Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 21, 2012

Loving Life Off The Grid

Farmer to present class in Benzie

By Kathy Gibbons

---- — Craig Schaaf is going to teach a class on "Thriving, Not Just Surviving, Off the Grid" in Benzie County Oct. 30.

He can do that because he lives it — with joy and enthusiasm.

Schaaf and his wife, Kyra, and their seven children reside on and work their 10-acre Golden Rule Farm near Kaleva. Their home is a 706-square-foot yurt, which is a round wood-frame structure traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia and dating back to the 12th century.

There's no indoor plumbing — just a shallow-well hand pump outside. An outhouse serves as the bathroom. They take "bucket baths" and in the summertime, heat water in jars placed in a cold frame. A wooden box with glass over the top, cold frames are used for growing in the wintertime, he said.

A woodstove provides heat inside the yurt. It does double duty for warming water during cold weather.

The Schaafs had looked into running electricity to their property when they bought it about eight years ago, but it was going to cost about $6,000.

"We made the decision at that point to use alternative energy," he said.

The Schaafs use a small generator to power a few light bulbs and charge their cell phones and laptop computer. For refrigeration, they have a small propane fridge like you might find in a travel trailer, though Schaaf is planning to transition to an ice house like those used generations ago.

A large generator makes it possible to irrigate when they need to, and get water to their animals.

"The great thing about a generator is that when it's running, you hear it, so you get done what you're doing because you don't want to be using gas," he said. "Whereas, with an electric meter, if people plug in an iron or hair curler and go out and look at the electric meter, they'll be shocked at how quickly it's spinning.

"Electricity is so silent, they don't realize the power they are using."

Growing up outside of the Lansing area, Schaaf, 42, didn't even start gardening until he was 30. He's been a full-time farmer for the last seven years, though, today mainly producing for Trattoria Stella in Traverse City as well as for his family's use. While the Schaafs live on 10 acres, they only use about 5,000 square feet for actual growing. They're able to keep it up year round, using a hoop house for protection in the wintertime.

"There's 35 different vegetables you can put an unheated hoop house over and grow all winter," Schaaf said. "The heat of the sun is a lot of energy.

"People don't realize we get 20,000 more times energy available from the sun than all of the other energy sources we utilize. We don't utilize it like we should."

Living off the grid and raising a good portion of your own food means learning to eat seasonally, Schaaf explained. They make their own maple syrup and have their own dairy goats.

"Depending on the year, probably three quarters of our food — our milk, our eggs and most of the vegetables and stuff — would be ours," he said. "Some of the grains and beans we would be consuming, we get from other sources.

The Schaafs are in the process of setting up a system of solar panels that will give them more electrical capability. Next on their list is a straw bale house.

Schaaf plans to share his experiences in the class he's teaching Oct. 30 for Grow Benzie, one of four he signed on to present there this season. He and his wife regularly teach similar programs and hold monthly seminars at their farm from March to October so others can learn about living off the grid and growing their own food firsthand.

"One of the biggest things you've got to do is you've got to change your mental framework," he said. "I've spent time in Romania and Haiti and other places in the world and there are people that are wonderfully content with big families living in 400-some square feet. The average dwelling in America in the 1950s was 900 square feet.

"What you do is you just learn to have less."

"Thriving, Not Just Surviving, Off the Grid" will be held Oct. 30 at Grow Benzie, 5885 M-115 in Benzonia. A potluck starts at 6 p.m., followed by the program at 7. Those attending are asked to bring a dish to pass, drink and table service. Donations of $7 per person or $10 for a family, are encouraged. To register and for more information, call 352-6157.