Dollars and Sense

Silly, silly me.  How did we ever believe we could budget for the unknown?  You've heard me say before that we budgeted and allocated every available dollar and cent to make this house purchase possible, but this is not your average house move.  We've never set up a homestead before and so there have been costs for things that never even crossed our minds.  I’ll give you an example.  Paint.  Not just any paint, Ian believes in paying for the best quality to get the best value and longevity from any purchase.  This belief resulted in the purchase of ‘Shark skin’ instead of just any ‘run on the mill’ exterior paint.  As the painter, I can say that this is a great product BUT at over $200 for 5 gallons, it’s not cheap.  We’re currently on our third 5 gallon bucket.  Then you add painting supplies, etc. and the cost spirals.  Anyway, it’s all good and I’m pleased with what we've achieved but it has made me question whether we've really fully committed to our ‘make-do’ lifestyle.

To be honest with you, it hasn't really been my focus.  We've been so entrenched in the work that we haven’t really considered the cost-cutting part of this transition.  We've still been going out for dinner and I treated myself to a new pair of Hunter boots off eBay and yes, there are indulgences that we could have done without.  The consequence of this carelessness is that our hand has been forced.  Now that the weather is changing, we’re limited on what we can do outside and so comes the time to focus on finance.  Except now we have no choice but to make cuts.  Between now and December when Ian’s company pays shares and bonuses, the belt will be tightened so much we might be blue in the face.  You won’t be seeing us eating out at Milestones or shopping for fancy farm foot ware anytime soon.  So it really begins here, the life and sacrifices of a homesteader.  We knew this would be the pay-off for the lifestyle we've chosen but let see how the theory translates into practice.

That was the blog post I had drafted on Wednesday.  But then something happened.  I met a lady who unknowingly impacted on me with such force; it made me collide with a critical analysis of myself.  I haven’t sought this woman’s permission to disclose her information so for the sake of this post, we’ll call her Kate.

Kate and I met by chance and she came to the farm.  During the course of our meeting, she told me her story.  Up until a few years ago, Kate’s family were average hardworking people.  Kate had worked all her life to give the best to her own three children and two boys that she fostered.  Her story was much like any other until their life was touched by an event of immeasurable cruelty.  Kate projects resilience and strength, but her eyes tell a story of trauma.  Kate has made sacrifices to try and regain some stability for her family.  These are not the kind of sacrifices I am making.  My whining makes me ashamed in the presence of people like Kate “oh poor me, I can’t go out for dinner”, “eeewww, a snake slithered over my foot”, “I’m working so hard, my muscles ache”.  I think that’s what you call ‘a real first-world problem’; these are challenges, not sacrifices.

Kate walked around Laurica Farm in awe.  She talked about her love for the outdoors and the beauty of the farm.  She listened intently to our plans and asked questions.  Kate gave me perspective.  I will not talk about sacrifices again.  Being here is not a sacrifice, being here is a privilege.  We have to work hard, but who doesn't.  At least this is our choice.  Kate’s circumstances are out of her control. 

And so, thanks to Kate, as summer ends and fall takes hold, I am filled with a new determination.  I am determined not to be complacent, to keep perspective on the work and demands and, most importantly, to keep enjoying this challenge.

It'll be alright on the night.

I just don’t know how to tell you how fantastic I’m feeling today.  But before I go into that, my lovely husband is insisting I blog about my recent tantrum.  It’s kind of a confession.

