Saturday, January 31, 2009

I only have eyes... for you.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mary, Mary quite contrary...

How does your garden grow? I've been giving a lot of thought to this question lately. Well, not about Mary’s garden but my own.

With the farm asleep under a thick blanket of snow, the holiday season behind us and spring ahead of us, we've fallen into a comfortable routine of farm chores: ploughing snow, taking care of animals (poop, scoop, repeat) and tending to the wood furnace.

Since we've found ourselves in something of a mid-winter lull (or is it the eye of the storm perhaps? I’m not sure) I thought it was a good time to start putting plans together for spring.

And I've got to admit – it’s got me feeling a bit overwhelmed (though spending too much time in the planning stage has never served me very well. Let's just say I could be the poster child for the the expression, "Get out of your head and into your life.")

For anyone who’s been reading since the beginning, yes, it doesn't take much for me to get feeling overwhelmed. And for those of you thinking to yourself, “For goodness sake’s girl, stop worrying so much and go plant yourself a tomato,” you’re probably right.

But here’s the thing. While I've always loved poking around in the dirt, our backyard at our house in the burbs was all shade. Any vegetables I started from seed (some tomatoes and herbs, I think a bean plant or two) were stuck in pots and shuffled around to chase the meagre rays of dappled sunlight.

While it’s possible to cultivate amazing container gardens, my veggies never did very well (my shade garden was quite lovely though, filled with hostas and bleeding hearts, impatiens, hydrangeas and bee balm.)

At the farm, the sky is truly the limit and I’m faced with loads of decisions and choices – heirloom seeds versus hybrids, early, mid or late season varieties (or all three), what veggies should I plant with which flowers, how should I configure my beds and when will I ever find the time to figure out a drip irrigation system fed by rain barrels?

You might argue, that’s just logistics. And technically, it is. But that’s not so apparent once you’ve made cultivating a garden much more significant that just poking around in the dirt and growing for the sheer pleasure of it.

With all this talk of climate change, peak oil, long food miles, tainted produce and food recalls, factory farming, GMOs, not to mention the words “global economic downturn,” I’ve decided that becoming more self-reliant isn’t simply a lifestyle choice – it’s a necessity.

Now do you see where the “overwhelmed” part comes in?

I'm looking to make the “right” decisions and "optimize my prospects for success". (Remember, recovering type-A personality here.) And yet with each gardening book, magazine and seed catalogue I read, I find myself getting worked up into a bigger and bigger tizzy.

Then just this morning, I read this passage in the book, “Crockett’s Victory Garden”:

“There is no mystery about gardening, just the wondrous fact that seed time and harvest occur each year, generation after generation, wherever the soil is tilled.

If gardeners do their part, they can confidently expect the miracle to continue as it has through all time.”

What a lovely, simple message: it’s about gardeners doing their part.

What I like about this passage is that it appeals to the activist in me -- do your part for the cause (think Victory Gardens from the war years) -- but it’s also about just doing your part in the garden. Show up, start small, revell in the successes and learn, graciously, from the mistakes.

That's what I got out of it, at least.

Now if you'll excuse me, I’m off to go find a seed catalogue and write me a veggie wish list for this year’s garden. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it, all in the name of doing one's part.

In the meantime, if anyone would like to share their experiences with their first veggie garden, I'd love to hear all about it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Blogging at GRIT

Just a quick note to let you know that I'm now blogging at Once a week, I'll be writing about our latest adventures here on the farm.

I'm really excited about it and I'm actually pretty humbled too -- that someone there thinks we've got a story worth sharing.

(I hope I haven't come off like a braggart or anything as I'm quite new at this self-promotion thing. I'm generally terrible at publicizing my work even though it's not a very useful quality when you freelance for a living.)

If you haven't discovered GRIT already, I highly recommend it -- online or in print. You'll find tons of amazing stuff on everything related to rural living and simply celebrating country life.

And as you can see by the above screen shot, the folks there obviously have impeccable taste on what it takes to be a great "cover model."

Yep, that's our Henry!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Christmas in January

Okay, I know it's not really Christmas in January. I was going to write, "Christmas revisited" but since we've already revisited pumpkins this week, that didn't sound too original.

