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Co-op members opt for an off-the-grid, simpler existence

Lifestyles shed consumerism to embrace "minimalist" attitude

Co-op members opt for an off-the-grid, simpler existence

Red wiggler worms are trying to make a break for it from the clump of compost in Mitch McGuire’s hands.

But, ahem, it’s not your usual compost.

“We deal with our human manure in a very user-friendly way — we don’t have septic systems, we compost everything,” explained McGuire, tour guide at Northern Sun Farm Co-op, an off-the-grid community 15 miles south of Steinbach.

The co-op’s dozen or so permanent residents aren’t shy about telling visitors about their tidy system for turning their “deposits” into a safe, nutrient-rich fertilizer.

“It’s the most sustainable fertilizer I know of,” said Dawn Buchanen, McGuire’s partner and a 20-year resident of the community.

And it seems to be working.

Lush gardens of tomatoes, garlic, peppers, cauliflower, beans, and a host of other vegetables and herbs abound, nestled in between small homes, meadows, and woodland paths. Pigs, cows and goats are also raised on site.

“Really, almost everything we need is grown here,” Buchanen said, adding what they can’t produce is bought in bulk from organic producers.

Residents also built their own homes, often repurposing old materials in the process. Some are straw-bale construction, others made from used timber, and one is a recycled boxcar.

“I’d never built anything before,” said Buchanen, who spent four months disassembling a barn before using the pieces to construct her compact and cosy wooden home with not much more than a saw and hammer. And she did it all with her infant son in tow.

“My second son Noble was born here, I gave birth to him in the loft,” she said.

Later, a straw-bale addition was added to provide a separate bedroom.

“Most of our houses are relatively small, because we heat them with wood,” said McGuire. “We have a five-cord limit because we harvest our firewood on the land… so people don’t build ridiculous homes.”

In 2009, Northern Sun added a large three-season community kitchen and meeting area. It was built by members using recycled and local wood, and has a compacted clay floor.

Instead of shingles, the roof was painstakingly and beautifully sheathed with old tin litho-sheets once used to print the Steinbach Carillon.

A membership share in the co-op (which currently isn’t taking new members) costs $2,000, along with $300 annually for rent.

“It’s not for everyone, but personally I love it, it’s all about freedom,” said Gerhard Dekker, who co-founded the community nearly three decades ago.

It’s also about reducing the impact people have on the earth, and living a simpler, more self-reliant lifestyle. Although the Internet has made some inroads, one phone line is shared by almost all residents, and any electronic devices rely on solar panels and a small wind turbine for their energy.

“We’re trying to do the right thing, preserve the environment, preserve what we have, and look after it in a way that it will continue to serve us,” the 66-year-old said. “We’re trying to build an alternative economy here, and find a different way of doing things. It’s a big job and it’s slow going… but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Co-op members are also part of a group called the South Eastman Transition Initiative, which advocates for a less resource-intensive lifestyle and offers advice to those “anticipating a less opulent future.”

Cheap energy has fuelled the North American lifestyle but “it’s becoming obvious that it’s not going to last,” Dekker said.

That said, co-op members own vehicles and work outside the community, and additional income is also generated through workshops and tours of the 240-acre land-based co-op — part of their mandate for education.

“Not all of our members are free of consumerism, but by and large, this is not a consumerist lifestyle, it’s pretty minimalist,” said Dekker. “It’s production oriented rather than consumption oriented.”

“Because we provide a lot of things for ourselves — power, heat with firewood, and our own water — our output costs are fairly minimal, so having to work full time is unnecessary,” added McGuire, who joined the co-op four years ago.

Dekker said he has lived on as little as $3,000 per year.

Currently, co-op members are raising money to complete a cold storage facility so more food can be put up for the winter. A seniors’ residence for members and a winterized community centre have also been talked about.

But for the most part, they’re content with what they have, Dekker said.

“It’s really good living here, it’s very rewarding,” he said. “I can’t think of a better place to live.”

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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