31 December 2007

Rural Health Care

A couple of months ago, one of our kids had a health emergency in the middle of the night. We had no choice but to take him to the "local" community hospital, 18 or so miles away. The doctor got him taken care of, and the problem was resolved in the Emergency Room without having to admit him as a patient.

They charged us an outrageous amount of money, only about $250 of which was for the doctor. More than TWICE (over $500) was for simply using the ER at all. I called and pointed out that this is the sort of pricing we'd expect from a for-profit corporate hospital, not a "community" hospital like these folks purported to be. The woman understood my point, particularly since we'd be paying the bill out of pocket. After a bit of internal wrangling and review, they agreed to knock some additional dollars off the total.

It was still a lot more than we would have paid in a doctor's office (and the procedures the doctor performed could have easily been provided in an office --- we only went to the ER because it was so late), and a lot more than an urgent care / sub acute facility would have charged. But note well, all those considering moving to an isolated rural community: THERE ARE NO OTHER OPTIONS in many such places. The closest urgent care to where we lived in Illinois was 35 miles away...or roughly double the distance to the closest ER. Much like the crazy prices we paid for electricity, the crazy ER prices seem to be a hidden "tax" that's charged to enable these services to be offered at all in such isolated places.

But one little thing continues to bother me. We got the final bill the other day, and something jumped off the page: a grammatical error that even my fourth grader knows better than to commit. See if you can spot it:
Each of us has certain things that particularly grate his nerves. For me, as a writer, it's seeing it's used in the place of its (and vice-versa, and variants such as "Dog's For Sale"). And it's one thing to see this kind of error on a hand-painted sign. It's quite another to spot this error on a statement from a medical facility asking to be trusted to save the lives of one's family members. I found myself wondering, If you people can't tell the difference between a contraction and a possessive, how can I trust you with the health and safety of my family members?

I'm probably making a lot more of this than it deserves, and part of my indignation at their grammar is probably due to frustration at the still-outrageously-high amount they're charging. But I think there's a lesson here for us all: make sure you get the little things right. People do notice when you don't --- and those little things shape people's perceptions of your abilities on the big things.

Trouble Smoothed Over

A brief post-script to my previous post about the neighbor's dog, which had broken in and killed several of our chickens:

Things seem to be going better. The boy's parents came over that same night, introduced themselves, and apologized profusely on the boy's behalf. The boy himself came over the next night and also apologized; all three of them assured me they'd be keeping the dog tied up during daylight hours, when our chickens are out. So far, we haven't seen the dog again. I've heard him howling a bit in protest, but it sure beats hearing chickens squawking in panic.

The kid has his own landscaping/snow removal business. Friday night, we got a couple of inches of snow. After apologizing for his dog's behavior, he jumped in his truck, lowered the snowplow, and cleared our entire driveway and parking area. This was an enormous help for us, as our driveway is quite long.

So...it's unfortunate we had to get off on the wrong foot with our neighbors, but hopefully everything's on track now.

27 December 2007

Trouble with Neighbors

I got to meet the neighbors today, and it wasn't the way I wanted to be introducing myself. Two doors down, there is an older couple. That couple's daughter and son-in-law live in the house next door to us. That family's 20-year-old son, in turn, lives with the grandparents two doors down. It's a bit confusing, and I don't quite understand the whole thing yet, but the reasons are irrelevant.

All I know is the 20 year old has a dog that may not be much longer for this life. The dog is a large mongrel, about a year old, clearly still getting the puppyness worked out. He seemed thrilled that we moved in with two dogs, and our Scooter especially likes playing with him. With no fences between the properties, he roams over here several times a day.

The chickens acted frightened of him, but he seemed to leave them alone. Until today, anyhow. Both our dogs were in my office building, and I was walking over to the house. There was a loud commotion in the chicken yard, and all of our poultry (chickens, ducks, and geese) were fleeing and making a huge racket. One chicken in particular was screaming in distress, so I ran to my office and grabbed my 12-gauge shotgun. Back behind the chicken yard, the neighbor's dog was going to work killing that particular chicken. As I approached, shotgun in hand, a funny thing happened: a 4x4 pickup truck with two young men came barrelling across our property. They jumped out and yelled at him, and the dog dropped the chicken.

Thinking this was the 20 year old neighbor, I waved the shotgun and explained that I was intending to scare the dog off with a warning shot (not kill him).

The young man replied, "Oh, he's not my dog. We just saw him killing this chicken, and wanted to stop. He belongs to _____, two houses down. If it was me, I'd put a bullet in this dog's neck."

Just then, the three of us started looking around. There were FOUR dead chickens scattered about. Of course, these were this year's pullets and were just now starting to lay. All that investment, and the whole egg laying career ahead of them. As the dog was still hanging around, I fired my warning shot above his head; that finally got him running for home. We talked for a bit more, all made our introductions, and they advised me to go speak with the grandfather of the dog's owner --- and take the dead chickens with me.

I did, and the grandfather promised to speak with the dog's owner and see what could be done about containing him. I felt bad that this was the way I had to meet the neighbors; fortunately, Mrs Yeoman Farmer had already stopped by and introduced herself, so we didn't get off entirely on the wrong foot.

I'm a dog lover myself, and can't imagine intentionally harming one other than to put it out of its misery. But if I ever again catch that dog even looking at my animals funny, all my inhibitions are going to go away.

24 December 2007

Ready. At Last.

Finally, all the gifts are wrapped and the tree is up...and we're about ready to call it a night.

Yes, believe it or not...the tree didn't go up until late this evening. We didn't even get the thing until Sunday, and it remained outside until the night of Christmas Eve.

Are we procrastinators? Trying to save a bunch of money by getting one of the trees they desperately give away at the end of the season? Nope. Though I must confess the cost savings are nice, we're above all simply trying to draw a very bright line distinction between Advent and Christmas. We're sick of all the stores putting Christmas decorations up on November 1st, and playing Christmas music beginning Thanksgiving weekend, and then taking everything down on December 26th. For years now, we've been trying to carve out in our own lives a "space" for Advent and a completely separate "space" for Christmas, without getting the two confused.

During Advent, each night before dinner we light candle(s) on an Advent wreath and sing the first verse of "O Come O Come Emanuel" before saying grace and eating. The kids move Mary and Joseph one step closer to the stable on their special Advent calendar. There are no Christmas decorations or music of any kind; this is a time of preparation, not celebration.

Then, on Christmas Eve, everything switches. The tree goes up, the nativity scene goes up, and the advent wreath/candles/calendar all go back in the box. We decorate the tree, put gifts under it --- and then leave all the Christmas decorations up until the Baptism of the Lord in January.

It was Mrs Yeoman Farmer who suggested we begin these traditions, several years ago, and I am grateful that she initiated them. It's wonderful having a real Advent and a real Christmas, with each one observed in its own special way.

The bottom line: don't be afraid to be countercultural. It's a great way to live. Especially at this time of year.

Goodbye to Guineas

Yesterday, with mixed emotions, I butchered both of our remaining Guinea fowl. At one point, we had dozens of the birds; the idea was to employ them for their bug-eating prowess. However, as time went by, we discovered their downsides: Guineas are always half-wild, extremely difficult to catch, and even more difficult to contain. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer grew increasingly irritated with their tendency to fly into her garden and take dust baths in her recently-planted beds. I managed to buy them a reprieve from the chopping block last summer; I'd grown rather fond of them and their antics, and didn't want to see our farm without them.

But even I have come around now. It's not so much a matter of seeing Guineas as pests --- it's more a matter of letting go of my attachment to them. And besides, guinea meat is delicious...and we figured it would make a nice treat for Christmas Dinner.

So, Saturday night I plucked both of them off their perches in the barn. One put up quite a fight, and made me chase him all over the building before I could corner him. The other allowed himself to be surprised, and went quietly. They spent their last night in a cardboard box, and then I dispatched them Sunday morning after Mass.

Was it hard to pull the trigger (or knife, as it were) on them? Sure. Butchering chickens and ducks and turkeys isn't difficult; we have so many of each, they're more or less anonymous. But with only two guineas, they're "part of the crew" in a way that no individual hen or duck ever is. And it was tough knowing that with them gone, there would be one less type of critter in our menagerie.

But it's not like I'm in mourning for them or anything. No way. I'm happily looking forward to Christmas Dinner!

18 December 2007

You Go, Girl

Lest any doubts still exist as to children's absorbing the political orientation of their parents, I offer the following incident.

One of eight year old Homeschooled Farm Girl's books had a discussion today about the importance of being democratic on the playground. It was the usual stuff about giving everybody a turn, allowing everyone to have a say about the rules, and so forth. At the end, there was an assignment:

9. Write a short paragraph about how you can be more democratic.

Homeschooled Farm Girl used only a small portion of the allotted space. Her paragraph was very concise:

I don't want to. I'm Republican.

