Preserving Our Future

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I had to make some space in the back room for putting soap up to cure today. That meant condensing the canning shelves into a few spots from their once sprawling positions. If this was Risk, the preserves would own North America and Australia, which as you should know, will win you the game in a hurry.

While I was doing this, I started thinking back to last summer and fall, when I brought a completely overwhelmed family from an hour east of Toronto, to a town of about 1000 people in the middle of nowhere, BC.

I remember being so worried that everyone was going to end up resenting me for uprooting them from the life they knew and plopping them into a town where this year’s graduating class is four students. I can adjust to pretty well anything, but I know from experience that not everyone is like that.

I mean we went from $45, unlimited bandwidth, ultra high-speed internet to $90, 80GB limit, sometimes fast enough to watch The Office Xplornet. You can see why I might be worried, right? Two teenage girls with computers and gadgets don’t like to wait for Miranda Sings or PewdiePie to spread their wisdom with the masses.

But they do wait.

Without complaining.

And I love them for that.

I was worried about the culture shock that Gerri would feel when she got here as well, and I know it was really hard for her to deal, so she completely immersed herself in canning to keep her mind busy.

It started with Saskatoons, when a friend showed her that there was literally tons of berries within a mile of our house. I think she got tired after about her tenth gallon, and it trickled out from there. Then there was a PSA (more on them later) about a lady bringing a truckload of fruits and vegetables from the Okanagan. I think we got a case of nectarines, Roma tomatoes, cucumbers, and a bunch of other things that we don’t grow.

We need to expand our back room soon. Maybe a new shed for worms and soap curing?
We need to expand our back room soon. Maybe a new shed for worms and soap curing?

After that, it was our abundant crab apple tree and a tarp under it, with Gerri and Lannie shaking the multitude of fruit down to make jelly, butter, and applesauce out of it. (I was able to get a bag out of the freezer later, and add it to some jars of moonshine. It really helped to cut down the harshness of the liquor.)

Then came the Fall Fair. She entered three things. I believe it was mango chutney, raspberry lime jam, and salsa. This was the result.

There was a little excitement.
There was a little excitement and I don’t know why it says Alberta Horticultural Association.

So needless to say, we had a few shelves packed full of canning, and now it’s reduced to part of a shelf. I would always decide to not grab something when I was in there, because I would tell myself that it had to last all year.

Well, all year is almost up now. We made it through nine months of our new life, and everyone is relatively unscathed. I say “relatively”, because I think the girls are adjusting to it, but they haven’t completely left their life in the east. I know it took me a lot of years to be comfortable being away from everything I knew.

Yes, the snow is melting in our sleepy town, and soon it will be green, with budding trees and flower lined streets and parks. Soon the fruit will ripen in the bushes and the cycle will begin again.

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So I’m putting some of these roasted peppers on my pork chops, and I bought a huge vat of vanilla ice cream to smother in canned peaches and Saskatoons, because we don’t have all year anymore. We only have a few months.

It makes me feel really good when I eat something that the person I love the most in this world put so much effort and heart into. I know that it was done when she was struggling to make sense of her new world, and to try and put her old world to rest. I also know that there are so many other “addictions” she could have turned to to help cope with this change. The fact that she chose canning over heroin or booze has proven that she not only loves her family, but that she loves herself, and to me that is more important than anything else.

Thank you, Baby. For everything you’ve done, and continue to do for us.

And for continuing to wear my toque. No matter how much it makes you look like a gangsta hobo.
And for continuing to wear my toque. No matter how much it makes you look like a gangsta hobo.

Chris

P.S. At the top left on the side bar are the social media outlets that we are currently employing. If you could choose your poison, we can let you know of future posts that way. I’m sure fans of other pages/communities are getting sick of me hijacking their space.

Also, if you are on Google+ we have started a community at Backyard Homesteading.

DIY Soap Cutter For Under $20

So I was crying to my buddy, Johnny, about trying to cut the soap straight with a knife, on the chopping block that I bought at the thrift store for $2. I had measured out the inches down either side of it, but it was still coming out all wonky.

