It’s been a hectic year. Very hectic. Hectic to the point I began to get that dizzy ‘got my sea legs and now I’m back on land’ dizziness – only I’ve not been on a boat. I’ve not stopped moving for months – and we’ve ‘downsized’!
This post came to mind after we had a bout of ‘off farm’ company – that is to say friends from the city, not family. and friends of the hubby I’ve never met. I’ve always ‘hesitated’ (and that’s putting it mildly) to welcome anybody but family to come and hang out. For one thing the work load around here dictates that there’s barely any time to sit and visit to start with, then there’s the ‘town jobs’ that take us away for most of the week, and company….including family….means more work – for no other reason than that’s how we live – is different. Awkward. Convoluted.
Now the guest cabin (which is more finished than our house) is open to anybody who wants to visit. There is electric heat in there, or a small wood stove if someone wants to ‘rough it’. There is a water system, but we leave it dry unless someone is intending to stay for a lengthy period of time. So if one wants to come visit – I tell them to think ‘camping’. Cooking is done on the cookstove or the outside fire, showering involves a fight with our failing jet pump – usually necessitating turning the thing off half way through the shower and waiting for the pump to catch up. I tell everyone to bring the grubbiest clothing they own, and have extra boots to hand out that are built for mud. Bring bottled water (ours is so full of mineral we use it for everything but drinking). Bring anything and everything you like to ‘snack’ on – nowhere in this house is any processed anything to graze on – no chips, crackers, cookies, dip, dry cereal, junk food. If you want food, you have to make it. If you don’t want to drink raw milk, bring milk.
In short – I can never imagine anyone having a great time here, and I worry obsessively about it. Really, they’re stuck having to go with the flow – it’s not like we can stop doing chores, or stop milking…. or stop canning, freezing, etc. etc. I tell them to be prepared for the raven (who is housed next to the cabin and shares a wall) to natter and talk all night – especially if you accidentally leave the light on. He also likes to spend time picking things up and dropping them, or simply bang on the shared wall. I tell them the geese and ducks will probably beak off throughout the night, the horses will snort, the dogs will likely bark, or howl, especially if there are coyotes in the yard, or moose, or bear, or the odd errant cougar. And yes – the roosters will start crowing at an ungodly hour – because they can. It’s a wonder they get any sleep.
Then there’s me. I’m not even remotely considered to be sociable. A people person? Nope. If you dropped me in the middle of the mountains, I’d be just fine thank you. So….I always suffer a bout of serious anxiety before ‘company’ arrives. It’s daft really, it’s not like I’m incapable of being welcoming and sociable, chatty, funny, interested in what people have to say – all of that, is a piece of cake. It just doesn’t come naturally to me – unlike Bruce, who can make a friend in ten seconds flat and can talk until he runs out of breath 🙂
Well – after all that nonsense, both of our non-family guests came, we had some great conversations, they fit in like they’d been here a dozen times already, and created ZERO extra work! So all that anxiety for nothing!
Ultimately – having guests was a good thing. I was forced/had a chance to just SIT. I’m not much good at sitting. I get twitchy. I think of all the things I could/should be doing. Sigh. Regardless – I got to see things from a different perspective. One of my guests, who wants to someday find a piece of property and live ‘off grid’, asked some questions – that got me to thinking of all the things we started out wanting to do, tried to do, still do or don’t do, in our quest to live like we live. This train of thought got me to thinking of the big question: ‘If you had a DO-OVER – what would you do different?’ This year, being particularly lunatic busy, had me wondering – wee hours into the night – why is it do we get busier and busier, have to work harder and harder, to accomplish what we want to accomplish – especially when we’ve downsized?
I don’t think a week went by this year, where I didn’t have to stop and tell myself “This is what you’ve always wanted!” Isn’t it? What would/could/should I have done different? Here goes…..
