30 March 2007

Kidding Around

Our goat kids are now five weeks old, and have taught themselves a new trick: jumping onto Mom's back. One leap, and they're perched on top of her. Actually, this is nothing compared to their antics running around the barn while we're milking the two does. They scramble impossibly high up onto piles of hay and straw bales, and perch gracefully even when the bales start tottering. Reminds me that goats, for all we've domesticated them, are still basically mountain creatures. And they sure are fun to watch.

29 March 2007

Special Delivery

Apart from the lifestyle and being able to produce healthy food for our family, one of the most rewarding things about a small farm is providing specialty products to people who truly appreciate them.

A prime example is duck eggs. Unless you live in an Asian enclave, you will never find duck eggs for sale in an American supermarket. There are many reasons, but it's chiefly because (1) you can't cram ducks into factory-style cages like you can with hens; and (2) there is little market for burned-out laying ducks. Most laying hens become Chicken Noodle Soup; there is no similar commercial demand for ducks. But free range laying ducks are a wonderful addition to a small farm: they are easy to raise, fun to watch, and provide plenty of large delicious eggs. The fat content is slightly higher than in chicken eggs, giving them a richer flavor. And there's nothing as good as duck soup.

But most importantly, some people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat duck eggs. Several such people have found us, and they're now among our most loyal customers. Every time I'm in the Chicago area, I email them...and they figure out a way to meet me to get their duck eggs. Tomorrow, I am taking ten dozen to a woman in the city who had to go without eggs all winter as our ducks were taking a collective break. Last Friday, when my daughter and I walked around the Loop, our first stop was at an office building near St. Peter's; an executive, who'd last been able to get our eggs in November, happily came down to get three dozen from us. Chatting with him in the lobby about all he planned to do with the long-awaited eggs, the excitement in his voice was palpable. He emailed me a few days later, again thanking us for the delivery...and asking when we'd be able to bring more.

And then there's my Filipino customer, who lives in the far western suburbs. He is disabled, but has made a side business of taking our duck eggs and brining them in buckets of salt water; this product is a big seller in the Filipino community. He and his wife have driven all over Chicagoland, meeting me in crazy places (usually at the airport before dawn, when I have a business trip), buying upwards of 30 dozen at a time.

Before we started doing this, I wondered why so many people refer to farming as a "vocation." The more customers we get to meet, the better I understand it. You can't do this for the money---and not just because, after the expenses, there is so little profit to a micro enterprise like ours. It's because there's no way to put a price on the smile a person gives you, or the heartfelt gratitude they express, when you've brought them something they cannot find anywhere else.

March Is Out Like A...


When I went out to the sheep this morning, I noticed that one of them (Maybelle) did not join the flock in rushing to the hay feeder. She was hanging out by herself, near the pasture shelter, just watching the activity. In recent days, I'd observed her spending a lot of time laying down and straggling behind the rest of the flock. Also, her udder was noticeably enlarged. Given that Maybelle is always our earliest lamber, and now she was clearly displaying the "loner" behavior associated with labor, it was time to take action---especially since the weather had turned overcast and chilly. Maybelle's unexpectedly early (cold weather) deliveries have led to three lost lambs over the years, and the last thing we needed was a repeat.

Maybelle has two problems: (1) she is the only "polled" (hornless) sheep in our flock. All the others have nice horns, making them relatively easy to catch and lead around. (2) She's by far the wildest and flightiest in the flock, making her the hardest to even approach. In the past, I've chased her around the pasture for 15 or more minutes before I could trap or exhaust her. Fortunately, her advanced pregnancy would mean a short chase this morning --- but I wondered how, once I had her, I'd be able to move her from the pasture to the barn.

With a bit of sadness, I ran and retrieved Tessa's collar from my office. After a small adjustment, it fit Maybelle perfectly. (Note, in the photo below, the rabies tag is still in place. Maybelle is probably the only sheep in the county with such a tag.) However, even with the collar, Maybelle dug in her hooves and refused to move. My solution was to pull on her collar with one hand while grabbing her rump with the other---while Scooter barked in her face. At last, Maybelle began moving. A few minutes later, though I was covered in mud, Maybelle was in the small stall in the back of the barn. (The same one which Queen Anne's Lace the Goat used for kidding, and which I got her and the kids moved out of just in time this weekend.) I got her some fresh hay and water, turned on a light, and left her alone for the rest of the morning.

When I took a break for lunch, I stopped by the barn before going to the house. Maybelle had delivered two beautiful ewe lambs! Both were still wet, and the afterbirth was still emerging from Maybelle's rear, but the lambs were up and looking lively. Maybelle was busily licking them off, and I saw one start to nurse before I left. Once the children are ready from a break in the school day, I'm sure they'll be out to the barn to admire the new lambs. Otherwise, though, the plan is to leave the three of them in peace for the day as they get settled in.

Maybelle is amazing: this is now five years in a row she has twinned (every single ancestor of hers, on both sides of the pedigree, was also a twin...so I guess it shouldn't be too surprising that she's a reliable twinner).