Last week I blogged about being desensitized to all the bugs and animals that share this plot of land with us.  I really made it sound like I was doing ok.  Sadly, I was writing that post just before my hangover kicked in.  About an hour later, the nausea and headache started to mount while we were out on the farm building.  Things weren’t going well, every time I started a job something happened to stop me.  Ian tried to get me to finish painting the entrance and put me on a scaffold tower to do it.  Fear and alcohol excess reduced me to a quivering, sweating wreck clinging to the top of the scaffold as if I’d been tasked with crossing Niagara Falls on a wire.  Pathetic!  I was walking back up the drive to confess my failings to Ian when I stood on a snake.  In its bid to escape it slithered over my foot.  I had flip flops on.  We had physical, skin to skin contact.  That was it, the straw that broke the donkeys back.  I burst into tears and stormed off to the house and went to bed.  I barricaded the door to stop anyone coming in, but actually no one even noticed I was missing which made things worse.  So there I stayed for 3 hours, first sulking and then sleeping it off.  I sincerely hope this was a hangover induced episode and not the first cracks beginning to show.  Anyway, the entrance is finished now and looks pretty good.

It’s Monday morning as I write this post and Saturday was the big Housewarming party.  Ian took the week off work to finish jobs and prepare for the party.  But this is Ian so nothing is ever simple.  As well as finishing jobs, he decided to knock down the old but perfectly sufficient extension on the barn…on Thursday!!!  I nearly lost my mind and had to engage in some high drama protests of “don’t you know there are 100 people coming here in 2 days”, complete with over exaggerated hand gestures, foot stomping, eye rolling and hands on hips stance.  But amazingly he not only knocked it down but rebuilt another one.  I’m used to his skills as a carpenter and his ability to work at lightning speed, but even I was impressed with what he achieved.  Obviously not so impressed that I’m motivated to apologise for my eye rolling and other condescending behaviours.

Friday came and we shopped and worked until late, finally falling asleep about midnight.  I dreamt that someone had cancelled the party while we were sleeping and at 4am sat up in bed and shouted “Ian, get the band to come back”.  That was enough to wake us up completely and so we set to work again.  Good job we did because we only just got things ready on time.  Needless to say, things go wrong when you’re under pressure, not least the compost heap spontaneously combusting about an hour before the party.  I can now add ‘firefighting skills’ to my résumé.

Guests started to arrive at 4pm.  I was so happy with how the place looked; the hard work had really paid off.  Not only that, but the food looked awesome.  My friends Jenessa and Kirstin had supported me by bringing platters, salads and homemade marshmallows and our neighbours, Glorious Organics, had provided a wonderful salad with edible flowers.  Ian had doubled the size of our Texas BBQ which created quite the impression.  But most the most exciting thing was the live band setting up in the barn!
Glorious Organics Celebration Salad

The atmosphere was that of an English village fete.  The band was amazing.  They are local guys called The NewAtlas.  I’d left the set list up to them and they managed to please everyone here.  Check them out if you get the chance.  They are playing the local circuit and have a gig coming up in Vancouver soon as well as an album in the works.
The New Atlas

Later on as night approached we lit the place up.  We’d put fairy lights up and made lanterns from Mason jars.  My friend Monique had supplied tea lights from Party Lite and so to add to the effect, we had wonderful scents coming from the candles.  It truly felt magical.  And of course people naturally gravitated towards the Tiki hut and sat around the fire pit.  The Tiki hut was an absolute hit and worked superbly.  The smoke went out through the octagonal chimney that Ian built and the warmth of the fire was kept in.  Just take a moment to imagine it….it’s dark, we’re sitting around a fire, there’s candles twinkling in the trees and white fairy lights overhead and creamy marshmallows being passed around.  The music was playing, the drink was flowing and ‘Sweet Caroline’ was being massacred thanks to an impromptu sing along.  Neil Diamond may have been mortified if he’d been there, but I was as happy as I’ve ever been.

Plans are in progress for a music festival next summer!

Cast aside all your preconceptions of homesteaders and farming ye who enter here.  This is what country living is about.
BBQ made from 2 oil drums - total cost $80

Setting up

Last minute barn extension 

Hell yeah!

