Living off the grid like camping at home

SUTTON, QUEBEC - The idea to go a month without electricity, car or tap water came to Don Bissonnette on a road trip last fall.

During one of those long silences that come up as the kilometres click by, the retired Quebec Court judge turned to his wife and said, "Maybe we should go off the grid for a while."

There was a long pause. And then Deane Brebner, a retired CEGEP teacher, upped the ante: they should also eat only locally grown food.

And that was how they found themselves, for all of last month, cooking on a wood stove, biking to farmers' markets and using a solar panel to charge their computers to check their email.

Their limits were: no gas, no electricity, no propane. No foods that had been grown outside a 100-kilometre radius of their home in the Eastern Townships.

Bissonnette, 63, and Brebner, 59, prepared for their new way of living by reading several books about local food and food production, including The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. They also wanted to reduce their carbon footprint and contribute less to climate change, Bissonnette said.

Although the two are vegetarian, eat very little processed food and have a couple of woodstoves at their home outside Sutton, they still had to forage for food for their month-long project. They searched for locally grown or produced food while they were out and about, scoring yogurt on a trip to Vermont that Brebner then used as a starter to make her own yogurt. They found organic sunflower oil in Upton, oats and soy flour in Compton, popcorn in Ormstown and locally grown vegetables at a farmers' market and their local grocery store.

"It's actually fairly easy to eat locally in southern Quebec," Bissonnette said - especially during late summer's harvest season.

Knowing they'd be wanting to eat vegetables in June, though, the couple got a headstart on their garden, planting seeds inside to speed up the season a bit.

They toyed with the idea of getting a windmill to produce energy but settled on a small solar panel, Bissonnette said. Thanks to frequent power outages, they knew their well could provide enough pressure for a trickle of water in their sink and toilet.

They relied on their basement - temperature 6C - for refrigeration, even though that meant milk soured after about three days.

June 1 came. They were ready to go.

"Everything slowed down," Bissonnette said. "Breakfast would take us an hour. It was a lot like camping at home."

First, Brebner, a tea-drinker, got headaches from caffeine withdrawal. Then it rained a lot, making their small solar panel basically useless.

Still, the two are avid campers, so roughing it at home wasn't a big deal for them. Eating was the biggest challenge, Bissonnette said. "From a dietary point of view, it was a drastic change."

While Brebner already avoided wheat, Bissonnette missed pasta and bread so much that he nearly made himself sick eating it on July 1. Despite the variety of foods they had purchased, they still ended up on a restricted diet just because there's not a lot of local produce available in early June in southern Quebec.

"We discovered you could eat asparagus in a lot of different ways in three weeks," Bissonnette said.

They also missed their running water.

"It would have been nice to flush the upstairs toilet" (the whole month), Bissonnette said, noting that they had saved the water from a pre-June bath and used that to flush. "It was a little bit of a cheat, but it wasn't wasteful." But the bath water ran out before the month did.

They drank water from their well but hooked up a hose to a pond on their property to get water for washing. Laundry was limited to socks and underwear with Bissonnette, a former triathlete, relying on a drawer full of race T-shirts to get him through June.

Despite the challenges, Bissonnette and Brebner discovered a wealth of local food producers in their area, picking up eggs, nuts, maple vinegar, sunflower oil, cheese and tomatoes and greenhouse-grown lettuce. They even heard that someone in Sutton has a banana tree and a lemon tree in a greenhouse.

They also discovered that their radical change in lifestyle raised few eyebrows among their neighbours - with the exception of one woman who told them they were crazy for going without electricity after she had just got though a six-hour power outage.

"The surprising thing was, that as we were preparing and talking to people about what we were doing, everyone seemed to know what we were talking about," Bissonnette said. "Most people were interested - we never felt that people were laughing at us."

They figure they also saved about $75 in electricity costs, but forked over about $400 for the solar panel and rechargable batteries.

So would they consider living like this for more than 30 days?

"Oh, absolutely," Bissonnette said. "It wasn't a hardship - it wasn't as if we wanted to it be over with."



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