My happy place: the Greenhouse

My happy place: the Greenhouse

Hopefully this won’t jinx the whole thing but I am starting this post before we finish the greenhouse – since it is taking so long!!!

I really cannot think of anyone who would dislike greenhouses but for me, greenhouses are my happy place and this greenhouse has been in the works since we bought the house. After purchase we asked my brother-in-law to check out the part of the garden/house where we wanted so we could build the greenhouse before we had even arrived in Canada. Fortunately, he told us to wait until we arrived since it would be complicated, and he was right. 

Originally, we wanted a greenhouse attached to the house. We were in contact with BC Greenhouse and they designed one for us based on our specifications. BC Greenhouse delivers greenhouses into kits and you assemble them yourself. The greenhouses are $15’000 for a basic model and can get much more expensive. The attached greenhouse was expensive but that isn’t why we had to scap the idea, there ended up being regulations restricting building a roof under where the electricity cables attach to the house, and the south side of the house is where our electricity cables attach to the house.  

We had the option of putting an electricity pole in the middle of our vegetable garden and then running the cables underground to the house, thereby removing the part of the roof where the cables attach, but that would have added an extra $10’000 to the budget. Also, I didn’t really want a pole in the middle of the garden. So we decided to buy a traditional model and put it the required distance from the house. 

Things did not get easier though. We wanted to place the greenhouse the permitted distance away from the house but in the same location but we already had a peach tree there which produced the most delicious peaches. Alternate locations were in front of the house (didn’t work because of the septic tank + field), or in the corner (didn’t work because of the same power lines), or on the edge (didn’t work because we needed a buffer between the property line and the structure). After many exchanges with the district and our contractors, we finally decided to go where the peach tree was. We then applied for the permit and settled on the second contractor we spoke to (the first just stopped e-mailing after sending us the quote…)

Now came the first fun part, moving the peach tree. I called 4 landscapers/tree care companies and none would move a tree. One said he would think about it for $500 but I should just do it myself with a digging machine and it would be easy. Well, instead, I watched a few YouTube videos and tried myself with Rob. I dug a huge hole where we wanted to put the peach tree, watered the peach tree for a couple of hours and then started digging around the peach tree. You can look at the pictures to figure out the rest! Surprisingly, however, the tree is doing well months later. We will prune off all flowers next year, as suggested by our neighbour Gerald to Rob, to make sure the tree puts all its energy into the roots and survives future years.

Then came the wait for the permit, the inspector’s visit and the foundation work. We loved our contractors, Trust in Trades, they helped with advice, getting the permit, and are generally great people. We’ll even use them for other projects like changing the siding on the house that also needs to be done soon.

There were so many steps to building a foundation. I hadn’t realized. The initial digging, making the forms for the footing, pouring the concrete for the footing, building the forms for the walls, pouring of the concrete for the walls, removing the forms and, finally, the backfill.

We had the option of paying a little more for parts of the greenhouse to be pre-assembled in the factory, and to have someone come to our place for 10hrs to guide us in building. Money well spent!!! Within 10hrs, Rob, the helper (who turned out to be the son of the owner of the company and had already built 1000’s of greenhouses) and my sister’s boyfriend, Kirk, built the whole thing in the 10hrs. Without getting those extra steps it would have taken us weeks to figure that kit out.

Then the concrete truck had to come back a third time for the pouring of the slab. We poured the slab after the greenhouse was built because of the weather conditions. It was never going to dry in November covered in snow. This meant that it had to be poured by 4 people carting wheelbarrows full of concrete from the truck to the greenhouse. It took a day and they sloped the slab on our request for drainage – there is a pipe from the middle of the greenhouse that drains to outside. Rob had stayed home every step of the construction to watch over things and help out but on that last day he came out with us. When we got home we all put our hand prints in the concrete 🙂

