Saturday, January 1, 2011

December in the Farmhouse

Here, Willow, Ander and I have dressed up in preparation to get some food:  in style!  With warpaint!

We did a fair bit of dumpster diving in December.  A grocery store we know on the west side of the city has a great set-up for it.  Since Vancouver has a composting collection, the grocery store has three large trash bins labeled for organics that are used only by the produce department--no plastics in there, and no meat, dairy, or other things that you'd worry about spoilage.  The majority of the things in the bin are discarded lettuce leaves, I believe because they strip the outer leaves off the lettuce before displaying it so that it looks nice.  More importantly, it cushions everything so that the slightly brown bananas, bruised eggplants and who-knows-why-they-threw-it-away everything else is just hanging out waiting for you to dig down to it.

I don't have a picture of "soup time", but the Farmhouse has a soup clock with the names of each resident taped to it.  When it gets to your name, it's your job to fill the crockpot with water and vegetables until it's soup.  It's quick, healthy, easy, and a great way to use up vegetables that need using.

I mentioned our wine-making before.  Our apple-pear-grape-mango wine is fermenting away in its carboy.  These pictures are from the day that Sara and I moved it from the primary fermentation chamber (a foodsafe 5-gallon bucket) to the glass carboy (a giant 5-gallon glass jug).

Here, Sara dresses up science-tastically to pour our first taste of the wine.  The wine isn't done, so our tastes were extra-sweet and low in alcohol.  The yeast has to eat the rest of the sugar to make the rest of the alcohol.

I'm using a hydrometer here.  The hydrometer measures the specific gravity (the thickness or viscosity) of a liquid by showing how high it floats.  Think about it; something would float much higher in a bowl of syrup than a bowl of water.  So it measures the sugar content.  By subtracting the current sugar content from the original sugar content before fermentation, you can figure out how much sugar the yeast has consumed and therefore how much alcohol is in the wine.  During our test, I guessed the alcohol content to be about 8%.  Our goal is around 15% at the end of another few weeks of fermentation.

So the wine wasn't ready for Christmas, but...

Turkey!  Delicious turkey for the omnivores!  You can also see our roommates Patrick (his prescription sunglasses are the only glasses he has right now) and Willow.  Willow, who I last mentioned as someone that no-one had met yet, is fabulous and, due to her obsessive dish-washing, makes a perfect roommate.

We had Christmas dinner "Quebec-style," according to Sara, which meant that we had dinner and presents on the evening of December 24th, which was also my 25th birthday.  Ander was visiting family for Christmas, but Sara's girlfriend Razan spent her holiday break with us, so we still had a full house, but...

At the end of December, Willow, Tomko and I moved out of the Farmhouse.  Willow moved back with her family to Winnipeg, and Tomko and I are staying in Olympia, Washington, making plans of where to go next.

Good luck, Farmhouse!  I hope you find new and amazing roommates!  I hope spring finds your garden better than ever, and the city stays out of your gardening-business.  Happy 2011.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

First snows at the Farmhouse

Ander and I went on a day-trip to Olympia on Friday, and when we returned the next day we were driving past Seattle and on towards the Canadian border when we saw that the trees on the side of the curvy road looked weirdly lit. Then we realized that they were covered in snow.

When we got back to the Farmhouse, the entire garden was covered over with snow. It's still covered with snow. Actually, it is currently dumping even more snow on it from the sky.

Garden status update: The kale, chinese greens, and other leafy greens everywhere are sadly frozen solid. The broccoli and brussel sprouts we have a little more hope for unthawing, and if not we'll just eat them. The grains that we hadn't finished harvesting yet (amaranth and flax) are ruined, I assume. Two beds had already gotten sheet-mulched, but the rest were still going so well that we didn't want to pull everything up. I don't know a lot about sheet-mulching yet, but I bet we're just going to mulch over everything once the snow melts.

I sure hope the snow melts. It can't snow straight from now until March, can it?

Our newest roommate Willow moved in on Monday, and we now have a full house.

The greenhouse generally stays above freezing. There's some kale babies in there right now, I know, and a basil plant that we rescued before the snow. We'll be trying to sprout some winter peas, cabbage, and other hardy plants soon enough. Ander and I have already filled the trays with some good dirt, and now we just have to find a warmer place for the trays to sit for germination. (The greenhouse is warmer than the outside, but not that warm.) Maybe we will do this soon, because it'll get the seedling project out of the processing kitchen.

The Farmhouse has two kitchens. They're both pretty standard (fridge, oven, stove, countertops, sink), but the upstairs one is more frequently used. The downstairs kitchen was covered in junk because the basement flooded and Sara's furniture was still in the kitchen until her room was re-carpeted. Well, happy day, that was yesterday, and now I think I will spend today getting that kitchen into better shape.