I told him that the top is an inch apart, but the bottom could be a quarter inch out either way. I know that it wouldn’t make a huge difference, weight wise, but I lost a bar on each loaf from over compensating. I’d like to make sure that all of the bars are uniform, because if you lost a bar on every loaf, it would be really cutting down on profits.

That’s going on the assumption that we will sell any of the bars. If we don’t, then there will be a lot of misshapen solstice gifts being handed out this winter.

I showed him the picture of my dream cutter. (Only because it looks awesome, not because I have a clue that it even works)

When he saw that it was $259, plus exchange, plus shipping, he said that I could make one for about $75 or $100, after he quit choking on his ramen noodles and cursing with that Cape Breton flair.

Apparently he forgot that you also need some skill in woodworking, and that’s not something I’m known for.

I told him that I would pay him to build one for me, and he said that he would. I was excited about that, but he wasn’t sure when he could get it done by. I explained to him that I needed it right away, because I couldn’t keep cutting the bars the way I was.

That was when he had a brilliant idea.

Plus
Equals
I didn't see the grey one until later. It looks like a better box for the soap, but this one will work.
I didn’t see the grey one until later. It looks like a better box for the soap, but this one will work.

I think the grey one is pretty much the same box, except it might be a tiny bit deeper than the one I got. This one doesn’t leave more than a couple of millimetres above the bar to fit the blade into the guide, so even a little bit would help. The $2 chopping block came in handy, because there is a lip on one side of the mitre box for stabilizing it against the front of the bench.

The chopper isn’t as wide as the Norpro, but it will do until the good one comes in. Either way, for under $20 I can accurately measure and cut my soap bars. That’s all there is to that.

You are probably thinking to yourself, that it’s going to be more than $20 with the shipping, but it isn’t if you get yourself a bunch of beeswax to get the price up over $25 to take advantage of Amazon’s free shipping.

Just a suggestion, you know you’re going to need it. 😉

Chris

P.S. We did cut up a loaf with it, and I have to tell you that it worked so much better than freehand with a knife that I couldn’t stop smiling while I slid and sliced. I’m such a newbie nerd.

We Made Soap!

The back is Blueberry Hill, and the front is Gingerbread.
The back is Blueberry Hill, and the front is Gingerbread.

Yep, we finally did it. Now we will wait five weeks to see how it turned out. We got a really great deal on the soap making tools and ingredients, so we are going to use up the fragrances and dyes that came with it while we are learning.

Oh, and it was really fun. Except for the freehand knife cutting. I really need one of these when I win the lottery:

I ended up having to work, so Gerri got the lesson and made the first batch, but when I got home she was still so excited that she wanted to make another one. I was glad, because I thought I was going to have to wait five weeks until it was cured. That’s when I found out that we were the proud new owners of four moulds, and that you can take them out of the moulds and cut the bars after about a day.

That means that we can make four loaves a day, every day. Do the math.

4 loaves x 15 bars x  = BILLIONAIRES

This should last about three days.
We aren’t sure which one is best, and they were all on sale, so…

I think that if I sell a kidney, we can afford to make soap for about a month, and then a week later we will be able to start selling the first day’s soap. That should give us enough working capital to make another three batches and the circle will begin again.

Dreaming is good.

Not about the kidney. That was a joke. Unless you know a buyer.

I’m talking about a life that’s dedicated to more simple days. Like getting up in the morning, making a bunch of soap, having lunch, sorting some worms and going out to feed and water the animals. I could really get used to that.

It sure beats getting up at 2 am so that you can get your job done before the road bans come on at 10, but still end up chaining up and slopping through the mud for the last hour, because the sun came out too fast on you.

Not that I wouldn’t jump at the chance to do that right now, I’m just dreaming about the future. You know, when I don’t have to jump at those chances anymore.

Anyhow, I should get off of here. I need to go in and watch the soap cure for a while before bed… and maybe bathe, but I really want to make this last bar of the good stuff last until ours is ready. I figure if I wash every fourth night, I should squeek slide by.

