With appreciation, I offer another guest post from Vermont farmer and author Ben Hewitt. This post is about his family’s experience living and farming off the grid; be sure to read his recent guest posts about food safety issues on Nourishing Words.
When my wife (then girlfriend) Penny and I were looking for land, we didn’t have a lot of options. This is largely because we didn’t have a lot of money and, even then (1997), they weren’t exactly giving away farmland in northern Vermont. We spent a discouraging year tromping through swampy five-acre thickets, trying to convince ourselves that, with enough sweat equity, we could turn the land into something that felt like 50 arable acres. Still, young and naïve as we were, we didn’t fall for our own lies.
Eventually, we happened upon 40 acres in the town of Cabot, at a price we could just manage. It wasn’t ideal: Too hilly, for one, and the ten acres of pasture were ill-tended and rapidly reverting back to forest. There was one other minor complication. The land could only be accessed via a 1200-foot right-of-way, and there was no power on site.
For a short time, we debating paying to bring grid electricity to our land, but were quickly dissuaded. Having utility lines strung along our right-of-way was a $15,000 proposition, which, after buying the land, was about $14,900 more than we could get our hands on. Too, the idea of making our own electricity, on our own property, had taken on an irresistible charm.
To begin, we borrowed two 50-watt solar panels, a pair of old golf cart batteries, and all the associated paraphernalia from a friend who runs a renewable energy installation business. To put it bluntly, this was an entirely inadequate system. I was just beginning my writing career at the time, and I clearly remember starting our gasoline generator in the hours before a deadline. If the sun were shining brightly, I could just manage enough power to run my little laptop and the modem I needed to file my articles. But if were cloudy, I typed to the generator’s drone.
Our system expanded over the years, and now consists of 1.8-kilowatts of solar photovoltaic panels, a 900-watt wind turbine and solar thermal (hot water) collectors that provide the majority of our hot water. About six years ago, I had the extreme good fortune to land a series of assignments for Popular Mechanics magazine about living with renewable energy; the result was a treasure trove of donated materials far beyond what we could ever have afforded on our own.
Living and farming off-grid is by turns incredibly satisfying and insanely frustrating. We try very hard to avoid running the generator to charge our system’s batteries (we average about 30 hours of generator time annually, concentrated in November and December), and limit our electricity consumption to about three kilowatt-hours per day, which is about ten percent of the U.S. average for a family of four.
For the most part, this isn’t difficult, and doesn’t require meaningful sacrifice. In the summer, when sunshine is plentiful and we have an abundance of electricity, we run a standard Energy Star-rated fridge; in the winter, we utilize an antique icebox that’s vented to the outdoors to take advantage of the cold temperatures. We have a chest freezer, a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine, and a nice stereo. We don’t have a TV, but we wouldn’t, anyway. In short, our home is comfortable, with most of the amenities common to 21st-century America.
But our system has its limitations, which most often rear their heads in relation to the production and storage of food. Freezer space is a constant issue, and we do keep freezers at the neighbor’s. We have a root cellar built into a corner of our basement, but haven’t yet worked out how to get it cool enough early in the harvest season. We definitely suffer losses for our lack of ideal storage conditions. This is a conquerable problem, I believe, but we simply haven’t had the time to address it.
More daunting is the recognition that we will probably never be able to contemplate any sort of larger-scale processing or storage that might allow us to realize an income from value-added products. It’s not that we can’t make cheese, or dry-cured sausages or any number of foods; indeed, we produce many of these items for ourselves. But meeting regulations, ensuring consistency and developing enough scale to generate profit would, in most cases, demand a stable and relatively large supply of electricity. And we just don’t have that.
I’m not complaining. In fact, having lived and farmed off-grid for nearly 15-years, I wouldn’t trade it for all the kilowatt-hours in the world. But it is a little eye opening to realize how much of our food production, even at the regional level, is dependent on grid electricity, which is itself dependent on non-renewable fuels, or large-scale renewable infrastructure that often impacts the environment in negative ways.
I don’t mean for all this to sound discouraging. Nor am I suggesting that alternative energy is a realistic solution for everyone. It’s very expensive, for one, and when one considers the embedded energy and rare earth materials necessary to build it, not exactly sustainable.
Instead, I offer it as a reminder—to myself, mostly—to be grateful for the gift of abundant and relatively cheap electricity. It’s a gift that remains beyond the reach of at least a quarter of the world’s population. To them, even my family’s modest daily allotment of 3 kilowatt-hours is a luxury that exists only in their dreams.
Visit Ben Hewitt’s website for more information on him, his writing and where to hear him speak. If you haven’t yet read The Town That Food Saved, released in early 2010, read about it on Nourishing Words and get your hands on a copy soon! His next book, Making Supper Safe, will be released in June 2011. Ben will be featured as a keynote speaker at the upcoming NOFA-NH Winter Conference on March 19 in Exeter, New Hampshire.