Having fought with weight my entire adult life it's doubtful that I've missed a fad diet. Atkins, South Beach, Mediterranean, juicing- we even went Vegan for 6 months. Up and down I would go, from 200lbs. to 260lbs. all while taking medications to treat asthma, back pain and high cholesterol. I knew a change was needed.
In 2010 we had a few clients fold up which left us holding a hefty stack of unpaid invoices. This was the first and only time I have been left with the uncomfortable feeling of financial insecurity for my family. Never had a life without a mortgage, car payments or utility bills seemed so appealing. We buckled down and fought our way through it, coming out much stronger on the other end with the urge for simple living now front and center.
We cancelled our annual trip to the Sand Show in Orange County and instead hopped in Amy's Jeep to hit the road for a week, looking at rural property and researching what it would take to turn the day dream into a reality. It took over a year to find an untouched 50-acre property that fit our needs which were good soil, great water source yet still close enough to Lake Havasu to commute while we built our new life.
The story that follows is 5 years in the making and takes you on our "Moving Off the Grid" journey, with the end goal of relying on only ourselves for food, water, power and heat. I have never been in the construction trades and had zero experience running heavy equipment when we started. The mistakes we've made have been epic, entertaining and sometimes expensive. Feel free to laugh along with us.
Another necessary and big change for us was how we handled our money. Not long ago Amy and I were the poster children for excessive consumerism, owned by a garage full of water and sand toys, credit cards and more monthly payments than I care to remember. We felt very strong about doing this without taking on debt so progress has been limited to available cash. Working with an average middle class income, if there is such a thing anymore, our spending has been careful and deliberate. That portion of this journey was not easy but the confidence and comfort of being 100% debt free is a big part of "Simple Living" for us.
You will also notice the weight drop off as the pictures progress through the story. Slowly but steady I have dropped to and maintained 205lbs while no longer needing medication for asthma, high cholesterol or aches and pains. This was made easy by cutting out processed foods and sticking with what we grow and raise ourselves. The same food we now offer to our Lake Havasu friends and families.
The property is a bit over 50 acres with plenty of character as the elevation changes from 5300' to 5100' down in the pasture. It slopes South/Southwest making it ideal for orchards, gardens and solar power. Juniper, Oak and Pinon Pine are plentiful in the area surrounded by plenty of native grasses and shrubs. Some people prefer the huge trees of a thick forest, heck we do too but the cost and hardships of growing anything in that setting didn't make it practical for us to even consider. The one constant we hear from people on their first trip up is, "Your pictures don't even come close to showing what it's like back here". Most seem very surprised at the quiet beauty that I can't seem to capture with a camera. Honestly, I gave up trying so most pictures will be of things we are working on at the time.
We started with property that was untouched. There was "kind of" a road getting to the property line that needed major improvements. How hard could it be? "There are nice dirt roads all over the world, this is going to be a breeze". Go ahead and mark that as the first of many underestimations on my part. When it was all said, and done we had rented lots of equipment, burned a ton of diesel and handed out some hefty cash on the bigger parts. We now have 1.5 miles of decent roads from what was once a goat trail that gives us access to the whole property.
We started by camping and hiking, just getting to know the place. Over time we started hanging ribbon on trees that gave us a general outline of where we wanted the roads to go.
An older John Deere 450 dozer was used to rough in the roads we lined out. We also needed a backhoe to dig out big rocks and a skip loader to shape the roads. That first year we could only afford to rent or borrow equipment and pay a neighbor to come up and run his machines.
Then it was time to bring a loader up to spread material on the road to build it up followed by a road grader. The grader operator was key to minimizing road maintenance. He cut in drainage in places I wouldn't have dreamed of so we can typically go a full year between tune ups.
Not all the roads needed heavy hitters. There is a shelf of nice, fertile material that sits above the bluff. We could use a Bobcat for the road down to pasture. A nice change expense wise. This is our 14-year-old (at the time) daughter running the 963. This was to be a family affair from day one so we have taught the kids to use every piece of equipment and all the power tools etc.
We have lots of varying slopes so drainage is always the first consideration for anything we do. Running roads through existing, natural drainage is just making more work for yourself. We came up with the idea of a bridge made from old power poles and some lumber. I dig the clackity clack sound when crossing a bridge so we decided to build using dowel instead of bolts or screws. Again, I underestimated how much work the dowel idea would be but it turned out great and still goes clackity clack today.