She comes from a very milky line, and we've always wanted to milk her, but with having twins every year...they end up talking all the milk. Plus, when you add her flightiness and lack of horns, even getting her into the stanchion takes more effort than the milk is worth. But her fleeces always provide beautiful wool, and her lambs are always the biggest at butchering time. So who needs her milk, anyway?

27 March 2007

Too difficult?

A few weeks back, I blogged about a scientific study which had confirmed the effectiveness of Natural Family Planning.

Now, a piece in Scientific American criticizes that study, saying it is hopelessly unrealistic for couples to abstain for the time during which a woman is fertile each cycle.

Hilda Hutcherson, an ob-gyn and co-director of the New York Center for Women's Sexual Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, found that her patients often stop using periodic abstinence methods after only a few months. "It's difficult to abstain from sex for two out of four weeks," she says. "That means half the month you can't have sex. That's very difficult for young couples."

I suspect that some NFP-backers will respond by arguing that the average couple has to abstain for less than two weeks each cycle, or that the average couple using NFP has relations as many times per month as other American married couples do. But while these statistics are accurate, I believe that citing them is counterproductive in making the case for NFP.

First off, there are couples using NFP who, due to irregular cycles and extremely serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy, must abstain for significantly more than two weeks. The more times such couples hear the mantras about how easy NFP is, the more likely it is that they will grow discouraged or wonder why they've been cursed with so few opportunities to be together. Some might even conclude that all the talk about "less than two weeks" and "just as many times per month as other couples" is simply an elaborate bait-and-switch, and abandon NFP. Perhaps that's why some of Dr. Hutcherson's patients stopped using it. (Or, perhaps some of them simply decided it was now time to get pregnant...but that's an issue for another day.)

But more importantly, to respond in such a way is to accept the critics' premise---and their framing of the issue as a question of "functionality." Under this frame, NFP is unacceptable and should not be promoted because the measurable output (avoiding pregnancy during a given cycle) requires far more of an input (abstaining for two weeks) than anyone but the most religiously zealous (who are no doubt putting up with the abstinence only because they fear burning in hell) should be expected to provide.

Instead, I think those in the NFP movement can learn a lesson in argumentation from those who farm with draft animals. Plowing, planting, and harvesting crops with horses is a much slower and labor intensive process than using tractors and combines. The measurable outputs (bushels per acre) per unit of time and effort invested are significantly poorer than what can be achieved with mechanization. And many who use draft horses (particularly the Amish) are motivated by religious concerns. However, there still remain a number of draft horse enthusiasts who are not motivated by religion, and who still use these animals in the fields. One of the leaders in this movement is Mr. Lynn R. Miller, author of several books and editor/publisher of The Small Farmer's Journal, which is dedicated to promoting farming with draft animals.

Miller never argues that this method of farming is easy, or that it isn't much more difficult than conventional methods of production. As he says on his website:

It is an evasive and subtle craft but it can be learned. In order to succeed you must seek out good help during the learning process. For the small diversified farm or ranch, horsepower is not just an option, it is a tremendous plus for self-sufficiency.


Can I make a decent living with a small farm? Yes. And the good news is that it ain't easy. You have to work hard and use your imagination and creativity. That's the fun and rewarding part. The hard part will be making the decision, the commitment, and taking the plunge.

In other words, it sounds a lot like Natural Family Planning! Sure, some may initially approach it because of religious motivations. And it does take an investment of time to learn the method and understand it. But, the longer we use this method, the more rewarding we find it.

And why is that true, even when (and perhaps especially when) the periods of abstinence are long? It's because NFP practitioners approach the marital relationship holistically, much like the teamster approaches his small farm. A farmer who is only in it for the bushels per acre is a sad and one-dimensional farmer; the farmer who works with his horses through the natural cycles of production and rest can find great satisfaction in that process. The same can be said for spouses: it is sad when unity is only measured by the physical dimension. In fact, for a healthy marriage, many dimensions of unity must be cultivated; artificial contraception allows spouses to ignore these and cut to the physical whenever they like. NFP, precisely because it has the admittedly-difficult periods of abstinence, leads spouses to cultivate all the other dimensions of their relationship and fit them together in their proper places.

I think this line of argument is the most effective response to pieces like the one in Scientific American. NFP is much more than a method of avoiding pregnancy, and we must challenge those who seek to reduce it to such. In terms of ease and maximizing opportunities for physical relations, NFP loses to the Pill as readily as draft horses lose to tractors --- regardless of whether the period of abstinence is seven days or fourteen or twenty-one. Rather, we need to step back and re-frame the issue as one of maximizing total marital health and happiness at times when avoiding pregnancy is necessary. In that comparison, NFP wins going away.

26 March 2007

Official End of Winter

Doesn't matter what the calendar says...around here, the Yeoman Farmer thinks spring officially arrives when it's possible to get the 1975 Fiat Spider project car out of the barn and back on the road. Surprisingly, she started right up yesterday. One of the tires needed air, and the whole car needs a good wash, but other than that everything was fine. (Next year I'm going to do a better job of shrouding the car for the winter ... never had this much dust and crud before.) I drove her up and down our road several times, running through the gears and warming the motor up, and she's ready to rip.

With a full week of temps forecast in the 70s, I'm hoping to get some miles rolled up as I clear out the remaining cobwebs. Who says farm life should be all work and no fun? And what good is a barn if you don't have a project car to work on in it?

