30 May 2007


A friend recently commented, in an email sent to several people spread out around the country:

So the cicadas have made their return to the Chicago area, these gross-looking insects that descend on the area every 17 years. But they are really starting to freak me out for a multitude of reasons. First, they tend to only come out at night so when I'm walking my dog, I'm finding myself inadvertently crushing one of the 100s of cicadas covering the sidewalks. Then last week, I got in my car in the early evening and had to wait for a large gathering of Lake Michigan seagulls to clear out the way--they were feasting on the cicadas.

What's bizarre is that 17 years ago, I spent the summer in Chicago and had this same perspective on cicadas. They were obnoxious, and the low hum made it nearly impossible to sleep (particularly since it was so hot, and I was a starving student lacking A/C, so the windows were open all night).

The cicadas haven't arrived here yet (about 90 minutes south of my friend's neighborhood), but I must admit that I'm actually looking forward to when they come out from their long hibernation. Our large flock of free range ducks stays out all night, and I can already picture them working their way across the field feasting on these nasty critters. And then, when the laying hens come pouring out of the hen house first thing in the morning, they'll clean up all the cicadas the ducks didn't get to. Heck, I may be able to stop giving the birds supplemental feed.

Of course, the droning hum may have me singing a different tune after awhile. We still don't have air conditionning, and it'll be interesting to see how loud those cicadas will get. Not to mention the sounds of duck bills crushing lots of little bug bodies...

Doing this full time

Perhaps the most influential figure in the sustainable agriculture movement is Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms in Virginia. I'd also call him the most inspirational figure in that movement, because he has developed a working, profitable operation which integrates beef, pork, broilers, rabbits, and eggs. More than that, he takes in apprentices --- and travels the country giving speeches, helping others get started. As his website details, you can visit his farm and see how he puts all the pieces together. Some neighbors of ours did just that on a family vacation a couple of years ago, and said it was the highlight of their trip.

Joel has also written a number of books, a couple of which were among the first we read after moving here. They have proven invaluable.

In the next few days, I'll be putting up a post showing how we've incorporated his pastured poultry pens into our own farm.

28 May 2007

Working Hard?

...or hardly working?

Scooter takes a well-deserved break after helping me herd the sheep from the pasture to an overgrown area on the edge of the vineyard. Does he look pleased with himself or what?

It's a dog's life. And you've gotta love it.

Great Nests

We've had several ducks make nests and go broody, in various places all over the property. Some of these nests were in terribly unprotected places, and/or the mother ducks did a lousy job of tending their eggs, and those nests got destroyed.

Several are off in the high weeds, often inside the wire enclosures we've set up around young fruit trees to keep the sheep out. Somehow, ducks can manage to squeeze through or under any fence anyone can build...meaning they figure out odd places to make nests.

One that I especially like is this Khaki Campbell's set-up, in the hollow of an enormous Green Ash tree that borders my vineyard.

And this Cayuga has picked perhaps the safest location: under a pile of old pallets. I don't know how she manages to get in or out, but she's been our most faithful nest-sitter this year.
As I said, there are many more such nests in various places around the property; too many to picture in just one post. I love having heritage breeds of ducks, like Cayugas and Magpies, which will hatch and brood their own young.

Although even the Khaki Campbells --- a production egg duck --- will hatch a clutch of eggs with the best of the heritage breeds, they have proven themselves to be absolutely horrible mothers. Time and again, I've seen them start with eight or ten hatchlings...only to lose one or two per day, until they have zero. Starting last year, we began simply taking ducklings away from the Khaki mothers and brooding them ourselves under heat lamps.

Of course, we can't count our ducklings before they hatch. But hopefully we'll be getting plenty of delicious duck before too long.

Memorial Day

Can't think of a better song for Memorial Day.

As for our family, we took a drive over to the local cemetery this afternoon. The local American Legion and VFW did a wonderful job decorating graves with flags, and had a nice memorial set up at the base of the large flag pole. We walked around, praying for all the various people buried there, but particularly for the veterans. We then sat down on a couple of benches and said the rosary.

All in all, a nice way to spend a beautiful afternoon.