I'm the first person to preach, I mean say, that Christmas isn't about gifts -- it's about spending time with family, friends and appreciating all the good in your life.

But I gotta say, I got some pretty neat stuff for the farm this year.

My dad and step-mother gave me this basket.

It's a twin-bottomed egg basket, also known as a "gizzard," a "butt" or a "hip." You can guess which name my kids use to describe it.

According to the artist who handcrafted it, it's most commonly used for gathering, storing and transporting eggs as the depressed centre is useful for carrying the basket on the hip or on the backbone of a horse or mule.

While we own both of these animals (well, two donkeys rather than a mule, which is the offspring of a horse and a donkey) truth be told, I'm not sure if I'd risk carrying eggs on either one of them... crazy creatures, they be.

But I know someone else who is more than willing to step up to the job.

I highly recommend checking out the artist's other work at -- it's gorgeous stuff, that. (Yes, the picture in the top right-hand corner is one of my daughter collecting eggs. And yes, she's wearing her pyjamas.)

My dad and step-mother also gave me this. It's a rather unflattering picture of a U-bar digger or broad fork.

It's used to loosen beds at the beginning of the garden season. Since mine will be an organic vegetable garden, it's all about deep soil preparation. I mean, who knew that happy carrot roots burrow deeper than six feet underground?

With its 10" tines, it digs down deep but without disturbing the soil strata. Studies have shown that turning the soil over completely can cause soil compaction, upset the balance of microorganisms and causes layers of organic matter to be buried too deep, below where beneficial insects can break it down.

I could use a rototiller and perhaps I'll resort to that if I'm faced with hours of back-breaking work wrestling with stubborn soil. But there's something appealing, even intimate, to working the soil by hand and leaving the fossil fuel-burning, noise-belching machinery in the garage.

Check back in the spring to see this bad-boy in action.

My brother-in-law gave me this -- an antique spinning wheel.

I've got this romantic notion of one day raising sheep for their wool (though the owner of the "local" knitting shop -- it's a few villages east of here -- is trying to talk me into raising alpacas.)

I think we've got our hands full right now with the goats, donkeys and horse but one day, I hope to see woolies munching their way through our barnyard.

In the meantime, I'll practice my knitting (I'm great at hats, scarves and basic sweaters using simple stitches-- gloves, socks and cabling, not so much) while I try to find someone who can teach me spinning.

And last, but never least, Lucas gave me this.

He lovingly and carefully carved it by hand -- giving new life to an old post that might otherwise been cast away. It's meant to be out in the garden but I've placed it beside an armoire in the living room. It exudes wisdom and timeless contemplation, two qualities that are desperately needed in this crazy world of ours.

The common theme of these gifts that I hold dear is they were all made by hand or facilitate work by hand. In these days of mechanization and mass production, I find there is something satisfying with going back to the basics and simply experiencing the world through one's fingertips.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We're in business

Big news here at Rowangarth Farm. We are now officially egg sellers.

Three separate families have placed a standing order for eggs, totalling four dozen each week. At $2.50 a dozen it won't make us rich but at least the girls are paying for their room and board now. (Besides, I plan on selling them for $3.00 a dozen at market.)

I'm pretty jazzed about this. Maybe it's because other families -- not just us -- are placing a value on local farm-fresh food, which is at the heart of what we're trying to do out here.

Or maybe it's because this shows we can make some money doing what we love to do.

Then again, maybe it's because I'm just proud our girls produce such damn fine eggs. My son thinks so too.

Pumpkins revisited

I've had a couple of people ask me for the recipe for my pumpkin soup, so here it is. This probably makes about eight servings.

4 tbsp butter
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 (or more) cloves of garlic, minced
6 cups of roasted pumpkin
5 cups of vegetable stock (or chicken, for you poultry eaters out there)
2 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy (35%) cream
Cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes, to taste
2 tsp (give or take) curry powder
1/2 tsp (give or take) ground coriander
Brown sugar, to taste (maybe 1/4 cup?)
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Melt butter in a soup pot, add onions and garlic. Cook on medium until soft.
2. Add roasted pumpkin and stock. Bring to a slow boil and reduce heat. Simmer for about 15 minutes.
3. Puree the soup (you could do this in batches in a blender or use an immersion/hand blender like I did.)
4. Add remaining ingredients (milk, cream, spices etc.) Simmer for a few more minutes to let the flavours mingle and the spices to intensify.
5. Taste. Add more spice if you like it hot or add more cream and/or brown sugar to cool it off.
6. Enjoy!