Whyyy, you may ask! Well, the downstairs kitchen is where we can process our harvests and other big projects. Our next big project, which we have just finished gathering equipment for, is wine-making from fruit. (Grapes, pears, apples... you could make Apple-JalapeƱo Wine, if you were so inclined.)

Tonight we will obtain enough fruit to get started on the wine. It was supposed to be today, but yesterday was a bust. That's not true: I did get a wine corker from a very nice pair of Swiss men who gave me recommendations about how to distill wine without a still and told me stories about their many landlords. And I drove two composters over to Ander's cafe. But still, we need more fruit.

Also planned for tomorrow, the pickling of green beans and perhaps beets. Mmmm, pickled beets.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Life in the Farmhouse

Firstly, I have a horrible cold with a hacking congested wheezing sort of cough that I really wish would go away. Anyway...

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Here is where we may be living until February!

The Farmhouse doesn't actually look like that anymore: Many plants are gone for the winter, and the grass/concrete sidewalk business has been replaced with an INFINITE AMOUNT OF WOOD CHIPS. Excess wood chips are still chilling out in the backyard. They are also just starting up their blog; you can tell from the single entry.

The Farmhouse consists of Sara, Ander, Dan, and now Patrick, Tomko, myself, and soon another person named Willow that no one has ever met before. The collective house has existed for five years or more. "We are here to garden this fucking place, not destroy it," a sign in the kitchen says. We make mostly-vegetarian/vegan meals, as much out of the garden as we can muster at this late stage. We're going to be putting winter seedlings out into the greenhouse soon. I've been painting and cleaning out the shed. Maybe we will make wine in the basement over the winter. We could do all sorts of things.

Our future plan, which doesn't have much solidity at this point, involves Mary Tully leaving Baltimore in February, Patience's poor little engine being rebuilt this winter, and Latin America. In preparation for this plan, Tomko and I are trying to find jobs in Vancouver to make some money over the winter. Tomorrow, everyone has the day off except Patrick and the household is going on an adventure to Pender Island to pick up Byzantium and hang out on the ferries.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A month on Quadra Island

It's been a month since I updated.  Quadra Island has internet access at a few places (the HBI pub, a coffee shop...) but it's incredibly spotty even at those locations.  Allegedly there is cell reception out on Rebecca Spit, but I never actually checked.

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Quadra is a fairly large island, sandwiched between big Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland in Discovery Passage, which I assume is named after the ship belonging to Captain Vancouver.

Of all the Discovery Islands (Quadra, Cortes, West and East Redonda, Read, and some others), Quadra is the closest to being civilization.  It has several paved roads, an RCMP office, community center, and schools up to grade 10.  There are two towns worth calling such--Q. Cove, where the ferry lands from Vancouver Island, and Heriot Bay, where the ferry takes you to Cortes Island.  We're staying in Granite Bay, which I think is the third-largest town on the island for loose definitions of towns.  It's logging territory, where the public lands on Quadra have been leased to logging companies.  A good number of people I've met have once been tree-planters.  Logging companies need to replant trees after logging, and so people set off with a pack full of trees and a shovel and get paid by the tree.  Tree-planting camps seem to be overrun by hippies and dogs, because all of the dogs I've met have also come from tree-planting camps.

We were staying with Emily and Sam.  Emily runs around doing permaculture landscaping and all sorts of things largely in other peoples' yards.  Sam is a carpenter and cabinetmaker who's making an addition onto his shop.  Sam makes a great host because he's crazier and friendlier than most other people you'll run into, and Emily does the responsible things to make sure that the farm doesn't collapse, god bless her.

Permaculture!  What is it?  Uhhhhh... people sort of pause here, but let me just take some examples from the farm and you'll see.  Permaculture seems to involve two things to me:  (a) making the land and animals work for you instead of having to utilize excessive time, effort, and machinery and (b) making closed systems so that you do not have to bring in outside products such as chemical fertilizers.

Emily and Sam have (did have, when they are carved up into delicious bacon in two days) three pigs that they keep penned in with an electric fence.  The electric fence can easily be moved, and the pigs are taken over to garden beds to root through them after the harvest is done in that area.  (There are three garden areas for spring, summer, and fall crops.)  Instead of having to till up the soil, the pigs do it for them with astounding thoroughness.  Pigs also can be used to clear land.  When we collected bruised and bug-gnawed apples, we would hurl them into the blackberry patches for the pigs to dig into and trample.  Go, pig tractors, go!