LAND: Land, property – whatever you want to call it. I would want more. Much more. Entering into this farming/homesteading adventure, we bought what we could buy, and honestly I never gave a thought to how much land was enough other than I was hoping I didn’t have to look at the neighbours. I had no thoughts as to grazing, livestock, crops – and it never crossed my mind that one day we would have a milk cow, or horses…..in short – we don’t have enough land. Ten acres, half of which is in bush, is not enough to support three horses and a cow and a calf. One must have a ready and constant access to hay year round. This creates more WORK, more expense – sourcing hay, hauling hay, storing hay. We need premium hay for the dairy cow and the thoroughbred. We need different hay for the drafts who gain weight at the blink of an eye. We have to rely on local farmers and pay what they want to be paid, we are subject to the good hay year/bad hay year weather in terms of what the farmer has for sale…..more land would mean more months of grazing, more land would mean we could grow our own hay. We could green manure, cover crop – keep the weeds down.
DIRT: I never gave any consideration to dirt – until we discovered we are parked on about two feet of actual root infested, weed seed infested, grass infested dirt and about a billion feet of clay. Solid, full of micro fossils, miserable, water holding or hard pan depending on the season – clay. This year – the garden beds needed a ‘top up’. Despite all the used hay, manure and so on that we load into the garden beds every year, we needed dirt. We bought dirt. Sixty bucks a pick-up load. Unbelievable. If I had a do-over I would bring a shovel and dig down and see how much actual dirt existed. So although we can now grow enough vegetables to get us through the year – I would like to grow so much more – and I’m limited to what I can fit into half a dozen large garden beds. It’s not enough. My potato patch, which is planted in the only hard fought for patch of actual dirt reclaimed from encroaching bush – also grows a bumper crop of pig weed, bind weed (hate that stuff), thistle, dead nettles…….every year I fight to give the potatoes enough room to grow. A few years ago we built a new bed that we fill with hay to plant potatoes in. Much success – and I see yet another garden bed for potatoes in my future.
WOOD: This of course ties into land. If you heat and cook solely with wood as we do – then you need a whole lot of it. Generally, we go through ten cords of wood in a year – we also live in a climate that can drop to forty below in the winter, though it hasn’t got there in the last few years. We have no wood on our property. Yes we have five acres of trees – third growth poplar and swamp willow mostly – and some big firs that one wouldn’t cut down as they aren’t dead. Wood was cheap to buy when we got here twelve years ago – the beetle kill issue dictated that clear cutting was the norm – trying vainly to stop the spread. One could buy a logging truck load of pine for six hundred bucks (about twenty cords), and have it delivered. Now, you can’t pay any amount of money for a logging truck load of pine – the pine coming out of the bush now is being bought up by the pulp mills. I could pay sixteen hundred bucks for a logging truck load of birch – that might be dry enough to burn next year…..but that’s an obscene price, and I don’t want to exclusively burn birch. The past several years we’ve been buying/trading for our firewood from those hard working guys that go up and cut it down and cut it up and haul it to your house in their pick up trucks. Not as cheap as I would like, but when you need wood……this year – I put my foot down. Not only has a a cord of wood become worth twice what I can reasonably pay, it’s almost impossible to find somebody who’s willing to reliably bring you the wood you need early enough in the season for it to dry. So this year….we decided to go get our own wood. (More on that later). Point is – if we had a sizeable chunk of land – we could harvest our own wood off our own land, and have the horses haul it out.