Packing tools back and forth every weekend was getting old. Money was tight after doing the roads so I had to wait for the right deal on a storage container to come up. Ugly, dented and for some reason the previous owner cut the hinges off one of the doors. It was a project for sure but at $1000 delivered, too good to pass up. We leveled a spot between two trees at our makeshift camp area and picked up some green home depot paint with a yellow tint to match the Junipers so it blends in as opposed to being an eyesore.
Water. If you don't have it, all you really have is dirt. If you do have it, your property has a heartbeat and can grow into anything you can dream up. Knowing we would not be able to drill a well ourselves we started socking money away for the well driller from day one. The plan from the beginning was to get water as soon as money would allow so we knew what we were dealing with before spending any more money on the property. Obviously, roads had to come first to get the drill rig and crew in. From there, nothing would happen until we knew "if" and "how much" water we would have to work with. Neighboring properties had good water so we were optimistic. The only difference is, I wanted the well on the bluff. A couple months of research and online geology lessons helped me decide this. The internet is never wrong, right?
It's a gamble. If they don't hit water, they still hand you a bill for $10,000 for a dry hole. So, with fingers crossed the crew set the rig up at 7am and got right to work. The whole process is fascinating! I didn't get many pictures as I was wrapped up in what they were doing. I have never seen a harder working crew and although I don't stand around and watch well, I knew I would just be in the way with how fast they go. "Working strong" is another thing to see. I'm quite sure these guys could hold their own in any CrossFit gym. Everything they do is on the run. Everything they lift is at least 100lbs on up to 250lbs.
My closest neighbor had hit water at 280' at about the same elevation we were drilling so when we were still dry at 300' I was starting to sweat it. Had I picked the absolute worst spot on the property? How long till I could afford another to punch another hole? The crew loaded up another drill rod and finally hit water at 310'. Big smiles from everyone, high fives all around. He estimated about 20 gallons per minute which is enough water for our family to have a ton of animals and a huge garden. I had enough cash to go to 400' and asked him to keep going. This is a forever place that my kids will end up with. I wanted the best water I could afford. Within the next 20 feet we really started to hit water. They went to 379' and the owner said that's all he can do. He can't get the water out of the hole fast enough to keep going. We had just won the lottery as far as we were concerned. 100+ gallons per minute with static level at 225'.
Now it was time to get to work on getting it out of the ground and distributed around the property. I liked the simplicity and reliability of a gravity fed system even though I knew it was going to be a TON of work and a TON of material. Basically, you have one pump in the well that is sized correctly to push water uphill to storage tanks. It only requires one line that can easily be teed off to whatever you might need. The elevation difference is what gives you your water pressure and the line is always charged. No pressure pumps to go bad or need power and so simple, some of my friends had trouble grasping the concept of what I was doing until they saw it work in person.
The storage tanks total 10,000 gallons and sit over 100' elevation above the well head. The first phase is 1800' of 2" main infrastructure water line with several fire hydrants and frost free valves/faucets. Each tee off for hydrants was extended 5' past so we could easily dig up and tap into later as we build. The result was great water pressure and legitimate fire lines that reach out 100 feet of spray. Since dialing 911 does nothing for us, having a decent fire system is a big deal.
First up was getting tools and materials up there which is a job. Here we are bringing in the water tanks and a quarter mile of 2" PVC to start with. The Ditchwitch belongs to a neighbor and was a huge help down low but was no match for the rock up higher on the property.
Part of cutting the roads in included a nice big pad to be leveled for the water tanks. I hauled about 6000 pounds of sand from the creek bed below to lay out for the foundation. We then used the forks on the backhoe to get the tanks from camp to their new home the morning after they were dropped off.
I needed to make sure I had enough room to build the equal length manifold to tie the tanks together so dug it out with the backhoe. Problem is, the rocks are so big up that far on the property we had to use diamond blades, jackhammers and rock bars to finish it off. What should have taken 6 hours took 3 very long days to complete.
At this point, Amy had to head back to Havasu to run the office while I got to stay behind and work on water lines. "Be home soon!" I said.
Another gross underestimation of time on my part. I've lost count of that by now.
I was fortunate enough to have friends come up for a couple days at a time and Amy on the weekends but did most the water lines on my own. I was there for 3 months straight.
Good, honest work but it was the first time I had been away from my wife for any length of time. If you know us, you know we are attached at the hip. Being apart was the only downside, the rest was fantastic.
3 months with no cell phone, no crap food and sleeping sundown to sun up kind of resets a guy. I wrapped that project up feeling better than I had in years.
