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Springing to it

Happy Spring, friends! Technically, we’ve been there since the equinox back in March, but for those of us in western Canada, spring has been dragging its feet. Blizzards in April! It’s only in the past week that the temperatures have warmed, the snow has gone, and the ditches have flooded. Just ten days ago, Alberta saw its last snowstorm of the season, and today, it’s +20C. Sure beats the weeks of -30C. Let the growing season begin in a mad rush, as it always does. We couldn’t be gladder to see it!

Things are leaping into action at Larch Grove as the weather warms. We were in a holding pattern on the farm for much of March and early April, waiting, waiting, waiting…to see how the new road would hold up come melt, to start the build on our new farmhouse, to get the seeds sown. Now it’s just about time to get rolling on all those things. Yup, there’s still a gigantic puddle of runoff water in the market garden, but as the ground warms up and the frost line recedes, the soil will dry and it’ll be time to plant at long last.

While we waited out the mercurial weeks of April, I put some of my recent herbalism course to work, creating and refining recipes for the balms and salves we’ll use on the farm during the summer. I focused on what I call Fire Balm (a homemade version of Tiger Balm) for screaming muscles at the end of the day, and Cough and Cold Balm, which is just as good for easing a congested chest as it is for icing sprains and strains. I’m using it now to chase a spring cold out of my body – having just finished the teaching term and its intense marking load, I don’t have time to lose to a cold, not when there’s gardening to do! Thomas has been teaching, too, as a substitute (he didn’t get very far into retirement, ha!), and although the school year wears us out, it’s also good fun and helps support all the building we’re doing on the farm. Win win.

Healing balms cooling in the kitchen.

Home apothecary. We’ll be growing many medicinal herbs on the farm this summer: calendula, lavender, anise hyssop, lemon balm, and more, and sustainably wild-harvesting violet leaf, bush tea, spruce tip and pitch, willow bark, balsam poplar, and wild mint.

After a decade of scrimping, planning, saving, and dreaming, our farmhouse is about to become a reality at Larch Grove. From 2008-2011, we lived in a truck camper, which was a huge adventure in tiny living, let me tell you! In 2011, we worked with our friend Mark, who built hunting cabins at the time, to design our 250-square-foot cabin, which completely changed our quality of life out at the farm for the better. Mark now builds larger cabins for a living, and we’ve been working with him on the design for an off-grid farmhouse. This summer, we’ll have a full farmhouse on the land, complete with storage pantry and wood cook stove. The plans have been in our heads for so many years that it’s hard to believe the farmhouse will soon actually exist. What a journey!

Checking out a cabin in process at Mark’s workshop.

There’s so much we’re excited for as the growing season kicks into gear. The new pond on the hayfield, where the road fill was drawn from, is close to half an acre in size and is beginning to fill with wild water from the land. We’ve been working on the perimeter ditches on the field, too, in order to channel meltwater and rainwater into the pond. In another week or so, it’ll jitter to life with frogs, toads, and likely some migrating waterfowl. The new road through to the hayfield was finished in January, and now it’s a case of monitoring how it withstands its first spring melt and runoff. Seems to be holding up well so far – which is incredible, as it’s a floating road across the muskeg on a base of geotextile. This is the road we’ll be using for farmhouse materials in the summer, so it has to be sound. And, of course, there’s the joy of starting the old garden and greenhouse, tending to the bees, and starting to prepare the hayfield with organic cover crops to eventually become our new garden on higher ground. This summer going to be so much work, but we’re grateful for every task that has us outdoors under the sky.

Some of you have nudged me gently and cautioned me not to go at things too hard while being ill, and I confess to being grateful for the care and the warning. I do have a tendency to get excited and take on too much, but I’m keeping an eye on energy and strain right now to be certain I don’t charge into the growing season and burn out. I’m also grateful that Thomas and I are a strong team, and he calls me on it when he sees me getting overtired and tells me to rest. All of this is to say that I truly appreciate the kindness, friends, and I will definitely curb the seasonal urge to try everything all at once (hard as that might be!).

I hope spring is rolling in at long last wherever you are, chasing out the stasis of winter and bringing with it grand new energy. Here’s to longer days, wild things flourishing, and light, light, light.

Spring skies!

Larch Grove Farm 2.0!

I hope you’re well and that the winter has been kind to you, friends. I’m thinking especially of all of you who have been facing crazy weather systems in your neck of the woods this season – hoping you and your families are safe and your homes protected.

