg area, then hiking yourself as far out over the water as you could. It was so much fun until the wind gust died and you went into the water head first, although at age I’m pretty that was a blast too.

As it was the world wide adventure never happened. I’m sure inertia eeked back into my parents’ life … the mortgage…the promotion that was probably offered when they heard he or she were leaving … maybe they thought they shouldn’t interrupt the kids from school.

And really what kind of person would do that anyway? Yank their kids out of nice, controlled, suburban lifestyle, with access to good libraries, shopping, activities … well that would be just wrong. That parent would be completely irresponsible. Clearly. No doubt about it.

No wait, that’s me! Back in 1998 we moved from a suburb of Toronto 3 hours away to the woods, with no phone, internet, or electricity cables to the house. We were going from the middle of advanced 20th Century Developed First World Affluence, to the middle of nowhere.

Listening to Cheap Trick the other day was when I finally figured it out, that I was even worse than my parents! I followed up on my threat to drop out. “Daddy’s alright, he just seems really weird!” I had at least become my parents in spirit, and I believe this is many children’s fear. I could do worse I suppose.

My father is still alive, so I would never refer to the “sailboat incident” as a ‘mid-life’ crisis, but come on, what else could you call it? That is so “Mosquito Coast”ish (the movie/book where Harrison Ford drags his family to “Brazil” for his midlife crisis) And why are so many wives tolerating these male mid-life crises?

I have no doubt that I was the prime instigator in us ‘going off-the-grid,’ but Michelle was right along there with me during the whole ride. It took us close to 5 years to find this place. When it came time to pull the trigger and put in an offer she said, “Just do it.” Was that encouragement or an ultimatum?

Regardless, here is where we ended up when our girls were in their early teens. I can’t tell you how many people have said to us, ‘oh we’d have done that if the kids hadn’t been in school. We didn’t want them to have to leave their friends.’ Oh get over it. They’re kids. They’ll adapt. And yes, we were homeschooling so it was easier, but today, why do I get the impression that ‘friends’ for kids today are mostly pixels through text and online chats on smartphones as opposed to hanging out after school and building stuff with Lego … which you should never do once you get to high school … which I might have been doing but would never admit to publicly.

So how many kids think of their parents as stressed out and miserable? How many parents come home from work every night bagged? Pissed off at their boss? Another promotion overlooked. More job cuts and those who manage to hold on to their jobs just get more work dumped on them … blah blah blah. To counteract the stress they say, “Let’s book a trip, I need a change of pace. And we NEED a bigger car.”

For the first little while after our move our daughters still saw me stressed out about earning an income, especially with the challenges we had with phones and communications and therefore fax and early internet stuff. But as we were able to shift more of our income to book publishing and producing information about sustainable living, well that phase was over for me. Plus, the girls did a few years of high school and then went to university, so I suppose they missed most of the really happy dad days.

Today, as long as we don’t talk about last summer’s drought, everything here at Sunflower (aka Cam’s Midlife Crisis) Farm is pretty awesome.

I left a city where I was pretty miserable when I was 39. I have heated with wood, which I love, and grown much of my own food for almost 20 years. I have spent 20 years looking out my windows at nothing but forests and ponds, and often wildlife. When I wanted I chickens, I just got them. There is no by-law against it here. When I want to snow blow at 3:30 am (as I did the other night when I couldn’t sleep) there are no neighbors within earshot to complain.

Michelle has asked our daughters to each contribute a chapter to the book she is just finishing on homeschooling. I hope they discuss their experience with moving from suburbia to the bush. I hope it didn’t impact them too negatively. Me, on the other hand, well listening to and responding to my midlife crisis was the BEST thing I ever did (after marrying Michelle and having kids, obviously). If Sunflower Farm is what a midlife crisis looks like, they can be pretty awesome!

The Plague Comes to Sunflower Farm

“I don’t get sick.”

Ever know one of those people who says this?

Or “I don’t watch TV.”

What? I love TV! I watch as much as I can!