The water lines ended up between 30 and 36" deep which is way below our frost line. Overkill, maybe- I just wasn't looking to do this twice. Here is a pic of Amy flattening a high spot in the trench with her boots. Gives you an idea of the depth. In some areas, the rock was just too much to go any further than 15" so we eventually hauled in more material and just raised the road over the lines. Anything that comes up out of the ground was done in galvanized pipe. It's been three winters now and we have had no issues with frozen water lines.
After three months of digging and plumbing, the end was in sight. It all came together at the well head. I plumbed a second line to nowhere to tie into later if needed. I had underestimated the tools I would need for the water system. I borrowed a few but bought the rest knowing I would need them again down the road. Quality tools left a mark on the budget. At this point I took a break for a week while waiting for the well pump to be shipped to me.
I decided early on to attempt anything having to do with water myself. First, It's fascinating to me. Second, being this far out I didn't want to be dependent on anyone else if I had a pump failure. Luckily, I did not underestimate the amount of work this would be and lined up my favorite people to lend a hand.
Our entire property will be solar powered so the water system was designed around this. After 3 months of research and talking with anyone in the field that would take my call I went with a Grundfos 6 gallon per minute pump that will take solar or generator without missing a beat. It is rated for 850' of head pressure so my 375' is nothing for it.
By this stage of the game I had become good at finding the info I needed on the internet. Between YouTube videos and manufacturer websites, most of what you need is out there. Add some common sense and basic mechanical ability and you have a recipe for success.
Here we have everything wired, taped and secured on the pump.
We unrolled the 300' roll of 1" poly pipe, ran wire and safety rope from the pump and taped it every 10 feet.
Then I tied it off to our Ranger in case it started to get away from me and had Sadie slowly drive down the road as I hand fed it into the well.
Setting that by hand brought me right to my physical limits. My hands ached for weeks. I can see why pump guys use boom trucks.
Once the pump was in the hole we just had to button up the plumbing and do some temporary wiring for a pigtail to plug into the generator.
After firing the generator, we saw water from our own well for the very first time. Exciting? Oh yeah.
After pumping to the tanks for a few hours this is the volume and pressure we saw at the hydrants.
As the tanks were filling and we verified there were no leaks we jumped right on back filling the trench in front of the tanks. I didn't want 80,000lbs of water caving it in.
In that last picture, you can see a wire that connects to a float in the tank. It is over a 1/4-mile-long and was buried with the water lines. It goes to the main pump controller and tells it when to turn on and off. It has worked flawlessly for the last couple years, tanks are always full without me having to think about it.
Next up was back filling the lines after checking for leaks. A friend and neighbor loaned me his loader with a 3-yard bucket so I could run sand from the wash below to shade the lines in with great material. I shoveled it in by hand, 1800' in 3 days. Talk about shoulder pump!
I was working as fast as I could at this point because we were right at the beginning of monsoon season. One good rain was going to make a mess of my open trenches.
I ordered all my solar stuff the week before setting the pump so there wasn't much of a break in between back filling lines and getting right back to work. Solar energy is super cool but pretty darn ugly in my opinion. The well is close to a potential home site and honestly, I didn't want to look at solar panels if I didn't have to. I found a nice natural clearing about 150 feet from the well and pushed a road to it then dug a shallow trench for electrical conduit. Followed up by a 7' hole with the backhoe to set the pole in.
I had become pretty good friends with my well driller by this time and asked him to order me a 20' section of 6" steel well casing for upright. Way stouter than the thin wall tubing that Zomeworks spec'd out. Again, I never want to do any of this stuff twice. Moving it around was a chore but with a little creativity, we handled it.
I was still waiting on the Zomeworks tracker and solar panels to show up so it was time for a celebratory beer.
Once the solar goodies showed up I offered cold beer in exchange for help. As usual, my pals didn't disappoint.
One of my buddies is a great metal fabricator so I asked him to build a box for the pump controller. Vented, reflective and secure.
I'm really impressed with the Grundfos products and support. Dummy proof design (great for a guy like me) and easy installation. We wired it with plug ends to easily cut power from panels or to plug into a generator.
The well site, back filled and wired.
This is what we ended up with for fire lines.
That wraps up the water system and our first year of owning the property. It's been plugging away ever since. Very satisfying to put that much planning and work into something and have it turn out as well as it did. At the time, I figured that would be the toughest job we did up here. Turns out, it was just the beginning.