Chris

Desertion Or Sedition?

I’m having a hard time with this. At first I thought of it as an exodus, but I think an exodus is a mass departure. I don’t consider 20-30 as much of a “mass”.

I guess I should explain.

I woke up the other morning at around 5:00 am. I won’t get into the details of why I got up that early, but I am getting older, and sometimes my body tells me things. This particular morning, on my way back from the kitchen, I saw that the door was open to the worm room and there were a couple of worms on the floor. I walked over and saw that I had left the screen off of the top and there were some dried out worm husks there. I also saw the sides covered in worms and castings, so I stepped closer to shoo them back in and put the lid on.

Squish!

Now I have stepped on lots of worms in my life, but it’s different when you are in your bare feet and on a wood floor. I looked down and saw a line of worms heading for the exit. They got crisper, the closer to the door that they were, so I knew that it had happened gradually over the night.

I was reminded of a story that I had read in the Old Testament about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

The difference between the exodus of the Bible and the worms was that the worms were scattered out, there was only a handful of the worms that went with the leader, and it wasn’t 40 years of wandering. I would be surprised if they made it 40 minutes.

Oh, and I have evidence that the worms tried to escape.

No, it wasn’t an exodus, but it was something. Maybe sedition?

sedition

After, I started thinking about whether the first worm was trying to incite some sort of disorder amongst the rest of the worms, I realised that it might not have happened that way. It might just be like the worm websites tell me, and they just weren’t settled in to their new home.

Apparently they get used to a certain way of life, then they are bagged up in their own poop and some shredded cardboard and shipped off to some weirdo that stares creepily at them while digging around their new home with a pair of rubber gloves.

This brings me to:

desertion

This seems more like what happened. They actually liked living in the bag of poop and going for car rides. They don’t want the freedom of choice and they are perfectly happy eating moist cardboard. I guess they are like Domino’s Pizza customers in that regard. The shipping bag was just outside the room, so they might have been heading for the familiar scent of synthetic burlap or whatever it’s made of.

Real burlap is better

Well, they don’t have to feel the emotional turmoil any longer, because now they are dead. May they rest in peace.

I placed their lifeless, crumbly bodies back into the bin with their friends and family. Not because I wanted them to get a proper burial, but to let the others know what happens to deserters in this dictatorship.

It’s been two nights with not one attempted escape, so I guess it worked. Everybody is just quietly munching their lettuce shreds and banana peels, and acting like worms are supposed to act.

Civilised, unlike people at Donald Trump rallies.

Backstory – Gerri

I don’t know how much of my backstory is truly necessary here, so I will try to be brief.  I lived a very consumer-driven lifestyle, which was only enhanced by a career that was image-obsessed.  I believed most of the lies the world told me, and eventually my heart became too sick to remain the same.

Our decision to relocate to British Columbia was extremely difficult to make, and to accept. I lived my entire life in one place, trying to learn how to belong, but never quite getting it.  I hadn’t dreamed I would ever leave where I had always been, so the thought of starting over made me weak with fear.

Confronting fear is a game changer.  It is the force that drives me forward toward the unknown.  As scared as I am of doing something new, I am far more afraid of not doing it.  Rebel Nerd, they call me.  We decided to give the kids a year to adjust to the idea of moving, and then, a year later, we loaded all our crap into a bus and drove that mother out here.   I’m sure more than a few people thought we were crazy.  Although we do have kids, we don’t talk about them here.  First rule of granola light club:  Kids don’t want nothin’ to do with granola light club.

Coming here has challenged the way I think.  It has challenged the way I relate to myself, and to others.    It has deeply enhanced the relationship I have with my family,  and my physical and mental health.  I feel strong and free.  I feel close to the land, and I spend a great deal of time surrounded by fresh air and trees.  I can no longer afford to forget where my real home is.   I am the original granola-light, because I understand how hard it is to make a huge change all at once.  I’m about setting small goals of being more sustainable, greener, more willing to find ways to reuse/repurpose something, instead of buying something new.  We try every day to do a bit better, and so far it’s working out well.