I was one of those ‘I never get sick’ people, but I hope I didn’t brag about it. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to avoid a lot of stuff. I think it helps that I still have my tonsils. So many of my peers got them surgically removed as children, Michelle included. Quite often, I would just suffer through just a sore throat, while Michelle got the full blown cold.

But once our kids were grown, and out of the house, we both managed to avoid getting colds and flus. We’ve led a pretty isolated life here in the bush. And when you aren’t and about with other people, well, it’s just easier to avoid a lot of bugs.

Then we had a marvelous, amazing, joyful reason to leave our little piece of paradise enter our lives. If our grandson doesn’t get up to see us we drive to see him, minimum once a week. And you know, when your 18-month-old grandson who spends time at daycare wants to come and hug you and have you pick him up, you just do it. I’m finding it physically impossible to NOT kiss those cheeks, regardless of how snotty that nose is.

Welcome to Germ Land. Let’s just see how good your immune system is ‘Campa’. (Michelle came up with that … a combination of Cam and Grampa!)

Turns out my immune system is not so good.

We both got a cold before Christmas but by the time the “kids” arrived we were feeling better and had a great time with them. Perhaps it hadn’t actually gone away, but we were just too determined to let it spoil the fun.

So after the kids cleared out a couple of days later the cold came back to Michelle with a vengeance. I was starting to think I had licked it in Round One before the holidays, but no such luck. It came back again for me a couple of days after it hit Michelle.

Michelle actually went to see her doctor, which she is loath to do, and the doctor suggested that she had a touch of bronchitis. I think that’s a code word for a wicked evil bug that you just need to shut up and get over because they don’t have a clue to beat a cold bug.

Today is January 19th and we’re both better but still have the occasional cough.

While I was sick I would have a good day and think, well that’s it, I’ve gotta get some fresh air. One night we had a blizzard so while I was feeling fine I snow blowed the driveway and pathways, I did firewood and I shoveled snow away from the greenhouses that are bending in because of the volume of the darn stuff this year. Later that night I lay on the couch shaking with my legs aching, coughing like I had TB, hot one minute, freezing cold 10 minutes later. What the hell was this thing? It wouldn’t leave me alone.

Ever look at a smart phone and marvel that it has way more processing capability than the computers that put a person on the moon? Ever wonder in amazement at what humans are capable of, then realize that these microscopic little viruses are way smarter than us? They can mutate and pass along information to circumvent a body’s immune system, just marvelous, marvelous stuff. And you know, they are going to be “the last man standing.” When we’re gone they’re just going to step back and be giving germo-high-fives all around. I wonder what they’ll do then, when they don’t have humans to torment? And will they really be that happy about wiping us out?

In my book “The Sensible Prepper” (available here) I suggest that people should watch the movie “Contagion”. Not necessarily from the pandemic perspective but from the what happens when lots of people get sick, or jurisdictions starting closing borders to slow down the spread, and economic activity grinds to a halt and how quickly store shelves go bare. After this cold bug I don’t think I can ever watch that movie again.

This bug has reminded me how much physical effort our low-carbon life really takes. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but with this bug wheeling a load of firewood into the house using the hand cart feels like climbing to Camp 2 on Mt. Everest. And that 25 kg (55 lb) bag of chicken feed that needs to be dragged in from the barn, well, it may as well be a small car because it feels just as heavy and I will be just as winded when I’m done. Then I’ll sit and pant and breath like Darth Vader and cough like I’ve got whooping cough, because it sure feels like whooping cough. My stomach and chest muscles will ache from coughing. I’m not sleeping very well, and I’m not that hungry. At what point in our evolution did some trait to take away your hunger, just when you should be eating to stay strong to take on the infection, become dominant. Evolution sucks!

I’m feeling much better. And each day that I am healthy and invigorated I will be grateful for good health. It’s easy to forget to be grateful if you’re just healthy all the time.