Major construction projects went on hold so we could save more money. We still had plenty to do without spending a bunch of dough, thankfully. Through all this we never stopped researching food and how to grow it and everything pointed to a need for a couple strong bee hives for the gardens and orchards to flourish. After tasting real raw honey for the first time I went full geek on honey bees. I bought a bunch of books and watched hours of YouTube videos on beekeeping, pretty much what I do anytime I get interested in something.
There was a beekeeper in Havasu having trouble keeping bees on BLM land by the lake. People were kicking over or stealing the boxes and she would have to move them to Yucca to beat the summer heat. We struck a deal. I provide the ground and water if she provides the bees and equipment so I can gain real world experience. A big win for everyone involved.
We are a couple years in and I've learned a ton. Our bee lady has since become part of our little family and comes up every weekend. The number of hives goes up and down. Up to 15 at one time and down to 7 strong, thriving hives. We no longer need to hit the store for sweetener.
As we planned projects for year two, we knew it was time to buy our first piece of equipment if we really wanted to start making progress. The backhoes were far and away the most versatile machines we had used. We were spending $1600 per week with transport not including fuel and repairs each time we rented and one crapper rental broke 4 times in 7 days with an 80-mile round trip to town for parts each time. A large investment was starting to make sense on paper.
By now we had become good at saving money. That, along with selling off stuff we could part with finally had us able to start shopping. I was ok with my reality; my budget would only go far enough to buy an older machine. I have a decent set of tools and am fair with a wrench so I set out looking for something in nice shape that needed basic wear items taken care of, nothing major.
I drove 300 miles in every direction from Havasu and looked at a ton of stuff and finally made a deal on this. It was ten years old and fleet maintained by a large underground company in Phoenix. They had put a fresh paint job on it as well as new tires and a few other things that would have been tough on me and my wallet. It was ready for a full service which was perfect as I had wanted to learn the ins and outs of working on it myself.
First trip to the Deere dealer was an eye opener. They are proud of the parts but at least everything was top quality and an absolute exact fit.
New, updated control panel to show correct hours on machine.
I rebuilt the seat assembly as it has 4.2 million moving parts. It was a huge difference with a new spring, shock, switches and seat belt assembly.
I upgraded to a dual battery setup using John Deere parts as it was a factory option on this model and all new cables with master switch.
I replaced all the grease fittings and cleaned out a few plugged passages before pins got wiped out.
This all took a couple months after work but sure was nice doing it in a climate controlled garage with concrete floors (as opposed to ranch dirt), toolbox close by and a big air compressor. I have a much better understanding of the machine and could likely handle a larger repair as needed at the ranch.
It was like Christmas morning when the transporter delivered from my house to our exit.
The next major project on the list was fencing. There are several types and styles of ranch fencing that all get the job done but we really wanted the look and quality of Juniper/Cedar fence posts. It blends perfect with our native trees and will easily outlive my kids (there are similar posts around our area that were put up in the late 1800's, still functioning).
Originally, I had planned on doing the fence myself with help from friends on weekends. This would have taken the better part of a year as the fence line is over a mile long. In the end, I hired a great group of cowboys that fence for day wages. These guys are animals when it comes to work. I don't know how else to put it. 12 hours was the shortest day they worked. I can put out a good day's work but at the rate we were going I was happy to be covering the labor charge. It would have cost me 4 times as much in time off work to do this all myself.
Clearing 6000 feet of line with chainsaws and pounding 6' T-posts every 12 feet by hand with several needing to be drilled into solid rock took 4 very long days.
Next up was holes for corner posts and gates. Three feet deep, some in solid rock.
Then it was time to start setting posts. Tamping bit on a jack hammer to fill in all three feet. These things are so stout, you wouldn't want to hit them with a truck.
After posts were set it was time to set lateral posts to make the "H" brace.
Hanging the wire, quarter continuous mile.
At this stage of the game I had learned a whole bunch from experience and being smart enough to listen to some longtime residents. I also listened to everyone that had done anything similar.
"I wish I would have done this or that different" is a common theme in those conversations. "I should have planted the trees up there" "The garden should've been closer to the house" "I like where the chicken coop is in relation to the house but.........." "That road would've been easier to maintain if......."
I had a good idea what it costs to run equipment and was getting better at estimating time and energy a given project might take. The idea of doing things I might regret later had me constantly stressing over a real plan. One that might save me some of the "I wish I woulda........" moments.
The more I read and researched the more fragmented my plan became. So many good ideas but on paper it looked like a mess. It lacked flow and overall I lack vision for fine details. Big picture stuff? I'm your guy. Water systems and fencing were a no brainer that just required work. Where to put the chickens in relation to the clothes line? Not your guy.... at least I wasn't.