This is just a basic guideline. Have fun and adjust the ingredients to your liking.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Our one-mile supper

Last night, I had a hankering for some comfort food. I was feeling a bit worn down from the cold and I needed something that would fill my belly and comfort my winter weary soul (how's that for melodrama?)

So, I made some soup. Pumpkin soup -- all thick and creamy, with a hint of curry spice.

I know this is rather insipid looking but you gotta believe me this soup is actually the most gorgeous orange colour. As as aside: I have a whole new appreciation for magazine food stylists.

The neat thing was the pumpkin I used didn't come from a can, but from our garden.... last October. We harvested several pumpkins in the fall and put them in the garage where they've been parked ever since. How's that for a shelf life?

We didn't even grow the thing. Pumpkins were the only produce we could salvage from the overgrown vegetable patch that we inherited.

I hollowed out one of the smaller ones (saving the seeds for this year), roasted it and cooked it up with some onions, garlic, vegetable stock, milk and cream plus some curry, cardamon and cayenne spices. I even used our kitchen wood stove for cooking.

While the soup was bubbling and the flavours were mingling, I baked a couple of loaves of crusty french bread (the only white bread we have in the house -- we're more a pumpernickel/rye/whole wheat kinda family) and served it with some butter from the local creamery.

It was delicious. Full of flavour and vitamin-packed freshness and not a chemical or preservative in sight. I even made enough to freeze for a future meal or two.

I could get used to eating locally. It makes this self-sufficient lifestyle truly full-filling..

Friday, January 16, 2009

Baby, it's cold... no it's *#@%ing freezing outside

According to the weatherman, we're in a deep freeze here in eastern Ontario.

No bloody kidding.

I snapped this photo on the way out to the barn this morning. The thermometer read minus 28 degrees Celsius, and the morning sun had already done some warming up.

It's a wonder I made it past the front door.

Actually, it's a wonder I got up at all. Getting me out of bed this morning, where I was snugly cocooned in flannel sheets and wool blankets, was like trying to convince Cinderella to get her head out of the grain bucket: it took a lot of convincing to get that ass moving.

It's been bitterly cold and I think we're all starting to get a bit stressed out around here. I'm worried about the equines especially, who greeted me this morning with snowy eyelashes, muzzles covered with icicle shards and hooves balled up with ice, which is both dangerous and damned uncomfortable.

Everyone is hungry, all the time, and it's causing a bit of drama in the barnyard. Even Lucy, who's usually quite mannerly when it's time to hand out the rations, ploughed into me this morning like some rabid were-goat.

The only one who seems deliriously happy about the weather is Henry. Then again, he's deliriously happy about just being outside, though he's not too keen on getting ice balled between the pads of his paws.

While we haven't any any problems with our pipes freezing (yet?) our wood furnace has an insatiable appetite and we're burning through wood faster than expected. We're supplementing with our kitchen wood stove which is both practical and downright therapeutic.

Now I admit, I'm usually pretty grumpy this time of year. I totally get the whole hibernation thing: I feel myself slowing down, getting tired more easily and succumbing to morose thoughts (so if I disappear for a few days - or a week - please bear with me.)

But we're safe and warm, unlike so many others in this world. When I think of all the people on the streets right now, I'm instantly humbled.

So suck it up, girlfriend, and just get on with it.

I've got a job to do outside and as hard as it is to get moving, there's an almost masochistic sense of satisfaction that yes, when I inhale the insides of my nostrils may feel like they're filled with shards of glass, my bare hands burned (yes, burned, I tell you!) when I grabbed the metal handles of two water buckets this morning and despite taking 10 minutes to get dressed I still have frozen toes when I come back inside, but the animals are fed, the water is defrosted and we haven't lost a chicken yet.

Not a great picture, but my camera battery gave out. I think it was trying to tell me something, like, 'Stop taking pictures and get the hell back inside!"

