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I wanted to take some time to go through our winter photos and put up a gallery of our crazy busy winter. It seems like it went really fast and though I love winter, I am glad that it’s almost over! Please enjoy this slideshow, I think you’ll see how much fun we had over the season.
The sun was glaring through our bedroom window last Sunday morning when I woke up, making me believe I was still on my Caribbean cruise from a week ago. But as I pushed the blankets back to go make coffee, reality set in as my foot hit the cold hardwood floor. As I filled the coffee pot with water, and looked up from the kitchen sink, I shivered as I saw -21C on the thermometer outside. I thought, “Well, this could put a freeze on our plans for a fun-packed day.”
Three years ago, when the McGuinty government introduced Family Day to Ontario, we decided to take full advantage of the extra day off and call a few friends to come and play in the snow with us. All families are unique, including ours, which consists of a dog named Oreo and more than 60 barnyard animals. And for the past three years, we have enjoyed time spent during the coldest part of winter with families who come to enjoy what winter should be about: fun in the snow.
This year, we decided to make a luge track on the hill behind the house. I spent Saturday afternoon with my two helpers, Marcin and Gary, packing down the snow and spraying it with water, which instantly froze to make a slick run all the way down the hill. Gary did a test run and we realized it was the fastest run we had ever created — and that we had better put bales of hay at the bottom of the run as a safety net before anyone slid onto the country road.
As the minivans started pulling up and filling up our driveway — with kids spilling out of their parents’ cars and looking up with amazement at the track we had created, begging to be the first ones to slide down this awesome ride — it became clear that no deep freeze would stop this day from happening.
After many solo runs and kids piled high on the bigger sleds, the afternoon was another success. A few spills did happen, including my own (which I am still aching from) and little Clair’s scratch on her baby finger for which we went into the house to get a Band-Aid. Her dad, Kevin, and I walked Clair up to the house. I continued to the bathroom to get the first aid kit and as I was digging through it, I heard Clair say, “Daddy, can we stay here forever?” Her dad replied, “No honey, we have to go back home today.” With that, she said “Ok, well maybe we can stay here for the whole day.” I walked over to her kneeling down to put the Band-Aid on her finger and invited her to come back in the spring to help plant seeds. She was delighted with that suggestion. You know, you have to start them early…
We were thrilled to have more than 40 family members drop by on Sunday. We only had one thing to say to the parents when they were leaving at the end of the afternoon — to remember to take home the same amount of kids that they brought with them!
As I was growing up I remember thinking that Christmas was never going to arrive. As I have gotten older, my life has gotten busier and the years are passing by so fast. It causes me to reflect on the year gone by and to project for the year ahead. Am I really doing what I want to do in the short life I am allotted?
As I look back on 2012, I know I am heading in the right direction. As the work on the farm continues to become more labour intense, we continue to get more and more capable and willing hands joining in, and of them was Jenna. She arrived on the Hill for a week-long stay, and didn’t leave for four months. Jenna was a natural from the get-go. Always smiling, she helped manage the garden and keep the rest of the Wwoofers — our volunteer farm workers — on the daily schedule of planting, weeding, harvesting and tending to the animals. We are thankful to all our work-stay guests and we were especially blessed to have Jenna stop by.
One of the main goals with the lifestyle we are living is to be as self-sufficient and sustainable as possible. So this year Lea tested the zero-mile diet for 30 days and was very pleased with her solo attempt (we’re going to try it together later this year). She ate only food that we had raised, grown, dried or preserved on the Hill — and she lost about seven pounds in the process.
Family matters to all of us, and we are so thankful my mom and two sisters joined us for a week in the summer. Making bread, working in the garden, hanging out at the lake — what a great summer! For years, Lea had been asking her brothers to come to the farm and this year, Gary and Dale came for a working holiday. They had a great time repairing the barn floor, harvesting firewood and fixing things in the workshop.
The easier part of our life is planning projects on the farm. Finding the time to bring the project to reality takes a lot of determination and patience. After a few years of planning, and hoping to find the time to build it, we are now grateful to have the permanent greenhouse up and the bread oven in place. We still have some finishing touches to do on the outdoor kitchen, but that is what the year ahead is for.
So we are exhaling, and putting our best foot forward for 2013, because we know it’s going to be a good one!
Since the beginning of our journey into what we hope will be a self-sustainable lifestyle, our goal has been to be independent of the local grocery store for our daily food needs. This fall we made the decision to make the leap to a Zero-Mile Diet next summer. For six months, starting with planting season in May, we will consume only what has been grown or raised on the Hill.
For most, this would be a scary leap into the unknown, but lately when we’ve been sitting down for our meals, the plates in front of us are filled with our own products — a very satisfying sight, I can assure you. The only thing we can’t provide is the bulk of our dairy needs, mostly butter, cheese and some milk. We have some dairy from our goats, but we are looking into purchasing a cow over the winter to help with those last few things we need in our diets.
But we knew we couldn’t just jump headfirst into this, so my partner, Lea, spent a month on a test run of the Zero-Mile Diet to see if it could be done. I did not participate and can attest that she was frustrated a few times but in the end she felt great, had lots of energy and looked wonderful. Here is her journal entry about the process:
It really shouldn’t be a difficult goal to accomplish, I thought to myself as I poured a cup of our own homegrown herbal tea. The time goes so fast; it felt like it was just yesterday that we were planning our tea gardens, and not long after that, drying the herbs in the greenhouse. I continued to ponder the possibilities of only eating what we grow. My grandparents would be proud of my attempt — or would they? After all, this is all they knew — getting up in the morning to tend to the animals and then spending the day tending to the chores of feeding themselves by planting, harvesting and preserving goods for the days to follow.