Farming for the Future

There is a really outstanding video out about a movement of small-scale farmers in Southeast Ohio, called "Farming for the Future". Beautiful visuals, and excellent commentary from the farmers themselves about why they're doing this and what it all means. Very thought-provoking, and inspiring. You can watch the streaming video here.

These folks are actually making money at organic farming, and it appears to be their full-time occupation, which puts them several steps beyond us. Our own focus is still on producing wholesome food for our family; we only sell excess production to others. But we do know folks who are able to do this kind of thing more or less full time, and this video gives a great view of that.

Some of the farmers give eloquent descriptions of their philosophical motivations and objections to conventional (chemical-based) farming; one in particular describes the "warfare technology" most farmers employ---which I think is an apt characterization. The video also does an excellent job of showing the connection between these farmers and the community (particularly at the farmers market). One thing that's missing, though, is a sense of family involvement and how this style of farming provides harmony not only with nature but with the proper ordering of family life. They do show some husbands and wives farming together, but children are conspicuously absent. But that's a minor quibble.

Thanks to Athos for alerting me to the video.

27 May 2007

Just Plain Busted

Sometimes, unlike the situation with the busted pipe I recently blogged about, it's just plain impossible to turn a lemon into lemonade.

We have several grape vines growing right behind the house, along a fence that subdivides the property. As these vines are so close to the house, I've been able to give them lots of attention the last few years. They've gotten plenty of water, and I've been able to protect them from Japanese Beetles. They're far and away the healthiest vines on the property, because they've been close enough to get so much care.

Until this morning, when I went out to do the chores and discovered one of them had been utterly destroyed. It was only six feet from the back door, and our dog Scooter always sleeps at the foot of it. At first glance, it looked okay...just a little wilted.

But something was wasn't quite right, so I took a closer look. The roots had been totally dug up, and the two stalks of the vine were snapped. Even quite a bit of the bark had been stripped off --- almost like a deer or goat had attacked it. But a deer or goat would've devoured the leaves first; and besides, all the goats were secure. And deer never come this close to the house. And since when has a deer or goat dug up a vine from the roots?

I couldn't prove it was Scooter, but I was highly suspicious. It also could've been Tabasco, who's always digging up everything on the trail of mouse and rat nests. Between Tabasco's digging and Scooter's chewing, it could've been a team destruction effort.

This particular vine didn't have a lot of fruit clusters on it, but it was the principle of the thing: I'd planted this vine, watered it, weeded it, pruned it, and cultivated it for years. It was beautiful, and it was thriving.

Sitting with the sheep later this morning, I had the chance to reflect on the vine and what the incident might be trying to say. On a farm, this kind of thing happens all the time: you spend months or years caring for some living thing (be it an animal, a bush, or a crop), but it's a living thing. You go to bed and everything's fine...and come out the next morning and it's dead. We've had more than one beautiful ram drop dead from bloat or parasites. Sometimes there is a dead hen in the chicken house in the morning; no sign of struggle or predation...it just died in the night. In the blink of an eye, we've lost two different dogs to collisions with cars. I came home one afternoon and surprised a hawk devouring one of our ducks in the driveway. Our first mother goose sat on a nest for weeks, and her eggs were nearly ready to hatch, when I came out one morning to discover coyotes had torn her to pieces like a feather pillow.

I could continue this this list, but you get the picture: to have a farm is to have a constant education in the virtue of detachment. As you toil and "husband" your livestock and produce, you must never succumb to the temptation of admiring that handiwork and thinking it was all your own invincible doing. Because it can all be taken away overnight. This is something I was largely insulated from when I lived in the city, as I think is the case for most city-dwellers. But the things of this earth, even the ones that you've worked so hard to care for (and perhaps especially those things) really are passing away. And that's a good thing to reflect on. We sure get plenty of chances to do so on the farm.

And now I've got to take these grape branches and feed them to the goats.

25 May 2007

Creative Water

I recently posted about "making lemonade" from a busted drainage tile. Although it'll take some work to fix, I wrote, at least the puddle of standing water means I don't have to haul water to chickens and ducks.