Of course, the good news is, this cold snap won't last forever. It's supposed to warm up next week to negative single digits. Compared to this nonsense, it'll feel almost tropical. (It's funny how relativity works like that: it's always about 15 degrees warmer inside the barn than out, so when I'm tending to the goats and chickens, it feels positively balmy.)

And come spring, when the bugs are swarming, the sump pump is working around the clock and the poop is gooshy and smelly, I'm sure I'll look back on this stretch of winter with the feeling that it wasn't really that bad.

Then again, maybe I'll just start planning my garden. A seed catalogue and a cup a tea makes the perfect antidote to the winter blues, any day.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Bright lights, big city

Image courtesy of

I'm off to the big city tomorrow. It's my first weekend away since we moved here. That's not entirely true -- I've left the farm to visit family and friends but I've always had the kids with me.

But this time I'm going solo. And I'm really looking forward to it.

Don't get me wrong -- I truly love this place. But I'm spending the weekend with some girlfriends who I've known since God was a boy. I went to grade school with three of them, and junior kindergarten with one of them.

What amazes me most is that regardless of the different paths life has take us and all the moves, jobs, marriages, births, illnesses and stresses we've collectively gone through, we've stayed friends. I guess you just can't replace that kind of history.

There's only one downside: I've got to head into the Big Smoke to see them. And I'm pretty grumpy about it.

I know, I know -- Toronto is one of the most multicultural places in the world, it's a place of opportunity, a leading economic centre and home to an amazing array museums, schools, diverse neighbourhoods -- I know the spiel firsthand. I spent my first 17 years living there (and another two years in my twenties when I went back to school.)

But now I find there's too many cars/people/shops/houses/noises/smells/messes/stresses.

Just Too Much.

So how did this city girl go all country? To be honest, I'm still trying to figure that out. (I think my dad is too.) But for one thing, I know I've always been passionate about wide open spaces and the outdoors.

And I've got the artwork to prove it.

Just before our move, I found this undated poem. Given the meticulous writing, I'm assuming it was in primary school, perhaps grade five or six, before my handwriting went completely to hell and morphed into the scrawling mess it is now.

If you can't read, it goes like this:

I said in my heart, "I can't stand the indoors. I need some freedom to run and play. I'm going outside where the leaves are deep and feel the cold breeze on my face all day." Summer is gone and fall is here. The leaves are falling to the ground. Children are out to romp in the sun. It's the best time of year around. The End. By Fiona C."

I'm the first to admit it's a good thing I left my poetry to my grade school self but the essential sentiments, about the outdoors and freedom, remain true to this day.

As adults, I think we've got to remember the things that made us really happy as kids. I mean that blissful, fully-present-in-the-moment, absolutely-exuberant kind of happy. And yet it's too easy to forget what was once important. I know I almost did.

After university (the first time), armed with a degree in international development and history (a major and minor, both of which I loved), I wasn't sure what to do next. But the boy I was completely enamoured with at the time (and still am) knew he wanted to go back to college. So I said since I wasn't sure I was ready to join CUSO or go gallivanting overseas just now, if he went to school, I'd work.

A friend of ours heard that I was looking for a good paying job and his firm was hiring. So I applied and got my first real job. I even had a fancy title: Tax Group Coordinator.

Yep, I worked in an accounting firm where the stereotypes were all true. It lasted three months. Looking back, I'm surprised I made it that long.

One day I was kvetching to a friend, the one that I've known since kindergarten, about my miserable dilemma and she said that if I was serious about quitting, her firm was hiring. It'd be a two hour commute, each way (one hour drive, one hour train) but it was good pay and great opportunity. Plus, we'd get to work together.

I applied and got my second real job, this time as an assistant at a investment firm. Can't you just picture it? Nylon stockings, heels, suits -- the works. I looked all grown-up. I figured I was well on my way to becoming a capital "P" professional. And I was good at my job. So much so that within six months the biggest producer (= most successful advisor) in the branch wanted me on his team.

Here I go, I thought -- I'm moving up. This is the way it's supposed to be, right?