A Morning with the Sheriff

Next stop on the "becoming a Michigan resident" tour: the Ingham County Sheriff's office, to register my pistol. It seemed a bit "big brother-ish" to be presenting a firearm to the police and seeking permission to continue owning it. But every state has its own gun laws, and I wanted to make sure I was following them from the start. As soon as I can complete the requisite training course, I plan on getting a concealed carry permit (in my opinion the way in which Michigan gun laws are far and away better than those of Illinois); my pistol would need to be registered then, anyhow.

And even before then, suppose I had to use the gun to defend our family against an intruder. After the incident is over, and the police arrive to make their report, what do you suppose the first question will be? "Could I see your registration certificate for that handgun?" And, "I, uh, came here from out of state and didn't know I had to register it" probably will not suffice as an answer. At least long guns need not be registered, so I guess Michigan laws are still a whole lot less intrusive than they could be.

Anyhow, there I was yesterday morning in line at the Sheriff's office. Ahead of me, at the counter, was a very nice older gentleman who was also presenting a handgun for inspection. After I mentioned that I'd recently moved here from out of state, he struck up a conversation about the local gun shop. As we waited for the clerk to process his paperwork, he told me all about the place and what they have to offer: huge selection, wonderful indoor firing range ("they open at ten, and I'm going over there right now"), gunsmith services, and so forth. I was actually disappointed the clerk finished with him so quickly. Funny how a common interest in something like firearms, which the general public largely does not understand, can create such an instant bond between two people who wouldn't seem similar to each other on the surface.

The registration process took quite some time, in part because I didn't yet have a Michigan driver's license. However, as mentioned in recent posts, I did have a voter registration card --- and I also had that (expensive) dog registration for Scooter. The clerk had to check with her supervisor, but eventually agreed to accept those documents as proof of residency. The "safety inspection" of my pistol (which is what the process is supposedly about) was a joke; she basically just picked up the gun, looked at it from a few different angles, and then set it down. I spent much more time filling out forms, taking a "test" (which was a series of common sense True/False statements about gun safety that any of my kids probably could have passed), and so forth. I was actually surprised they didn't photograph and fingerprint me, but I guess they're saving that for when I get a CCW permit.

Anyway, while I was standing there waiting for the clerk to finish something, a very odd (and sad) incident took place. A woman came into the lobby, and asked another clerk if she could talk to a police officer about a domestic issue. The clerk directed her to a deputy, who met with her in another part of the lobby. The deputy, who struck me as an incredibly nice guy and very professional, listened patiently as the woman explained, "It's my eleven year old. He's completely out of control, and I just can't take it anymore. I honestly don't know what to do. I need the police to get involved, and don't know how to go about doing that."

The deputy asked where she lived, and she gave an address in town. The deputy then explained that their jurisdiction only covers unincorporated areas of the county, so she would need to talk with someone on the local police force. "Can you give me a referral?" she asked. The deputy gave the name of an officer, explaining that he works with all the schools and covers all the problems related to juveniles. The woman thanked him sincerely, and then hurried out to her car.

As I waited for the clerk to finish processing paperwork, I couldn't help reflecting on what I'd just observed. First of all, the woman had appeared to be so average and ordinary: middle aged, middle class, tastefully dressed, well-kempt, well-spoken. She defied the exterior stereotypes that someone might usually associate with "homes that produce juvenile delinquents." But what had been going on behind the exterior? What kinds of influences was her kid picking up at school? From older siblings? Did he have a father at home? A father who was involved and engaged in his life? There was no way to know, and it wasn't fair to speculate. But one word kept pounding through my head: ELEVEN. Her completely-out-of-control son, who needed to be turned over to the police, is ELEVEN.

Why is this significant? I have an eleven year old son, too. I know what eleven "looks like." Or, rather, I know what my own eleven year old son looks like and does. I could not, for the life of me, imagine a child that young and that innocent being so much of a demon as to cause his mother to seek assistance and protection from the sheriff.

I thought about that a lot as I waited for the clerk to finish my paperwork. And I kept thinking about it later, when I was at the local gun shop the man at the sheriff's office had told me about. As the gun shop guy was getting me registered for the CCW training course, a 30-ish man came in with his son. The little boy couldn't have been older than three, and was as cute as they come: big eyes, short brown hair, and very shy. As his father looked at rifles and bantered with one of the salespeople, the boy stood close by and seemed to be observing all of us with rapt attention. What a wonderful thing that his father brought him here with him this morning, I thought. Here was a father who was closely involved with his son's life, spending one-on-one time together at a very young age, and from the beginning introducing his son to the strong, masculine and responsible culture of hunting and firearms. And this particular shop was an ideal setting: warm, clean, safe, well-organized, and staffed by men who were both friendly and knowledgeable. Assuming that the father stuck around and continued building these kinds of connections with his son, I figured the odds of this kid's mother ending up in exasperation at a sheriff's office were close to zero.

I walked back to my truck making a mental note to be more creative and forward-thinking about taking a kid with me on errands like these. Each trip to the gun shop, or bike shop, or hardware store, or auto parts store, or salvage yard...each of those trips comes only once, and each of them slips away so quickly. The big temptation, for me at least, is to make those trips and run those errands alone; there are fewer distractions, and fewer things to worry about when I'm by myself. The key is remembering that each of those trips out of the house is more than an errand: it is also an unrepeatable opportunity to share an experience with another little person.

14 December 2007

You Know You're a Political Junkie When...

...you move to a new state, and register to vote before you get a new driver's license.

Worse: you actually make a special trip to the county courthouse to do it. And take your kids along, calling it a homeschooling lesson.

Seriously, Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I wouldn't have done it this way if it weren't for the political parties in this state trying to leapfrog everyone else by moving the Presidential primary up to January 15th. Although we can't be sure that under GOP rules the MI delegates will be seated at the convention, we don't want to take any chances. And as registration closes 30 days before the election, we knew we had to hurry. So, earlier this week, we made a trip up to the county seat and made sure they had our forms.

And today our shiny new new registration cards came in the mail. I'm just wondering if, when we go to get our new driver's licenses next week, we can show these cards as proof of residency.

I guess we could call it "Motor-Voter in Reverse."

12 December 2007

Scooter's Expensive Anatomy

Scooter, the Amazing Wonder Dog, likes to sleep on his back. Yeah, it's pretty immodest...but since he's a dog I guess he doesn't know any better.

But of late I've been wondering if he might have another reason for showing off his anatomy: it's pretty valuable. Or at least Ingham County (MI) seems to think so.

When we went to register our dogs this week, we were hit with sticker shock: licenses for unaltered dogs ($40/year) cost more than three times as much as licenses for neutered dogs ($12/year). Tabasco was spayed when we got her, and that's fine. We don't need any puppies. But we've deliberately kept Scooter intact, to help preserve his aggressiveness and "fight" for protecting the livestock (and challenging any bullheaded livestock who might try developing a mind of their own).

Is this "differential fee structure" a new trend, or is Ingham County the only place doing this? Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I are pretty resentful at the heavy-handed manner in which the local authorities seem to be trying to dictate behavior to us, but we'll certainly pay the fee. It's just that every time Scooter rolls over on his back to sleep, I can't help thinking about how much those "jewels" are costing us.


We're finally catching our breath and getting our life back out of boxes. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I are positive about one thing: we don't want to move again.

We loaded the truck on Friday, November 30th. U-Haul has a wonderful new service called eMove; it's a directory of people who can help with all aspects of a relocation. When I reserved the truck, the website asked if I'd like assistance with loading and/or unloading the truck. Curious, I took a closer look --- and thought more about the last time I'd loaded and unloaded a moving van. The rates were quite reasonable (typically $50 per hour for a team of two guys), so I decided to give it a try. This was the smartest thing we did, the entire move. Particularly for loading the truck, the two guys were absolutely indispensable. They not only did all the heavy lifting, but they also knew the most efficient way to pack the truck. And they stayed until the job was done, late into the night. When they finished, the inside of that truck was an amazing thing to behold; there wasn't a single cubic foot of wasted space. If it'd been up to me, I would have needed a tractor-trailer to load all of our household goods and it would've taken several days; these guys managed to get it into a 26-foot truck, in just 9 hours.

Our neighbors, from whom we buy our beef and who have a large livestock trailer, had offered to follow us up on Saturday the 1st, towing all our animals. However, as the weekend approached, it became clear that the upper Midwest would be slammed by an ice storm that day. It looked like we'd easily be able to beat the storm to Michigan, but our friends would be in the thick of it heading home. Indeed, that's what happened: northern Illinois had multiple inches of sheet ice covering everything by late afternoon. And fortunately, we and the neighbors had decided ahead of time that they shouldn't attempt to go on that day.

