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Welcome to Larch Grove Farm, an off-grid organic farm and artist residency in northern Alberta, Canada. We’re building home from the ground up: join us on the blog for photos of a farm in progress, Open Farm dates, books for sale, our food box program, and much more.

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Putting the Heart Back Into It: Rebuilding Our Farm

Happy autumn, friends! Here’s hoping it’s been a kind season so far, and that you’re safe, wherever you are. We’ve all had some pretty crazy weather to deal with over the past few months – wildfires and hurricanes, floods and landslides. We hope the shift into the cold season promises a bit of a break from all of this fear and the need to constantly rebuild the places we call home.

Speaking of rebuilding! We’ve had several people ask us if we’re all right, since the blog has been very quiet this summer (our last post was about the spring, whoa!). We’re fine, and we’re grateful for your check-ins. It’s been a crazy rebuild summer here at Larch Grove, and we’ve been juggling long work days with ongoing tiredness. The past five months have been a nose-to-the-grindstone marathon (as with so many who live on the land), and we’re grateful for the autumn and the chance to emerge from work and look around.

We moved the farm this summer.

For those who’ve asked, nope, we didn’t pack up and sell. Our hearts are too bonded to this place, and we feel a deep respect and love for it. But we were looking at yet another flood year in our county (thanks, global warming), and so we knew that we needed to make a change. We’re only two people, and we can only rebuild the farm from flood seasons so many times before that work punches the heart out of us. Larch Grove is everything to us, and this summer, we knew we needed to act in order to keep this place we call home.

Some of you may remember our post about road-building back in January (you can read it if you skim down the page here on the blog). Our first act in order to move the farm was to work with a local road crew to building a “floating” road over the muskeg. We’ve got an old hayfield at the “upper” end of the quarter (said with quotation marks because it’s only five feet higher than the rest of the land), and we knew we needed to reach that hayfield if the farm had a hope of succeeding. It was really interesting to learn about geomat, the woven fabric matting that underlies our new road, and how it allows the road to basically surf on top of the muskeg. The water still moves through the muskeg below the road, but the geomat keeps the roadbed from disappearing into the bog by dispersing the weight of vehicles outward.

The road build went ahead when the ground was frozen back in January and the windchill was -45C. This spring, we worked on our own with a skid steer and load after load after load of gravel to even the roadbed and fill in the ruts (yeah, new gravel roads are mercurial beasts). All summer, our good friend Mark was working on building the small farmhouse we’d designed, and his plan was to truck the house out to us in July and get it onto screw piles when the ground had dried up.

Enter six counties between Mark’s place and ours…six counties who struggled to agree on…anything.

It took two and a half months of delays, but the farmhouse finally arrived down the new road at Larch Grove during the first week of school. (And yep, we’re both teachers, so you can imagine how crazy that was!) But it ARRIVED. It’s finally here on the farm. And it’s beautiful. It’s a bit of a magic creation in that it looks so small from the outside, but the inside, with the high-trussed ceiling, is all air and light.

Farmhouse

We brought the little cabin along with us from the old farm site, too, dragged down the new road by skid steer and trailer.

Moving the Little Cabin

It’s been unbelievable how quickly our hearts have settled into the new location up on the hayfield. The light is bright and true. The breeze is constant and cleansing, which will be great for both the garden and the bees. The sky, once shuttered behind the tall black spruces surrounding our old market garden, is an incredible presence: the sun, the moon, the stars, the Northern Lights. It took us twelve years of saving and planning to get this move done, but it took us only a few hours to come to call this place home. (The resident moose are coming to terms with us being here, too; they’re certainly not shy about peering in the windows to see what’s up!) Check out how many moose have been looking in the window overnight:

Moose Tracks

While on summer break from her teaching job, Jen took on a massive freelance project, building a program in environmental literature. It was a lot of extra work, but great news for the farm: that freelance work allowed us to purchase the wood cook stove we’ve always dreamed of, an energy-efficient, low-emission La Rosa XXL. With 135 acres of wood outside our front door, the stove will be both the heating and cooking centre for the farmhouse.

La Rosa XXL in Farmhouse

For the first time in more years than we can count, we feel hope again at the farm. We’re no longer scared about the house and garden flooding (we’ve got a great ditch system in place now around the hayfield that manages flood water and channels it to our big pond). We’re excited for the projects to come in the spring: a new solar array we’ll spend the winter designing, a wash house/laundry house, the building of a quonset for garden gear, and – most of all – the creation of a new market garden out here under the sky. It feels as though the farm has a whole new lease on life.

Thanks for your patience here, friends, while we were working out on the land. We’re grateful for your care in checking in on us, your willingness to journey with us, and your continued presence as we build this new iteration of our farm. More than anything, we want this to be a place that can be shared, so don’t be strangers. C’mon by when you can.

Field View

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.