I found myself in a typical internet "rabbit hole" one evening in a search for ideas on how to set up a homestead. A few videos later and I was watching some interesting stuff at geofflawton.com. I found myself researching some of his claims and it turns out the Permaculture theory isn't new, they have 40 plus years of data and mature projects to prove the ideas.
In a nutshell, Permaculture is the science of working with nature to produce a desired result as opposed to trying to beat her. This can only be done through great design and a massive amount of inputs up front on a large project like ours. He offers an annual course that promised a clear vision for designing a project site while you work toward a Permaculture design certificate. The course is not cheap, $1000 and is time consuming at 12 weeks. It's a lot of money but it doesn't take long to spend $1000 running equipment on a project that might need to be re-done later. The 30-day money back guarantee sealed the deal for me.
It started February 1st which was perfect as the property had a nice blanket of snow covering the muddy roads underneath. It was break time anyway. Two weeks in, my mind was blown. I won't be asking for my money back. Four weeks in, I already identified several things I should have done different that would have saved me several thousand dollars. At about the eight week mark my thought process started to change. I could easily see contours and grades and had a new understanding of what I was looking at as I walked around the property. Everything looked different. Everything. To complete the course and get the certificate I had to submit a completed project design that showed I had learned the material. Not sure I cared about a piece of paper but a good design is what I set out for to begin with. After an estimated 300 hours of work, it was nice to get certified.
The first thing I had to do was make an accurate Topo map of our property to address drainage and take advantage of water catchment. Some areas are lucky, the maps already have this pretty accurate. The best one I could find was up to 15' off in places so I did this by hand with the help of Google Earth Pro.
Next is Zone 1, basically the house and the things you visit several times per day. It considers seasonal wind direction and sun angles as well.
Zone 2 would be your main crops, swales- food forests etc. Still close enough to zone 1 as you would hit this stuff on a regular basis. With multiple species of fruit trees, shrubs and nitrogen fixing trees planted on the swales you have a major portion of your irrigation covered as well as keeping pests or disease from bouncing from tree to tree as in a mono culture. It's a bit more complicated than that, but hopefully you get the idea. It is also set up in such a way to easily use electric net fencing to run chickens through during the harvest to keep bugs down then follow up with pigs to take up all the dropped fruit as well us root up and fertilize the ground. Sanitary systems that let chickens be chickens and pigs be pigs while cutting down on the physical labor required of us to maintain it all.
Zone 3 is your nut tree forest systems and aquaculture along with animal pens etc. Again, being able to periodically run pigs through to clean up fallen nuts cuts down on feed costs and adds the kind of quality that would be impossible to purchase as feed. While the electric nets are up, run your meat chickens through to pick out fly larvae and bugs in general for free nutrition and sanitation.
Per square foot, there is not a more efficient way to grow protein than a healthy pond. Add the benefit of irrigation from the nutrient dense, oxygenated pond water to fruit and nut trees down below and you have a winning combination. The pond was designed after checking with Arizona Department of Water Quality and the county. There are certain restrictions so we had to change the design around to make sure we were legal. More on that later.
Zone 4 is your 20-30-year-old productive hardwood forests. Enjoy them as you grow old, invite more diversity or harvest to build with or sell. That will be up to my kids.
Zone 5 is a grazing area that will intensely managed using electric fencing. Steers, pigs and broiler chickens will all share this area that is approximately 36 acres. They be moved daily to fresh grasses leaving paddocks the proper time to rest and re-grow. That will likely take years to perfect and will be a huge project on its own.
Many things have already changed in the plan since being completed for the course. A fundamental understanding of the terrain based on wind, sun angles, soil tests, rain and well water allows me to easily change the design without affecting the core permaculture principals. This was the best 3 months I had spent on the property. It's hard to measure the amount of money it has potentially saved us.
The designs large size allows for organic losses since birds, squirrels, pests and predators are a fact of life here. We spend a lot of time and effort on healthy plants, soil and animals to combat pests, pathogens and disease. Pesticides and preventative antibiotics have never been part of the plan and never will be.
Now that we had a solid plan it was time to begin the very long process of clearing trees. I had trouble with this part. Some of the trees are a couple hundred years old with lots of character including several that have been struck by lightning and somehow lived. Since we are on a hillside for the most part it was necessary to cut and fill the pads we wanted so we were left with no choice. We made the best of it by cutting out as much firewood as we could from the trees coming down, saving straight pieces for fence posts and other projects and ran the rest through a Vermeer chipper shredder that would eventually be mixed with our steer manure to compost down to much needed topsoil. We cleared about 3 acres in 6 weeks including processing everything that came down and pulling the stumps.