Soon I’ll head down to the city to see my grandson. And he will have picked up some new horrible thing my underdeveloped immune system has never seen before, and he will come tearing down the hall squealing with delight, and he’ll make sure to pass along some of that new thing. And for the joy that boy has brought into my life, it is absolutely worth it.

Sorry if I’m droning on about my grandchild, but I’m pretty sure it’s in the contract when you become a grandparent that you have to do this. I’ll try and contain myself in the future.

 

 

My Prime Earning Years

Happy New Year everyone. Time for resolutions about being a better person, making better choices, blah blah blah.

This fall Michelle and I did a lot of soul searching about such big life questions. Mainly about how to earn an income … or whether to earn an income … no, that’s not fair, it’s really about how to earn ‘some’ money.

I had an opportunity to take a job in the city and it was a tough choice. It would mean a real income, and it wasn’t a bad gig. The challenge was the drive, and the inability to live our lives the way we’ve become accustomed, which is to strive to have as little impact as possible and to produce as little carbon as possible. As soon as you turn that key in the car every morning that goes out the window, in a big way. As does the net-zero wood heat, because we’d end up having to burn some propane to heat the house and cook, and as I discuss in an upcoming blog, I’m loath to do that.

So here I am, at 57, in my prime earning years, and not prime earning. Well, now that the CSA is over and we haven’t got other things rolling, not earning at all.

This is supposed to be terrifying, and there is the odd moment of that. Those retirement financial ads do wear you down a bit. But then I think, it seems like a crappy way to live a life, work until you’re 60 or 65 and hope you live long enough to come out ahead of the pension fund or financial instrument that you paid into all your life. Oh, and you most likely didn’t head to work all happy and cheery every morning. Most of us can be pretty miserable with the whole work thing, so you travel during your time off, and flip your cars every 3 years because it’s a huge distraction. I’ve been doing the same thing for almost 20 years and I never tire of it. I just have to leave my front door to get a smile on my face living where I live.

I blame our frugalness for our current dilemma. We got very lucky, bought a small house at a reasonable price in 1987, worked and saved like crazy and paid it off in 1996, then bugged out of the Greater Toronto Area, or “Death Star” as I often refer to it, in 1998.

So for almost 20 years I’ve lived in paradise, grown a ton of food which I love to do, and cut and heated with firewood from our 150 acres. Really, it’s been pretty awesome. We’ve been livin’ the dream. During this summer’s drought we were livin’ the nightmare, but crap like that happens and you have no control over it. I have been getting better every year at accepting those things that I cannot change and trying to see the bright side to every situation. This summer I was forced to invest in several water pumps which I had always meant to do but which human inertia had stopped me from doing.

Last summer when we hinted that we might give up on this blog we heard from a lot of people who still enjoy it and wanted us to continue. We’ve had kind of a spike in people subscribing since then which is nice too.

We’ve also had a number of people tell us how many people would love to live the way we do. The challenge is we have to try and monetize this blog or figure out how to make some money from this.

The challenge with the internet is making money from content and it’s really quite tough. I also know that so many of the places I visit on the web kind of tell the same old story over and over or focus on just one specific topic. If your theme is the coming Zompocaplyse, and it hasn’t happened, for say the last decade, then your blog gets kind of stale. Our blog runs the gamut but basically comes back to life off the electricity grid and our perspective on the mad mad world we live in today. As world events and technology and my perspective changes, so does the blog. With the number of subscribers who’ve stuck with us for a long time, this seems to be a model that people like.

So with this in mind Michelle and I are launching two new businesses. The first is “Simple and Practical Websites”.  https://spwebsites.ca/ For years Michelle has been doing our websites and others for friends and associates using “WordPress” which is a free, online web development tool. Now we’re going to promote it.