When the concrete dried we needed an electrician to come and hook everything up. In a couple of visits, an electrician sent to us by our contractors had the sub-panel, lights and 4 outlets installed. The outlets power 2 heaters/fans that we run in there. We hesitated between propane, a wood stove, heated flooring, solar panels or electric heaters for heating and settled on the electric heaters. There isn’t enough sun in our valley for solar panels and we couldn’t keep a wood stove running 24/7 for months, not to mention how hard it would be to control the temperature. Electric is also cheaper than propane so we chose electric. When nothing is growing but we don’t want the plants to die we keep the minimum temperature 5-7°C in there, and when we will start to grow we will increase the temperature a bit and heat the soil with mats (since the temperature of the soil is what matters). The lights are also very bright and sufficient for seedlings, so we will not make a germination chamber for seedlings. We will just grown on our tables and see how it goes.

If Monty Don has taught us anything about work in the garden, it is that a finished project needs to be celebrated. We also love our neighbours and it was an excuse to have people over. So we invited 12 neighbours over for drinks and food after completion. Sixteen of us fit comfortably inside and we stayed in there late into the night talking. A perfect way to pass from finishing the building to the PLANTING!! Oh, but first Rob needs to build a ton of tables of different heights and shelving for the 50 seed trays we will have growing in there. Good luck with the tables Rob and thanks for the greenhouse.

Canning, the silent killer

Canning, the silent killer

I wrote this post & title in harvest season but never posted it as I thought it was too negative. After reflection, it isn’t that bad and even if it was, I should be transparent about life here.

Well I totally and completely underestimated that part of farm living. It almost defeated me but I am still standing!

As I write this there are still plums in the fridge laughing at me, well they’ve been laughing for quite a long while, but I’ll get around to them, I hope.

Actually, when we made the big mistake of picking all the hundreds of peaches at the same time and a huge part of them went mouldy in the unplugged fridge in the basement (not sure how that happened) at first we were upset and afterwards I was quite relieved. We had already canned 20 jars, made jam, frozen bags and bags and given boxes away. Problem with peaches is that you have to peel them like tomatoes. They are so tasty and we were so incredibly lucky to have them but they were small and so more work to process. One thing I learned is that we should have been pruning the flowers/small peaches so that the other peaches would get bigger. Something to note for next year. 

Harvesting and freezing and canning is a constant stress on your mind. You pick the veggies/fruit and the canning book says that you need to preserve them immediately. How? Everything is getting ripe at the same time! And, it is still nice enough in late-summer/early autumn to enjoy the last days outside in the sun. Why would I want to spend 5 hours a day in front of a hot stove and getting all sticky with hot jam? And burning my hand repeatedly in the boiling jar water, then getting a huge wif of hot vinegar fumes and finally just being generally so stressed in the situation running from the jars to the veggies to the recipe and back in double-time. 

We ended up spending at least an evening a week, usually more, for the past 7 weeks, canning. We ended up with about 88 jars. At the beginning we did it together but now it’s just become work so we alternate. Rob is in charge of jams since I am in charge of bread. I mostly do the pickling. I screwed up that one a little since I have to make bread every few days all year and jams are only in harvest times… However, contrary to canning, bread is getting more fun to make now that it looks and tastes like actual artisanal bread and not loaf after loaf of accidental flat bread.

So what do we do next year when the harvest in the veggie garden is actually good? Not to mention having all the herbs process that we need to make a business with. After we put in the manure in the veggie bed I hope we will have more than this year’s stunted growth. Apparently the Douhkabours all get together and can in huge groups. My sister also told me her friend gets a WWOOFer to take care of the children during the day and she does canning marathons by herself. Well, neither of those sound like much more fun.

Then there is the question, how are we supposed to eat all these pickles?? It’s like, we have enough pickled peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, onions, etc. to have a can a week for the next year. Don’t get me wrong, we also canned tomato sauce, grape juice, tons of jams, plum sauce, etc. but there  is a very large quantity of pickled veggies. Are we supposed to change our diet to include more vinegar soaked veggies? Currently we eat pickled veggies at lunch with eggs and bread, any more than that and I think I’d get a hole in my stomach. We gave tons of jars away but we are trying to be self-sufficient here so the objective is to live on what we produce. 

