Going, Going, Gone…Off-Grid

Reader Contribution by Rd Copeland
article image

I am taking the back roads to a sustainable lifestyle out here in rural Texas. What started with my love of the great outdoors has turned into an all-natural, less complicated way of living. Before long all my work and an assist from Mother Nature will provide for all my needs here at The Sunflower, my off-grid farm and outdoors retreat. 

In the current issue of Mother Earth News, Managing Editor Jennifer Kongs presents interviews of a whole host of off-grid, self-sustaining folks from Florida to Colorado. I’m not as far along in my quest as these awesome homesteaders but I applaud their efforts and have redoubled my own. 
For five years I’ve been living off the grid, the last in a straw bale cabin, growing a huge garden, raising free range chickens and sharing my knowledge and experience with others. Now if I can just help convince all of you that you can and should do it too! Going off-grid and becoming self- sufficient won’t happen overnight; I’m still working toward that 100 percent goal. There’s so much to do… secure your food and water sources,  build housing and barns, produce electricity, but that’s the fun of it—you never get bored!

Commence your journey into the homemade light like I did, by simply adding a solar panel, batteries, a charge controller and some lighting to an outbuilding or on your patio at your current residence. Kits are available but try to piece all the components together yourself; assembly instructions are found throughout Mother Earth News back issues, Real Goods and other catalogs, and all over the Google. It’s a simple and inexpensive way to get experience with 12-volt/DC electricity. A couple of hundred bucks and you’re in business! If you’ve ever worked on cars, boats or RV’s it’ll be really simple. Add to your system with a 12-volt fan, stereo, television, coffee pot, etc. All of these creature comforts can be found at your local truck stop, RV lot and on the Google. You may even locate a nearby manufacturer of solar panels or batteries…BONUS! Shopping local hurts no one. If it’s windy in your locale, add this homemade wind generator to your battery pack to help keep your system charged up when it isn’t sunny.

My Cabin Power: Solar Panels, a Wind Generator and Batteries

Living in a travel trailer for several years, I learned about 12-volt DC power by necessity, however charging up the batteries every other day with my truck and a pair of jumper cables seemed counterproductive so I invested in my first solar panel almost immediately. Holy Mama Cow, it worked! Electricity straight from the sun! It wasn’t long before I added a larger panel and better batteries along with more lights, a DVD player, a coffee maker and other “luxuries” for living in the middle of nowhere, unplugged from the grid. All of a sudden I had my own power source and it wasn’t all that complicated. Who knew?!

My straw bale cabin is powered with solar panels, a homemade wind generator, and 6-volt “golf cart” batteries. It didn’t take me long to go from lights inside the cabin to fans and heat in the chicken coop. A Big Rig space heater/fan does the trick for my 4’X8′ coop and I just plug it in to my system as needed. I can’t let my fancy chickens freeze their tail feathers off. Check out all the trucker electrical gadgets on your next fuel stop.

How I Moved from Travel Trailer to Straw Bale Cabin

Five years in a 24-foot travel trailer may seem like an adventure to some folks — you crazy kids mostly, but I was never so ready to pack up and move out since I left the broom closet they called a dorm room at SWT. I read up on alternative and sustainable building techniques, then attended straw bale workshops in Texas and California.  Back on my little farm I started building a location for the cabin. North Texas is a big wheat producing area so there was plenty of straw to be had in the early summer following harvest. A straw bale house would be the least expensive and most energy efficient for me so I made a deal with a local farmer to use his square hay baler along with my tractor on his 30 acres wheat field, which after the harvest and my baling, produced 550 bales.

(NOTE: Ask the custom combine crew to remove the cutters and spreader from the back of the combine as they harvest the grain. This makes for longer straw cuttings laid out in concise rows behind the combine, and for tighter bales.) Chances are good that there are grain farmers near you with whom you might strike a deal. Remember, you want bales made from the straw without the grains, even if you buy them already in the barn.

I knew how to weld thanks to Texas State Technical College and had access to scores of used oil field pipe, so I built my cabin frame (inner and outer walls) entirely of steel, topped it with a steel roof from Metal Mart and it all sits on a solid concrete slab. With the bales stacked, custom cut and pinned together within the framework then encased in an earth plaster coating, I  now have a great little 24′ by 15′ cabin.