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I also have a really interesting new job, with a company that excites me and makes me feel like an important part of the team.  I’m surrounded by cool people who are into setting and achieving goals, personally and professionally.  I like what I do, and the people who I work with.  I feel like I might have won the ‘New Career Lottery’ 🙂

Starting over isn’t easy, but it has a lot of amazing rewards.  It’s been a chance to start living the life we have been dreaming of since we met.  It feels amazing to finally be seeing it happen for real.

 

Backstory – The Chickens

When I was a kid, we had what you might call a hobby farm. The hobbies were luckily not all at once, because I couldn’t imagine trying to raise quail, Cornish hens, Ring Neck Pheasants, rabbits, goats, cattle, and pigs all at once on a half acre farm that included the house.

It feels like I’m forgetting something.

Oh right.

Chickens.

Hey lady, whatever butters your toast.

The chickens that we had were all meat birds, so you didn’t want to get attached to them. Not that I ever thought I would, because they are by far the most soulless being in existence on this planet. I mean soulless and extremely stupid.

Also, processing them makes me sick to my stomach.  Not to mention the ammonia smell in the coop, and the sight of the red chicken butts that have been pecked out by the local bullies. It doesn’t matter how many times they report it to the authorities, the bullying goes on. You have to chop the bully’s head off.

I can’t see ever getting meat birds for myself, unless I found someone who would process them for a percentage of the birds. In that case, I guess I could stand their stupidity for a little bit.

Laying hens, on the other hand…

Them I don’t mind. There’s just something about fresh eggs and chickens scratching around the yard that makes me feel like a real farmer. Plus, if I get too many worms in the bin, I can throw a few to the girls. I think it makes them happy, and from what I hear, it makes the yolks a nice, deep yellow.

I really don’t know, as I have only been around the dumber, more male versions of chickens. I’m just going by what I’ve heard around the backyard chicken circles of Google+.

I do remember as a kid, I would go to friend’s places that had laying hens running around the yard and I always enjoyed watching their curious mannerisms and the way their beady little eyes would dart around, always looking for any sign of movement. I used to sit for hours sometimes, just watching them and wondering why they were content with so little, but then I remembered how delicious the eggs were and I quit caring about what was going on in their heads.

Lift up your butt there, Clucky. It’s time for breakfast.

Anyhow, I am just letting you know that when I do get my two hens, I am going to be looking for advice on raising them, but until then, I would like to hear which laying breed is the best for a northern climate. Also, if anyone knows a good place to order the chicks in Northern BC, you could throw it in on the comments or in any of the social media outlets at our disposal.

Chris

Switching To European Nightcrawlers

Yes, that’s right. I’m getting out of the Red Wigglers for greener pastures. I am not getting rid of all of the little fellas right now, but I am selling a couple of home setups to some friends and limiting my production of them. The only reason is that they are too small for bait. This is not what I was led to believe as a young lad growing up.

It says right there that they catch the big one every time. You all heard it. They’re the Cadillac of worms.

Well, I’m here to tell you that they may be the Cadillac of worms, but these Euros are the Rolls Royce of worms.

This is coming purely from inexperience and a money standpoint. Let’s compare the two.

Red Wiggler

  • Compost like nobody’s business
  • Breed like crazy
  • Are able to squeeze through tight spots, making them an excellent candidate for sneaking cameras into buildings for top secret spy manoeuvres
  • Can be used as bait, if you have a tiny hook
  • Can be sold by the pound, or fed to the chickens when your bin starts to overflow
  • Look like this:
I still really like this guy, but he just can't carry his weight.
I still really like this guy, but he just can’t carry his weight.

European Nightcrawlers

  • Still a good composter
  • Not as prolific a breeder as the red wiggler. Kind of like a red wiggler after 9 beer
  • Can speak four different languages, making them excellent bait worms in tourist areas.
  • Will fit on almost every size of hook
  • Can be sold by the dozen to local fishermenpeople, by the pound to fellow composters, or fed to the chickens when the bins get full.
  • Look like this
Just look at the lad. Er, lady. Er, both.
Just look at the lad. Er, lady. Er, both.