We’ve had a strange winter at Larch Grove, as have so many others in the northern parts of Alberta. After a summer of rain, rain, and more rain, we went into a winter of very little snow (as of January 21, when I’m writing this, there are four or five inches on the ground), though we saw several weeks of bitterly cold temperatures, -45 to -50 Celsius with and without the wind chill. Those temps are by no means unusual for northern Alberta during the winter, but when coupled with the scant snow, it means increased hardship for all the plants. There’s so little insulating snow to stop cells from freezing.

The cold weather hasn’t stopped us on the farm, though. Through the worst weeks in the winter, we’ve been working with a road crew to put in a “floating” road along one far boundary of the land. Come spring, Larch Grove Farm will begin moving to higher ground, and we couldn’t be more excited!

Let me backtrack a little.

If you know us well, you know that Larch Grove is a human-powered, off-grid organic small farm. We’ve built our place from 160 acres of northern bush over the past twelve years, and they have, hands down, been the most amazing twelve years of our life together.

We never wanted large equipment on the land, as most of it is untouched northern boreal forest. We’ve done our work by hand or with our truck, occasionally renting a small skid steer to help move gravel or put down a pad for our 250-square-foot cabin. But after these past eight years of crazy weather, unpredictable floods, and rainy summers, we’ve made the biggest decision of our lives at Larch Grove: to move our farm.

Not to another province or another country; nope, we’re not booking it. We love it here in Alberta. But we ARE moving to the (slightly) higher ground at the other end of the quarter section in the hopes of making our farm more resilient to floods and more responsive to all weather conditions, and putting us in a place where we can apply more of the principles of permaculture that we admire and support. We want Larch Grove to work with the land so that we never take more than we can return to the earth.

So, this one time, we’ve broken our own rules and, with the help of a road crew of local guys, we’ve put down a quarter-mile “floating” road over the muskeg at the very northern boundary, up to the hayfield, where there is better light and better drainage against all the unpredictable summers to come. We researched road techniques for two years before taking this step, deciding that we’d need a series of culverts and geotextile to allow the road to be both stable and non-sinking, and to respect the flow of water on the land so that the road doesn’t hamper the flow of water through the muskeg.

Thomas is dwarfed by the backhoe!

And so, during a week of -45C temperatures this January, the road crew helped us build what will be a lake on the hayfield, using the fill from the hole to build the roadbed and top it off with gravel. They stacked the trees they needed to take down alongside the road in huge piles for us to chainsaw into firewood for our wood cook stove. The final step is to build a gravel pad for our farmhouse, wash house, guest cabin, and quonset out on the hayfield, and then this large-scale work will be complete.

The crew works under the rising moon in a cloud of steam. It’s -45C outside.

At the same time that we mourn having to bring in large machinery for these tasks (we just couldn’t do it ourselves with the tools we had), we’re celebrating like crazy the freedom this long gravel driveway will give us in our new home on higher ground. Out on the old hayfield, the light is so much better than in the forest verge. Our solar panels will work better and longer, and our home will be filled with natural light. We’re also looking forward to rehabilitating land that has been used for hay cropping and some cash crops over several years, intending to bring it back into organic cultivation for our garden and orchard, and to support the planting of banks of trees and shrubs to enrich the soil and rebuild the forest around the field’s edges.

The road has been the first big task! We’ve also been working with our friend Mark, the carpenter who built our tiny cabin, on a bigger farmhouse that will be our permanent home on the land. We’ve been drawing and redrawing the plans for the past three years, and will be preparing the site for the cabin this summer. Do we wish we could build the cabin ourselves? Yep, we sure do. We’d love to have the skill set to build something livable that also looks nice. We can build something livable – we’ve built a bunkhouse already –but not so much lovable, as our house-building skills are limited. Mark has an eye for detail and finishing that makes his structures really lovely. What with working full-time on top of it all as teachers…well, we’re happy to do all the design and research work ourselves, and then to pay Mark to craft the house to our plans. We love that we’re helping the local economy, as well as supporting a small family business we really believe in.

So the road has gone in, and the farmhouse is coming along! This summer will be all about moving our small farm, bit by bit, down the road to the hayfield. This past fall, we finally decided to invest in a quonset for our farm tools and truck, and we found a great deal with the company we’d decided on that allowed us to buy the quonset a couple of years earlier than we’d planned. We’ll be building it on the hayfield this spring and creating our new farm around it. Our hope is that, within a calendar year from this August, we’ll have the farm all set up and the gardens ready to transition from the forest verge to the field.