We did get in just fine, and our eMove helpers got our truck unloaded Saturday night. I was utterly exhausted, and in no frame of mind to do much of anything. It took all I had simply to assist the movers.

I got up Monday morning, drove back to Illinois, and spent the evening cleaning the house. Our friends came over with the livestock trailer, and their teenaged sons and I managed to catch all the animals and load them up. The goats were easiest, as they were already in a small pen. Several sheep managed to break free during the loading process, and we would've been in big trouble without Scooter The Amazing Wonder Dog, who managed to round them up again even in the dark. The boys and I then plucked all the chickens off their roosts (fairly easy), and put them in a separate part of the trailer. The ducks were by far the hardest to catch, as the flock scattered throughout the vineyard. Imagine us all tripping over trellis wires in the dark, chasing panicked birds running every which direction.

Somehow or the other, we got everything into the trailer, and left it parked overnight. As inclement weather was again threatening, we pulled out early Tuesday morning. I led the way in our minivan, and the neighbor followed with our Noah's Ark On Wheels. Rest areas were definitely the most fun, as we attracted quite a bit of attention.

Here's how things looked upon arrival:

This is the inside of the livestock trailer, just before we let all the animals out. Note: roosters, hens, geese, several breeds of duck, and two guinea fowl (aka Christmas Dinner 2007). Not visible: the 8 or 9 eggs which the hens had laid during the trip. Also, the sheep and goats were in a separate compartment, behind the far wall.

As snow was starting to fall, our neighbor got back on the road quickly. He made it home without incident, and we were deeply grateful for his help.

Meanwhile, we're enjoying making ourselves at home here. And so are the animals.

Urban Chickens

From back in Chicago, unfortunate news this morning: the City Council looks like it's preparing to ban the ownership of chickens within city limits.

Coming up for a vote Wednesday is a proposal to ban chickens, a former barnyard denizen that is pecking its way into cities across the country as part of a growing organic food trend among young professionals and other urban dwellers.

This supposed justification for the ban is ridiculous:

But the Chicago alderman who proposed a Chicago ban say chicken lovers forget that the birds attract rodents.

"This past summer I started hearing that residents were letting chickens out of their yard and they were leaving poop and mice were feeding off of it," said Alderman Lona Lane. "Then we started getting rodent-control problems and, sure enough, it was the chickens."

If anything, rodents are attracted to poorly-stored chicken feed rather than to chicken droppings. We had problems with mice until we began keeping the chicken feed in tight-lidded metal trash cans. And barn cats certainly help, too.

There have also been complaints about noisy roosters, and this is entirely justifiable in my opinion. No one has any business keeping mature roosters in a densely-populated urban or suburban neighborhood. But this can easily be solved by banning roosters, and allowing the keeping of females only. And with some good fencing, hens can be kept contained in one area of a person's property.

And another piece of advice to those thinking about maintaining an urban flock of laying hens: keep your neighbors happy by supplying them with fresh eggs as gifts. Happy neighbors don't call the police, particularly not when they have a "stake" in your flock.

What saddens me most about this ban is it's yet another attempt to separate people from the source of their food. Particularly in urban settings, people just don't know where their food comes from anymore. Eggs have become merely another factory product, to be purchased at the mega mart in pristine Styrofoam packaging. And for those who want an urban garden, this new ordinance will deprive them of a wonderful helper: chickens are outstanding consumers of bugs, and excellent producers of organic fertilizer. Instead, would-be gardeners will be increasingly forced to rely on chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

One thing I really enjoyed about living in Illinois, was working Knights of Columbus Bingo at our parish with an older Knight named Tom, who had grown up in Chicago in the 1940s. He had wonderful stories about life from that era. Everyone had some kind of livestock, he says --- right there in the City. Particularly during the War, if you wanted to eat, you needed to raise something in addition to what the ration cards allowed. Goats, chickens, rabbits --- even dairy cows were not unusual. (Please, no comments about Mrs. O'Leary...I think that's an urban legend, anyhow.)

The Council vote is supposed to happen today. My Chicago readers still have time to call their Alderman and register an opinion.

07 December 2007

Faith in Public Life

Must say I was extremely impressed with Mitt Romney's speech yesterday about his faith and its role in his campaign for President. Not surprisingly, the pull-quote on all the network news broadcasts last night was "I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest," and it was generally described in "game schema" terms such as "Mitt Romney sought to reassure nervous evangelical voters about his Mormon faith."

But Romney's address was about much more than that, and it ought to be mandatory reading for all those interested in the question of faith in American public life. I haven't heard this in-depth of a discussion of that issue in quite some time, and particularly not from a candidate for public office. Some examples:

There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adams' words: 'We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion... Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people.'

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.


We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.

We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'

Pat Buchanan has an excellent discussion of Romney's speech, and why it is so different from JFK's famous 1960 Houston speech.

I've had a tough time making up my mind in the Presidential contest; I've been impressed with the different strengths of each member of the Republican field, and would be comfortable supporting any one of them against any of the Democratic contenders. But with Michigan's primary having been moved up to January 15th, Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I need to decide on a candidate quickly (and we still need to register to vote!).

Romney's faith has never been an issue for me; though I believe Mormonism is an odd religion and not truly a Christian denomination, I've always considered Mormons to be some of the strongest allies of Catholics and Evangelicals in politics and the culture wars. And I think Romney's mix of executive and business experience would make him an extremely effective chief executive. But what has made me uncomfortable with him was a nagging sense that Romney was trying to "re-brand" himself in this race, as if he were a consumer product which had been previously "branded" differently for his Massachusetts races.

Romney's speech has made me much more enthusiastic about supporting him next month, and it's not because he's made me "less concerned" about his religion or "assured me" that his faith wouldn't influence his decisions (a la JFK). Precisely the opposite: I'd been wanting to know more about how Romney's faith would inform his decision making, and in that he hit a grand slam. I was particularly impressed with his identifying a "religion of secularism" which the left seeks to impose on the country, and equally impressed by the depth of historical understanding Romney has about the nation's founding.

The great American experiment in personal and political freedom has succeeded in large part because Americans are a religious people who understand that rights and freedoms cannot survive without (and must be solidly grounded in) obligations and responsibilities. I'd been waiting for one of the Presidential candidates to tell me he understands this, too. And, like I said a moment ago: Mitt Romney blasted this one out of the park.

05 December 2007

We're Here

We've arrived in MI, and the internet is finally up.

Life is still in boxes, but I got a few pictures taken during the move and will put up a longer post once we've caught our breath.

The animals are here, too; that was an adventure in itself. Picture a big Noah's Ark on wheels, behind a friend's pickup truck. That was us.

26 November 2007

Worst. Timing. Ever.

I came out to do the chores late this afternoon. The weather was dreary, cold (~35F), and freezing rain had fallen off and on all day. In short, it was about as miserable as could be.

And then I discovered, in the vineyard, an Australorp hen huddled near the feed pan and making an unmistakable cluck-cluck-clucking sound. And, from underneath her (muffled, as it were), was the equally unmistakable cheep-cheep-cheep of a newly hatched chick. Sure enough, as Mother Hen came to get her feed, the chick popped out and joined her.
I haven't the slightest idea where she had her nest, or how many other eggs she had, or how many of her chicks have already frozen to death...or how long this one will last. I just know that Mother Hen is entirely on her own with this one; I can't set up a brooder lamp, what with the impending move --- and it would be a total waste to generate that kind of heat for a single chick, anyhow. I do hope the chick survives, but this isn't exactly the weather for it. All I can say is: This will be interesting.

Half Moved

Posting has been slow, what with trying to get moved to our new place in Michigan. We're back here in Illinois for the week, and make the definitive move this coming Saturday (December 1st).

To our dismay, we discovered there is no hay available for sale anywhere near our new farm in Michigan. It was a bad year for hay generally in the US, with prices spiking higher than we've ever seen. (I suspect some of that has to do with hay fields being converted to corn because of the ethanol boom, but don't even get me started on that one.) Anyway, Roger, our usual supplier of hay here in Illinois, was happy to help me load 150 bales onto a 26 foot U-Haul truck last Tuesday morning; that should be enough to get all of our sheep and goats through the winter. We were assisted by Matthew, the homeschooled 16 year old neighbor that I've mentioned in other posts. Matthew and Roger have worked together quite a bit over the last few years, and I was floored at how efficiently they were able to pack those bales into the truck.

Still, even with maximizing the use of space, we weren't left with much additional room. I managed to get almost all of our books, and quite a bit of the kids' clothing, but there was very little space for all the other farm equipment we'd planned on taking. We did load both goat milking stanchions, a few stock tanks, several rolls of chain link fencing, and around 100 metal T-posts, and several of our expensive metal farm gates --- but then the truck was jammed to the gills.