The Verdict

The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is probably going to be made of red wigglers if these things keep breeding like this. It is pretty nice to have the little eating machines around though, so I may cut them a little slack for a bit.

 

Apparently these are a pretty sweet setup.

I was also thinking of putting on a workshop when I get enough for ten single family setups. Maybe get them to choose the type of bin they want, or to build one, and I could supply the red wigglers and the bedding to get them started on the road to less waste and healthier plants.

I think that would work well for me, and then I won’t have a bunch of locals competing for the town’s bait business, because it sounds like I’ll have a hard enough time to make $300 a year at it myself.

Minus the $110 I paid for the initial batch of nightcrawlers, and the $217 for 1000 compostable soup bowls and lids.

Wait a minute…

Oh well, I’m going to have some great fertilizer, and maybe I can turn a profit next year. At least I know that I won’t have to see those styrofoam bowls with the plastic lids floating around our beautiful lakes. These are supposed to break down within 45 days, and from the sounds of it, I can feed them to the worms if I run out of kitchen waste.

Chris

Hand Made Soap Coming Soon

By the way, “soon” is a relative term.

When I first moved to Hudson’s Hope, I used to go to the Farmer’s Market every Tuesday. My first time there, I bought some soap that was made by a local woman named Cindy.

I couldn’t believe how good they all smelled, and how expensive they were. I think they were $4 a bar or something like that, but I was newly single and pulling in pretty good bucks driving a tanker, so I splurged and bought a couple of bars.

I have never resorted to buying commercial bars since that day.  Sure, they were a bit more per bar, but each bar lasted longer and I liked that I was putting all natural ingredients on my skin, while supporting a local entrepreneur. Can it get any better?

I bought a bag of bars before I moved back to Ontario, and was just about through them when I met Nancy at the Harwood Waterfront Festival. She was selling bars of homemade soap at her booth there, so I was able to get my fix of cleanliness there as well.

She has a really nice little business called Northumberland Soapworks at her farm near Colborne, Ontario, where she sells in a roadside shop, and hits up a lot of local markets.

My favourite was Orange Patchouli, or as I liked to call it, Dirty Hippie Soap. Yes, I know that it is an oxymoron. The hippies would be squeaky clean after washing up with that sweet cake.

 

After we moved back to Hudson’s Hope this summer, I ran into Cindy, and mentioned that I would be needing some more soap after our stock ran out, when she broke the news to me.

She wasn’t making soap anymore.

We bought eight bars and talked about the soap making process, and I may have mentioned that we might start making our own if we couldn’t find any. We also contemplated getting Nancy to ship us out some when Cindy said that she would sell us the lye that she had left over, and that she had moulds and stuff left as well.

Wahoo!

What better way to work towards sustaining ourselves than being able to make our own soap and possibly supplement the cost by selling a few bars to the locals or through the blog?

I know you won’t get rich at it, but we’ve never really aspired to be rich in the first place. We have aspired to be clean though, and soon we’ll be able to afford to bathe every day if we want to.

I know I won’t want to, but I think that Gerri enjoys not having flies buzzing all around her, so even if we could keep her clean, I can sell my bars and get enough money to buy the laying hens I want to get this summer.

Anyhow, I will be excited for us to learn the art from someone who made some of the finest soap I’ve ever used, and maybe a month or so later, having a shower with that handmade goodness.

I love trying to be a granola.

Backstory – The Worms

I’ve been looking into getting composting worms for many years now, but never had the time or space for them.

Then I found some.

I was hauling clay out of a guy’s yard where he was building a new house, to some big pipeline company’s new yard, when I saw a bunch of 1″x4″ spruce planks about four feet long in a burn pile.  I asked the guy if I could have them, and he said to take all I wanted, so I started loading up the dump truck. There were a lot of them, and as I got deeper into the pile my smile just got wider. I figured there were about ten or so of them at the start, but there was a fire ban on, so I was able to load about twenty armloads into the box.