You can also have chicken tractors (chickenwire boxes on skids that will allow chickens to nibble bugs and grass below them).  Anyone who's seen a crowded chicken coop knows that the ground beneath the chickens turns into a grassless, muddy slop after a while.  Sam and Emily don't have this problem because their chicken coop covers an area the size of the average suburban lot, including little bits of different areas--the swampy wetlands, the forest underbrush, and some nice grassy areas around the chicken coop.  The only place that the chickens have dug up all the foliage is right next to the gate, where they drop the chicken food.

Permaculture would suggest that you would send a series of animals through your land to make a forest viable farmland.  Maybe (I'm speculating here), you'd start with the pigs, who can even knock down trees if you put some tasty food treats into holes around the roots, then put in some goats to take care of most of the remaining foliage, and then the chickens to run clean-up.  Each of the animals deposits manure, which fertilizes the soil for better crop-growing later.

After the pigs ran through their summer garden, we went through to make sure it was done.  (Domesticated pigs do not really like to eat cooch grass rhizomes, which are Emily's invasive public enemy number one, so we removed a number by hand.  She is thinking about getting a wild boar to solve this problem.)  We piled the rhizomes into a big compost pile, then put five or six wheelbarrows full of seaweed put on top for the proper nitrogen and carbon ratios.  (These ratios are some of the tricky, science-y stuff that Emily had to study at permaculture school.)  Then we sowed fall rye onto the ground and spent a few days chasing blue jays off from the seeds.  (The dogs know the command "bad birds!  go get bad birds!" which makes it a lot easier than running into the field from the house every two minutes.  I threw dirt at them all day while digging up potatoes.)  The fall rye is an excellent crop because it can live through the British Columbian winter into the spring.  At this point, instead of being harvested, the soil is going to be turned over to return the rye to the earth.  The rye processes the nitrogen in the soil left behind by the pig manure, adding its own nitrogen content, and prevents the nitrogen from leeching out over the winter.  The winter, which is very wet and rainy, would otherwise wash away all the valuable nutrients left by the pigs before the garden is re-planted the following spring.

Another component of permaculture.  I am now at the Farmhouse in Vancouver reading The Humanure Handbook, which is the big treatise on composting toilets.  Composting toilets are pretty normal to me now, but it'd be nice to know more about them.  You can read the book to read about the horrors wrought by modern sewage systems, but composting toilets are a good option because:

1.  Properly run, they barely have any smell, unlike a traditional outhouse, which is pretttty unpleasant to get used to.
2.  They convert sewage into usable compost over time.

At its simplest, a composting toilet is a five gallon bucket with a toilet seat attached.  It can also get a bit fancier, as you can see from these guys.  The important thing is layering the fecal matter between layers of another medium to add carbon content, since feces are almost entirely nitrogen.  Melissa in Virginia dug humus from the forest floor; Sam on Quadra used wood shavings from his shop's planer; the Farmhouse in Vancouver uses used coffee grounds from one housemate's job as a barista.  After a day or so of usage, the bucket is dumped into a designated compost pile outside, which also surprisingly has no noticeable smell.  (It's technically illegal to do in the city of Vancouver, but out of all the things that the Farmhouse's neighbors complain about, no one has noticed it yet.)  If anyone cares, I'll report back more once I actually finish reading the book instead of just the first twenty pages.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Tomatoes and chickens have been everywhere we went, except there were no chickens on the homestead at Refuge Cove.   So here's what I know and have learned about them so far.

Chickens are gross and dumb.  They will eat basically anything, so if you keep chickens you can keep two types of compost:  One with egg shells and other things that chickens shouldn't eat, and one that isn't actually compost because the chickens will eat it--rotten tomatoes, y'know, whatever you have.  Besides that, they need store-bought type food:  scratch, for throwing out into their pen and having them peck at it, and a grain mixture called mash.  The type of mash depends on the age of the birdies, e.g., laying hens should be fed "lay mash", and early babies should be fed "starter mash."  For hens that are laying eggs, we would throw in crushed oyster shells, which would increase the strength of their eggs.

Some chickens are nice.  Some chickens peck.  Some chickens are pissed off all the time.  According to rumour, there is a positive correlation between how much space they have and how nice they are, which would make sense, but even then you are going to have easily irritated ones who peck your hand when you try to reach under them for eggs.  In this case, stick something over their head.  A largish yogurt container works pretty well.

More on chickens being gross.  Chickens will poop all over everything, including their eggs, even if you try to collect them every 12 hours.  You have to do this because otherwise the chickens will attack their or each others' eggs, I'm not exactly clear on this.  Also, once one chicken starts laying eggs somewhere, all the rest of the chickens jump on the egg-laying bandwagon and try to lay their eggs there, even if it is a really filthy corner behind their feed barrels.  This is why you'll find a bunch of eggs under one hen in the evening--she didn't lay all those in the last twelve hours, she just was the most recent one to jump onto the eggs and start laying there.