I'm thinking I'll probably have to come back here for a third "mop up" trip some time later; there's simply so much fencing material here, and other farm equipment (poultry brooder, chicken plucker) that won't fit with the household goods on this coming Saturday's truck and yet is far too expensive or time consuming to replace. Shocker: T-posts are now selling for $3.28 in Michigan! We have literally hundreds still on the property that I haven't been able to pull up yet. And there are several expensive metal gates that must stay up until the last minute, to keep the animals contained. No way am I leaving all that equipment here, when we have 15 acres to fence in Michigan.

This is what we looked like, when at last we departed on Tuesday afternoon (Mrs. Yeoman Farmer followed in our minivan):
We pulled in late last Tuesday night, leaving the truck and auto trailer in the front yard of the new house. I got my 1975 Fiat Spyder off the trailer and safely in the garage; the canvas top is ripped, and a storm was headed in. Wednesday morning, we had the closing --- and then we headed out to the property to unload the truck. Assisted by my father-in-law, Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I braved a steady drizzling rain and managed to get all 150 bales of hay out of the truck and neatly stacked in the upper level of the Big Red Barn while the kids ran around that barn burning off energy.

But what was supposed to be the happiest day of the year literally turned dark and ugly; the sun went down, the rain intensified...and I couldn't find my wallet. I'd been carrying far more cash than usual, because so many people had just paid for turkeys and other produce. I tore the van apart, but couldn't find it anywhere. 300 miles from home, no driver's license, no credit cards, and no cash. Mrs Yeoman Farmer had a credit card and a little cash, so we'd be able to get home, but I was sick at the thought of having lost everything. The worst part wasn't so much the money, but what it represented: all that work nurturing turkeys and laying hens, and all the effort to get them butchered. If someone at the McDonald's I'd stopped at for lunch had stolen my wallet, what they'd really stolen was all of that work I'd put so much of myself into. (And that, really, is why I've come to realize that theft is such a serious sin.) Things only got darker and more miserable when we went to return the U-Haul truck. It was in a dinky town way off the beaten path, in a combination pizza parlor/banquet hall/storage facility/truck rental building. And then it took the lady 45 minutes to figure out how to check the truck in; U-Haul was clearly a very minor part of their business, and I wondered why they bothered being licensees at all.

So...rain-soaked, dark, late, hungry, exhausted, covered with hay dust, missing several hundred dollars and a driver's license and wondering how I'd cancel all my credit cards, we made our way back to my in-laws' house. Stopped at the McDonald's where I last knew I had my wallet, but it hadn't been turned in. My emotions reached a new bottom.

And then, once we brought everything in to the house, I found the wallet! It had been in my laptop bag, where I'd stashed it so I wouldn't lose it. I'd thought I'd left it there, but hadn't been able to find it in any of the pockets when I'd searched back at the new house. Only now, with the bag out of the van and sitting on my bed, was I able to find the wallet at the bottom of an inside pocket. Sheesh. Relieved, I took a long hot shower and turned my thoughts to the next day.

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving with family, and then went back out to the new house on Friday and Saturday. My father in law, brother in law, and 14 year old nephew helped get the lower level of the barn all set for livestock, and we even managed to drive several posts outside to mark out an initial grazing area. Getting the entire property fenced will have to wait for the spring, but at least we're all set to bring the animals next weekend. There is a goat area, a sheep area, and a chicken area we can turn various critters loose into.

We drove home Sunday, and tried to catch our breath last night. Matthew took good care of things while we were gone, and we're going to miss having someone like him around. But, as MYF pointed out, we won't need someone to come over and do farm chores for us in Michigan --- because we'll never be all going out of town to visit family. Excellent point.

I'll just be glad when it's all over and we can finally settle in.

15 November 2007


We are now officially...squatters! And I never thought I'd be so happy to announce it.

Everything went smoothly this morning with the sale of our Illinois farm, and the road appears all clear for closing on our house in Michigan next week. But in the meantime, we are neither homeowners nor renters.

Homeschooled Farm Girl was afraid this would make us "homeless." Nope, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer replied, we're "squatters."

Gotta love it.

13 November 2007

Alert: Turkey Available!

For local readers:

A large, broad breasted bronze hen turkey has just become available. I'd been holding it for someone, but the ultimate size turned out to be too large for their oven.

I actually don't know the dressed weight, because I haven't butchered her yet. But if the other BBB hens are any indication, she'll dress in the 24-25 pound range. Your price: $60. First person to make me an offer gets her. Otherwise, if I don't hear from anyone by this weekend, she's getting cut up into smaller pieces and going into one of our chest freezers.

12 November 2007

More on turkeys

It never ceases to amaze me...we're again getting flooded with emails and calls from people looking for a Thanksgiving turkey. Happens every year, the first or second week of November. I have to remind myself that for the typical consumer, they have no idea how early in the year these things sell out. They don't start thinking about turkeys until they start planning Thanksgiving dinner...which is right about now. Of course, the farmer must begin planning in April.

We sold out well over a month ago, and everyone else we know is also sold out. My advice if you want a farm-fresh turkey: contact the farmer over the summer. The customer coming today did just that. She's ordered several times from us in the past, and knew she needed to call in June or July. She's getting three nice large Bourbon Red turkeys today, along with several stewing hens and roasting ducks.

Speaking of farm visits, we had a nice visit yesterday with a family from the suburbs. They've been down before, and have a three year old daughter who absolutely loves our sheep and goats. The parents are immigrants from one of the former Soviet republics, and the woman's family had a traditional farm with fresh livestock. I'm just so happy we can supply this family something they miss from the old country, and that they are so appreciative of both the food and having a place they can take their daughter to maintain that connection to their food. They took 14 hens, 5 ducks, and several dozen eggs...and they want a lamb next year. Yum.

07 November 2007

Heritage Turkeys

We raise two kinds of turkeys: Broad Breasted Bronze (BBB), which are similar in body type to what you buy at the grocery store, and Bourbon Red, which are a smaller, heritage breed of turkey.

The BBBs are for people who are accustomed to a larger turkey, that can feed a large gathering. I just finished butchering almost all of them, and they were enormous: the two toms dressed at 35 pounds, and the hens were all 24-25 pounds. We really need to start butchering them earlier in the year, or starting the poults later in the year, because that's too big of a turkey for most people. We have one customer who likes the 35# toms; they have 50+ people over for Thanksgiving, and will use all that meat. She bought one of them; the other tom I cut up into pieces for us to freeze and eat next year. On a turkey that large, a leg quarter is an entire meal for our family.

Our BBBs are the size of a supermarket turkey, but the flavor and meat quality is very different. Our birds are raised on pasture, and have had a good diet of green stuff. Plus, they live to be old enough so the muscle matures and are used more than factory-farmed birds (which are raised in confinement and slaughtered at 16 weeks). Something we've observed, and others have commented to us: after feasting on one of our turkeys for Thanksgiving, we don't feel sick the next day.

The heritage turkeys are the ones people are really interested in, as they're a much different eating experience. The breasts are smaller, and better proportioned to the size of the bird. They can fly, and run fast, and as a result end up using more of their muscles in more ways that the enormous lumbering BBBs do --- and that makes for different meat. The hens only dress at 8-10#, and the toms are more like 15# --- not a bad size, but it won't feed a large crowd. We charge $3.50/lb for them, and could probably charge more (other farmers do), and people drive from as far away as Chicago to get them. (We charge $2.50/lb for the BBBs.)

The biggest problem with Bourbon Reds and other heritage turkeys is the cost of poults; they can run as much as $7 or $8 each, compared to about $4 for BBB poults. And we always lose several of them in the brooder, and usually one or two die after reaching maturity, so the actual cost to acquire each bird is significantly higher. It's not really worth it from a financial standpoint; we're doing this for the pleasure of being able to provide our family and others with a really excellent Thanksgiving experience. Perhaps when we get to Michigan, we'll be able to figure out how to do this more profitably.

The New York Times has an excellent article today, spotlighting a breeder who is taking the lead in preserving these wonderful birds.

Virtually all of turkeys raised in the United States come from one basic line, a broad-breasted White that George Nicholas developed in California in the 1950s. By the 1960s, he had perfected a breed that produced meat so efficiently that it became the industry standard.

The problem is, the birds can’t fly or reproduce without the help of artificial insemination, and their bland meat has produced a nation of diners for whom dry, overcooked Thanksgiving turkey is an annual disappointment.

“It’s as if everyone in America was eating only one kind of apple,” Mr. Reese said. “It’s like saying we will only use Red Delicious apples for everything.”

