From City Life to Living in the Back Country with No Power: Why I Choose to Live off Grid
We experience a strange sort of technological whiplash these days, travelling between our lives on the farm and our teaching jobs in the city.
My husband and I have taught for many years, balancing these additional jobs with the creation of Larch Grove Farm, a human-powered organic farm, over the past ten years. We live and teach in a really cold climate, and our off-farm work has helped immeasurably in outfitting our life on the farm, helping us to survive those cold winters.
Commuting from the farm to the city is an exercise in astonishment. When we get to our day jobs, there’s hot running water right from the mains, as much of it as we want! During the summers, when we rely on our outdoor solar shower at the farm, we learn to carefully monitor our water use so that we’re not consuming wastefully, but during the winters, our teaching jobs put us back in the city where there are far more amenities around us at all times. That’s when we find ourselves marveling at the ability to turn a handle and have a ten-minute shower without running a tank dry. The water appears and disappears so simply that it’s easy not to pause and consider how much water we might be using. It’s also an incredibly luxury to walk into our classrooms and hear the whoosh of forced-air heating or the click of huge electric radiators during the coldest days. Out at the farm, we heat with a catalytic converting wood stove, and the old adage proves constantly true: wood warms you twice, once upon cutting, and again upon burning! If we don’t wake up in the middle of a cold night to uncover the banked coals and lay on some splits of birch, by dawn, the cabin gets a bit frosty (our winters in the north country are eight months long and routinely see at least one week with -50C windchill).
We love living off the grid, though, in spite of its challenges, and our goal is to make ourselves as self-sufficient as possible in our province, Alberta, that is so heavily reliant on oil and gas. We like breaking the dependence on Tar Sands fuel in our home, fuel that continues to prove harmful to the environment around us through earthquakes due to fracking or environmental breakdown due to pipeline spills. We currently power our few electric lights with the help of a three-panel Coleman solar array, and we’ve got big plans to expand the array over the coming years so that we can run a well pump and not have to truck in any of our washing water. We’re hoping to expand to a better baking stove that will also heat our cabin, the dry warmth making the long winters bearable, cooking our food and baking our bread, and perhaps even heating our water with the addition of a hot water jacket. Because we live on a quarter section (160 acres) of nearly untouched boreal forest, there’s plenty of deadfall, and we won’t worry about running out of firewood any time soon. And we’ve begun keeping bees, partly for their delicious honey, but also for their beeswax, which we use to make tapers to brighten the cabin in a way that’s easier on the eyes and the systems of the body than long evenings spent in the glare of electric light.
Out at the farm, we’re off-grid by necessity, but it’s evolved into a lifestyle. Our nearest power hookup to the county grid is a half mile away, and the cost of putting in connector poles would far outdistance the cost of the biggest and best solar array. But we figured, as long as we’re going to go off grid, why not make it into a way of life whereby we’re always aware of how much we’re impacting the earth? We’re planning some upgrades to our cabin, for instance, designed to let us see exactly how much we’re consuming. We already use grey water for watering plants, but our new cistern will allow us to see just how much we use on a weekly basis, and it will be pumped out onto recently planted trees and the flower garden by the cabin to provide extra irrigation. We’ve reduced our appliances down to the absolute minimum needed for comfort and convenience, and we’re looking forward to installing a well pump and a small washing machine to make off-grid life a little simpler in our cold winters. We’ve had a composting toilet for a decade and plan to continue using one as we upgrade our cabin. Although some folk cringe at the thought of a sawdust toilet, it’s never proven a hygiene problem, and – let’s face it – we all waste a lot of top-notch drinking water in the city by flushing away human waste. Our composting toilet is very effective, and it lets us return our human compost to the forest, where it supports the growth of ornamental trees. The cabin we live in helps us to really understand the effect our consumption of resources has on the earth – we see exactly what we take, we’re aware from the bodily exertion of chopping wood how much heating material we use, and we see what we return to the land around us by way of compost and grey water irrigation.
Becoming conscious consumers of natural resources was a very deliberate choice. When working in the nearby city, we became increasingly aware of how much we constantly consume in an urban setting. Nobody measures water use unless you’ve got a few teenagers in the house and the meter is spinning around on a daily basis with half-hour-long showers. Nobody pauses before pulling the the plug on the bath and says, “Oh, wow, that was a big tub! Wonder if I should use this water on the flower bed instead of putting it down the pipes?” And we tend to reach handily for Visas and chequebooks instead of thinking twice about how high we crank the furnace and how many lights we leave on when we’re not in the room. Perhaps it’s easier on our consciences if we just don’t know, because then we don’t have to admit that we use a lot more than our fair share of resources in the West. How does that saying go? You know the one – if everyone wanted to live to Western standards, we’d need another four whole Earths’ worth of resources. Perhaps we’ve passed the point at which we can afford to be oblivious. It’s no longer about simply keeping an eye on our consumption. It’s really time to start cutting back.
We sometimes have friends visit the farm who say, “Wow, this way of life is definitely not for me. I need my creature comforts!” And it’s true that not all people can go off the grid right now, this moment by simply buying some solar panels and putting them up on the roof. That’s a great start, but the real change happens earlier: going off the grid means completely rethinking the way you consume. Yes, you can run a blender and a small washing machine on a simple array, but the twenty-minute showers every morning will need some scaling back (unless you want to be pumping out your cistern every five minutes). You’ll also have to figure out how to do without that industrial-scale clothes drier slouching in the corner of the basement like some prehistoric cave creature. But it definitely can be done. Start with those appliances you only use once in a blue moon. (You know exactly which ones I’m talking about. The waffle iron your mom gave you for Christmas, and you use once a year when she visits? Yeah, start with that.) If you begin scaling back by giving away the appliances you rarely use, you get a much stronger sense of what you can’t do without. For us, as I mentioned, that’s the washing machine –believe you me, there are only so many sheets and towels you want to wash by hand when you’ve got a farm with a revolving door of visitors.
We also appreciate a handful of electric lights, two small laptop computers for teaching work and my writing – and the occasional movie! – and our cell phones, mostly for security. But we’ve done away with things such as hairdryers, our microwave oven, the blender, and the iron. Scaling back to live off the grid is, you’ll find, a balancing act of how much technology is too little and how much is just right. You’ll find that you become really sensitized to the point at which technology starts to impinge on your life and your freedom. (The ability to constantly download e-mail all day, every day on my Smartphone? Why do I need that?)
As we’ve gone more and more off the grid at our farm, we’ve found that time has opened up in new ways. We spend less time tending technology and more time living our lives. Our bodies also feel more attuned to the days, as when the light begins to fail, we shut down our electronics and light the candles, allowing our bodies’ rhythms to naturally slow toward sleep. Most of all, living off the grid has taken away a fear we didn’t really know we had until we made the jump: can we have a decent quality of life without someone else controlling the power? The answer is yes. When those great prairie thunderstorms come winging up the township road on a July evening, promising spectacular power outages, we’ll light the candles as we always do. There’s great comfort in feeling that a sustainable life is within our grasp instead of out of our hands.
About the Author: Jenna Butler is a co-owner of Larch Grove Farm in Northern Alberta. She grows a market garden in Zone 2, which is only two zones warmer than the Arctic. With very short summers, but very long daylight during those brief warm times, allows her to grow enough to deliver food boxes to the city with the produce from her garden. She lives in a small off-grid home and on her spare time has written two books. New books: A Profession of Hope (Wolsak and Wynn, 2015) and Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press, 2013)