25 March 2007

Soil and Seed

This afternoon was the annual "Soil and Seed Mass," held this year at a parish in Gilman (about a half hour north of us). Bishop J. Peter Sartain was down from Joliet, and he was accompanied by four priests from surrounding parishes (including ours).

Everyone in attendance brought a big bag or box of various seeds and/or a sample of soil from the garden. After the homily, Bishop Sartain had us hold up our soil and seeds so he could deliver a solemn blessing over them. He then walked all over the church, accompanied by an altar boy, sprinkling the soil and seeds with holy water.

After Mass, everyone gathered in the parish hall for a pot luck supper. Our children excitedly told the bishop about our new goat kids, and he seemed impressed. We chatted and got caught up with several families we know from the surrounding area, including the elderly couple which sold us our goat buck last year. (Every time they see us at Mass, they ask us how our goats are doing.)

I think what impressed me the most was how many rural families came together for this whole event, and what a wonderful display of faith and community life it was. This was the first time I'd attended one of these, and it struck me as being an essential part of the "glue" which makes rural life so special. Hard to believe spring is here, and in just a few weeks we'll all be out planting. And watching for these blessed seeds to start emerging from the ground.


I managed to get the rest of the goat stall shoveled out (actually "pitchforked out") Saturday afternoon. And, dozens of loads of rotting hay and straw later, the vineyard is nearly completely mulched. Turned out there was exactly enough to thoroughly mulch every grape vine and every blackberry bramble, with some left over to do quite a bit of mulching between vines.

But am I ever sore! As I told my wife last night, I feel the way I used to when I'd spend all Saturday afternoon riding 100 miles on my bicycle. Funny, though, but it was an extremely satisfying kind of all-over soreness. The kind of soreness that says "I spent myself, pulled through, and finished off something big." Admitedly, some of the mulch still needs to be spread a bit more. And the trellis is going to need some repairing. But none of that takes away from the sense of satisfaction and peace at having gotten over a big hurdle. And I had no trouble getting to sleep last night.

Meanwhile, the goats have all been reunited in the large stall that includes access to the outside, with lots of fresh straw. The two adults butted heads for awhile and struggled to establish dominance; they've been separated for several weeks now, so it was interesting to watch them fight it out. By bedtime, they seemed to have settled their issues. For their part, the goat kids are having a grand old time with all this space to run around in.

23 March 2007

Here versus There

My daughter and I spent the day together in Chicago. This is another nice thing about homeschooling and the flexibility it affords: she knuckled down and got all her work done for the week on Thursday. Ditto for me, being self-employed: I got all my work done last night, and told clients that any additional requests would have to wait for Monday. Everyone was fine with that, so Daddy-Daughter day was a go.

We caught a Metra commuter train, and that hour-long part of the trip was itself part of the thrill for her. We sat on the upper deck and watched the exurban sprawl melt into suburbs, and suburbs melt into urban blight ... and then finally the urban brilliance of Chicago emerged. We went to Mass at St. Peter's in the Loop, and then had nothing in particular on the agenda.

The weather was miserable (it reminded me of a stereotypical gray and drizzly Seattle day), but she didn't seem to mind. She insisted that we go to the top of the Sears Tower, even though it was so socked-in that we couldn't see above the 60th floor from the sidewalk. "That's okay!" she assured me, eyes all a-sparkle. "I want to go in the clouds!"

So, into the clouds we went. I'll say this: at least we had the place to ourselves. Apart from a few foreign tourists (who all snapped pictures of the "103" floor display on the elevator, while jabbering in Asian languages), the elevator and Sky Deck were empty. We went from window to window, trying to find even the tiniest break in the clouds, but we found none. Turns out the people at the ground floor were right when they listed visibility as "zero." We couldn't even see the sidewalk, and we weren't high enough to be above the clouds. The windows all seemed to be painted gray.

But that was okay with her. She was in the clouds. We called Grandma and Grandpa, and she excitedly told them where she was. Her smile was well worth the twenty bucks we'd paid for the elevator ride.

Back down at the sidewalk, the rain had stopped. We walked all over the Loop, holding hands, gradually making our way to Michigan Avenue. We got a couple of books at the Catholic bookstore, and then had lunch at the train station before heading home. After all that walking, it was all both of us could do to stay awake on the train.

Both of us had a wonderful time, but I think we both came home more appreciative of the quiet and smaller scale of our own rural community. I want our kids to experience the things the city has to offer (even if sometimes it's nothing more than a walk in the clouds), but to live their lives in a closer-knit environment that is more in keeping with a "human" scale of life and values.

But you know what was the best part? Both of us had a full day with the other's undivided attention. Neither of us gets enough of that, and I've firmly resolved that this kind of extended one-on-one time with each of the children absolutely must become a regular feature of our family life.

22 March 2007

And With Spring...