The alternative to pickling is freezing of course, or drying, or storing without freezing. Storing without freezing is way too hard. Living in Switzerland we lost way too many veggies to mould when we didn’t store properly. The carrots in sand actually disappeared. Did mice eat them? Did they disintegrate? It was very strange. For veggies, freezing is the only viable alternative and with blanching and laying things on sheets to freeze properly, it’s almost as much work as canning. Drying is going to become life now with all the herbs and luckily I don’t mind that as much. It has to be a sunny day to pick herbs but I’ll need to make a nice processing table.

Anyway, I am happy we had such a good harvest but I’m especially happy canning, freezing and drying season is DONE!! Whoop whoop! (let’s just forget about those plums in the fridge, oh, and the ones still on the tree!)

Money.

Money.

You can dress it up as much as you want, “financing” or “funding” but it all comes down to the same thing. How are you buying your farm, buying all the many supplies and packaging and seeds and greenhouse and sustaining your life? Where is the money coming from?

So far we have been incredibly lucky. I spent the past 10 years saving a third of my paycheck in Switzerland (even when I really didn’t want to!) and Rob got an awesome consulting contract when Klara was born for a year, so that helped us tremendously. In addition, my old employer gave me a consulting contract when I left. It has been a few hours a week for 8 months but since it is a Swiss salary, it has been really helping.  Despite all that though, when I just put in all our receipts in excel I saw that we have already spent $96’000 here! That is only receipts that can be linked to the business!! Not including food, 1-2 times per week daycare, dental bills (there were a lot this year) or even including Sam’s birth that we paid for. I know it is normal starting a farm, especially with a greenhouse with a proper foundation and permit and a brand new walk-behind tractor, but I am still blown away.

How long will it take to get a return on these purchases?

But then I think. We didn’t come here to make money. We came here to get away from the 45 hour work-weeks and commuting and never seeing our family. We came here to reduce our footprint, eat better and help others eat better. We came here for so many reasons and none were linked to money. It’s hard though, it is very hard to spend your savings and pension (I was given my pension in cash when leaving Switzerland).

 And now I have applied for a temporary contract over the winter to give us a little extra income. It’s just 60% for 3 months, an easy job to learn Canadian Health & Safety legislation and practices, but it is really hard to think about getting it. Although, I am still in shock by our spending, I do not want to go back to work. Driving 40 min each way and not being able to invest all my free time (when children are sleeping or at daycare) in developing this business is hard to think about. This is winter though and there is very little to do outside on the farm, I need to take whatever work I can get.

Rob still cannot work or study in Canada. His permanent visa application is progressing but he still hasn’t had any confirmation and he is taking this very seriously. I have suggested an online FoodSafe course, since we need that anyway, and he won’t do it. I do understand though, if something screws up and he doesn’t get that permanent visa, our whole dream is gone before we’ve really started.

Another option is grants, normally you are not supposed to spend your own money on your business, this is a big mistake we might be making. I’ve looked around and haven’t found any grants that would apply for us. Even to fund our organic certification. However, there are surely some. How do other people start farms when they don’t have their pensions to help?

The reassuring part of it all is that if we don’t make a dime, if we lose our savings (I won’t spend all my pension!) then at least we can go back to work. We will just move back to a city and get normal jobs again. What a glorious time that would be! Need to stay positive so that never happens!!!

ADDITION: I got the job and I’ve just had my first day. The working days in this union job are 8am to 3:30pm so my working day is still in no way comparable to what I was doing before. Phew!

Goodbye piggies, see you on my plate

Goodbye piggies, see you on my plate

Well today was the day of slaughter for Billy and Bobby. It took weeks of searching to finally find someone who would come and kill them for us. We could and maybe should have done it ourselves, but we were in office jobs only months ago! This is a big step. Normally the “Kill Billies” do the killing around here but they retired. We were getting scared and Rob started looking up how to do it ourselves (meaning we’d have to borrow a gun) when our neighbours who are the local butchers gave us someone to contact. That person put us in contact with a young guy who used to work in a slaughterhouse and now wanted to make this a business. So he came over and did it for the first time privately, meaning he came with no equipment other than a rope, bar, knives and a gun.