LIVESTOCK: Not for anything would I ever get into the ‘production’ business of gate to plate livestock rearing. Farming for a living – it’s a ‘go big or go home’ prospect. I could rant on for hours about this, but I won’t. The reality of it is, unless you can operate on a large scale, there’s not enough money to be made to cover anything other than the basic costs of rearing the (meat birds, pigs, goats….) and you never, ever, get paid for your labour. I know there are people out there that have found that magic formula for success – but where I live, I don’t think it can be done. Aside from the fact that the government stepped in years ago and dictated that it’s illegal to sell anything gate to plate that started life on your farm with a heartbeat (everything must go through a slaughterhouse), there’s the issue of the customer – who no matter how you explain it (why should I have to explain it?) doesn’t understand that quality, organic, food -is worth more money. Yes – we had customers who were more than happy to pay any amount of money to have our chicken, turkey, goats, pigs – in their freezer. But there were just as many customers who would try and ‘dicker’ the price, who deep down, figured they were doing you a favour, buying your product – who figured it should be the same price or cheaper than in the store. The last time I put the price of our eggs up – I lost over half of my customers (and my eggs are by no means the most expensive around). Years ago, I might have backed off on the price increase – this time I simply ordered fewer layers. I’m at a point where I’m sticking to my guns on this, and if I end up with only enough eggs to supply my own house, then so be it. This is also the last year I will sell any pork off this farm. Generally we raise two and sell one (we’ve long since gotten out of the ‘production pork’ business), and this year – I cut into a ham to see that despite the inspector standing right there at the slaughterhouse, something went amok in the slaughter process. The ham (and the roast I did the other night) are full of blood spots. That pig did not get bled out properly/in a timely fashion/ was stressed – I’m not sure. Yes – it’s still edible – but even I, with my cast iron stomach, with my ability to drink coffee at work that I’ve stirred with a handy wrench, I who can boil up a pig head for head cheese and not blink – found myself staring at that ham on my plate and wanting to slide it into the trash or pitch it straight to the dogs. I am hoping against hope – that the customer who paid us a dear price for that ‘home raised organic pork’ did not get any of that particular pig. I’m not holding my breath, I am expecting a phone call, I am expecting to have to give his money back. I’m actually so angry about this, I haven’t even called the slaughterhouse. I need to calm down before I call, I need to be able to think clearly. I also know – he will do nothing for us – I will get the standard run of the mill nonsense about how he didn’t do anything different than he did last year….yada yada yada. Moving on.
HOUSING: What can I say other than ‘if I knew then what I know now’….. I am not a careless person – but as a testament to my level of ‘property hunting fatigue’ twelve years ago, buying a place with a falling down house and the naiive idea that it wouldn’t take much to fix it up – wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve done. To this day, this house is a ‘two steps forward, ten steps back’ project. Despite the forward progress of getting the new windows in last year, this year brings a new problem – the middle of the house has dropped. As in – two, maybe three inches, dropped. Something has run amok with the foundation (sigh) and will necessitate cutting the floor up somewhere (likely in the unfinished bathroom) and crawling into the crawl space with any number of blocks, jacks, and whatever else, to jack the damn floor back up. My do over? I should have thrown a match at the place on day one – bought a travel trailer to live in and tried not to freeze to death in it that first winter while we figured out where/how to build a proper house. A straight house. A square house. Would it be a finished house today? What with the barn building, shed building, pole barn building, fence building….probably not. Still – it would a project where one could move forward – not a forwards/backwards/forwards/backwards complete standstill project.
WATER: I would buy a place with water. A river, stream, moving water of some sort. It matters little how water frugal one is, without water you are immediately limited in everything you do. Gardening, livestock, washing clothes, dishes, whatever……having to pay to have water delivered, made me the most water frugal person on the planet. Of course we have a well now – at about four hundred feet. Note to self: ask around next time and find out how deep does one have to drill to find water. The water system, the sewer/lagoon system – by far the most expensive thing we’ve done here. Am I interested in spending that kind of money again? No. If the place doesn’t already have a functioning water/sewer system in place – then it best have water running past the place in some form. Year round. I’d rather walk down to the river with a bucket ten times a day, than borrow a whopping pile of money and stress myself to death hoping the driller hits water before there’s no more money to drill. Hard lesson to learn, but not one I’ll forget.