Once we had the areas cleared and we had saved up enough money, it was time to bring the big guns in. A friend introduced me to a guy that owns a BIG dirt works company. He drove up to check out what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it right away. He made me a deal I couldn't refuse in exchange for help setting his well pump and doing his solar for it after seeing what we had done.
Transport on an 80,000-pound machine is expensive. There's no way around it. To justify the cost, we came up with three projects to spread it out on. House pad, barn/shop pad and the pond. A few days later this showed up at the bottom of our hill.
A D8 moves so much material in a short amount of time, I was on the run with the fire hose trying to keep moisture in it pretty much the whole time it was running. There rarely was any opportunity for pictures of the process itself. Here's the best I have of pad #1.
The finished rough pad. At this point we would just let it sit until we could afford to bring in water trucks and a blade for finish grading.
Pad 2. If you have never watched a big dozer rip solid rock before, put it on your to do list. Deliciously violent. We finished it as best we could with the backhoe so we could use this area to process the woodchips and compost. We still need to finish grade this pad.
By this time, we had taken several online courses, attended homesteading and permaculture workshops, enrolled in the Master Gardner program at Mohave Community College and had digested too many books to count. All things pointed toward a pond to accomplish our goals. A main principal of permaculture is diversity and one of the best ways to achieve this is a healthy pond.
It would also prove to be the most expensive, labor intensive project to date with one hurdle after the next in the design phase. I would estimate 50 hours of phone calls over several months to county, state and federal agencies to understand all the regulations involved.
After several design changes and the process of rezoning our property to "High Density Agriculture" we could take advantage of having the D8 bulldozer here to build the basic pond shell. This is a long-term project that will require hundreds of man hours and an additional $12,000 to $15,000 to complete. The list of things to do ahead of this is long but it still stays a priority with no estimated completion date.
After clearing the area of trees and stumps we starting marking the shape with paint for the digging of step one. When designed, and built correctly, a pond can save huge amounts of water over the life of a diverse farm like ours. Conversely, a leaky pond will waste precious water and make it impossible to develop a healthy aquatic ecosystem. You can't short cut this process if you want to guarantee a good seal. We started by digging a 5' wide and 5' deep keyway in a horseshoe shape to lock in water that might seep through the clay lining.
Our native soil is heavy clay with plenty of rock that needs to be screened out. Once clean the clay was laid in the keyway in 5" lifts and compacted to the consistency of concrete.
The amount of work just to bring the keyway back to the original grade was staggering. Next, we had to plumb the overflow and irrigation pipe. The orchard is below the grade of the pond and will be irrigated by pond water full of life and oxygen. The top of the pipe going through the dam wall will be cut at the full level we choose and any overflow will run into swales with fruit and nut trees planted on them.
We made our own anti seep collar to keep water from traveling down the outside of the drain pipe and weakening the dam wall.
Now that the prep work was done it was time for the dozer to come in and start shaping to match the keyway.
From here it was several days of pushing material then digging and extending the keyway up.
Fast forward several days after wheel rolling with lots of water and the loader this is the completed shell. Looks are a little deceiving size wise as Amy is pretty small and there is still 24" of clay that will line the pond bringing the average depth to 6 feet.
Over the next few weeks we screened tons of clay and started laying into the pond and compacting it in short lifts until we had about 12".
We made more good material and mixed it with our compost on the outer shell. The idea was to get grass growing for erosion control as soon as possible. It also gave us an opportunity to try different seed mixes and amounts of compost to find a good combination.
Here is an area we spread almost straight compost on for our custom mix of grass seed. Not surprisingly, it performed the best with a nice blanket of grass within 10 days that still has great roots today.
Next for the pond is 26 tons of Bentonite clay to be mixed in with screened material to build the final 12". Expensive and time consuming, so it waits.
By now you have read the term "compost" several times. Let me back up a bit and explain more. One of the first things we did when we first became interested in this lifestyle was plant a garden in Lake Havasu City.
The kids and I built basic garden beds and purchased Bonnies starter plants and bags of soil from Home Depot.
Sun, heat, cold, wind, mice and birds helped make it an adventure that first year. We stuck with it and reached some mild success but really wanted more from our efforts. Amy and I enrolled in the Master Gardner program at Mohave Community College the second year and things started turning around for us once we understood soil and composting our yard and kitchen scraps.