Some revelers enjoying the band

Lining up at the BBQ

Inside the Tiki bar!
The (current) plan

Tiki happiness

Goodness, I’m tired.  And I’ve managed to aggravate a shoulder injury.  But don’t turn away now; this is not a whiny ‘I’m working so hard’ post because I FEEL GOOD.  Something has happened for all of us this week to dispel fears and enthuse us.  I’ll try and encapsulate some of those things but for those of you expecting a high-integrity, agriculture related write-up, call back in a couple of weeks…maybe.

Firstly, let’s talk about aesthetics of the farm.  Remember the adult swing set I talked about that we’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into?  Well, that is almost finished and it’s evolved. Not only does it look amazing but it’s a real triumph to our recycle, reduce, reuse lifestyle.  It can no longer be referred to as an adult swing set though.  When Ian made the benches that were intended to swing, he made them so sturdy that they were too heavy to swing from the frame.  His solution….to roof the frame.  But then another issue;  the benches would hang over behind the frame if they were swinging and Ian’s OCD senses started tingling.  The benches will now be fixed to sit flush with the frame.  We had prepared 6 benches for the octagonal frame leaving 2 sides to hang hammock chairs from, but with the roof the whole thing started to look more like a Tiki hut, and so it obviously needs a bar.  That very week, the fridge at Ian’s office died a death.  Ian reclaimed it of course.  It’s currently lying on its back, raised off the floor being clad in wood.  We will fill it with ice and people can put their drinks inside.

Some of you might have an idea of a Homesteader in your mind and think that a Tiki bar is not an essential part of the lifestyle.  So let me explain why I am pleased with it.  I am happy because it’s a nod towards our intention to enjoy this land.  If you’re working hard then there has to be some rewards.  This Tiki hut is an enabler for relaxation, reward and social gatherings.  I feel it’s an achievement because it looks awesome.  When you drive along the road, it’s the Tiki hut that grabs your attention.  But it’s not intrusive, we chose to paint it and kind of bark colour as it sits next to the trees and the roof is clad in cedar coloured shingles.  It complements the landscape.  But here’s the real homesteading achievement.  The structure is approx. 18ft wide and 15ft tall.  I estimate the total cost of building it to be around $400.  Not bad for something that size!  Had we purchased new materials we think it would have cost around $5000.  Not only that but we have had the experience of bartering and utilizing volunteers.  I will post some photos next week when it’s completely finished.

The next thing that has made me feel good is a conversation with my friend Kirstin.  She asked me how I was dealing with the bugs and animals as I talked about snakes, spiders, frogs, coyotes and alike.  How have I come to terms with these things?  Well, it’s been like an extreme desensitization program.  What can you do when you’ve invested everything into a home?  I can’t walk away and move in to a condo downtown because there’s too much wildlife.  I still let out an involuntary squeal when I see a snake but you just have to plough on (no pun intended).  It’s become more of an annoyance than a fear and that happened real quickly because it had to.

The final thing on my quest for happiness this week came courtesy of the tractor.  Up until now I have found it difficult to tell people "I’m a farmer".  I feel like such a fraud and opt for less intimidating alternatives, like “oh, I’m just a Homemaker”.  This week I completed an unquestionably farm related activity.  I tilled the back field for the fruit bushes and created a huge compost heap.  Even as I was doing it I felt embarrassed every time our neighbours (real bona fide farmers) were in the field.  I imagined them sitting around laughing about us as they wondered what the heck we were doing.  Anyway, we tilled the patch of land once, and then I moved the entire top layer of grass and soil to a neat compost heap that will eventually go back on the same patch of land.  Then I tilled 3 more times, and you know what, it looks great.  I’d even go as far as to say it looks professional!  And so now I’m over it.  I have something to show that I can farm.  I have a patch of tilled land and some chickens, in a coop.  We also have plans now for the veggies, the orchard,  the poly tunnels and the duck pond. Not much, but a start.  I even have a Tiki bar to show that I can enjoy farming too.  Bet our farming neighbours don’t have a Tiki bar.
So to conclude this post, confidence is growing, friendships with new neighbours are developing, epic social gatherings are taking place, volunteers have been fed, food has been preserved, we're having fun, and non-invasive, environmentally sensitive, organic architecture is happening.  Sounds to me like we are rocking this gig.