The second business is that we’re going to do the whole B&B thing with Sunflower Farm which we kind of started a while ago but then got distracted with running a CSA and stuff. https://sunflowerfarm.ca/ We’ve decided this is a way to take some of the interest the blog nurtures and allow people to come and check out the place. It also lets people get a better perspective on how we really think, since I read Edward Snowden’s book and just watched “Citizen Four,” the documentary about him, I radically self-sensor myself on-line. Sure, I’m a shiny happy guy all the time, but there is the odd moment when I let myself slip.

So the deal for the next little while is this. I’ll keep posting a shiny happy ‘life-off-the-grid, sustainable independence, homesteading is awesome but here’s the reality’ blog early in the week. Then later in the week I’ll post a ‘here’s what we do for a living and if there’s a fit with what you’re looking for … someone to do a basic website … a place to visit and really check out off-grid living … then here’s why to come to Sunflower Farm.’

This way you can ignore the second weekly blog if you don’t want hopeless commercial interruption. I will endeavor to keep this second blog entertaining. In fact I’ve already scoped out some of our “theme” weekends/workshops and they are A) Pretty Funny B) Pretty Awesome C) Pretty Ironical D) All or none of the above. (‘ironical’ is actually a word, even though most people just use ironic)

The thing with the second blog post is this. If you’re following this blog because you have some interest in country living, as I’ve said all along the challenge with ‘livin’ the dream’ is ‘earnin’ an income’. So this way you can follow along as I try to shamelessly promote how we do it and you can see if it makes sense for you.

Worst case scenario when you read the Thursday blog you can write a tirade about why you didn’t subscribe to this blog for an on-going sales pitch and how you are officially cancelling your subscription in outrage (you know, the FREE subscription) then I’ll write a biting/witty response about how we’re not livin’ in some communist republic and how we’re still in a capitalist world and how I’ll pitch my dam wares any time I want. Or not.

So stay tuned. Fun stuff to come!

The Feng Shui of My Wind Turbine

Remember that scene in the first Star Wars where the Death Star blows up that planet and Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “There’s been a disturbance in the force”?

That’s been the theme of my life for the last couple of months since our wind turbine got knocked out by lightning. For the last nine years, I’ve been able to look up and see the wind turbine, from pretty much anywhere I stand near our house. It’s a wonderful, glorious, beautiful thing. It reminds me of the cost of living in an advanced society … that requires electricity … when electricity poles don’t run to your house.

So while it was down, first so that I could diagnose the problem and then to order and wait for the replacement parts, there was a disturbance in the force here. I felt like the “Feng Shui” of the place had been thrown off. Not that I know anything about Feng Shui. I thought it referred to where you put your couch in the living room, but according to Wikipedia it is the Chinese philosophy of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment. With that description it makes sense to me that the Feng Shui of this place has been off kilter.

In so many parts of my province people are vocal in their opposition to large wind turbines, claiming they are a blight on the landscape. They never mention the utility poles that line every roadway and the power lines which crisscross the province, and the enormous electricity towers that dot the landscape. Nope, it’s the wind turbines that are the problem.

And yet I somehow find them so beautiful. And I absolutely love mine. Especially at this time of year! With less and less sunshine, and more and more wind, the wind turbine is a marvel. I’m surrounded by trees and forests and somehow it just feels like it fits in.

This may be because of the literal translation (according to Wikipedia) of Feng Shui which is “wind-water.” You see, after our drought this summer, the pond that the turbine towers above is dry. It’s never been dry before, but this summer’s historic drought did it in and we have yet to see enough fall rain to put any water back in to it. In my silly, rose-colored glasses, idyllic world, wind power represents the potential to reduce how much CO2 we belch into the air to make electricity, and therefore reduce these weather anomalies like droughts. And therefore the wind/water connection is very close.

Do you think about electricity all the time? I do. It’s amazing stuff. And when you make all your own you get a marvelous appreciation for how difficult a process this is. And expensive. Without the wind turbine I had to run our gasoline powered generator several times, which I haven’t had to do at this time of year for, well, 9 years. It was horrible.