After you collect the eggs, they are covered in dirt and chicken poop and who knows what else. However, they have some sort of magical air-tight coating that will keep them sterile for three weeks, unrefrigerated.  This is because a chicken wants to have a whole bunch of chicks at the same time, but isn't going to lay all the eggs in one day.  She'll lay eggs, then wander off, peck at food, lay some more, etc... and then when she decides that she has enough egg, she'll actually sit on them and heat them up to the point that (a) the air-tight coating will disappear and (b) they'll start incubating into chicken-babies.  (This is also why you want to take the eggs away from her every 12 hours, before she does this.)  So once you collect the eggs, they can sit out in their basket for a few days before you wash them with no ill effects.

Then you wash them in warm water and allow them to dry.  If they aren't dry before they go into the egg cartons, then they'll stick and crack when you try to take them out.  Then you have a carton of eggs!  Horray!

Chickens are still gross.

The way that I've been told to deal with the baby chicklets is "feed them and leave them alone," more or less.  So I don't know much, but I do know:  You can order day-old chicken babies in the mail.  In the mail!  For like $1.50/each or something.  Turkey babies are more expensive, like $4/bird because turkeys are so retardedly inbred that they do not know how to mate and must be artificially inseminated.  (At this point, the species should just die.  Seriously, them and pandas too.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pender Island

We woke up in Courtenay, after I stayed up past 3am sending out messages to new WWOOF hosts.  Later, when I thought about the fact that no one checks their e-mail and responds to it early in the morning before check-out at the hostel (10:30), so I set Tomko to making phone calls to some other host listings while I took a shower.

Shower was a general fiasco (dropping my magic soap in the hallway, spending a lot of time diluting it enough to mop it up) and the manager just said to shove our key under the office door and make sure the main door was locked on our way out.  Thanks, awesome manager boy!  Their British WWOOFer hostel-monkeys were also very nice.  A++, Cona.

When I arrived from the shower, Tomko had two sort-of successes:  A woman from Pender Island and a man from Quadra Island had both said, "Maybe, I need to check my computer to see what other WWOOFers are coming by."  When Tomko named the farm that the man came from, I recognized it on two counts:  (1) they're friends of the Parkers (from Refuge Cove) and (2) their profile says no smoking on the property.  (Most profiles pick the "on the property but not in house" option.)  I did not think that option appealed to Tomko, so I called the other person.

Ellen said that it would be fine, but she had two WWOOFers already... oh, and a third one just walked into the door.  Paul, who we met later, had just landed on Pender Island the day before, bought a Westphalia, logged onto the internet from the library a mile from Ellen's house, saw her profile, drove up to her gate and called to see if she wanted extra WWOOFers.  Sure, why not!

So we packed up from the hostel and headed south for our next ferry from Sidney.

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I indulged in sushi to improve our day, and we made it to the ferry with two hours to spare.  I spent those two hours sitting in the ferry lane, pulling everything out of Byzantium and re-packing, since things had become pretty discombobulated with all our moving around and I hadn't re-packed properly since crossing the border.  Now everything has a place and is where it goes.

Once off the ferry, Ellen's house was just as easy to find as she said it was.  We pulled up to the gate around dusk and I called the house, where Ellen's partner, Rob, explained how to open the gate.  He called it a cougar gate.  Apparently there are cougars around these parts.  (We had been warned of cougars before.  If you see one, look big, spread out your jacket, and don't make direct eye contact, they say.)

Ellen and Rob had a couple over as guests for dinner, in addition to the rest of the WWOOFers--Paul, who I mentioned before; Remy, a boy from France, and a Quebecouis girl whose name I haven't quite figured out.  Frank, who lives a 20-minute walk down the road, arrived during dinner preparations and displayed a newly-acquired black widow bite.  "Did you go to a doctor?"  "No?"  Well, uh, okay dude, but that looks pretty unpleasant.

Dinner was amazingly delicious, conversation was nice, and everyone seemed pretty fabulous.  Frank showed us the caravan where we are staying--small room with electricity, lights, and a space heater that only kind of works, but about twice as good as sleeping in a tent.  (We may be sleeping in a tent later when more WWOOFers show up, since they pre-arranged and therefore "called" it... although maybe Paul will let us sleep in his Westy?  Endless possibilities I am sure.)

