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One year later: Pender Island couple living off the land more than met the challenge

Stef Lowey and Chris Hall will pop the cork on a bottle of champagne on Aug. 2 — at exactly 12:01 a.m. “It’s been sitting on our counter top all year staring at us,” Hall says with a laugh. It will be a reward for a memorable 365 days for the couple.

Stef Lowey and Chris Hall will pop the cork on a bottle of champagne on Aug. 2 — at exactly 12:01 a.m.

“It’s been sitting on our counter top all year staring at us,” Hall says with a laugh.

It will be a reward for a memorable 365 days for the couple.

The bottle of bubbly marks the first anniversary of a remarkable journey for Hall and Lowey, who have only eaten what they catch, grow, harvest and raise on their half-acre property on Pender Island.

Hall and Lowey gave away all of their packaged food, spurned alcohol, coffee, tea and soft drinks, and ramped up a little farm flowing with chickens, turkeys, ducks and quail, honey bees, a few pigs and garden patches with 75 varieties of vegetables and fruits.

Their oceanfront home has provided prawns and crab, various fish in season and edible seaweed and other plants — not to mention salt drawn and dried from the sea.

While most of us were holed up at home during the pandemic — and going for walks and groceries seemed the only way to get out, Lowey and Hall had long days of hard work to produce their own food.

Looking back after almost a year, the couple are amazed at their experience, and how they turned what had been stressful jobs and lifestyles, and unhealthy eating into a more satisfying way of life.

Both say they are much healthier and regular blood work and checkups prove their point.

They both initially dropped weight after leaving behind processed foods, alcohol and caffeine. But they admit it was pounds they both could afford to lose and have now reached a “healthy balance.”

Their most recent blood work showed a slight rise in cholesterol, likely from eating more eggs and chicken, so the couple are growing more beans and chickpeas to level out their proteins.

Research into growing food, the trial and error of raising it and various hacks on how to find food and prepare it for consumption made every day interesting, they say.

Working together on that process, including building gardens and bird coops, brought them closer together.

“It’s been transformative,” Lowey said.

“There were a couple of times I asked myself ‘what am I doing?’ ” she laughed. “But you realize how much we rely on each other. We share a lot of duties every day. We see the other side of each of us. I’ve become a different person. It’s really helped our relationship.”

Hall said they share all the work, and plan everything together, whether it’s butchering chickens, cooking, preparing compost or hauling up prawn traps. “My mom came to visit us a few weeks ago and she said she noticed how well we work together.”

Lowey and Hall have documented their journey on YouTube — Lovin off the Land — with regular videos of their daily life, including making flour and spreads from nuts and grinding bone meal, growing mushrooms in fallen logs and foraging for bladderwrack and sea asparagus along their shore. Their videos have attracted just over 26,000 followers, and they have a bit of celebrity status on Pender.

“I met a friend at the local pub just to say hi and about 10 people asked ‘what are you doing here?’ ” said Hall. “I had a water … you don’t get away with much on a tiny Island.”

Lowey said messages from their followers have been encouraging. “A lot of people are inspired by what we have done. And we’re so grateful for that support. It’s encouraging to see other people are interested in where their food comes from.”

The challenge on the Pender property is finding garden plots to support edible plants. The land is heavily treed and largely under shade, and much of the soil is acidic from pine needle droppings.

So they’ve built a steady supply of compost from chicken manure and plant scraps, and set up gardens in sunny spots where there is a break in the canopy, and others in shade.

Lowey said they continue to find new varieties of plants that are edible, most recently hosta which grows well with little sunlight and tastes like asparagus.

They built an irrigation system out of plastic pipes no longer used by a Pender resident; it drip feeds the plots.

Every inch of the place — including deck rails and steps — has plantings, from berries to seedlings. There are patches of beets and bok choy, kale and Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard and rhubarb, lettuce and beans, potatoes, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.

There are walnut and hazelnut trees and they grow stevia to dry and grind as a natural sweetener.

“It seems like every week we find something new to grow and eat,” said Lowey.

This summer, sea asparagus is plentiful on the tidelines and it’s proving tasty. “I like it better than regular asparagus … it just tastes better.”

They’ve prepared baked bull-kelp bulbs stuffed with minced pork, snack chips from dried bladderwrack, seaweed salads with veggies and sea asparagus sauteed with giant oyster mushrooms. They make tea and salads using horsetail plants that grow wild on the property.

The couple will can a lot of their summer harvest soon, including pickles and beans, and butcher some of their meat birds for the winter freezer.

They’ve tried to raise their own chicks, but roosters are not allowed in the Magic Lake area of Pender Island due to noise bylaws. So they’re experimenting with quail to start building that poultry flock.

Before their “180 lifestyle change,” the couple both worked at Poet’s Cove Resort on Pender — Hall, 38, as general manager and Lowey, 24, in the hotel spa. They were out of work when the pandemic hit in March. They collected pandemic benefits from the government for a time, but started their own jobs to make ends meet a few months later.

Hall operates a water taxi between some of the Gulf Islands, and Lowey created a studio at their cabin to do massage therapy.

They both plan to continue the lifestyle after the one-year anniversary, but may add few store products such as flour.

On Aug. 2, they might indulge in a few past creature comforts — including the bubbly, a couple of strong coffees and, for Lowey, a slice of pizza.