It’s not the expense of doing it, it’s the carbon I put into the atmosphere. It feels like defeat. I grew up watching ABC Wide World of Sports, so I have been experiencing “the agony of defeat” every time I turned that generator on, like the ski jumper who goes off the ramp to bad results.

But now the turbine is up and I am living “the thrill of victory” once more. Michelle keeps finding me just standing there gazing at the thing. “You gonna get any work done today?” Nope. Just gonna stand here looking at this marvelous machine. And if I do any work, I will probably use some electricity to help my efforts, and some of that power is coming from that amazing machine up at the top of that tower.

cam-admiring-wind-turbine

Once we got the tower down and my friend/neighbor Sandy, the engineer, spun the blades he noticed there was too much movement in it. He said the bearings should probably be replaced. I was skeptical. But since I was ordering a new rectifier I added bearings too which were not expensive.

When they arrived Sandy helped me remove the old bearings and put in new ones. So much grease! Again, the old bearings looked fine to me, but whatever, if it made Sandy happy, I was fine with that.

Then my other wonderful neighbor Ken and Sandy and I put the tower back up, and I turned off the brake, and it started to spin, and generate electricity, and I said to Sandy “Listen… there’s no noise!” There was noticeably less sound coming from it than previously. The noise was never excessive and because it meant I was making electricity, I loved it, but clearly, Sandy was correct. The bearings weren’t sitting correctly or there was too much play and the new bearings corrected this.

Ken has a saying that he often repeats to me when we work on projects and I say stuff like, “Are you sure that little weld is going to keep this tracker from flying apart in a wind storm?” He says “Oh ye of little faith.” The solar trackers have never flown apart. And once again my skepticism was proved false when Sandy’s diagnosis of wonky bearings proved bang on.

I believe I am becoming, slowly, less skeptical … ‘of greater faith’ in people more knowledgeable than me. I would rather not have taken the turbine down. Lowering and raising the gin pole tower is a stressful job, for me anyway. The forces and stresses seem enormous. And yet somehow down and up it goes.

And if it hadn’t been struck by lightning we wouldn’t have taken the time to replace the bearings. Now it’s not only quieter, but there’s less vibration and new lubrication and things are all working better, I’m potentially getting more electrical potential out of this marvelous machine.

More electricity for cutting wood, and watching Netflix and making toast! I do love toast!

Feng Shui has been restored to Sunflower Farm. It is once again the “Sun- and Wind-Powered Farm” and it features ‘all-you-can-eat toast.’ Well, within reason.

*******

Thanks once again to our wonderful friend and blog reader N.B. for his generous donation to the “Help Fix the Wind Turbine Fund.” Your donation could not have come at a better time and was most appreciated!

 

 

 

Gas Tube Arrestors, Busted Wind Turbines and Spiders from Mars

I’m maturing as a person.

Oh, I still have my fits and tantrums, but I’m getting much better. As one approaches their 60s perhaps this resignation to certain outcomes becomes easier.

Several weeks ago we had a major storm blow through with tornado warnings in our area. I never remember one in the middle of September, but the brutal heat of summer carried on into September so it shouldn’t surprise me.

As I was walking towards the front screen door at one point during the storm, the loudest thunder bolt I’ve ever heard struck simultaneously with the flash of lightning. It was terrifying, like a World War I artillery barrage, and more worrying from an off-grid standpoint.

We have a marvelous 1 kilowatt wind turbine on a 100 ft steel tower that reduces our generator run time significantly. But let’s be honest, it’s just this massive, tall lightning rod screaming “Hit me, hit me, HIT ME!” during a lightning storm.

Sure enough the following morning the turbine was spinning very slowly, even though the wind was still high. Not a good sign. This is when my newfound maturity appeared. Rather than grabbing an axe and chopping down the nearest tree on the “To Be Cut” list to deal with my rage, I just assumed the turbine was toast and shrugged my shoulders with resignation.

The absolutely wonderfully brilliant news was that there was no noticeable damage in the battery room. The last time we got hit by lightning (3 summers ago, a week before my younger daughter’s wedding! Read about it here.)  it took out the inverter and lots of other expensive equipment.