So you might be interested in how it went in case you want to do this yourself, or are just curious. If you aren’t then you probably don’t want to read this post.
Paul (I’ll give him that name as I don’t think this guy is registered as a business yet), came over this morning at 7:50am just as Rob was putting the final touches on a 9-foot high A-frame hoist he made (in a bit of a panic I must say as it was a bit wobbly). We asked around for a tractor with a bucket on it that could lift to 9-feet but couldn’t find one so had to build the frame. We weren’t supposed to feed the pigs for 24hrs before to have their stomachs empty, but Rob gave them some hog grower pellet food soaked in half a bottle of brandy just before anyway, to calm them down. Other things we needed were a hose nearby, a place to put the guts/skin/head (which was put in our compost and covered with considerable horse manure that we had gotten from a neighbour), and the truck beside ready to go. Rob also setup the walk-behind tractor to use with the hoist to pull up the pig.

I went to help finish the wobbly A-frame as Klara watched some cartoons and then when I was back inside, at 8:39am, I heard the gunshot. It took them an hour and a half to drain the blood on the field, drag the pig from the pen across a patch of grass and down to the truck, hoist it up (the walk-behind only helped a tiny bit) and cut it up. The second (bigger) pig waited in the field. No screaming or even anything from that pig. Maybe that was due to the brandy.

When I returned from dropping Klara at preschool, with Sam sleeping in the back of the car on this cool autumn day, I wandered down to help. Paul was sawing the pig in half and bagging each half in a white cloth.

They told me they’d need help with the second pig as it was too big. Paul even asked me to call the butcher and ask if we could bring it whole dead pig there and use their hoist as the three of us + tractor wouldn’t be able to pull it up. Even if it did, would our wobbly A-frame hoist support the weight? When I was walking to the house to make the call (which was fine with the butcher in the end, they are good friends to have!), Rob called out and asked if I wanted to see them kill the second pig. I said yes.
When I returned Rob was scattering pellets on the ground and Paul was taking aim with the rifle. He made a mental X between the ears and eyes (do not shoot between the eyes he said) and shot. With one shot in the brain it was obvious the pig was dead immediately. How awful to watch. It was a first for me and quite a shock. I pictured the life leaving the pig as it twisted and turned on the ground for a good few minutes. After 2minutes Paul put a knee on the neck of the pig, facing away from me. I thought he must be tender at heart after all as he was holding the shaking pig down. Rob even followed and held the back down. I came closer and walked around the pig and realized Paul hadn’t been holding it down but slitting its throat, there was a large pool of blood forming around the big slit.

After a few more minutes it was time to drag the pig. They each took a foot and told me to grab the ear. We needed to drag it headfirst to avoid pulling against the grain of the hair, as it would make the dragging harder. Rob could hardly get a handle on the ear on the first pig so before I grabbed it Paul poked a hole in the ear and told me to put my finger through to use it as a handle!!! No way. I said there was no way I was putting my finger through a hole in the pig’s ear. Definitely not after the shock of seeing my first animal killed. So Rob did it. He was also a little shocked I think but he had to kill chickens and rabbits, etc. during survival camp in the military. I guess just the fact that he was in the military helps. When I was dragging the pig by the foot the skin felt so human. When they stopped for a break I just held on to the foot for a while, it was so strange. Then we very awkwardly lifted it into the back of the truck using the wheelbarrow and off they went to the butcher.

At the butcher, they had to wait a while. Another man and family showed up at the same time with a dead elk in the back of their truck. They had gutted it and skinned it before – not sure where. Paul and Rob were able to use a proper hoist though and did what they needed before putting the half-pigs in a large freezer containing a cow, sheep, and now elks and pigs. We have to wait 10 days for the cuts, they seem to have good business!