It's time to shovel out the goat stall. Amazing how much bedding has accumulated since we cleared it out last summer. The goat kids are four weeks old now, and we want to get them and Queen Anne's Lace The Goat out of the little stall and back into the larger area that includes access to the outside. The kids are doing very well, and are bundles of energy. They really need more space, but I just haven't had time to get the larger stall ready; we wanted to get all the old bedding out, and lots of nice clean bedding down, before bringing them into it.
The solution: I've been chipping away at it, day by day, as a nice afternoon break from office work. It's remarkable how wonderful it is to take a pitchfork and drive it into that stuff; there's something about good physical labor that really helps clear one's mind at the end of a long day.
One wheelbarow load at a time, I've been taking it from the barn to my vineyard that's fairly close by. I'm averaging about 2-3 wheelbarow loads per day. I think that's the key lesson I've learned from trying combine a small farm with a small consulting practice: stop waiting for a big chunk of time before you tackle a project, and don't be afraid to do a little at a time. Bit by bit, that horrible old bedding is disappearing --- and, one row at a time, the vineyard is getting mulched. Here is Double Play, hanging out on what's left of the old bedding. Note how deep it is, and how much is still left to do.
The stuff at the bottom of the bedding is basically composted, it's so far deteriorated. Closer to the top, it's still basically rotting hay and straw. While not perfect organic compost that could be used in the garden, it makes a nice mulch for the vineyard. The composted portion provides nutrients for the soil, while the intact portion blocks weeds and absorbs rainwater. And over time, the rainwater will slowly leach additional nutrients out of the mulch and into the vineyard soil.

21 March 2007

Spring at Last

I was out in the vineyard yesterday, looking at the still-dormant grape vines, wondering if we'd lost any to the bitter cold this winter. Then, as I was getting ready to leave, I took a closer look at the blackberry brambles at the north end of the vineyard.

Buds! Spring is truly here at last.

19 March 2007

Daylight Savings

We've had the clocks set ahead for a week, and I can't begin to describe how maddening it has been. Just before the switch, we had daylight when I needed to rise and go out to milk the goats. I didn't realize just how helpful and inspiring that daylight was for getting out of bed...until it was gone. Two days in a row, I overslept and had to drag myself out there. It's an entirely different start to the day.

Nice piece in National Review Online making a similar point, but from a suburban perspective.

I wonder if we'd be doing all this messing with the clocks if this was still the agricultural nation we used to be. I'd much rather take that hour in the morning than in the evening. It'd be one thing if our kids could actually use that evening hour to burn off steam. But our problem isn't bedtime --- it's cold weather and the mudbog outside from all the melted snow. We had exactly two warm days last week, when the kids could play into the evening. But those kinds of days are few and far between until April at the earliest.

Call me a luddite, but I'd scrap the whole policy if it was up to me.

16 March 2007


Before we moved here, I had mixed feelings and expectations about what the retail scene would be like. In my past experience shopping in some small towns, I came to believe the Norman Rockwell-esque image of the mom and pop retail establishment can be overly romanticized. I've been to plenty of them which are small and offer a poor selection of overpriced merchandise. And, no, many of them do not treat their employees like they are members of the family.

But we are truly fortunate to have a number of small retail establishments in the area which make us proud to "shop locally." Some examples: the NAPA auto parts store, with the manager who jokes about my foreign cars breaking down, but who always supplies excellent advice and exactly the part I need; the feed store in Gibson City, which custom mixes locally-grown grains--- and is willing to stay open longer if I'm running late and call ahead; the pharmacy, run by the same family for decades; and the True Value hardware store (run by the son-in-law of the pharmacist, as it turns out).

I could get prescriptions filled for less money at Sam's Club. I could get cheaper (industrialized pellets) chicken feed at Farm & Fleet. I could save a little on auto parts at Wal Mart. Hardware costs less at Home Depot. And sometimes we shop at all those places, because there is a time and a place for them. But all of those places are miles away, and not part of our own community, and for the most part do not offer anywhere near the level of personalized service that our local retailers do.

This is on my mind because I had a number of things to get at True Value this morning. They've recently moved to a large, new building, and have a selection that rivals any store within 30 miles---but the place has the same personalized spirit that they've always had. The manager recognized me when I came it, smiled and said hello. When I had trouble finding something, a casheir took me right to it. In the past, when I've had questions about which item was most appropriate for my project, someone on their staff has always been quick to answer those questions.

You hear a lot about Wal-Mart driving mom and pop retailers out of business. Maybe that happens sometimes...but maybe some of those retailers needed some competition. Here in Paxton, though there's a Wal-Mart down the road in Rantoul, businesses like the True Value are growing and flourishing. They've figured out how to offer something the big retailers can't, and that we in the community truly appreciate. The merchandise I bought this morning cost a little more than it would have at Wal-Mart, but the whole package of what our True Value provides is well worth that money.

14 March 2007

Dog Disposal

Hopefully this will serve as a brief and relatively lighthearted coda to the whole sad story of losing Tessa last week (follow this link to the original post).

Out of curiosity, I spoke with someone at the vet's office today about what the incineration fee would've been had we used that service. For a 90# dog, he thinks it would've been $35. And if we'd wanted the ashes, that would've added another $100.

I laughed, and he laughed with me. "Do people really do that?" I asked.

"You'd be surprised," he replied. Some people really do keep the dog's ashes on the mantle. And it costs so much more because the incinerator guy has to fire the thing up with a single animal in it for several hours; usually, they burn about a dozen dead animals at a time in the chamber.