HYDRO: My war with being hooked up to the grid has never really ended. All those years ago I had this ridiculous idea that I could ‘cut the cord’ and do without it. Simple, I thought. Not so much. The reality of it is, everything on this farm needs heat, or lights. Chickens aren’t going to lay eggs in the long dark days of winter, baby anything isn’t going to make it if you don’t have a heat lamp or two on the go. Unless you want to chop frozen buckets all winter – you need water heaters. Yes, over the years we have gotten smarter about the time of year things are born – still there’s no avoiding winter and the need for hydro. Then there’s the house. Those of you who follow this blog know I have no electric stove, washer, dryer, microwave, furnace…. I’m sitting here right now on my laptop – no lights on as it’s daytime. Is it peacefully hydro free? Nope. I have three freezers chugging up hydro at the moment. One behemoth full of pork and beef, one smaller full of chickens and vegetables, one smaller yet full of butter and cheese. I can also hear the fridge running – one needs a fridge for milk, eggs, food. Now of course there are ways to mitigate the use of freezers – I could, for example – process all the meat we raise into jars. I could. If I didn’t work off farm, if I wanted all of my meat to taste like canned meat in a jar. I could can all the vegetables into jars and learn to love mushy vegetables. I could develop a taste for fermented butter, or I could spend my free time turning the butter into shelf stable ghee. I could spend more cheese making time, making shelf stable cheese cave aged cheeses. I could keep trying to talk Bruce into boxing in the old fridge and insulating it and turning it into an old fashioned ice box (sure honey – that’s what we want to do – start having to buy ice). I don’t know how that man puts up with me. I could go back to boiling water on the stove for a bath instead of getting it from a hot water tank…… I’m not sure on the ‘do over’ for hydro – but I do know, it’s goes back to the ‘land’ issue. Different land/dirt where I could dig a root cellar without having it fill with ground water would be a start. It all boils down to the fact that if you want to store food – you are going to need hydro. I’m sure there’s an ‘Amish’ way around almost any food storage issue – but until I can stay home and devote my time to that style of living (if you want a chicken for dinner go to the barn and get a chicken), then I will continue to have my quiet war with the hydro company.
CLIMATE ZONE: I’ve always had a thing for the North. When I decided it was time for a move, time to get out of the city and into the country, I could have moved in any direction – but in my mind anyway, there was no direction other than North. I moved from a Zone 5, where one could grow most anything most year round, to Zone 3 – we’re lucky to have a frost free month among our ’90 frost free days’ growing season. In my future? A bigger greenhouse. All the root vegetable success in the world does not make up for the ‘grow a tomato’ fight, the bolting spinach, the ‘no point in succession planting’ season I have here. Would a ‘do over’ have me living further South? Probably not – but there’s something to be said for a proper growing season. North also means, climate change or not – snow. Some snow, a whole lot of snow – either way, the driveway needs to be plowed, the trails to the barns need to be shovelled, and you’re at the mercy of the timing of spring weather to uncover the garden beds. I sometimes think our whole year revolves around ‘getting ready for winter’. The cold. Bruce thrives in the winter – he owns (as he call them) summer long johns, winter long johns, really cold winter lined long johns. Quilted coveralls. Summer toque, winter toque. There is nothing that puts a smile on that man’s face like a nice forty below three feet of snow bright winter blue sky sun shiny day in February. Me? I can live with that kind of cold….to a point. I don’t spend a lot of time outside in it, rather I tend to enjoy the fact that with the cookstove roaring away full time I can bake bread, always have a soup simmering, whip up any number of batches of cheese, do some catch up canning of beef stock. It’s the dark that gets me. The short short days of winter in the North. Go to work in the dark – stand in my windowless room at work, come home in the dark. Every year that passes I find it harder to deal with the dark. If a ‘do over’ found me any further South than I am now – it would be for the longer daylight hours, and a longer growing season. The advantages of being in the North? You don’t need to irrigate to grow crops, you don’t need air conditioning to sleep at night. 🙂
Next Post? Do-over part 2: Homesteading Harder.