It takes very little energy to heat and cool a small bale and mud cabin, a huge plus here in Texas. I use candles and a wood stove in the dead of winter, and suction fans and a homemade air conditioner in the hot summers. We’ve been in a serious drought for six years so securing a water source was critical. I struck a deal to build another straw bale cabin  in exchange for drilling a water well. We hit fresh water just as the lake dried up. Hiring a professional is sometimes the only way to go. If you drill for water get a pro. If you’re in north Texas I can recommend a driller.  His expertise, now clearly evident in my completed well, pumps 1200 gallons of drinkable water in a day’s time. It’s self-contained, fully automatic, solar powered and hasn’t missed a lick since it was completed. And no monthly bill.

Food Source: Garden, Chickens, Bartering, Hunting and Trapping

Chickens, chickens, chickens. Get some. Chickens will soon be your best farm or backyard friends as they go about eating bugs and other pests, even fertilizing your dirt, all the while supplying you with fresh eggs and wholesome natural meat. And if an occasional game of futbol pollo breaks out, get excited about it. 

Plant a vegetable garden half the size of a normal backyard and you’ll have all you can eat – fresh and canned. 

My garden is 40′ X 40′ plus I have a small wheat field. I water the fruits and vegetables constantly, spray all of it with a homemade organic cocktail of bug and disease killing juices, extracts and witches brew, and add a lot of chicken poop to my compost for use in the garden beds.  There are so many tomatoes this year I have already canned 50 jars plus fed everybody in three counties, and I also have some other garden goodies safely stored. Plant vegetables suitable for your climate and soil. I suggest using heirloom varieties for better nutrition and taste.

Here are a few hints from an old blog post I hope will help you.

While I realize hunting is offensive to some readers, it’s something I’ve been doing since an early age. My grandfather started me fishing and hunting when I was a kid and he always told me never to kill an animal for sport, only for the table. I’ve stuck to that principle and in today’s world of antibiotics, water and GMO infused beef, pork, chicken and just about all meats, I’m happy to eat a grilled venison backstrap or wild hog tenderloin instead. This issue’s “Green Gazette” features an article on all the additives in supermarket meat. It’s just not healthy. Deer and wild hogs are true free-range, all-natural meat sources and are plentiful out here in the country. Wild hogs are so numerous in Texas that hunting and trapping them provides a way to make a living for hundreds of families. I supplement my income by selling live hogs to a local Bel-Tex buyer, and I stock my freezer with fresh, natural pork in the process. When you come for a weekend workshop, you can sample some of my homemade sausage if you’d like, then decide.

I’m not in the cow-milking business just yet but I do know a local milkman who will trade milk and butter for eggs and veggies. Even chocolate! I’ll bet you have something you could trade a local farmer or a builder… computer skills, labor, artwork, homemade wine (or really good California reds from 2007), everyone has something! Seek out your neighbors or a farmer in the area. Most of them are friendly and who knows, you might learn how to milk a goat and make chèvre. 

My Reasons for Going Off-Grid

My love of Mother Nature drew me back to the country from the rat race. Raising livestock, trading with friends, and working outdoors is fun for me. Corporate quarterly sales spreadsheets and those who create them are not. I’m a minute or two passed my 50th birthday so my health is also a concern.  I do not think GMO, herbicide and pesticide infested foods are nutritious. There’s some research to back up my claim… on the Google. Grasshoppers and green bugs won’t touch the genetically modified vegetables but it’s perfectly safe for us to eat? Yeah, I’ll be growing and eating my own as much as possible in hopes I can stay as healthy as I have been. Couple of dings is all, and I want to keep it that way.

So here we are, outside our new energy-efficient digs, eating an organic cantaloupe we grew on bamboo trellises, talking about how far we’ve come in a few years. Envision the lifestyle. Take that first step with adding some solar lighting to your backyard. If you do it yourself, it will happen. The guidelines are there thanks to Mother Earth News and many others so go for it! If you’re waiting on me you’ve got your hat on backwards.

Good luck to you and please contact me if I can be of any help. If you’re near DFW or a seasoned traveler, I offer weekend tours and training. Come see!