Me and Mr. Kutcher

I’ve been thinking about Ashton Kutcher in shower.  Don’t worry, this is not turning into some weird confessions post (although he is rather aesthetically pleasing), but I do want to talk about Mr. Kutcher.  First a bit of a farm update.

We have made some encouraging discoveries.  I mentioned in an earlier post that we needed to do some soil testing to help us make a plan for the land and get the best possible growing outcomes.  We purchased a soil testing kit and it’s been on top of the fridge unopened for two weeks.  I don’t know why we’ve put this simple task off, maybe out of concern for what we will find.  You see, the area we live in is zoned as agriculture land.  Great!  This protects us from townhouse complexes springing up around us but the irony is that the soil is not great for growing anything other than grapes.  It is very sandy and stony across the entire area.  However, it was me with my astute agricultural prowess (???!!!) who observed that the soil appeared very different at the back of our lot to the front.  Anyway, we tilled the land at the back this week ready for some fruit bushes.  As expected, sand and stones greeted us.  But that’s ok; we will plant a ground cover crop, such as buckwheat, over the winter and then cut it, cover it and effectively compost it back into the ground.  This will replenish the nutrients in the soil ready for growing.  We think this will provide us with an excellent base for fruit growing.

The next discovery came when Ian was looking for the septic tank and found it at the front of the house, just outside the front door.  I know, it seems a strange location. In digging down to find the tank we found a lovely rich loamy soil.  Perfect for growing veg in the front paddock.  And so, that has settled the debate about what to plant where.  And what do you know….us inexperienced farmers have made these discoveries by instinct and not with plastic test kits!

Back to Ashton.  Some of you may have seen Ashton Kutcher’s acceptance speech at the Teen Choice Awards.  He gave a talk about opportunity looking a lot like hard work.  Good for Ashton, someone of influence needs to tell our youth that success rarely just lands in your lap.  But Ashton Kutcher, really?  Is he a true ambassador for hard work?  Because I thought about it a lot in the shower when I was using a nail brush to scrub paint off my bare skin and knocking scabs off as I went.  I wondered as I plucked another set of splinters out of my fingers while my newly calloused hands burned in the hot water, if Aston with his perfect hair and his manicure should really be waxing lyrical about hard work?  What does hard work look like to Ashton Kutcher?  I know he regaled tales of having to work in a deli or something before he was an actor or whatever he is, but does this really quantify hard work?  Are the kids getting the sincerity of the message from polished Ashton and his clichés?  I would like to invite Mr. Kutcher here to my own personal Farmagddon.  I would love him to show today’s youth what hard work really looks like.  I want him to tell them about waking up at night every time he turns over in bed because his shoulder muscles are so tight and painful.  I believe he needs to talk about feeling like he won’t ever be able to stand up straight again after bending over painting fence posts all day under the scorching sun.  He really should share tales of lifting impossibly heavy timber beams at 10pm to get a chicken coop finished.  Seriously, if you’re going to champion hard work, it should be well researched, right?

Ok, I’m going to leave Ashton alone now.  I’ve started to sound more Kathy Bates in Misery than Cathy Finley of Laurica Farm.  But I will give him this, opportunity IS hard work.  And in the same way hard works looks different to different people, so does opportunity.  I’m sure beautiful Ashton has had many opportunities in his career to become a celebrity, that kind of opportunity sounds like hell to me.  Working here with my knotted muscles and my calloused hands is my opportunity.  It’s my opportunity to give my family something Ashton will probably never experience.  Ashton can keep the bright lights, fancy hair and manicure; I’m all good with my Farmagddon opportunities.

I could sure use a manicure though!