I lasted an entire year with him-- and again, I can't believe I made it that long. Even then, fresh out of university, I knew something was wrong when the person I worked for had a picture of his house on his desk instead of his family. He'd brag about his $4,000 suits and tailor-made dress shirts and yet he'd asked me to lie to his kids when they called and asked when daddy was coming home.

Then one night, after working late again, I had to take a bus part way home as the trains were no longer running. I started talking with the man sitting next to me. He was young (probably early 30s), immaculately dressed and a corporate lawyer with one of the big Bay Street firms.

He was a capital "P" professional with the wife and two kids, a designer house with a matching designer dog -- and he was absolutely miserable. He told me he hated his job -- the long hours, how different the practice of law was from the theory, how cut-throat and competitive it all was -- but he was trapped by "golden handcuffs," he said. That was the first time I'd heard that phrase and I remember thinking, I never want to be like that.

Then along came an opportunity to move to another branch, closer to home, with an advisor who I really liked and respected. He had a great sense of humour, he was fun and he believed in a good work-life balance. It meant I'd no longer get to work with my kindergarten bud -- the one part of my job that I loved -- but it was a chance at happiness I couldn't pass up. I thought maybe working for a better boss would be the difference and that I could make this "good" life work for me.

So I moved to the new branch, worked closer to home (by then, we'd gotten married, that boy and I, and we decided to split the commute) and I met some new fabulous girlfriends. I'd take walks by the lake at lunchtime or on rainy days, I'd visit the library. My boss, an Ironman finisher several times over, even inspired me to take up running.

And yet, I was still miserable. I couldn't shake the feeling that this was it, this is what I'd be doing the rest of my life? I had a great boss, a "good" job with a bright future (I'd just been offered a big raise and a promotion) and yet it wasn't enough. Not for me.

Now, I'm not trying to trash the world I worked in. I have many dear friends in the investment business who are lovely people, good citizens and all that, and they're still very, very good at their jobs. It's just I couldn't find my happiness there. And when you spend 50 hours a week (or more) in a place, it was too high a price for me to pay.

"You can do anything," my boss would always tell me.

So, I quit. And this time, it was my turn to go back to school. Journalism school, of all things. I'd always love to learn, to read and to write. I joked I had the attention span of a gnat and that I could never commit to a single profession because I was interested in too many things. Writing gave me a chance to explore my world and perhaps bring a deeper understanding to my place in it.

I replaced a secure job, good pay, great benefits and a bright future to with a freelance writing life characterized by insecurity, poor pay, no benefits and an uncertain future. (Hmm, seeing the cold hard truth of my decision, I can't believe Lucas didn't try and shake some sense into me. But he didn't, and I thank him for it.)

If you met me for the first time today, you'd never dream that I'd once been climbing the corporate ladder. The only clue is that I still do some writing for business publications (but more often than not, there's some kind of 'green' slant to them.)

I've traded my heels for wellie boots and my suits for smelly coveralls. I still go for walks at lunchtime but the destination has become the barn, not the lake or library. And my benefits and bonuses are no longer monetary -- but I've been able to stay home with our kids. I'd trade dental coverage for that privilege any day.

The neat thing is, once you leave "security" for "insecurity", any subsequent exits -- like when Lucas quit his job and went freelance too -- seem a little less scary. I think that's partly why we're here today.

So while this is by no means the first time that I've gone back to the big city since I left at 17, it's the first time I've been back since we moved to the farm.

It's a chance to come full circle, to go back to the place where I came from that was once home, spend 24 hours with a group of ladies that I love and say goodbye to it at the end of the weekend.

For I know by the time Sunday afternoon comes, I'll be sorely missing not just my kids, but the clear skies, the fresh air, the wide open spaces and the freedom of the countryside.

And when you ache to return to a place, you know that place has become home.

So to quote John Denver, who's much better at poetry than I ever was:

Well I wouldn’t trade my life for diamonds and jewels
I never was one of them money hungry fools
I'd rather have my fiddle and my farmin’ tools
Thank God I’m a country boy

Yeah, city folk drivin’ in a black limousine
A lotta sad people thinkin’ that’s mighty keen
Son, let me tell ya now exactly what I mean
Thank God I’m a country boy

Thank god, I'm a country girl!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Power's out and there's a flood in the barn. What do you mean, there's no coffee?