We added meat rabbits and laying hens to our little backyard homestead for food and nitrogen rich manure to get the compost cooking.
The garden really took off as we spent more time composting.
Fast forward a few years and our composting program has evolved quite a bit along with our understanding of it. Our carbon source comes from the trees we have had to remove to build roads and level pads. Anything that isn't good for firewood or fence posts is run through a Vermeer chipper shredder.
Next, we haul in our steer manure by the truck load and mix together in just the right ratio to cover our nitrogen needs. This also solves an age-old agriculture problem of excess manure. We put every ounce back to soil building.
Then we water and turn it daily for the first 30 days to keep the temperature under 160 degrees. 30 to 60 days we turn less frequently as it will maintain 140-150 degrees without overheating on its own.
We typically process 70 to 80 yards at a time now. Temperature and soil test tell us when it is finished. Available nutrients are off the measurable chart so our finished product can be mixed 3 to 1 with any good dirt or topsoil and still test better than what we can buy from any store.
Here is a truck load headed to a neighbor's garden last spring.
Here is a 3-day bounty from another neighbor's garden using our compost recipe.
We had been fortunate enough to borrow several pieces of equipment from a good friend of ours that owns an excavation company on different projects. It became clear that a dump truck and a large rock screen needed to be on the "must have" list as the size and scope of our plans kept getting larger.
We came across an ideal candidate for the dump truck with a solid drivetrain and the right size, low sided bed. The price was fair and with the projected maintenance and repairs we would still be under the budget we had set. Being ugly even for a ranch truck, we used the left-over money in the budget to fix her up a bit and named her, "Lucy". I can't even guess how many hours she has worked for us with no complaints but it's clear that this has been one of our best investments next to the backhoe.
The day we bought Lucy.
After a couple months of service work and a cheap coat of paint on the bed along with used wheels and fresh tires she headed for the ranch.
A friend of ours was building a rock screen for himself and offered to build a second for a price that I just couldn't refuse. Here is the finished product. It screens 4" rocks plus has an overlay that goes down to 1".
This is the material we can make from the rock that comes out of our trenches. This is a huge upgrade to backfilling in water lines and just having great fill material for whatever you might be building. Another great investment.
Now would be a good time to touch on the financial side of what we are doing. If you've made it this far through the story you have watched us lay out a lot of money and give up months of our life at a time, months that would have otherwise been spent producing income. At some point our original "Off Grid" dream changed to a "Off Grid, Small Carbon Footprint Sustainable Farm Where Earth Worms Dance with Honey Bees and Pigs Live in Harmony with Cows and Chickens Working Hard to Improve Grass Pasture for Each Other, Slapping High Fives in Passing from One Paddock to the Next". Turns out, that utopian dream comes with a hefty price tag. One that Amy and I are willing to sacrifice for and invest our life savings into.
I don't want to discourage anyone from pursuing their own version of the "Off Grid Dream". A small solar powered cabin, simple access road with a tidy garden and a water system large enough to raise chickens, meat rabbits and a few fruit trees could easily be built for less than the cost of the cheapest house on the market in Lake Havasu.
Reeducating ourselves regarding personal finances was hard, necessary and one of the most rewarding things we've done. Living life with a debit card and cash in your pocket is easier than I imagined but the road getting to that point was a bit tough. "Dave Ramsey" has great books on the subject that are worth considering if my words are connecting with something inside you.
"Cutting the credit cord" forces you to deeply understand wants and needs and nowhere is that more evident than our final set of house plans. The first set of plans was a fantastic passive solar design with everything we could dream up including a large basement. At 2500 square feet, it was going to be great for entertaining but also came with a mortgage to tie us into an old lifestyle we were becoming less and less enthusiastic about.
After more than a year of discussion and hand drawings Amy and I had decided a simple house without a mortgage would mean more to us than anything else. She named it, "The Taj Mah-small".
We had made the mistake of hiring an architect out of area to turn the design into a workable set of plans. What started as a request for a simple set of plans for a simple house turned into a complicated process ending with an expensive set of engineered blueprints that drove the county plan checkers crazy. In his defense, it would have been a very well built house. One designed to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes; something we don't have in Northern Arizona. Every contractor we spoke with to bid portions we did not plan to do ourselves suggested the same thing; have them re-drawn by a local draftsman so we were not bound by engineered plans that could not be deviated from. That was a tough pill to swallow since we had spent thousands of dollars with the architect at this point. When the bids came back, the price per square foot to build our small house bordered on insanity. In the end, it was cheaper to abandoned the plans but not the design. The draftsman was a fraction of the cost we paid out initially and had a great understanding of what our local building department wanted to see. After four painful months, we finally had a set of permitted plans, including a septic permit.