It’s been a whirlwind journey, these past few months. In previous years, we’d built the farm up at the pace of what we could afford, trying never to go into debt, trying to save until we could buy what we needed. Now, many years of working full-time jobs (and part-time jobs on top of the full-time jobs) and saving like mad, and some unexpected support from family (thank you, family! <3) have gotten us to the point where we can make the leaps we need in order to get the farm really going. It’s amazing and fulfilling to see all that intensive planning take physical shape…and it’s also stunning how fast it all happens once the ball gets rolling!

While the big steps have been in progress, we’ve been making little ones this winter: reading up on permaculture principles to refresh ourselves, talking to friends who know about off-grid life in cold climates, solar systems for small farms, wells, and woodstoves.

Ben Falk’s book is a great resource for those wanting to implement more permaculture principles around their homes/acreages.

We’ve invested in a lovely old ice chest for our farmhouse in lieu of a standard refrigerator, as the power load of a regular fridge would tax our solar array more than we’d like. With our small chest freezer (much less of a power drain) to allow us to freeze jugs of ice, the ice chest will permit us to keep the usual eggs, milk, butter, and vegetables of our simple diet in the kitchen in a clean and efficient way. Plus, we met a wonderful new resource for the homesteading life: the woman we bought the ice chest from, an elderly solo farmer and antiquarian. We connected with her instantly and deeply out at her farm, and we’ll certainly be back to visit and talk with her again.

This beautiful old ice chest will soon have pride of place in the farmhouse kitchen.

Finally, with Thomas’s support and encouragement, I followed up on a longtime dream and enrolled in a two-and-a half-year comprehensive course in herb-growing and herbal medicine. We truly appreciate the medical system we have in Canada, particularly in Alberta, but we’d also like to be able to grow, wild-harvest, preserve, and use herbs to support our own health and to heal things such as colds, flus, burns, and low energy. I like the idea of using herbal medicine to supplement our existing use of the allopathic medical system. This course will allow me to deepen my knowledge after a lifetime of reading herbal texts, and I’m so excited to think that I will be able to add to the quality of life on our farm in this way.

As usual, we balance the positive moves forward on the farm against the backslides, the places where things happen or we make decisions that cause problems. While we’ve been making all of these great moves forward, I’ve learned that I have a medical condition that will prematurely break down my body. In many ways, this was devastating news to receive, but it did have a bright spot: it gave me one cohesive answer to years of seemingly disconnected health issues. Interestingly enough, it was a combination of allopathic and herbal doctors working together who found out what was going on, and that really inspired me to take the herbal medicine course. That felt like a great life choice: to focus on what helped diagnose me instead of everything that has gone wrong in my body. Besides supplementing my diet with healthy food and herbs, cutting down on stress and working with advisors at my job to try and reduce overload, exercising to support premature bone breakdown, and staying focused on the goals I want to achieve with Thomas on the farm and in our life together, I am reaching out to the farm again to manage my health. Larch Grove helped me survive surgery on both my Achilles tendon and my upper abdomen and return to health with few lingering effects, and so I’m looking once again to the daily farm tasks of chopping wood, maintenance of roads, paths, and gardens, summer hauling of water, and building chores to strengthen my body. More than anything else, honestly, just being out under the sky on the farm revives my spirit, and that seems to me like a major part of managing any longterm condition.

Dreams, plans, goals, and positive forward momentum in spite of life’s backslides…we’re poised to greet the coming spring with great energy.

A Bend in the Road

“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.”

-Helen Keller

Sandhill cranes flying over the farm this autumn

Truly, friends, if I could sketch the road we’ve followed since we started Larch Grove Farm during the deep winter of 2006, it would zigzag all over the place like an old prairie river. There have been stretches where the vision has been clearly laid out in front of us and the work has flown by, and there have been places where we’ve doubted our choices or have had to wait for strength, funds, time, or energy, and the farm’s progress has curled back in on itself like a leaf. One thing we have deeply learned over the past eleven years is that no matter how we plan, dream, and hope, the land is a living entity, powerful and breathing, with its own agenda. We are lucky enough to live here, to walk with and protect this piece of the boreal, but we are reminded time and again that we have to fit our rhythms and goals to what the land has in mind. We’ve come to understand that we need to make all moves on the farm with a careful eye to what’s going on in the ground beneath our feet, the forest over our heads, and the weather all around us. Our goals have to meet the land halfway.

So many of us on the land have found that the past few years have brought weather like nothing we’ve witnessed before. Yes, there have been drought cycles and rainy cycles throughout the history of the Prairies, but never swings quite this large, quite this unpredictable. That’s what the future holds: more frequent weather shifts from year to year. It’s tough to anticipate the jig when you can’t hear the caller shouting the steps.