When I think back on the holiday season, I'm faced with blurred visions of of hosting, visiting, cooking, baking, eating, driving, playing, couching, relaxing and celebrating. Apparently, we still have to work on our idea of simple celebrations.

That's not to say we didn't enjoy our first Christmas at Rowangarth farm. We did. My dad and step-mother even came to spend the 25th and 26th with us and we toasted the first of many years of traditions here on the farm.

On the 27th, we woke up first thing in the morning, fed, mucked and bedded all the animals and then drove four hours west to spend the day with Lucas' family -- his mum and dad, brother and his wife and their two daughters, who are close in age to our kids.

A great friend of ours, a self-affirmed city mouse, agreed to stay at the farm so that he could keep an eye on things while we were gone for the day. It's not easy to get away when there's a wood furnace and animals to feed but we knew the farm was in good hands while we were off visiting.

Unfortunately, the weather turned pretty ugly during our return trip home. We left around 8:00 pm and by about 11:00 that night, we were driving in and out of a thick, thick fog. While Lucas found it somewhat mesmerizing, like driving through clouds, I found it eerie and at times, downright scary.

By the time we were about 30 minutes from home, I was a stressed-out bundle of over-anxious nerves. The rational side of me said that we should pull over and wait out the fog but the emotional (and louder) side of me screamed that I just wanted to get home to the farm. Now.

Lucas was driving, thank goodness, though more than once I tried peddling the brake from my side of the truck. He took it safely, slowly and by about 12:30 am, we were safely ensconced in our driveway.

Everyone behaved while we were gone, our friend assured us. Relieved, we transferred the sleeping kids from the truck to their beds and by around 1:30 am, I too tumbled into bed, exhausted but happy.

Given the fact that I rarely stay up later than 10:00 pm anymore, I felt it necessary (and in everyone else's best interests) to have a bit of a lie-in the next morning. Lucas had given the animals a hay top-up when we got home so I didn't feel too badly about staggering out to the barn at 9:30 in the morning. I reasoned that although I was late, I did make an appearance before I had a chance to savour my first morning coffee.

By the time I made my way through the soggy, sloppy, poopy mess that had become our barnyard (apparently, with the thick fog came rain and lots of it) and rounded the corner of the first run-in, I noticed that stall light that was just on had suddenly gone out.

That's weird, I thought -- we'd just put in new CFLs. I figured that we'd gotten a bum bulb (it's happened before) so I didn't think much of it.

Then when I slid the main barn door open, I noticed there was no music coming from the radio that I usually leave on for the animals. Again strange, but perhaps our friend had turned it off.

I flicked on the light over the goat pens. Nothing. Then the hall light. Nothing again. I even tried the light in the chicken pen (remember, I hadn't had my coffee yet) before I finally realized that perhaps something wasn't quite right.

But even in the grey light of morning, I noticed what looked like a dark, irregular-shaped shadow cast on the shavings on the far side of the chicken pen. The girls were squawking louder than usual, crowding up to the pen door like a bunch of crazed paparazzi. I stepped inside, knelt down and felt the shavings: they were wet. Soaked, actually. We'd had a leak in the barn.

I simply did not feel up to dealing with this without at least a cup of my fair trade, organic coffee and a piece of homemade toast. I decided to quickly feed and water everybody and then head back to the house for some sustenance.

By then, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The grey but balmy (relatively speaking) morning had been replaced by menacing clouds and the wind had picked up something fierce.

I trudged back through the soggy, sloppy, poopy mess in the barnyard, cursing and grumbling, all the while trying to stay upright against the wind. But as I walked past the outdoor wood furnace, I noticed that it too wasn't working. Oh oh. This wasn't good.

"Power's out," Lucas said as I walked in the door.

"We have a flood in the barn," I grumbled back. "Have you made coffee yet?"

"Nope. And I'll take a look at the barn later," he said, then turned to his friend. "Time to go see if this generator works."

While we'd purchased a generator a few weeks earlier, we had to special order the right power cable and it had only arrived a few days before Christmas. With all the craziness and busyness of the season, we hadn't had a chance to test it out.