Confessions of a Homesteader

This week has seen a real start of working the land and preparing for what is to come.  Grass has been cut, fences have been moved, things have been planted, trees have been felled, and I’ve been doing what every homesteader does this time of year…preserving food.  Obviously we haven’t had much of our own produce to preserve this year apart from an abundance of blackberries but I did strike deals with local farmers and received a mountain of green beans and mini cucumbers.  I jammed the blackberries, experimenting with Chia seeds as a gelling agent thus avoiding artificial things like pectin, and I’ve pickled the beans and cucumbers.  We have enough pickles for eternity!  I like the occasional pickled onion – my Mum always used to lament about the time I was trying to steal one off her Ploughman’s lunch when I was about 2 years old.  I was so persistent she let me take it in the end thinking I’d spit it straight out and leave her be, but instead all she heard was “nom nom nom” as I tucked into the onion.  Anyway, I’ve never really experimented with other pickled veg until recently.  Thankfully, I really quite like it and I’m looking forward to preserving the excess of our own harvest next summer.  I’ve also been reading about the health benefits of pickling.  I didn’t know until this week that pickling is extremely beneficial to your digestive health.

Along with our productive week, there have been a few ‘hiccups’, of course.  We decided to mow the front paddock with the tractor.  Ian started it and I took over after he’d done a few circuits.  He told me that he had seen voles scurrying around as he was mowing and joked about their funny long noses.  Off I went, looking out for these strange creatures but only saw a couple.  After I’d mowed half the field, Lauren came out to do the remainder.  I passed on the information about the resident voles and stepped back as she pulled away.  As she started the tractor, something wet hit my face.  You know that moment, when you just freeze, scared to find out what the offending material might be…yeah, you guessed it, some mangled body part of a small animal had gone through mower blades and had been ejected all over me.  I looked around to realize it was total vole and slug carnage in the paddock.  The corpses lay strewed around.  So there I was, in the midst of a Farmageddon genocide.

That wasn't the only unwanted animal encounter, this time we were the ones at risk.  We set ourselves up with a camp fire, marshmallows and sticks ready to watch the meteor shower.  All was going so well, we saw the international space center pass over and it was fantastic quality time with the family.  But before we saw a single meteor, we heard howling.  We assumed it was coyotes and didn’t panic but decided to take the dog and kids in as they were extremely close.  As I was walking towards the house with the last few items, Ian turned around and stared at something.  I didn’t need to turn around to know what he’d seen was close.  He just about had time to utter “I don’t think they’re coyotes, they’re wolves” before I started running for the safety of the house.  I know, I know, a bit of an overreaction perhaps, but still, nature can be scary sometimes.

So another roller coaster kinda week, from feeling like we were achieving a lot to feeling that we’d taken on too much, and as always, this evokes some reflection.  It wasn’t until today that I teased out the message from our recent experiences.  It was the Insurance lady who had come to finalize some details that made the metaphoric light bulb come on.  Once she had lifted her head from her clipboard and truly started to look around, she began to do what everyone does when they come here, she oooo’d and arrrr’d and wowed.  It made me think back to when I worked in Social Care.  I always believed that you could support someone in a bad situation to make positive changes as long as they had even a tiny spark of hope.  If their hope was gone, the battle was lost.  One of the things that chips away at a person’s hope is their environment.  Too often did we venture into grim, dark homes and find the person inhabiting the stale space had lost all motivation.  And it’s that belief which makes me confident that we will succeed here.  We are so lucky to have this amazing environment.  A wonderful open landscape with a natural serenity and beauty about it.  It’s the environment that makes people ooh and arrr when they come here.  It’s the environment that keeps us working late at night.  It’s the environment that makes me want to pickle and preserve its offerings.  It’s the environment that makes me want to stay home instead of going out, that makes me happy and content and makes me want to share it with my friends.  And I truly believe that, no matter how many mangled animals splat me, this environment will keep us plugging away to make it work. 

Here’s hoping I still find it inspiring in the middle of a wet, gray Vancouver winter!