The dominance of the broad-breasted White concerns those who worry that American agriculture is on the brink of losing its once-diverse strain of plants and animals. For the last 20 years, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has been working to save turkeys like the ones on Mr. Reese’s farm.

06 November 2007


Posting has been and will remain slow for a bit; we're swamped with preparations for the big move.

I finally got to see the new property in Michigan this weekend; still hard to believe we bought this thing sight unseen, on the word of my father in law that it was "absolutely perfect" for us. And now that I've seen it...I wholeheartedly agree. It's hard to imagine a property that's a better fit for us, all the way around.

We're frantically packing boxes, while making all kinds of other last minute preparations. The plan is to load a 24' U-Haul truck on Monday-Tuesday before Thanksgiving, with all of the FARM stuff. All the T-posts we've been ripping up, fencing material that can be salvaged, dozens of hay and straw bales, tools, stock tanks, brooder lamps, and the myriad other things we've accumulated that are too dirty or too bulky to be packed with our household goods. I will drive that truck up on Tuesday before Thanksgiving, towing our old pickup truck (great for hauling stuff around the farm and around town, but I'd never trust it on a 300 mile drive). Mrs. Yeoman Farmer will follow the U-Haul with our minivan, with kids taking turns getting to ride in the big truck with me.

We close on the MI property on Wednesday, the day before T-giving. After closing, we will unload all the farm stuff into the Big Red Barn and return the U-Haul.

Friday and Saturday after T-giving, our family and friends will help us put up fence posts and gates, so we can establish a basic pasture and separate the sheep from the goats from the chickens in the barn.

We'll drive back that Sunday, and then spend the next week packing all our household goods. We'll load another U-Haul, then drive it up towing my 1975 Fiat Spider (great car, but I'd never try to drive it 300 miles...especially not in December). Again, MYF will follow in the minivan. If all goes well, we'll have everything unloaded on December 1st.

It's still uncertain how we're getting the livestock up here. A neighbor has a large livestock trailer, but it must be pulled with his own truck (can't hitch it to a U-Haul). He may be able to drive up with us on December 1st, and then I'd ride back to Illinois with him the next day to retrieve the last of our vehicles. But that's still up in the air.

And somewhere in the midst of all this packing, I need to get the last of the turkeys and laying hens butchered. All this adds up to little time for blogging, but I will put up some posts with updates as we get closer to the big move.

30 October 2007


Tonight at dinner, Mrs Yeoman Farmer (MYF) muttered: "I wonder how many kids will be out tomorrow dressed as Hillary, with a broom."

Before I could say anything, Eight Year Old Homeschooled Farm Girl (HFG) cut in: "But Hillary Clinton is much too [AIR QUOTES WITH FINGERS] 'fancy' to be sweeping with a broom."

MYF and I disolved into uncontrolled laughter, doubled over and practically banging our heads on the table.

"What?" HFG asked. "What's so funny?"

Nothing, honey. We'll explain it later.

26 October 2007

Ingesting Unnatural Stuff

When your kids are allergic to nearly everything on the supermarket shelves, it really does change the way you think about the myriad things we put into our bodies. My diet still isn't as "natural" as it ought to be (I confess to grabbing McDonald's hamburgers and Fritos corn chips in a pinch), but since switching to raw milk at breakfast, and lunches of nutrient-dense soups made from our own livestock, my health has improved markedly. I hate to think of all that McDonald's food I put away as a teenager; I loved the stuff, but can't help thinking about how it impacted my growing and developing body. I guess I'm just glad that our kids have been enjoying such an incredibly wholesome diet from their earliest ages.

Confirming my suspicions about disparate impact of various things on younger people, last night NPR had an excellent story about the ways in which steroids are particularly damaging to teenagers. As Dr. Michael Miletic explains, compared to a thirty year old professional athlete taking steroids, for teenagers "[T]here is a significant difference, because of the continuing development both physically, developmentally, emotionally, and neurologically in adolescents. Things are still rapidly changing within an adolescent's brain and body; therefore when you introduce something to that body which is changing in such a rapid way, you're going to have unpredictable effects on all those systems."

My first thought: why do schools crack down so hard on student athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs...but remain silent about --- and in some cases actually encourage --- adolescent girls who employ hormone-based contraceptive pills and patches? I'm not a physician, but it seems logical that nearly everything Dr. Miletic says above can be applied as readily to contraceptive pills as to anabolic steroids. It's one thing for a thirty-year old woman to take these things; it's quite another for a fifteen year old girl, whose system is still maturing, to be manipulating her body with synthetic hormones. And if you read the medical literature closely enough, you will find plenty of examples of the side effects that hormone-based contraception can cause. As one physician told me:

We had one girl who had a condition called pseudotumor cerebri. This can arise as a consequence of using OCPs [Oral Contraceptive Pills] to treat painful or irregular menstruation in adolescent and teenaged girls. It's not a cancerous tumor but they are these little masses that lead to very difficult to manage headaches. Also I remember a 22 year old girl we had who had a stroke. She was a smoker and even though she hadn't used OCPs in 2 years, the only conclusion they could come to was small clots caused by the years of hormone use.

I find it particularly interesting that when it comes to steroid use by high school athletes, no one is saying "Well, the kids are going to do it anyway. We should let them take the steroids, but under a doctor's supervision, so they can do it as safely as possible." No, rather than even tacitly condoning unhealthy behavior, we assume that the kids will respond rationally to the mix of incentives and penalties placed before them. Why, then, do we assume these same kids are such uncontrollable little animals that it's acceptable to manipulate their still-developing endocrine systems with synthetic hormones...as long as it's in the name of "safe sex"?

I'm all for zero tolerance toward anabolic steroid use; kids engaging in this kind of dangerous and self-destructive behavior ought to be punished as severely as possible. But in our rush to clean up student athletes, let's not overlook the significantly more widespread other uses and abuses of synthetic hormones being undertaken by high school kids with still-developing bodies.

25 October 2007

Carbon Emissions

In all the debate about "global warming" and the degree humans may have contributed to it through carbon emissions, there is seldom much discussion about the amount of carbon that nature herself puts into the atmosphere. And I think that's because we so seldom see images like the one below --- and, when we do, we usually don't think of them as "carbon emitting events." And we forget that fires like these burn all over the globe, every year. If anyone has come across a rigorous scientific estimate of how much carbon was released into the atmosphere by these California wildfires, and how many automobile engines (or whatever) this translates into, I'd be interested in seeing it.

Given the enormity of such natural contributions to global warming (not only through carbon emissions such as volcanoes and forest fires, but also by increased solar activity), I remain deeply skeptical about the human race's ability to affect climate much beyond the margins. But let's stipulate for a moment that man's carbon emissions do have some impact on climate, and let's even stipulate that this impact is more bad than good. But in making our grand calculations of "our share," let's remember something else: human beings extinguished those California fires and thus prevented a great amount of additional carbon emissions. Imagine how much more carbon would've been released without our efforts; indeed, before human settlement, imagine how much more of those forests burned every year when the Santa Ana winds blew in.

How much of a "carbon offset credit" does the human race get for that?

24 October 2007

More on the Farm Bill

National Review has an excellent editorial today, blasting the new farm bill:

For a long time now, federal farm subsidies have rewarded farmers for producing far more than they can profitably sell. Removing the subsidies would precipitate a painful downward adjustment for the nine percent of farming operations that receive roughly 54 percent of the payments, but sustaining them year after year exacerbates the costs of overproduction: the gross inefficiencies, the environmental degradation, and, of course, the redistribution of billions of tax dollars to farm families whose incomes are well above the national average.

The piece goes on discuss some of the alternative and competing proposals that have been introduced in Congress, but my sense is that this train is unstoppable. Why? The editors nail it precisely, with this:

The benefits of farm subsidies are concentrated in the hands of just a few farmers, who accordingly have an incentive to organize and lobby Congress. The costs, by contrast, are widely distributed. This political calculus means that there are powerful forces behind the status quo. With the current farm bill set to expire, the farm lobby has already won over the House of Representatives, which passed a new farm bill back in July. Barring any surprises, the Senate Agriculture Committee will follow suit today.

My congressman, unfortunately, is one of the biggest cheerleaders for the new House bill. I tend to agree with his positions on nearly every other issue, but on this one we definitely part company.

22 October 2007

Shearing Day

Yesterday was sheep-shearing day at the farm. To answer the most obvious question first: No, we do not shear the sheep ourselves. After watching it done just one time, we quickly decided that was a skill we did not need to acquire. It's hard work, wrestling the sheep into the correct position, and requires a lot of experience to master. For the small flock we have, it makes much more sense to bring someone in a couple of times per year. Besides, with fleeces as nice as our Icelandics produce, we want someone who will bring them off the animal in as good a condition as possible. And it doesn't cost that much per animal to have them shorn, anyway.