Keeping everything in perspective, I'm treating The Yeoman Farmer's DIY Funeral Pyre as a $135 down payment on a new Great Pyrenees puppy.

Or, for even more perspective: our family supports a handicapped orphan at a wonderful Catholic boarding school in India. The cost for all of his expenses for an entire year are ... $120. In other words, he could be supported for more than 13 months for the cost of burning and collecting the ashes of one dead dog.


Still Hanging On. Sort Of.

We've had spectacular weather the last couple of days. The nice thing about homeschooling is that we've been able to juggle our schedule so the kids can take advantage of the 75 degree sunshine. My wife had them knuckle down and do as much work as possible before 11:30 am each day...and then they got to run around and burn off a winter's worth of energy until dinner. Any school work they don't get done, they finish up in the evening after the sun goes down.

This evening, the weather started to turn. We had very strong winds out of the NE, and the temperature dropped. As I was walking in from my office, I noticed something odd: the high winds had blown the ashes off the remains of the fire I'd built to burn Tessa's body --- and there was a whole layer of coals burning bright red in the wind.

It's been three full days since I built that fire, and there's still something left. Amazing. And kind of consoling, in an unexpected way. Not to get too sentimental, but it struck me as a sign that in a small way, Tessa is still here with us. Never thought the sight of glowing embers would give me such comfort, but they did. I don't feel so alone now.

A friend sent a condolence note, and added that he really liked Tessa's "Viking Sendoff." She deserved it, he said. And his "Viking Sendoff" phrase couldn't help but make me smile.

He mentioned how much he still misses some of the dogs he grew up with, and said he still has an image in his head of those dogs running to greet him at the end of this life. I like that image, and can easily imagine Tessa and Cassie coming to meet me at the Pearly Gates.

But will they? My wife and I have worked hard to teach our children the distinction between people and animals --- and the kids are very clear about that. They don't sentimentalize the livestock, and actually look forward to butchering day. "Animals don't get to go to heaven," my wife has told them repeatedly, "because they don't have human souls."

Theologically, she's probably right. But I still like to speculate about something a little different---something a very holy priest once told me, that his mother had told him when he was a boy. When he'd asked her if the family dog would be with them in heaven, she'd given a very sage response: "If it will make you happier."

Part of me likes to picture Tessa and Cassie in heaven with us, making us even happier than we otherwise would have been, even if they with their canine souls never got to appreciate what a wonderful place it is. But, more than that, I like to think that heaven will be so good, and we will be so filled with happiness at seeing God as he is and reuniting with our families...that we won't even notice that the dogs aren't there to join us.

11 March 2007

The Tessa Talk

If you haven't yet read the sad news about Tessa, please skip down to the previous post before reading this one.

When we first moved here, and were deciding which animals to get, a friend with more experience gave us some sage advice: Before getting any livestock, decide how you're going to get rid of the dead ones.

Dead chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese are fairly easy to dispose of. When a sheep dies, we have a neighbor who allows us to dump the body deep in an 80 acre field. But it is a lot more difficult to dispose of a 90 pound dog than you might think. Here are the (bad) options:

1) Pay for the incineration service the vet's office uses. It costs at least $30, depending on the size of the dog (thirty bucks was what it would've been for Cassie, and she was less than half Tessa's size), and more if you want the ashes back. Yes, apparently some people really do want the ashes. How they know it's their dog's ashes is anybody's guess.

2) Dig a large grave, somewhere on the property.

3) Dump the body deep in the neighbor's field, and let scavengers take care of it.

We refuse Option 1 on principle. We're not paying that kind of money so someone else can throw our dog's body on a fire.

Option 2 is out because A) our property is currently a mud bog and B) we have a Red Healer dog who excavates anything that smells remotely interesting.

Option 3 is fine for getting rid of dead sheep in the summer time, but A) it sickens me to think of Tessa being left for coyotes and crows and B) our neighbor's field is as much of a mud bog as ours...even a 4x4 would get stuck.

As we mulled these bad options, Tessa's body continued to lay in the back of the pickup truck. With unseasonably warm weather all weekend (but not warm enough to dry the ground for grave digging), the increasing odor told us we had to make a decision. With time running out, that left The Yeoman Farmer with Option 4: DIY Funeral Pyre.

The kids gathered bags of fallen sticks, to use for kindling. My wife contributed boxes of old magazines we'd been meaning to dispose of. I dragged several large logs, too big to fit in the wood stove, to an open area on the property. Together, the kids and I stacked the paper, the kindling, and then all the large logs about 4 feet in the air.

I dragged Tessa's body over from the pickup truck, but then discovered a problem: I couldn't lift 90 pounds of dead dog high enough --- at least not by pulling on her legs. I tried getting a step ladder, but that was too awkward. Finally, I took a deep breath, struggled not to breathe through my nose, grabbed Tessa's body around the middle, and somehow managed to heft it to the top of the logs. I poured four quarts of old motor oil over everything...and then sat down on a rock with the kids. It was time for The Tessa Talk.