Rob returned with the innards/skin for the compost as the butcher didn’t want to put those in his garbage, we kept the feet for the dogs. We had three pages of possible cuts of meat to choose from so Rob just chose a variety. 3 hams in one side, bacon, various kinds of sausages, etc. Now we wait.

I will miss the piggies. I will miss putting any and all food waste in the pig bucket in the kitchen (except bones and citrus pretty much) and having to go feed them twice a day. I’ll miss them escaping all the time and seeing Rob flip out whenever they break through the fence. I’ll miss worrying about them in the night and hearing them smash into the metal fencing as they fight. But, I’ll enjoy them in my plate and I know for sure we’ll get more some day. They did do a fantastic job of digging up and fertilizing the field we put them in. Goodbye piggies.

Fitting in, in the Slocan Valley

Fitting in, in the Slocan Valley

Slocan Lake, as seen from Idaho Peak

Most of my postings make it sound like we are completely isolated here. I did enjoy having time as a family when we arrived but we are by no means alone. The valley in which we live, the town, even the neighbourhood, are all full of very interesting people and things to do. The thing is, everybody is so very different from each other.

I’ve been trying to learn more about the area, reading about the Doukhobors (Russian pacifists who were exiled and setup communities in the valley where we live), the Sons of Freedom (a sect of the Doukhobors who set fire to their own homes while standing naked in protest to the government, had their children taken away to residential schools and who made terror attacks), also reading about the Japanese interment camps that were setup to take Japanese during WWII (but the Japanese had to build their own homes with no insulation and had little food the first winter). This valley has a lot of history and I don’t remember learning about it in school.

One thing I don’t know much about is aboriginal people. So when my sister sent me the link for a free 8-week program learning about aboriginal culture I jumped at it. Topics to be discussed were herbal baths and ethnobotanical education, perfect! I signed up without another thought. Two weeks later I looked up the dates to put them in my calendar and came across another part of their website. It reads, “Who: self-identified Indigenous cis women and their families, as well as other marginalized populations such as trans, 2 spirited and intersex women.” Apparently, the course is about learning to deal with trauma. This is about the trauma the aboriginal people faced in their lives or past generations. While I am very glad this workshop exists, I am also very glad that I didn’t show up there the first day as unaware as I was! How embarrassed I would have been to be selfishly there just to learn about herbs in their culture.

Some of the people around are very different to those that I’ve met before, especially in Europe. I love Europeans (why I lived there for 11 years and live with one here!) and I am Canadian and grew up in Canada, but these are not Europeans or Vancouverites. There are real hippies here, many people who grew weed for years and years to sell (and who think our herbs are weed despite our explanations), others who take drugs for spiritual journeys, and those who arrived here buying a section of forest and did absolutely everything themselves by hand. Some people live in Nelson and see others every day; some live on their remote land and see others only when absolutely necessary.
I’ve had people tell me I look different, maybe that’s my Belgian heritage, and maybe some think our commercial approach is be boring, but we are having no issues making friends and really like and respect our new friends and neighbours.

The thing about life here in the Slocan Valley and the Kootenays is that because people are so different, as long as you respect them and their history and differences, it seems that you can live together and appreciate each other.

Little Slocan Lake, where a family with 100 sheep, etc. lived in isolation for decades

As for selling herbs, no matter their background, most people respect their bodies and mental health. Therefore, for people here and elsewhere, we need to find out which herbs help people instead of just what is easiest to grow.

The home birth

The home birth

Waiting for the big day

What a relaxing experience. It was so lucky that neither baby nor I had any complications, that we had the most amazing midwife/gynaecologist, and that this was my second child. I think if any of those things had been different, the whole experience would have been different, but it wasn’t. 