Icelandic sheep are shorn twice per year. The spring fleece is almost always bad; imagine a heavy winter coat that's received lots of wear and abuse. If we're lucky, we get one usable fleece. The rest become mulch in the vineyard. (If we really wanted to take up felting, the spring wool could in theory be used for that. Mulching is a whole lot easier.) Fall fleeces are the best, and include wonderful soft wool from this year's lambs.

The day begins will all three of our kids, plus Scooter the Amazing Wonder Dog, driving the entire flock into a small diamond-shaped area that joins four quadrants of the pasture. The four of us humans fan out across the pasture, behind the flock, and get them to bunch up. Scooter takes it from there, helping us drive them into the central area. Each wall of that diamond-shaped area is a gate; by closing three sides tightly, we can drive all the sheep in and then close the remaining gate.
Next, we run about 200 feet of electrical extension cord from the barn down to this area. (Next year, at our new property, we'll be able to do all this in the comfort and shelter of the barn itself!) Lisa the "sheep shearing lady" (as our kids have dubbed her) sets up all her equipment, and then goes to work on the first member of the flock.

She begins by cutting off all the nasty matted and dirty wool in various places on the underside of the sheep. She then skillfully buzzes off the entire rest of the fleece; if the sheep doesn't thrash around too badly, the fleece all comes off in one piece. And it is a beautiful sight to behold.

Meanwhile, as each shorn sheep rejoins the flock in the holding area, Scooter continues to stand guard. His presence insures they stay bunched up --- and out of Lisa's work area.

We ended up with 16 very nice fleeces this year, which we will send off to a fiber mill for processing into yarn. (Or, since the mill is in Canada, I guess that would be "fibre" and "proh-sessing.") Someday, perhaps at our new property, Mrs Yeoman Farmer hopes to get a weaving loom --- so she can begin using this yarn for some really beautiful crafts.

As Malibu Burns

I've been following the latest round of Southern CA wildfires with particular interest, as they are burning areas where I spent a lot of time when in graduate school. The Santa Clarita/Canyon Country/Agua Dulce blaze is on the way from LA to where we lived before moving here. And the Malibu fires are raging across canyons where I spent many hours doing long distance cycling. It's among the most beautiful territory in the country, and hard to describe what a thrill it is to climb those narrow switchbacks while all the time looking out on the Pacific Ocean. Watching the news this weekend, every time they'd mention a road or landmark, I would remember the many times I'd ridden on that road or past that landmark. And now, it was a wall of fire.

Did it make me glad to be out of there? Sure. But it also brought back a lot of memories from those days, when the biggest concern in my life was what time I could clock going up Tuna Canyon Road.

But there was one small detail, mentioned almost as an afterthought in one of the news stories, that has been most thought-provoking for me now:

Lisa Clunis, 17, was among dozens of volunteers who hauled horse trailers to Malibu and helped residents in canyons evacuate their horses and livestock.

Sheriff's deputies summoned the volunteer crew at 6 a.m. Its first task was evacuating 60 horses from Sycamore Farms to a site farther from the fire's reach.

A volunteer corps of livestock owners, standing by and ready to rush into the fire zone at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning...to help other livestock owners! The story said nothing more about Miss Clunis or her fellow volunteers, leaving us to use our imaginations to fill those details in. For me, it was a powerful affirmation of the universality of the "livestock fraternity." Should some natural disaster strike our area in the heartland, I have no doubt that unaffected farmers in area would stop by and help us secure our sheep and goats; it's just what people do around here. And when somebody's cattle have escaped and are out on the road, you stop and help the rancher get them back in the pasture.

But what this story indicates is that such a spirit is not just an "Illinois thing," or a "rural America thing." I think it points to a deep spirit of fraternity among livestock owners, wherever they live. When you get up every morning and invest so much of your time and attention in husbanding an animal or group of animals, it really does change the way you think about livestock generally and the other people who raise them. You identify with their challenges and crises. You realize that you share something in common --- and it's not just a "hobby" or an "interest." Not to make this too mystical, but it's an investment of yourself that these animals require, and you know that the other farmer/rancher has made the same investment of self. It may be a different animal, or a different breed of animal, but it's the same spirit and the same fraternity.

I have no doubt that even if the only vehicle available to me had been our minivan, I'd have been yanking the seats out and doing what I could to help transport some Malibu animal to safety. And I wouldn't have thought twice. I'd just hope the grateful owner of that animal would help me clean the mess out of the back of the van before Mrs Yeoman Farmer discovered what I'd done.

One other quick thought: Miss Clunis is only seventeen years old ---yet look at the maturity and sense of responsibility she has. Take a stroll through the typical urban or suburban high school, and how many of those kids do you think would be up at 6am on a Sunday morning, ready to help others? (I know I wouldn't have been.) There are many ways to raise a child to be this responsible, in any sort of environment. But from what I've observed in the last six years, kids who've grown up in 4-H and have habitually shouldered the responsibility for nurturing livestock...tend to grow up into some of the most responsible and mature young adults we've known.

21 October 2007

Upon Further Review...

The sale stands! Our buyer called this morning to tell us that they will, in fact, be able to complete the transaction and purchase our house. It's a long story, but the bottom line is that we should be moving on or around December 1st. It'll probably take several trips, but that's the target to put everything in motion.

The wonderful news came midway through an urgent novena we were making to St Jude, begging that he help get this transaction back on track. Looks like the remaining days of our novena will be lifted up in thanksgiving...and in asking that everything continue smoothly. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I will probably not exhale the collective breath we've been holding until the money is actually sitting in our checking account.

But we'll still be reciting the Te Deum in our house tonight.

18 October 2007

Premature Celebration

The wide receiver breaks free, sprints to the end zone, eludes the final defenders, and makes a spectacular diving catch. The referee signals "Touchdown!" Points go on the scoreboard. The crowd goes wild.

And then the opposing coach throws his red flag on the field, to request a video review. The video plays over and over, from different angles; from this angle, it looks like a good catch --- but from that angle maybe it isn't. How will the replay official call it? Are we going to get the points or not?

That's exactly how I feel right now. After spiking the ball in yesterday's post, celebrating our new house in Michigan, we've received some troubling news: our buyer has changed his mind about purchasing our house. His circumstances changed unexpectedly (and recently), which we completely understand --- we just wish we'd learned this before, rather than after, we placed a bid on our new farm in Michigan. We cannot move from here without selling the Illinois property, so unless we come up with another buyer quickly it's looking like we'll be stuck here for the winter. The seller in Michigan will not hold their property for us (e.g. they won't do a "contingent sale"). If we aren't confident we can close next month as promised, we're going to have to withdraw our offer. There was another offer that came it at the same time as ours (or so the listing agent says...we're still not sure if that was a ploy to get us to increase our bid), so if we must back out those other folks will almost certainly get it.

But the final page hasn't yet been written; the play is still under review. There are two other local families who are interested in looking at our property, and we're scrambling to show them the house this weekend. And if there's anyone else out there who'd like to come take a look --- speak now or forever hold your peace. Because yes, we are in a position to make a deal.

17 October 2007

We Got The House!

Just got word this morning that we won the bidding on the house in MI that we've been most interested in. It's a classic, hundred-year-old farmhouse that's been totally renovated and updated inside. It has about 700 more square feet than our current house, and sits on 15+ acres (three times our current acreage).

More details will follow, and now it seems there are a thousand things we must do all at the same time. But we are very excited that it looks like we'll be getting out of Illinois before the worst of winter sets in (our tentative move date is December 1st).

Here is the house:

A key feature is the big red barn. It's in excellent condition, and will house all of our animals.

And, best of all, the property includes a nice office building for me. And it's even larger than my current office building.

As I said, more details will follow as we get them.

16 October 2007


I was home alone today, working in my office, when the sheep discovered a gate that had been left ajar. As I worked away, oblivious to what was going on outside, the sheep were slipping out of the pasture. They worked their way down the driveway, no doubt munching on the weeds growing alongside it.

When I finally emerged from my office, to go into the house to make coffee, pretty much the entire flock (about 18 adults and lambs) was across the street. Half of them were grazing on the ditch grass. The other half were foraging for spilled grain in the neighbor's recently-harvested corn field.

I dropped everything and ran down the driveway, seeking to herd them back to our property. They barely looked up from their treasured meal, oblivious to my attempts to make them move. A few animals looked ready to bolt down the road; a few others seemed prepared to run all the way across the three-quarters-of-a-mile-wide corn field. Without any kids, or Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, at home to help me, what was I to do?

From Stage Right, enter Scooter The Amazing Wonder Dog, our trusty Boarder Collie mix.