Disclaimer: The permit process was long and frustrating but I do not blame the county. My inexperience with construction slowed me down around every corner. Now that I understand requirements and processes I would expect it to go much smoother next time around. Several of the building department employees went out of their way to walk me through my mess which was surely appreciated. Overall I found the customer service to be excellent which was quite different from some of the stories I had been told by other owner builders.
We stayed busy during the permit process getting the home site ready to build on. We had a good idea where we wanted the house to go so it was time to start clearing trees again. This went on for a few weeks as the area was heavily treed.
Amy typically clears the stumps with the backhoe while I run the chainsaw.
We wanted to terrace the home site to end with a more natural look once the landscape grows in opposed to the large cut and fill jobs we've done so far. Once the trees were cleared we could layout where things needed to go using a transit.
This is a view and space we were happy with so we started planning around it. The front of the house will face the pond and the gardens will face West with a view of the valley below past that.
I had been told that my buddy was the best blade operator around but saw firsthand why when he terraced our pads for us. He had me give his machine a spin and I'll stick with my backhoe. There is so much going on in the cab of that thing, it's hard to keep track of at the speed he goes.
This is what we ended up with after a few hours. The top pad is for a 14'x14' building that will house all the mechanicals. Batteries, invertors, charge controllers, water booster pump and water softener.
The second pad is for the house.
The third pad is where the septic goes along with a portion of the garden in the unused space.
The largest area below, where the Ranger is in the picture will be the large garden and row crops.
Next up was getting water lines installed for the house and gardens. We laid out about 800 feet of new trenches that wrapped around all the build sites to keep from crossing over lines later while building the house.
This was the first time I tied into the original water lines. The idea of extending past the hydrants made the connection a breeze. Going forward I am using more sand around anything I am likely to dig up and tie into as a lot of the work is done by hand.
We went 36" to 40" on the water lines again. That's well below our frost line and we won't have to worry about hitting water lines on shallow digs for electric or propane.
We finally started getting into good dirt about 600 feet into the trench, hopefully you can see the difference in the spoils pile in this picture. Much of our final orchard design is based on this little goldmine of great soil that has collected close to the bluff for hundreds or thousands of years.
Amy follows close behind in the trench cutting roots to make running water lines easier. The backhoe leaves grease on everything in the trench and Amy does a great job of smiling while reapplying it to her clothes and body.
There is a lot going on in these trenches. There is a 2" main line that extends all the way to the orchard that we tap into as needed. There is also conduit so we can have multiple options for irrigation valves and timers. The more of this we can automate the better so spending the time and money up front was an easy decision. There are several frost-free valves because over time we have realized, you can't have too many places with available water.
We also installed a 1.5" fire hydrant at the back of the house to easily reach all living areas if ever needed.
There is an extra water line in the trench that runs to the house. We will install rain gutters and collect 2500 gallons of rainwater to use in the garden. Any frost-free valve that is set low will be tied only to rainwater.
We hauled sand from the wash below and screened it clean to back fill the finished lines.
Here's a couple of shots of the finish grade along with the outline of the first garden fence.
I must back up a bit for this next part. A large part of heavy equipment expense is in the transport. The more projects you can stack up while you have the machines there, the better. We finished two other projects the same week we graded the house pads.
The largest cut and fill we did had sat over a year getting rained on and just settling. It was time to bring water trucks and the grader in to make it pretty and functional.
The finished slope drains back into ditches that pull water away from the pad which means less maintenance down the road. Trust me when I say you are throwing time and money away at this stage if you don't do this correct the first time. Rain water is very powerful and will wipe out lesser dirt work with ease.
It dried hard and smooth making a great place to sort and store our fence posts and combine our firewood piles.
We needed a pad high enough to clear any winter shade for the greenhouse and had also gathered a large collection of rocks from all our digging projects that needed a home. We brought in another D8 for the cut and filled it with all our leftover material plus about 80 yards of large rocks to build it up. Digging the water lines should prove to be a miserable experience but the extra height gained will be worth it.
The finished product with drainage cut in.
Please check back for story updates. Snowy days, muddy mornings or trying to keep quiet while Amy sleeps in affords me a few minutes on occasion to add to it. Questions, comments or suggestions are always welcome by e-mail to email@example.com
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