What changed so drastically from their generation to mine, that made me become so dependent on my local grocery store? When did I not have a choice to make anymore?
We have been growing our own food for five years and it was time to put our goal to the test. I would eat only products from the Hill for 30 days. I knew I’d have some addictions to overcome. We don’t grow grain yet, so I would not have any bread for the month (but we will be planting an acre in the spring). No more coffee, and very few options from the dairy department. As my mind continued to walk down the aisles of the local grocery store, I tallied up the products that we do produce on the farm — and I gained confidence. We grow our own grapes and have bottled our own wine (yes, I noticed that I put that first on the list). We have our own pork, chicken and goat meat in the freezer. More than 30 varieties of our fruits and vegetables have been dried, canned, stewed and frozen. So how hard could it be?
Over the first 10 days, I overcome my old addictions to certain foods and eating habits in order to make room for my new ones. Nearing the end, my diet becomes 100 % local and chemical free, high in protein and very low in carbohydrates. I eat two main meals instead of three. I have no sugar in my diet outside of honey and maple syrup, both of which we produce here. As the 30th day approaches, my energy level is at a new high and the quality of food I am consuming is so satisfying, not only in flavour, but in the realization of the power of choice in what I am eating.
I hate the fact that when Thursday comes along I get in my car and drive for two and half hours to the farm, notching up the carbon footprint. And then I turn around on Sunday and do it again on the trek back to Toronto. In the past I have tried to compensate for my burning of all those fossils fuels by always bringing something back and forth.
Some attempts have had “Fail” stamped all over them. One of my favourites was to haul in my Hyundai wagon bins of organic vegetables past their freshness date from a local Toronto organic grocery store; I was going to bring them to the farm to compost and eventually add to the soil. Great idea, right? Except pickup was Tuesday, and I wasn’t leaving for the farm until Thursday. Imagine how stinky it got in my car when the veggies started fermenting after two days of sitting in the wagon! That project was shelved anyway, after my car broke down and it got towed to Canadian Tire, where they deemed it a hazard because of the smell and wouldn’t work on it.
When we started our Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) bags at the farm, eight customers in Toronto signed on to have veggies dropped off to them weekly. Another few points off the carbon meter! This project was definitely a success for our clients and for the Hill and we have just finished our second year of the program.
So when my editor forwarded an email to me from another writer about The Malt Exchange, where Toronto breweries give away spent malt from the brewing process to farms for animal feed or composting, I jumped at the chance.
Signe Langford got me in touch with Bellwoods Brewery owners Mike Clark and Luke Pestl at their Argyle and Ossington location. I went for my first pickup not sure what to expect, but as soon as I got there, everyone was excited about the farmer picking up the spent malt instead of it going into the city’s composting bin. It’s a win-win, everybody happy!
My trip to the Hill from Toronto was quite pleasant that Thursday, as the car had a great post-party hop scent (I hoped I wouldn’t get pulled over by the OPP and have to explain the aroma of beer, especially since I was also carrying a six-variety pack of beer I had bought for me and Lea). I made it, and even ended up using one of the beers to make a beer-and-cheddar-cheese bread that was so yummy we’ve decided to keep it in our Best-Of recipe box.
We were careful on the first day of giving the spent malt to the chickens, not giving them too much to start off. But by the end of the weekend, the girls were looking forward to the new sweet porridge additive to their diet.
We are into our second month of pickups now and it’s still great. I’m driving north with a carload of hops, the hens are happy, Bellwoods Brewery’s happy, our last-harvest veggie clients are happy (I trust) and we’re happy. But the scent of hops is still pretty strong in the car.
There are times when trying to live this sustainable lifestyle can become so overwhelming that we would just like to throw in the towel, so to speak. But deep down inside, as each day goes, by we become more committed to the total big picture of living off the land.
As Lea and I were driving back from our holiday week in New Brunswick, we talked about all the things that needed to be accomplished before the winter sets in. With each project added to the growing list, we knew we had to prioritize even more strictly than we already do. This is the time of year that we have less helpers on the farm and our energy level is at its lowest, following all the work of the harvest.
Just as fast as the list was growing, an email came in from four German travellers needing a place to stay for 10 days. Perfect timing.
In short order, our volunteer workers had two acres of garden cleaned out of all the empty plants, and picked of its fruits, strings and sticks that had trellised the tomatoes, peppers and bush bean in place.
We harvested the remaining potatoes and tilled that garden plot in order to plant the 2,000 garlic cloves before the frost sets in. The raspberries were cut back and wheel barrels of goat manure were put on the berries to encourage next year’s fruit.
Lea was beside herself with glee as some of the projects that have been on her list for seemingly years were scratched off one by one, such as sorting the building material pile and moving it to a new location so that we can build a new pig pen behind the barn. After all the sorting, we found we had just enough to build a firewood storage shed.
When the work is getting done, it is so much easier to enjoy some down time without feeling the stress of work waiting for attention. We hung out at the campfire at night and enjoyed the sauna, and on Sunday went on a hike to the fishing hole at the end of the road.
There was so much accomplished in a few days, and we want to thank the four high school mates for taking time out of their Canadian Adventure to stop by the Hill. Thank you David, Felix, Adrian and Nils. We are encouraged by the unexpected blessing.