So the other day, my neighbor Sandy and I brought down the turbine, which is on a gin-pole tower. It’s still kind of scary, but pretty gratifying when you finally get it down. The problem last time (3 years ago) was that the DC Rectifier had been blown up. I say “blown up” because you could see where there had been sparking and big chunk of plastic was missing. A rectifier is like the opposite of an ‘inverter.’ It takes AC electricity, that the alternator on the turbine produces, and it converts it to DC to go in to the batteries. All those black ‘bricks,’ the black plastic boxes that you plug into wall outlets to power your computer or charge your cell phones are DC rectifiers, converting AC from the plug to the DC the phone battery wants.

When we replaced these the last time we got hit, Bergey, the manufacturer of my wind turbine, suggested that we add a “Gas Tube Arrestor.” A Gas Tube Arrestor is basically a fuse. And low and behold, as soon as we got the turbine apart we could see that one of these had blown.

view-of-turbine

guts-of-turbine

 

gas-tube-arrestorThe bad news was that I have to replace it and the rectifier. The good news is that it blew up and apparently took the short or surge of electricity down the turbine into the grounding wires to the grounding rods, rather than into the battery room. How cool is that?! Which begs the question … why hadn’t they provided them when I installed the system a decade ago? Continuous quality improvement I suppose.

As we were taking the turbine apart I noticed this little spider hanging around. Let’s call him/her Ziggy. I sort of assumed she had jumped on from the sunflower nearby where the turbine had ended up when we took it down. But then I noticed she didn’t want to leave the area.

ziggy-on-the-edge

ziggy-at-home

So finally I looked down the tower and noticed that she had a web there.

Nature is a funny thing sometimes. We live in the bush and have no shortage of bugs but all the things the bugs want … pollen from flowers, people to bite, etc. are at ground level. How many bugs would want to hang out at 100 feet, the height of the tower when it’s erect?

But there was the spider, and there was the web, so apparently she had a thing going.

And since she was a spider that hung out at high heights I started singing David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” with the lyrics “Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Wierd and Gilly, And The Spiders from Mars.” And I could not get that song out of my head all day, and it was a good thing.

Taking down a wind turbine is kind of a stressful process so there is a great sense of relief and accomplishment when it’s finally down. So you have a natural buzz afterwards. I’d rather not bring it down, but when I factor having to bring it down twice in 10 years, with the huge amount of electricity it has generated to improve the quality of my life, without the carbon I would have produced if I’d run my generator, then it’s a pretty good trade off.

Couple that with a catchy tune from a recently deceased musical icon, and it was a pretty good day all and all. Luckily we haven’t yet hit the grey days of November, so the wind power hasn’t been missed. Every time I bring down the turbine I get better at it and learn more. I finally understand this whole DC rectification thing.

I’m intrigued to see if Ziggy hangs in for a week or two while I order the replacements and install them. Fall is in the air; I’m thinking she’s probably better to find a place to overwinter at ground level.

I just wish Bergey could figure out another improvement that would take the lightning jolt at ground level so I didn’t have to drag the whole thing when it gets trashed. I can dream, can’t I?

 

A couple of notes from Michelle;

  • Thanks to RH for his recent (second!) donation. As you can imagine, it will help pay for these wind turbine repairs! Even though Cam does the repairs himself, the parts and various bits & pieces are not cheap! You’ll find the “TIP JAR” above on the right hand side of this page. Every bit helps and is most appreciated!
  • Many of you probably found this blog through our writing in Mother Earth News magazine. They’ve offered us a small commission for every Mother Earth News subscription that is purchased using our link; https://www.motherearthnews.com/store/Offer/EMEBGGAF. Mother Earth News magazine is one of our favourite magazines!
  • HAPPY THANKSGIVING to our Canadian readers! We’ll be celebrating here at Sunflower Farm with our family and lots of great food from our garden. We have so much to be thankful for!