All in all, I filled the trunk and backseat of the old Corolla to the top and got home with dreams of making worm boxes and changing the small, insulated shed into my wormy empire.

I just needed worms now.

I started looking online, but saw that red wigglers were going for about $60 a pound, plus shipping. I really couldn’t afford that, as we had just moved here from Ontario, and it was a pretty slow year, work wise. I figured that there had to be  a better (cheaper) way to do this.

I called the Northern Environmental Action Team in Fort St. John, while I was in town and asked if they knew anyone locally that had red wigglers for sale. They said that they had some for sale at their office, so I boogied right over there and bought a pound. They had them in one of these

I wished I had the cash for one of them, because they told me it worked pretty slick, but it kind of defeated my purpose. I’m trying to keep as much plastic out of my life as I can, so I’m kind of glad I was broke and couldn’t buy it.

When I got home, I poured the worms into their oversized new home, but it was mostly castings, with very few wigglers. I went back in a few days later and stopped in for some more. There were more worms in this batch, but it was still not as many as I was expecting. It didn’t really mater though, as I was still $20 under the pound from the internet, and there was no shipping costs.

I started to read a lot about composting worms, and watched a bunch of videos on them. The first book I read was

I might have made my box a little big at 2’x2’x10″ high. A pound of worms could easily fit in a tube sock, so I had quite a bit of overkill for the first several months. I ended up putting them in an old laundry tub that a friend was throwing out, and I really like it. They seem to be quite comfy in there, and as long as I mix it up every few days, it doesn’t get too wet.

It's a pretty good home for a few pounds of crawlies.
It’s a pretty good home for a few pounds of crawlies.

Anyhow, it’s been about six months, and I have probably six times as many worms as I started with, so they must like me alright.

Chris

Backstory – Chris

I grew up in a village of around 200 people on the shores of Rice Lake, near Cobourg, Ontario. It was an idyllic place to grow up, and probably still is. My mom still lives there, and whenever I go to visit, everything looks pretty much the same as it did when I was a kid.

Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Holowacz https://www.flickr.com/photos/gabi2418
Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Holowacz https://www.flickr.com/photos/gabi2418

Sure there are probably fifty more houses scattered around on once rich farmland and forest, but there are no new businesses to speak of. The old school has been a bakery, roadhouse bar, restaurant/convenience store, and is now a closed down Chinese restaurant. The gas station/garage has changed hands probably four times since my youth, and the convenience store has changed hands a few more than that. The post office/store has closed down in favour of a row of boxes on the side of the street, and that about does it. 

I would probably have elected to move there and pursue my dreams of a small, self-sustaining lifestyle, but the red tape required to achieve such a goal would cost much more than we would save. Just the environmental assessments and whatnot to find a building site, well, and septic would probably cost more than what I plan to spend on a piece of property out here, and the land costs are horrendous.

For example, an 11 acre lot that is in a farm field close to half an hour north of town would cost $100000, and that doesn’t guarantee you could build there.

This was the view provided by Realtor.ca. I assume that it's the best one.
This was the view provided by Realtor.ca. I assume that it’s the best one.

Because the area has been environmentally protected, you have a lot of hoops to jump through to get the building process started, let alone finished. Then you need to find a job that pays enough to afford it, while living somewhere else, because it’s going to take a long time before you are able to move into the home you just built.

That was the trouble I had there. The best paying job I was able to get was $18/hour and it was a 30 minute drive from where I would be building. It was also one of the most stressful jobs I’ve ever had. Driving to Toronto and back in a tractor trailer every weekday. I did find a job I liked with a farm supply and grain company, but it only paid $13/hour and you were laid off for a lot of the year. You can’t raise a family on that.

So we headed west. I have been living and working out here since 2000, and we’ve been here as a family since July 2015. It’s a different way of life, but it’s one that I like, and have gotten quite used to. The housing is very affordable, so we were able to buy a place while we look for a piece of property that we love and can build a little off-grid paradise of our own.

Until then, we are going to try and figure out how to do things from our house, with our sheds and beautiful little yard. You know, for practice.

I started with worms, but first I read this book.

Chris