In 2011, our county flooded, and again in 2013. We and our neighbours had a couple of years to rebuild our fields and tend to the overwhelmed forests around us, and then this year, we all flooded yet again. Although we’d managed to bounce back from previous floods within a matter of months, the very wet spring/summer of 2017 kept Larch Grove, our market garden, and the forest on the quarter underwater for the entire summer. We lost the market garden for the second time in under five years. In some places, we lost chunks of the forest because of new berms on our neighbours’ farm, which flooded the rainwater into the huge stand of trees. And, for the first time ever, we almost lost the cabin: the water came right up to the edge of the gravel patio around our small home.

It was a summer unlike any we’ve ever known on this land. The mosquitoes were unbelievable, making talking outdoors – even breathing, some days – a challenge. The ground couldn’t hold our feet, our yard cart, and especially not our truck. The garden (last year a productive, veggie-and-flower-filled haven) was rank with anaerobic swamp muck. Our perennial plants and vines died (again, as they did in 2011), and we couldn’t get the greenhouse going because it threatened to sink into the boggy ground. The land told us to stop.

Farming, like so many lifeways, is one where you carry the past with you as an essential part of what you do every day. You learn the land from those who came before you, from the community you find yourself in, from the wealth of stories of those around you, of all different backgrounds. Bad things befall farmers who think they can go it alone without a weather eye to the history of the land. This summer, we pulled out the old aerial photographs of the quarter, taken many years ago, showing the traces of old drainage ditches crossing the hayfield at the other end of the quarter – ditches that had been ploughed under by other farmers, years later, probably during dry summers. These drainage ditches showed the reason for the current swamp patches on our hayfield. A quick scan of the neighbours’ new berms around their field showed why the water was backing up into our forest. And the faint lines of those old ditches, ghosting in across the aerial photos, told us what we needed to do to help the forest and our neighbours’ farm.

We set our plans aside this summer, and we dug.

Day after day after day after day. We dug down twelve feet through the new berm and opened the old ditches, allowing the backed-up floodwater to drain into the field’s perimeter trench. Week after week, we walked back and forth along the quarter, through head-high marsh grass, hidden hornets’ nests, clouds of mosquitoes, and swamp mud to check the land’s drainage. When lavender oil stopped working, we doused ourselves in Deet and went back at it, spitting out mosquitoes and black flies, sweating through our thick bush clothes on the +30 days. We chopped and spaded long hours until we were crying from exhaustion; then we showered, slept, woke early, and went out to do it all over again. It was the hardest lesson we’d ever had to learn on the land. But it worked.

Today, late September, our market garden is free of water. The ground is still damp, but it’s tillable. The cabin is safe. And we’ve finally cut down the path to the hayfield, clearing the head-high marsh grass to allow the boggy spots to drain and dry. The recently opened ditches are doing their job and pulling the pooled water away from grateful trees that spent much of the summer suffocating.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from being on the land and talking with our community in this area, though, it’s that severe unpredictability in the weather is becoming our new norm. We’ve realized that if we want Larch Grove Farm to grow into the amazing off-grid artist residency, safe house, and teaching place we dream of, we’ve got to learn from summers like this past one.

And so we’re growing, trusting what we’ve learned this summer and the past flood years. Instead of having our farmhouse close to the flood-prone forest, we’re relocating to the hayfield at the other end of the quarter. This will allow us to grow the farm in the directions we’ve dreamed without impacting the forest. A full-house solar array will be possible, beyond the simple one that powers our 250-square-foot cabin. We can restart the organic flower farm that drowned in the old market garden this summer. Our bees, already thriving, will do even better on the hayfield with improved air and light. Most of all, we can build our farmhouse under the sky, on higher ground. The soil will take work, but we relish the task of rebuilding the soil that has been hayed by the neighbour and his big tractor for the past decade. Can we bring this field to full, thriving organic production? We sure intend to try.

We’ve built a good place here, but the climate continues to be completely unpredictable, and so we need to craft a home that can ride out what will come in the best way possible, while staying focused on protecting the large chunk of boreal forest on the quarter. This summer has set us on a huge new journey, and we hope you’ll walk with us over the coming months as we figure out this path. The first step is a quarter-mile gravel road over the muskeg and out to the hayfield – we’ll be starting that in November.

It was a hard, hard summer. But we got to spend it on the land, under the sky, and that was good learning.

Our tiny cabin, a place of beautiful light and happy farm cats!

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