In the morning, we learned the morning feeding routine for the animals:  half a bale of hay and two buckets of barley with added minerals for the goats (about 15-20), half a Folger's can of Llama Tex for the llama, more barley for the sheep (5 of them), water and chicken feed for the laying chickens (about 80), special baby chicken food for the three-week old chicklets (swarming everywhere in their heated coop, numbers unknown).  Eggs are collected and washed.

Then our activity for the day was getting two large Douglas fir trees worth of logs from where they had been cut down to the wood shed where Remy could split them with the gasoline-powered splitting machine.  This involved getting into the goat/sheep/llama pen (which covers enough area that I can't see far enough to tell you how big it is), throwing them down the hill until they hit the fence (or careen off and roll somewhere further down the hill where you don't want them to be, dammit), then unhooking part of the fence that connected to the garden, pushing them through one-by-one, and then walking backwards to roll them carefully down the garden path without smashing the tomatoes.  There are many tomatoes.

We were amazing and then had lunch followed by delicious baked apples with walnuts and vanilla ice cream. Mmmmm yeah.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Refuge Cove

When we left Herbwise, this involved a bunch of ferries.  We drove north up the coast to the town of Campbell River, and took a ferry to Quadra Island, drove across it, took a second ferry to Cortes Island, drove across it, and parked at a government dock called Squirrel Cove.

Squirrel Cove has a dock and a general store.  The general store is very general, containing a liquor store, laundromat, shower facilities, and so on.  When we parked, we went to its parking lot since the dock is not exactly something I felt I should be driving on.  We were opening up the car and looking at its contents and wondering what we should bring with us when someone walked up to us.

"I can't see your license plate," he said.

"Oh, sorry," I said without thinking, and pulled my trunk down so you could see the back license plate.

"Kylara?  I'm Jim Parker."

Oh!  That was why he wanted to know.  No-one else would have Maryland tags.  He explained that I should, in fact, drive my car down the dock and then we could unload into his sailboat and then we could be off.  We did so, and then I had an adventure trying to turn my car around in the narrow dock without killing myself or running into anything at all rather than just trying to back up very very straight for 150 feet.

Eventually we got underway.  After a few minutes, he handed the tiller to Tomko and told him to figure out how it worked.  When he did (hint:  It is opposite of how non-boat-thinking people may think), they gave it to me.  It was explained that we should know this for just in case there was an emergency, as there is no such thing as a hospital or fire department or, in fact, roads on West Redonda Island.

Actually there is one road.  Jim made it.  It goes from the beach right next to their dock up to their house.  There are trails and other things, but that is the only one that you can drive a normal vehicle on.  Jim uses it for his excavator and four-wheeler since I don't think the rest of the vehicles are workable.

The area they live in, Refuge Cove, is 183 acres owned by 18 shareholders of a co-op.  Sherry is one of them, and has lived there for pretty much her adult life.  Jim has been there more than 20 years.  They have a pretty awesome house and a number of out-buildings:  the outhouse, of course; and also the triangle-shaped barbecue hut for cooking over a fire in the rain; the hot tub and deck where Jim watches the boats and smokes cigarettes; the washhouse where the laundry, shower, and sauna live; the wood shop; the metal working shop; the bathhouse which is more like a processing place for the graywater from the house to be used for watering plants.  I am probably missing something.  But basically that is it.

While we were there, we did many things!  Mostly we pulled up infinite plants from the ground.  We cleared out the entire orchard perimeter so that a new fence could be put up, and also the ditch on the side of the road.  (The road used to be a dry river bed so it wants to flood every time it rains.)  Also some other places.  It was an impressive feat and I learned about some of the fauna but I think I destroyed a lot more than I can identify.  There are outrageous amounts of moss.  All sorts of different kinds of moss.  Fuzzy moss, spikey moss, furry moss, and so on.  Fern-like moss.  Moss that probably has its own time-share in some other appropriately wet, moss-inhabited place.

I may describe more of this later but really, I am tired from today.  Today, Jim had to go to a doctor in town (a boat ride and two ferries away) so he dropped us off at our car in Squirrel Cove before jumping into his own van and leaving.  We realize:  Tomko left our keys sitting on a nail in the bathhouse, back on Refuge Cove.

I run into a guy, Tom, that we had met a few days before while helping another resident of Refuge Cove move.  He was heading back and gave me a ride.  I walked up to the house and got my keys.  Sherry walked me over to "downtown Refuge Cove", which includes a general store and some floathouses (like, maybe five) and a dock.  I was told that some people were going around 2:30pm, tried to fiangle some other rides, then gave up and waited.  Now there is no way we can make the ferry to our next destination today.  However, if we want to make the ferry off this island, we need to leave in about ten minutes.  So I'll have some more internet later.