It constantly amazes me, the instincts God has given these animals. Without any training, Scooter knew exactly what the problem was (sheep across road, not in pasture) and what I wanted done (sheep back in pasture). But the problem wasn't so easy to solve: the sheep needed to be moved into the road, then down the road past 50 feet of fence, and then funnelled into the narrow opening for the driveway. With our road frontage being fenced, Scooter had to get them going down the road and then had to get them to make a 90 degree turn into a 12-foot wide driveway.

Not a problem for Scooter. As I circled around the back of the flock and got the stragglers to bunch up, Scooter excitedly got in their faces. Barking and nipping, he soon had the sheep butting back at him. And that was his cue to run away from the sheep. At first they didn't take the bait and follow him, so he ran back and again got in their faces...and bolted. After about three attempts, he got a couple of sheep to bite. With them chasing him down the road, the rest of the flock soon followed.

The two sheep in the lead shot right past the driveway, just as I expected they would. Again, without any training or commands from me, Scooter threw himself at one of these sheep and bit at her fleece. Annoyed, the sheep came to a stop and tried to head-butt the dog. Excitedly, Scooter took off into the driveway --- and now the whole flock was stampeding after him. With me calling his praises, he led them all the way to one of the pasture gates. When I arrived to open it, the flock scattered around the driveway. But with the gate open, it didn't take long for Scooter to get a few sheep headed into the pasture. And when the rest of the flock saw that, they began rushing to join the leaders. In "two shakes of a lamb's tail," the flock was home and the gate secured.

Ironically, I'm going to be feasting on lamb chops tonight while the family is up in Michigan. Guess who's getting treated to the choicest bones?

Until then, he'll be enjoying a well-deserved nap on the floor of my office.

11 October 2007

Really Big Neighborhood Watch

There's been an unusual crime wave in our neck of the woods lately. Over the last week or two, someone has set a string of several arson fires. Most of the fires have been in empty (or abandoned-looking) old barns sitting by themselves out in the country. In other words, easy targets for a bunch of teenage punks who want to see how big a blaze they can start. But over this last weekend, a couple of sheds/old barns right in the town of Loda were torched.

The reaction has been interesting. Out here, we literally cannot rely on the police to come to our rescue. Loda has no police force, and most of the blazes have been in rural Ford/Iroquois counties. In other words, the chances of a cop coming across an arsonist are slightly less than zero. So, residents are taking things into their own hands. Some of our neighbors are drawing up lists of all the known abandoned/isolated buildings that dot the open prairie, so as to better keep an eye open for suspicious activity. And some of these buildings are not truly abandoned; they sit on what used to be homestead sites, but now are simply a big machine shed housing a farmer's equipment (the farmer himself may even live in town).

Abandoned or not, what all these properties have in common is that no one is around to watch them. Our neighbors are now going out of their way to watch them. Out here in the country, all the roads form a grid; each road is one mile away from the next. In going from Point A to Point B, most of us have a fixed route we tend to use --- but it doesn't really add any distance if we instead jog down a different set of streets on the same grid. (It means some extra turns, but not any extra distance.) The general color, make, and model of the arsonist's car is known (a red, late model, Pontiac Grand Am), so all of us have been keeping our eyes peeled for that as we jog around the grid roads looking at the isolated buildings.

Despite the vigilance, the arsonist(s) hit again last night. Just as we were about to put the kids to bed, a fire truck went screaming down our road. "Go follow it!" Mrs Yeoman Farmer urged. I grabbed a large flashlight...and a large caliber handgun with a full magazine. If I happened to come across a car matching the suspect's, with a group of teenagers sitting on the roof admiring their latest blaze, I didn't want to have to rely on the police to come protect me from them.

Turns out, a lot of other people had the same idea. Up and down our road, other vehicles were coming out of driveways and following the fire engine. We found the blaze; it was about five miles north, and was an old barn. Nearly a dozen emergency vehicles, from all the tiny surrounding communities, had responded and the fire was smouldering by the time I got there. I spent some time jogging up and down grid roads, working my way home, but didn't see anything. Stopped at a neighbor's, and the teen aged son was standing in the driveway with a 12 gauge shotgun; his father was still out driving up and down rural roads looking for the suspects. Their own outbuildings didn't have night time security lighting, and the son had stayed home to make sure those buildings didn't become an easy target of opportunity while Dad was gone. We chatted for a few minutes, comparing notes, and then I went home to call it a night.

Our property has a couple of very old outbuildings that would make inviting targets for an arsonist like this one. It's been gratifying knowing that (1) our security light keeps most of them illuminated all night; (2) our two dogs bark and anything that moves; and (3) especially, our neighbors are keeping a close eye out for suspicious activity.

The latest update is that neighbors are talking with the county Sheriff's office to coordinate stake-outs of some of the more isolated buildings tonight. How to best accomplish that, without tipping off the arsonists, will no doubt be the biggest topic of discussion.

On the one hand, it's terribly dispiriting to know that a serial arsonist is on the loose in this tranquil, low-crime community. But on the other hand, it's been incredibly inspiring to watch that same community organize itself to take that arsonist off the streets.

09 October 2007

Interesting Opportunity - Farm For Sale

About a month ago, I posted about our decision to move to Michigan. We're still looking at places up there; a couple of promising properties didn't work out. Our own farm here in Illinois is still available for sale.

In the process of scouring real estate listings in Michigan, we came across a ten acre farm that might interest someone. It's been on the market for a very long time, and the price has dropped from $425,000 to $385,000. But that tells only part of the story.

As you can see from the pictures on the Realtor's site, it's an amazing old farmhouse that's had a lot of work done on the inside.

We have not been inside it, but my father in law took a look at the outside. His assessment: it is old (heck, it was built when ANDREW JACKSON was President), and the windows in particular are quite old. He said two of the barns are quite new and in excellent shape; the big red barn looks nice in this photo, but needs some work. Based on the outside, he wonders how this house will sell for anything close to the asking price.

Even at $100,000 less than the current asking price, the property is out of our price range, and it's also out of high speed internet range (even the Sprint data network doesn't come close to this house), so I couldn't work from there without satellite internet service.

But here's where it gets interesting. While on Craigslist, I stumbled onto listings for this house both for sale (more nice description and photos), but also for rent. A few weeks ago, the rent was $1200; it's now down to $1050, and I can't imagine they'll be getting a tenant in there anytime soon. The house is empty, and they need someone in there to generate some revenue. We briefly entertained the idea of moving up there and renting the house until it sold, and perhaps even writing a "right of first refusal" into the lease agreement so we could buy it if the price came down enough. But we have too much livestock to be moving them all twice, and if the house sold without warning me might have nowhere to put them while we continued looking for the right house. Also, I'd hate to invest a ton of money in satellite internet hardware if we weren't staying there long-term. (We did ask the owners about the possibility of a long term lease, but they really want to sell it. They've moved back to California and want to wash their hands of it.)

I did a little more digging, and discovered that according to the county authorities, these owners paid $440,000 for the property in 2004. It had previously sold for $309,000 in late 2000, and that's as far back as the records go. In other words: these folks are probably sitting on a large mortgage and in this market aren't going to get anywhere near what they paid for it. I bet they'd take even less than $1050 a month in rent (they're using some kind of property management service to rent it out, but their phone number in CA is in the "for sale" Craigslist link above, and you might try working something out with them directly), and it'll probably be awhile before they'll sell it. If you've been wanting to move to the country, this might be an excellent opportunity to "try it out." And perhaps you could ask for a right of first refusal; in other words, the opportunity to match any sale offer they receive.

As I said, we haven't been inside it, so I can't offer any more personal insight than what my father-in-law provided. We know it won't work for us, but it just might be an excellent opportunity for one of you readers out there. It's not far from Ann Arbor, and would be a reasonable commute to there.

Good luck.

08 October 2007


Today's homeschooling lesson in science class was about Geology.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer (MYF) decided to start eight-year-old Homeschooled Farm Girl (HFG) with some basics.

MYF: Today we're going to talk about minerals.

HFG: Okay. Minerals.

MYF: What are some examples of minerals?

HFG: Well...there's goat mineral. And sheep mineral.

MYF: (Laughs uncontrollably)

HFG: What's so funny?

MYF: (still laughing) Nothing, honey. That's good. Goat mineral and sheep mineral. Now, let's read about potassium and zinc...

06 October 2007

Happy Columbus Day

Just in time for the holiday weekend, we get this story from the LA Times:

Like cattle being prepared for slaughter, some peasant children taken by the Inca were fattened up for months before being ritually sacrificed to the gods, a sequence of events calculated both to elevate the victims' value to the gods and to strike fear into subjugated peoples, British researchers reported this week.