If I’m Livin’ The Dream, Why Does It Feel Like a Nightmare?

The other day Michelle told me over breakfast about a Facebook post she’d seen. It was one of those canned generic things that people like to repost. It was a photo of a cabin in the woods. I paraphrase but it said something along the lines of  …”Livin’ off the grid … no electricity bills … growing your own food … sounds pretty good to me.”

And we started laughing. Not in a nasty way (I could have used ‘pejorative’ but frankly I overuse that darn word), just a kind of ‘ah yes, the dream vs reality’ view of the world.

This started a number of years ago when we had a friend over and we had just toured the garden during a drought (yes, another one) and he looked around at the garden that did indeed look petty awesome from all of our hard work and said, “You guys are livin’ the dream.”

So anytime anything goes wrong this has become our mantra, said in a very sarcastic tone, of course …” We’re just livin’ the dream!”  On the day that Michelle was describing this Facebook post about how great livin’ off-grid and growing your own food is, we had just had a storm with tornado warnings roll through. We’d experienced an unbelievable lightning storm which had trashed our wind turbine … yes, again! It was at breakfast too…prior to us heading out to the garden for our 237th consecutive day of 100°F heat and no rain dustbowl drought conditions (okay I exaggerated just a bit here, but not that much.)

Which brings me to the point of the blog …yes I do have a point. Michelle and I are ‘focus grouping’ the title of our next book, and by default, by reading this blog, you’re in the focus group. Thanks!

So this is the title for our new book … “If I’m Livin’ the Dream, How Comes It Feels Like a Nightmare?” subtitled something like “Dispatches and observations on two decades spent living off-the-grid, growing our own food, living far from the maddening crowd” … or something along these lines.

So what do you think? Am I correct that it has “BEST-SELLER” written all over it? And film rights with a big pay-day. With Ryan Reynolds playing me … or Ryan Gosling … doesn’t matter, they’re both Canadian eh.

I know what you’re thinking, that it sounds like a pretty negative title. I agree. It’s more to attract attention and bring a huge payday for us … so we can buy some hummers, bling, a private jet … you get my drift. Most of the time our life here has been awesome. But I can’t tell you the number of times I feel like just flopping on the couch in November and vegging in front of the TV and I realize we’ve had some cloudy days, so I have to go out and check the batteries to see how low they are and decide if I should run the generator or not. And then if I do have to run it how I have to get up and check it constantly. I don’t HAVE to check it constantly, but I do, because that’s just how I am.

Turns out there’s more to living this ‘low carbon’ lifestyle than meets the eye.

If anything I think it may be a bit refreshing for people to get some of that perspective. Yes, I have NO Electricity Bills! But I have spent way, WAY more on my solar and wind system in the last 20 years than anyone reading this blog has spent on their electricity bills. FACT: Generating and transmitting electricity is really complicated and expensive. It is in fact not a right, but a privilege, and when you spread all those generation and infrastructure costs across a whole society, your electricity bills are outrageously inexpensive for the value of the electricity you receive and how it improves the quality of your life. If you doubt this, take a second and think about the last extended power outage you had. No lights. No fridge or freezer. Or stove. Or washing machine. Or internet. Or NETFLIX! Yup, it’s pretty amazing stuff.

We published “Little House Off the Grid” more than 5 years ago, so by the time this new book is ready there will have been a reasonable hiatus for us to revisit what it’s like to live the way we do. Things change. Circumstances change. Life happens. Time to revisit the whole little adventure we’re on here in the woods.

So what do you think? Sound like something you’d want to read?

Better yet, what do you think of the title? Too negative? Too misleading if we end up writing that it’s awesome more than not? Such an awesome title that it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (thank you Dave Eggers for the best book title ever to slip in).

Please let us know. Feel free to post below or send me an email at cam mather…with no space… at gmail.com. (Hopefully the evil internet robots won’t figure that out.)

Thanks in advance!

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).

Version 2

Version 2

Version 2

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

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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 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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