My mom was visiting and had been around for days, we were doing various projects and hanging out. It was pretty relaxed. After a shockingly painful first birth (it wasn’t bad compared to others but the pain sure took me by surprise when I thought I’d rather die than continue and even after a course I had no idea how to manage contractions), I was expecting the worst. I was two days overdue so received a sweep from my midwife during our appointment the day before. The midwife prepared me to be induced the following week, she said I was pretty far off as the baby hadn’t dropped and my cervix was back and closed. Saw my neighbour in the grocery store afterwards and she gave me the ingredients to a labour cocktail (which thankfully I didn’t need) so I bought all that to prepare at home. Then Rob and I went around running tons of errands in Nelson, ate spicy thai for lunch, I drank tons of fluids and finished up paperwork in the evening. So I went to bed relaxed. At 4am my period cramp style cramping contractions woke me up. After 30min I started to time them and they were about 5min apart so I woke Rob up. He made me eggs for breakfast (which I later threw up…) and I called the midwife at 5am. No answer. So I ate and bounced on a ball and called again at 5:45. No answer again.

I was a bit concerned but it was still early days so no panic. Finally at 6:15 the midwife on call phoned and told me she’d sent the two midwives on the day shift to see me. One called and said I was still early so she’d be by at 10am. A little shocked at first, I realized this is what I needed to expect from a home birth.

Out for a walk between contractions

Meanwhile I took a bath for an hour, walked around the garden in a robe and sat on the love seat swing in our garden (where I threw up after a particularly bad contraction in front of a very confused Klara). At 10:30am the midwife arrived and said I was 5cm dilated. Apparently I had already been 2cm the day before but all other signs had showed that I was far off. 

Then the midwife left to an appointment in the nearest town 10 minutes away.

Rob prepared the bed and we thought it might be time for my mom and Klara to head off to my sister’s place for the day. It was impossile to keep things together in front of Klara, even though my mom was occupying her.  

I was told not to take another bath as things might progress too quickly. So I sat on a ball in the bathroom and listened to a hypnobirthing youtube video. First time listening to the whole thing and it was quite relaxing to listen as I breathed through contractions.

An hour later my favourite midwife showed up at the house with all her equipment. She set everything up for a while: the baby emergency equipment station in the bedroom, all the supplies, etc. After a while of hanging out she put in my antibiotics at 1pm (needed them as I had that bacteria they test for).

It was just so weird: the whole time though I was still able to breath through contractions and felt relaxed.

At 2pm, I was still traumatized from my first birth and expecting things to get crazy so I asked for my water to be broken. The midwife called the second midwife to tell her to come back from her appointments and we all went to the bedroom, after I thew up again with another bad contraction, and the midwife broke my water. 

I lay on the bed for a couple of contractions but it was too painful so I asked to stand up and put my hands on the bed. I even asked if I could deliver this way (since in Switzerland for Klara in the hospital there didn’t seem to be another choice than to lie in the hospital bed to push). So I stood there and moaned while the liquids poured out of me. After 4 contractions I felt the baby already dangling between my legs (yes, without the epidural you feel everything!). I asked Rob to take pictures or describe things but he was in shock and had forgotten the phone downstairs. Not that I’d post those pics here…

Then the baby was out! Rob didn’t even have time to catch him! (the midwife did 😉

See what I mean about relaxed? We just went step by step. The second midwife got stuck behind a hay delivering truck on the road so only arrived as they baby came out. She heard “it’s a boy” as she walked up the stairs to the bedroom.

It took 30min for my placenta to come out but I was ecstatic that it was over so didn’t mind the moving and pushing, etc.

The following part was a bit painful though. After managing the birth I decided to go through the 4 separate stitches I needed without anesthetic. Ow!

I lay on the bed for the next 4 hours with our new little Samuel trying to nurse and cuddling him while the midwife cleaned my legs and they both did paperwork. Rob had to go outside and take care of the animals. Sam was 55cm and the midwife had to measure him twice to be sure, he is quite a big baby.

I really never thought it possible but what a relaxing experience! After all that back and forth a home birth was 100% worth it. Sam also turned out to be the calmest baby I could ever imagine and in great health so I am so very grateful.

Finally we are live and taking orders online! Welcome and enjoy!
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