Since the reporter didn't mention it, I will: This is what the opening of the New World to European exploration and conquest put an end to.

Perhaps these people might want to address that at their rally and "Pow Wow" today in Berkeley.

But I'm not holding my breath.

05 October 2007

As If We Needed Another Reason to Buy Local Food

We buy all our beef from two local suppliers, both of whom we know by name. One is a family from our parish that has been farming here for decades; the other is a larger cattleman in the next county over. Neither producer uses antibiotics or hormones. Both operations involve direct sales to the end consumers, usually by contracting ahead of time for a quarter / half / whole beef. It's slightly more expensive than what you get at the grocery store, and it requires pre-planning (not to mention a large freezer), but it's not only the most wholesome meat we've ever had --- it's also the most delicious.

When things are done on a small scale, with care, by a producer who knows his customer, you don't get situations developing like the following:

On Sept. 25, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a recall of frozen hamburger patties from Topps, saying that the meat was potentially tainted by E. coli bacteria. Officials at the agency conceded that they knew that meat from Topps was contaminated on Sept. 7, when the first positive test results for E. coli came back.

Health officials say the first reported case of sickness linked to the 0157:H7 strain of E. coli found in the Topps meat occurred on July 5, when an 18-year-old girl in central Pennsylvania fell ill. Three days later, another case was reported in New Jersey.

Other cases have been reported in Connecticut, Maine, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and New York.

But I thought this line from the story was the most telling:

“This is tragic for all concerned,” Mr. D’Urso said in a statement. “In one week we have gone from the largest U.S. manufacturer of frozen hamburgers to a company that cannot overcome the economic reality of a recall this large.”

I don't want to rub salt in Topps' wounds, but this sort of contamination always seems to strike the enormous mega-processors. And as that spinach recall from last summer showed, this isn't even a question of the product being "organic" or not --- the issue is with producers and processors so large as to surpass a human scale. When food becomes a commodity, and producer is alienated from consumer by so many degrees of separation, such tragedies seem nearly inevitable.

Farm or Family?

One of the most valuable things about our rural lifestyle is the flexibility it provides in spending time with the family. Particularly with our children being homeschooled, I have opportunities to do things with them that many fathers wouldn't have.

However, as discussed recently, we're finding that we are simply too far away and too isolated from extended family. We're still looking for the right property in Michigan, and hopefully we'll be able to relocate there soon. Another excellent thing about small scale farming (and self employment) is that there is often considerable flexibility in deciding where "here" will be.

It's not always so for those engaging in large scale commercial farming, however --- and when a family has been farming for generations it can be wrenching when some members face the Hobson's choice of staying-nearby-with-another-job or farming-but-far-away. And as suburban developments and local regulations increasingly encroach on established megafarms, we're going to be seeing more and more of these situations.

Today's news brings a poignant feature story about one such family that had to make a 200 mile move from Western Washington to the other side of the state:

But that was before Travis left for the wide-open spaces of Eastern Washington. Now he works cattle in this tiny town, 200 miles from Enumclaw, with plenty of room to grow.

"I just see so much more potential here," said Travis, 33, who co-owns Thomasson Double T Dairy with his wife, Sasha, and his parents.

Dairying has always been a tough business to take on. But the rising cost of fuel and feed has made it worse for farmers in Western Washington. Not to mention the pressure of suburbia bearing down. Last year alone, 57 dairies shut down in the western part of the state.

More than 340 dairies remain, compared with 145 east of the Cascades. But with the fast pace of development, many farmers face a choice: leave family and head east, or hold ground and tough it out.

[snip - BTW, I remember well those dairies near where I grew up. Now they're all paved over into high tech office parks and subdivisions.]

Then came winter in a town with one grocery, a post office, and a population that, at last count, was little more than 400. There they were, a young couple, surrounded by elderly neighbors, 45 minutes from the nearest mall, in Kennewick.

Travis made friends through farm work. But Sasha worked only part-time. And when the children were born, there was even less chance to leave the house. Last year, they joined the volunteer ambulance service so Sasha could meet people. But she still makes monthly trips to play the dice game bunco with her Enumclaw friends.

"It's still hard," Sasha said, tears in her eyes, sitting across the kitchen table from Travis. "And it's been five years."

Family is what they miss most. Sunday breakfasts at the Enumclaw farmhouse. Saturday lunches at the cattle auction.

03 October 2007

The War

This past week, PBS has been airing Ken Burns' new documentary about World War II. The seven-part, fifteen-hour series wrapped up last night...but if you missed it, don't worry. PBS will be airing it again this fall on Wednesday evenings --- beginning tonight.

And if you missed it, I cannot recommend highly enough that you see it the second time around. It is right up there with "The Civil War" and "Baseball." An instant classic, and something I plan on burning to DVD to keep for years.

Like all Ken Burns documentaries, it is superbly written and produced. Burns is a master of interspersing archival video with contemporary interviews, and overlaying narration or interviews with historical photographs in a way that both evokes a deep emotional response and teaches intelligently. He goes for both the heart and the head, and usually manages to hit both of them dead on. The current documentary is no exception.

What is most outstanding about The War is it is told through the eyes and experiences of the people who were there. The interviews are all done with survivors; we never have historians intrude to teach lessons. When it is necessary to broaden the perspective, Burns cuts to newsreels being shown in theaters back home --- so, again, we see and experience WWII in the same way a 1940s civilian would have, and not as a history professor would lecture.

Another excellent technique Burns uses to is focus on four individual towns, building a cast of characters from those places and sticking with them from start to finish. The documentary isn't strictly limited to these towns, however, and we do meet survivors from other places. But by constantly returning to the four towns, it helps bring the enormity of WWII down to a more human scale.

And that, I think, is what this documentary does best: it shows how the entire nation experienced the war, and how it drew all of us together. WWII literally left no family untouched; I'd known that intellectually, but this documentary really brings that to life. I found myself frequently wishing I could call my grandfather, who was a career Naval officer, and ask him to tell me more about the events that took place in the South Pacific --- or my other grandparents, who experienced WWII stateside --- but unfortunately all of them have passed away. And I found myself grateful that Burns made this documentary when he did, while enough of the original participants were still living and could give a coherent account of the original events.

The images that will stick most firmly in my mind are the brief shots we see of Catholic priests celebrating Mass on the decks of ships (sometimes on small and crowded troop transport boats), and of battle-weary Marines in tattered clothing kneeling in the sand to receive Holy Communion.

Another thing that really struck me: watching these 80 and 90 year olds getting choked up and wiping tears as they recalled learning about the passing of Franklin Roosevelt. More than 60 years later, and those memories still evoke those kinds of emotions; I can't imagine anything comparable for our generation.

The only way in which I think it falls short of The Civil War and Baseball is in the music. The music in The War is nice, but it's mostly 1940s jazzy stuff and Sinatra. There is also an original score by Wynton Marsalis that is used to excellent effect. But I think the music in The Civil War and Baseball was better because those scores used a great number of variations on just one or two songs, which gave the whole documentary a somewhat more unified feel. But in the scheme of things, that is a quibble. Another quibble is the narration; I preferred John Chancellor (Baseball) and David McCullough (Civil War) to Keith David.

In telling a story this vast, some things by necessity must be left out. I did think it odd we never saw the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, but that may have been by design --- we all know that story, and it's been done to death. Others will have different specific events that they were looking for and didn't see mentioned. We got the usual litany of groups "other than Jews" exterminated in the Holocaust (homosexuals, gypsies, the handicapped, etc), but no mention of faithful Catholics (i.e. Sts. Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein). There was also no mention of "celebrities," such as JFK and PT 109, George H. W. Bush being shot down, the death of Joseph Kennedy, Jr., etc --- and the omission of these "American celebrities" was actually refreshing. I'm glad Burns stayed disciplined and kept the focus more on the ordinary people than on folks we have all heard of.

The one exception is the amount of screen time given to Daniel Inouye. Granted, I doubt the typical American knows Inouye is a U.S. Senator (though this is mentioned toward the end, almost as an afterthought), and his Medal-of-Honor-winning heroics on the battlefield (while his government kept other Japanese Americans interned in camps back home) make for a truly compelling story. But I kept waiting for even a single mention of Bob Dole; after all, both he and Inouye were severely injured while fighting in Italy in the spring of 1945 --- and the two became lifelong friends when they were recovering from their injuries at the same Army hospital in Michigan. I guess this is the only omission that really surprised me, given how hard Burns worked to keep the Baseball documentary politically balanced (Mario Cuomo got quite a bit of screen time, but so did George Will).

I know I have some readers who have ditched their televisions, and I salute them for it. But if you can see fit to drag the thing out of the closet for just one media event, I highly recommend that this be the one. It is truly outstanding, and television at its best.