I put my arms around them, and asked them why Tessa had been such a good dog. They talked about all the wonderful things Tessa had done: chasing away coyotes, scaring off other bad animals, guarding the house and property while we were gone, taking care of Scooter Puppy, and being with us when we milked the goats. "How long did we have Tessa?" I asked.

"Less than three years," one of them replied.

"Great Pyrenees dogs usually live and work for nine or ten years," I reminded them. "How many more years should we have had Tessa?"

"Six or seven," one said, and I could see tears starting to flow.

"Six or seven years," I said, holding them closer, "that Tessa should have chased coyotes. That Tessa should have taken care of our farm. But now the coyotes will come, and there will be no Tessa. All because Tessa did something very, very foolish. And stupid."

"But Cassie taught her to chase cars!" one objected, as the others began to sob.

"It was still foolish, wasn't it?" I asked.

"Yes," he admitted, sniffling.

I held them closer, and skipped to the conclusion. "And God has lots of things he wants you to do with your life. Lots of friends to make. Lots of work to do. Maybe books to write. Music to play. Kids to teach. If you do something foolish and thoughtless, like Tessa, you won't be there to do all those things. Do you understand?"

Nodding sniffles.

"When Mommy and Daddy tell you to look before you cross the street, or hold somebody's hand, or not race off through a parking lot, you need to think of Tessa. And Cassie. Okay?"

More tears. More nodding sniffles.

I kissed all of them, and got out my butane lighter. "It's time to say goodbye to Tessa," I said, and we all did.

We watched the flames roar high into the sky, and then the kids went off to throw a ball for Tabasco and Scooter. I went inside to prepare dinner. But I couldn't help pausing at the window every few minutes, looking out on the fire, a big empty place in my heart.

I went out a few times that evening to stir the fire, and was amazed at how long it takes to completely consume an animal carcass that large. One of those times, I could hear coyotes howling and screaming not far away. A neighbor's dog offered a few barks in response, but it was nothing like Tessa's bone-chilling baritone.

I sadly stirred the fire, and wondered if we'd ever again find another dog like her.

Tessa, R.I.P.

We lost the world’s best livestock guardian dog Friday evening. I was out doing the afternoon chores, and was nearly finished, when I heard squealing brakes and a loud impact coming from the road. I was only about 50 feet away, feeding ducks in the vineyard, and had a perfect view. Tessa, our enormous Polar Bear-like Great Pyrenees dog, was rolling over and over in front of a car. The driver came to a halt, backed up, and pulled into our driveway.

Tessa, meanwhile, had gotten up and begun jogging down the road as if nothing had happened. I called and whistled to her, but she just kept on jogging toward our neighbor’s driveway. I thought that was a bit odd, as she didn’t even like the neighbor’s dogs, but figured maybe she was afraid of coming back toward the spot where she’d just been hit.

The driver was a very nice lady I recognized from town. She was apologetic about hitting the dog, but I quickly reassured her that “It was Tessa’s own fault. She had it coming.”

And she did. She’d unfortunately picked up car chasing from Cassie, our beloved Collie that had been struck and killed last September. Cassie had always been the ringleader, and Tessa had learned the bad habit as a puppy. I’d hoped that with Cassie gone, Tessa would give it up. Unfortunately, she’d gone right on chasing cars. And when you’re built like a polar bear, you don’t exactly have the speed or agility of a Collie.

I also assured the driver that I’d seen Tessa running down the road, and that she wasn’t even limping, so she was probably alright. I jogged the hundred yards to the neighbor’s driveway, where Tessa was now sitting and looking at me. I called, but she didn’t come. I got closer, and noticed her mouth was bloody. Not terribly bloody, but definitely red. Worse, it didn’t look scraped. I wondered if the blood might be coming from an internal injury.

I sprinted back to the house, and called the vet. They were about to close, but agreed to stick around until I got there. I ran to the pickup truck, gunned the engine, and roared over to the neighbor’s driveway. But by the time I arrived, Tessa had disappeared. I drove further toward the house, scanning their property. Finally, I spotted her in the corn field west of our property. Without even thinking, I tried driving the truck into the field --- but the ground is so soaked with rain and snow melt, I didn’t get far. I whipped the truck around and managed to get on terra firma before losing traction.

Tessa was just sitting in the corn field, looking at me, unresponsive to my call. But she was sitting on her haunches, eyes open, and was clearly conscious. “Good Tessa,” I told her, and tried to lead her by the collar. Ninety pounds of polar bear wouldn't budge. Getting desperate, I straddled her from behind, hefted her up, and carried her as best I could.

And then, as I approached the truck, she went limp in my arms. I shouted at her to stay with me, but her head just slumped against my wrist. I put her into the front seat of the truck, but she didn’t move. I tried pushing her the rest of the way in, but she was unresponsive dead weight. “Tessa!” I shouted, over and over. No response. I cried out, pounded the roof of the truck, and screamed “No!” more times than I can remember.

Somehow, I managed to move Tessa to the bed of the pickup. She drew a few involuntary breaths, but it was clearly just muscle spasms. Her muzzle was quite bloody, and a stream of blood tricked out through her nose. She must have had serious internal injuries, and my picking her up must have only aggravated them. But what makes this especially frustrating is that she’d seemed so well as soon as she’d jumped up from the road. I really allowed myself to believe that we’d dodged a bullet, that my great big enormous Tessa could survive anything, and do anything, and that we’d always have her with us.