(What we didn't yet realize was that we weren't alone in our dilemma. According to the local paper, severe winds storms had left an estimated 230,000 people in Ontario without power, with over 20,000 people affected in our region alone.)

By now, the kids had stumbled out of bed and make their way sleepily downstairs. I carefully explained that the power was out and until we knew the generator was working, we couldn't run any water, open the fridge or consume any coffee, though I was alone in my misery over this last point.

Meanwhile, Lucas and his friend were outside trying to dig out a spot with the collapsible emergency shovel from the truck and then manoeuvre the generator closer to the external house outlet that connects to the generator panel in the kitchen. While the generator is technically portable, that doesn't make it any easier to move it through several feet of uneven snow, crusted over with ice in some places and slushy in others with gale force winds howling all around.

That was my observation at least, from the comforts of the kitchen (we're all about delegating responsibility here.)

Not long afterwards, I heard a loud whirring sound. At least the thing runs, I thought. Then Lucas told me to fire up the generator panel. Thankfully, there was step-by-step instructions posted on the inside of the cupboard for non-electrically inclined people such as myself.
I turned off the main utility breaker before turning on the generator breaker and sub breakers. The loud whirring sound changed in tone, like the power draw on it had been kicked up a notch. Then I heard the fridge start up. I turned on the lights and tried the tap.

"We have power," I shouted, "and water!"

Pleased with the success of our flirtation with off-grid living, I set upon making that much needed coffee. I plugged the grinder in the wall - nothing. I tried another outlet, one that shared a circuit with a light switch that worked - nothing. I then remembered that the generator panel has circuits only for the kitchen lights, fridge, well pump and garage.

No coffee grinder. No percolator.

I had one possible option left. I crammed myself between the fridge and the wall and reached way back to the outlet that powers the fridge. ZZZzZZZzZZZzZZZ went the grinder.

"We have coffee!" I shouted.

Finally, fortified with my morning dose of black gold and equipped with my LED headlight, I headed back out to the barn to survey the damage in the chicken pen. It's not exactly clear what happened -- I'm assuming it's some kind of crack in the barn's foundation that we'll have to repair in the spring.

In the meantime, we made a crude levee by shovelling some shavings and straw into a pile in the corner, in an attempt to mop up the trickle of water that must have started during the previous day's rainstorm and/or thaw.

The chickens, however, had other plans. A few hours later, the shavings and straw were dispersed throughout the pen. It appears our girls had some kind of scratching party. What they were looking for remains a mystery but at least the bottom three inches of shavings, now frozen, have since been covered with several more inches of clean shavings.

It wasn't the homecoming that we'd expected but nonetheless, it was satisfying to discover that we successfully got through our first mini power outage unscathed (the power came back on a few hours later.) Our girls are still laying eggs, despite the watery assault upon their living quarters and the barnyard is looking, well... slightly less sloppy thanks to a lot of shovelling and several wheelbarrow trips to the manure pile.

As for me, I've decided I'll have only two items on my wish list for next Christmas: one manual coffee mill and one woodstove-top percolator. Now if I can just figure out a way to power my new coffee roaster...

Monday, January 5, 2009

Looking back

It's hard to believe that I'm writing about the holiday season in past tense already. I mean really, people -- where did 2008 go?

But now that both kids are back in school, the holiday dust has settled and life on the farm has returned to our version of normal (complete with a barn flood and power outage -- more on that later), I've had a chance to do some reminiscing about the past year.

Just this morning, Lucas and I looked at each other, with incredulity and wonder and asked, "How did we get here?" You'd think after six months we'd be done asking that question but when a dream comes true, it takes a while to sink in.

Truth be told, moving to the farm isn't the first time I've had a dream come true. The day I married my husband and the births of both my children are the most important occasions of my life.

But moving to the country, living just as we're living right now, was for a long time something that seemed beyond our reach.

It was just over a year ago, New Year's Eve 2007, that Lucas and I had a mutual feeling that 2008 would be a "big" year for us. I half-expected this "big" would have something to do with our careers. Lucas had just quit his job and was looking for a new opportunity and now that the kids were getting older, I'd hoped to spend more time building my freelance writing career.