Back home, I somehow managed to call the vet and tell them thank you for waiting, but that we wouldn’t be coming in, and that they could take Tessa out of their active files. The young woman who answered the phone was wonderfully empathetic, which was what I needed right then.

No, what I really needed right then was Tessa. I went back to the truck, and sat in the bed with her lifeless body, just staring. I tried to pick her up and hold her, Pieta style, but it was impossible; unless you’ve had a Great Pyrenees, it’s hard to describe just how impossibly large and bulky these dogs are --- and especially when it’s dead weight. So I just sat on the wheel well and stared at her for a long time. And then, as the sun disappeared, some rain drops began to fall. I wondered who was writing that script.

I whistled for Tabasco, and she came running from the barn. I wanted to hug her, but she was soaking wet and muddy. I shouldn’t have cared, because I was covered with mud as well. Whatever. I hugged and petted her as best I could, and pleaded with her to never run off and never chase a car.

The kids, when they got home from a neighbor’s house, were not nearly as broken up as I’d thought they would be. I guess the experience of losing Cassie last fall must have helped. We all cried a lot of tears back then, and even Tessa was out of sorts for a long time. I hate to think we’ve gotten used to losing our companions, but I suppose it does get easier the more times it happens.

I just know that I already miss her a lot. And what I’m going to miss most is the way she used to rouse herself from outside our bedroom window each morning as I got up to do chores, stretch, and then follow me to the barn. I’m going to miss hearing her deep baritone bark responding to howling coyotes. I’m going to miss the way she’d sprawl across my office floor, sleeping, as I did my work. I’m going to miss the way she drooled in the summer heat, and the way she’d seek shade under bushes in the front yard.

I’m going to turn around and look over my shoulder for her a hundred times before I remember that she won’t be there.

06 March 2007

Shepherd Moment

This morning, I was driving past our pasture on my way home from a neighbor's. The grass is all still dead, of course, but the sheep were valiantly spread out and looking for something---anything---green. I slowed down to take in the beautiful sight. "Pastoral" was the first word that came to mind, and Beethoven music started going through my head.

And then I counted them. Eight close to the road. Coco Puff the Ram at the top of the slope (no, we haven't managed to haul him off to the meat packer yet). That makes nine. Where was number ten? Who was missing?

Maybelle? She always lambs early. Could she be off somewhere, in labor? A moment later, I spotted her with the eight ewes close to the road.

Roll call time. Two white ones, Dot and Bianca, here. Two black ones, Nera and Licorice, here. Little black one, Peoria, born way out of season last summer, here. Maybelle here. Dilemma the Ram, here. Coco Puff the Ram, up on the slope. Where's Conundrum? Oh, right there. Who does that leave? Who? Enigma, the mother of Dilemma and Conundrum. Where is she? She's never gone off and lambed this early. Is she alright?

Worried, I sped down the road and into our driveway. As I pulled in, I spotted Enigma by herself, browsing for hay at the bottom of the feeder. (The picture to the right is of her and Dilemma the Ram, last April, soon after his birth.) I smiled with relief, parked the car, and went to work.

But I couldn't stop thinking about her. Here I am, with just ten sheep, and I get all worried when one isn't accounted for --- and so relieved when I've found her. How much more concerned must God be, when we don't show up or do the things he'd been expecting us to do? How much more relieved must he be, when we return and do what he'd been hoping for us to do?

The longer we live here, the better I come to understand how deeply the agricultural parables in the Bible must have resonated with their original audience. In fact, they likely had a deep resonance for centuries. One wonderful thing about rural life is that a person has lots of opportunities to think and reflect --- even while doing and working at other things. St. Josemaria Escriva called this being "a contemplative in the middle of the street." I sure like having, for my street, a gravel road that connects Nowhere with Noplace.
But, that said, it is no less possible to be a contemplative in the middle of a bustling city. It's certainly tougher sometimes, but the "shepherd moments" can still be found all around. I sure hope you find one for yourself today, whatever street you may find yourself on.

03 March 2007


The goat kids are now over a week old, and I've begun trying to milk Queen Anne's Lace The Goat again. The results have been mixed: the first time, I got a few squirts. The next time, her udder was like a basketball; I got nearly three cups, and my hands were sore by the time I finished. Yesterday, it was less than a cup. This morning, a little over two cups. My goal is to accumulate enough to make a batch of fil mjolk for our children, who haven't had any cultured dairy products since the goat dried up in late January. I expressed my frustration this morning that I haven't been able to get more milk.

My wife's response was interesting, and helped put things back in perspective. According to our goat book, each of the kids should be nursing over a quart of milk per day. Soon, they'll each be nursing two quarts per day. Multiply by two, and that's a gallon of milk, just for the kids. "Queen Anne's Lace is a good dairy goat," my wife reminded me, "but she's not a cow. You can't expect to consistently get five or six quarts a day from her." Not to mention that just a week and a half ago, she was dry.