We had a good life -- fabulous friends (who I still miss dearly), a great school for our kids, a comfortable home -- but we were faced with a growing feeling that our beliefs were becoming incompatible with our lifestyle.

We wanted to move away from heating our home with fossil fuels, but we lived in a 150-year-old semi-detached home, surrounded by mature trees and close to a major road, that was not a good candidate for retrofitting or even supplementing with alternative energies.
I wanted to grow more of our own food but our backyard was a shady haven for hostas and impatiens -- not vegetables (though had we not moved when we did, I was to have a plot in our town's first allotment garden.)

We wanted to raise our own animals, surround ourselves with open spaces and get away from the buzz of city life. Moving to another part of town, even on the outskirts, just wasn't an option as housing prices were going through the roof and developers were circling the city limits.

Besides, our once small town was becoming too busy, too big-box, too suburban.

We knew it was time to move on, before we'd grown even stronger roots to our community. But truth be told, we were scared.
We worried that if we moved to a small town, we'd have difficulty making a decent living. What's more, we'd lived in our old town for nine years and we'd grown to love the familiarity of it all. We'd be starting from scratch, again, but this time with two young children -- which made a move that much scarier but also that much more imperative.

My dad and his wife had moved east of the GTA only a couple of years earlier and we were taken by our impressions of a more relaxed pace of living. We decided to look "east" and we gave ourselves a window of about two years.

Then in late March, I attended a sustainability symposium in Belleville, Ontario. The night before, I stayed at a lovely bed & breakfast, the Motley Manor on Lilac Grove Hill, in Madoc, Ontario -- about 35 minutes north of the symposium. I spent a solid two hours chatting with the owner and her mother, who was visiting, about the area and our dreams for a simpler life.

Visiting the symposium the next day, with its presentations on sustainable food systems, alternative home construction and green energy options, cemented my belief that we were on the right track.

Then just two weeks later, I attended the 2008 Farmland Preservation Forum in Guelph, Ontario, which was essentially a discussion on strategies to help ensure access to land for the next generation of farmers. At my table was a gentleman from FarmStart, a non-profit organization that helps young and new farmers get started, as well as the Executive Director of the Quebec Farmer Association (QFA).

As we went around the table, introducing ourselves and explaining why we were at the conference, I could feel my stomach churning and the palms of my hands started feeling clammy.
When it was my turn to speak, I said that I was a representative of P.O.W.E.R. (a Halton-Ontario based environmental organization of which I was a board member) but I was also an aspiring farmer. It was the first time I'd voiced our dream to anyone beyond a close circle of family or friends.

No one laughed. In fact, a few people smiled and nodded their head in approval.

Then, at the lunch break, the ED of the QFA sat down with me and started asking about our plans. The more I talked, the less crazy I started to feel. What's more, I started believing it was possible.

Then he asked me, "If you didn't try it, would you regret it?" and without hesitation, I answered "Yes." He asked me, "Then what's stopping you?"

What's stopping us, indeed.

I can scarcely remember the rest of the conference. My mind was a whirlwind of possibility and I couldn't wait to get home. Lucas and I had been having conversations about a modern-day homestead for years (I was more nervous than he, by far) and just recently, we'd started voicing our ideas with my dad. But now, our dream was truly "out there."

Now, I'd been browsing for online property listings for ages and I hadn't yet found anything that even resembled our pretty specific dream list. I was starting to think that we'd never find it: a three-bedroom century home on 50 to 100 acres with outbuildings, a pond or a stream, with a sizable woodlot and pasture, all within our price range.

But within a week of the conference, I'd found a property that was all that. Twelve days after the conference, on a Tuesday in late April, we visited and placed a successful offer on the farm we now call home.

Of course, when a dream comes true, it's easy to left with the feeling of "what's next?" Thankfully for us, whether it's the union of two people, the birth of a child or a move to the country, we're guaranteed years of memories in the making.

We still have lots of work to do and we're struggling to make a decent living. To say our learning curve is steep is a gross understatement. But we've never once said, "We made a mistake" or wished we were anywhere else.

So while 2008 was the year of something "big", we hope 2009 will be the year of lots of new "little" beginnings.

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