I've been thinking a lot about that today. For the next few weeks, anyway, the goat kids need her milk. I suppose we could separate them from her and put them on milk replacer, and take a gallon of fresh goat milk for ourselves each day. But, besides being incredibly labor intensive (both in bottle-feeding the kids and milking out two quarts of milk twice a day), and besides not being as healthy for these growing kids, it would disrupt the whole natural order of things. Yes, we need to manage our animals effectively. But we do not want to exploit the animals. Sometimes there is a fine line between management and exploitation, and that line is something we try to think about a lot and make sure we don't cross. I resolved to continue milking what I could from Queen Anne's Lace The Goat, trusting that the extra demand on her udder --- and the good grain we're giving her at each milking --- will gradually increase her milk supply enough. She is starting from zero, after all. That's management without exploitation.

Another example of good management that is not exploitative: in the winter months, we leave a light on in the hen house at night, to stimulate the hens enough to keep laying eggs. Without that light, we would have no eggs for many months at a time.

But back to the goat. In a few weeks, the kids will be able to start eating some hay and grain, to supplement the milk. At that point, we will begin separating them from their mother at night. We'll milk Queen Anne's Lace The Goat in the morning, then put her back with the kids all day. At eight weeks or so, we'll wean the kids entirely, milk her twice a day, and hopefully start getting that whole gallon for our own children. That's the balance I need to remember.

01 March 2007

Maybe we're not so unusual

Interesting piece from Joel Kotkin in The American Interest, discussing the quiet but increasing migration of educated young people from urban areas to places far less populated. Seems that the growth of the internet has been very helpful in making this happen, but the causes are more complex than just connectivity.

Perhaps more importantly, advances in telecommunications and transportation are helping to break down the traditional sense of isolation, intellectually and culturally, that has hampered the development of the sophisticated industries necessary to lure educated workers back to rural areas. According to researcher Sean Moore, between 1990 and 2000 the percentage of rural counties with a “skills surplus” dropped 14 percent, compared to only 6 percent for metropolitan counties, meaning that educated workers are now finding jobs. As Moore suggests, this reflects a shift in the location of information, business service and other technology-related business to the periphery. The Internet is rapidly diminishing the traditional near monopoly of information that throughout history has belonged to the metropolis; today a farmer, a securities dealer, a machine shop proprietor or a software writer in a small town enjoys the same access to the latest market and technical information as someone located in midtown Manhattan or Silicon Valley.


In many other areas, smaller firms, often individuals working from home, are clustering in pockets of what researcher Amy Zuckerman has called “hidden tech.” These dispersed networks of knowledge workers, many of them refugees from large coastal cities, are particularly evident in places like Bellingham, Washington, the Rapid City area of South Dakota and the Pioneer Valley region of western Massachussetts.But perhaps no city epitomizes the dynamic Brain Belt more than Fargo.

Very interesting term: "Brain Belt." Sure beats the Detroit-area "Rust Belt," where I spent my first few years after college.

The conclusion of the piece was what really caught my attention, though:

The conventional wisdom of rural idiocy, depopulation and boredom in the American Heartland is already more than a decade out of date, if it was ever really true in the first place. Culture and technology are combining to create a new reality for rural America, and for America as a whole. One gets the sense that Thomas Jefferson is smiling down on all of this. This is an American Dream he would well understand.

Ah, yes. Jefferson would be very pleased.

Is it Organic?

This is a question we're frequently asked, and we must respond: "No, we are not certified organic. But we follow organic practices in the garden. We don't use pesticides or herbicides." And then we go on to explain how the livestock are raised and cared for.

I've come to understand that in many peoples' minds, "organic" has become a shorthand term for a whole host of other issues. Today's New York Times had an illustrative piece about how Whole Foods, though "organic," has strayed from some of the values that originally attracted many of its customers. As one Whole Foods customer put it:

“Produce is no longer consistently good,” Ms. Coleman said. “I can no longer count on it. Because I feel I pay more there I really expect it to be as good as a farmer’s market but sometimes it’s mushy, sometimes it’s old and sometimes it’s good. I think I use organic as proxy for a bunch of other things, like locally grown and fresher, but I’m just beginning to find out I really need to go to farmers’ markets if I want these things. I only go to Whole Foods when I can’t find a product anywhere else.”

Our livestock do not eat certified organic feed. Such feed is nearly impossible to get around here, and we believe that buying locally-raised (albeit conventionally-farmed) grain through a local independent feed store that custom mixes it, is also something to value. We do not use any feed laced with antibiotics or growth hormones. Most of all, we believe that raising animals on pasture and free range adds much greater value than feeding certified organic feed to an animal kept in confinement.

"Your eggs taste so much better than the organic eggs from the store," many customers have told us. "Even better than the ones marked 'cage free'." I explain that as we understand it, "organic" eggs have simply come from hens fed organic feed; there is no requirement for such hens to ever see the light of day. And, as I understand it, "cage free" simply means the hens run around inside a large building or shed. Again, there is no guarantee such chickens are seeing the light of day.

Even with this explanation, some customers will not buy our livestock or eggs; for such people, "organic" seems almost like a religion. That is unfortunate, but we have no trouble selling out all of our products to others. I just wish that such folks would think a bit more about whether "organic" is truly the highest value, or if "locally produced" and "free range" might be even more important.