Water is an important issue on every farm, and we were shocked to discover something remarkable about our house: it has no outside hose hookups. None. The first day we moved in, I walked around and around the exterior of the building, looking for a place to put the hose. Zip. Zero. Nada. And there were no hookups on any of the outbuildings. I had to hook the hose up in the basement. If we need water outside, there are two options: string the hose up and out the back door of the house, or haul it out of the basement in five gallon buckets. As you might imagine, the first year we were here both of those options got really old. Really fast.

The nice thing about hauling five gallon buckets of water all over a five acre property is it gives you plenty of time (and incentive) to think of a better way of doing things. None of the outbuildings even have water running to them, so digging trenches from the house and laying pipe would've been a big hassle.

But I started to notice something. Every time it rained, there were puddles on the ground. As long as those puddles lasted, I didn't have to haul water. I began celebrating every time it rained, and praying the puddles would last as long as possible. And I wished I could have puddles all the time.

Something inside my head clicked. Rainwater. Save the rainwater and make it last. How can I save the rainwater and make it last? WATER TANKS! Hook up a good set of gutters on all the outbuildings, run them into enormous water tanks, attach a valve to each one, and presto! Instant puddles, any time I want one!

This photo shows the 1500 gallon tank we hooked up on the back of an old garage. My first vineyard borders this building, and a flock of ducks has the run of that area. Notice the yellow handle at the bottom of the tank; that's how we open the valve and let water out. There is a hose attached to that valve, so I can run water downhill to anywhere in the vineyard. And with a hose extension, I can reach the sheep stock tanks in the pasture. (BTW, note the organic compost heap next to the tank.)

There is a similar 1500 gallon tank on the big barn, and a 1050 gallon tank behind my office building. They are far and away the best investment we've made, at least as far as my back is concerned. Each one was only about $300 or so, but the biggest challenge was finding a way to get them here. The solution was to hire a neighbor who has an enormous flatbed trailer; for $50, he went with me to the farm supply store 18 miles away and helped me haul them home.

An absolute bargain, any way you look at it.

Busted Pipe Lemonade

You know that expression, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade"? It happens all the time when you live on a farm. The lemons, anyway. Making lemonade is where you need to get creative.

One example: in July, we get inundated with Japanese Beetles. They wreak a horrible toll on grape vines, to the point where I wonder why I bother trying to grow grapes organically around here at all. I'll post more about it in July, but we've developed a partial solution: put out lots of pheromone traps, drown the beetles we catch, and feed them to the chickens. Free protein!

More recently, we had a piece of drainage tile break. It's one of those plastic pipes, buried about 2-3 feet down, that helps drain the property. I noticed a big puddle developing in a certain spot, and from time to time bubbles would appear. When that spot never got dry, I knew the water had to be coming from below. I got out a shovel, and spent some time excavating the area. Eventually, I found the tile---and, sure enough, could feel a small hole in the top of it. As soon as I'd bail all the water out of the hole, more would bubble out of the pipe. Grrrrr.

Eventually, I'm going to have to dig a much larger hole and expose the whole pipe so it can be fixed. But for now, I've been trying to make lemonade. With this constant puddle of water, I don't have to take water to the chickens and ducks! At all!

Or so I've told myself for the last couple of weeks. Now, my wife has reminded me of two things: (1) kids have a remarkable way of falling into puddles of water, and two feet is plenty big enough for drowning; and (2) standing water is a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes. She wants my lemonade puddle gone. Yesterday.

Looks like the Yeoman Farmer will be getting his shovel out again this weekend...

24 May 2007


When I first planted a vineyard, I imagined that pruning the vines would be a once-a-year project. I figured I'd get a pair of clippers, walk up and down the aisles, and trim where necessary. And that would be that.

Was I ever wrong.

Particularly in their first few years, when they're getting established, grape vines have a tendency to put out all kinds of unwanted growth. My vines seem especially prone to develop shoots from the lower trunk, far below the trellis line. In theory, those shoots could be left to grow---but they will not be productive, and will simply drain energy that the vine could be putting to a better use. Each morning, as I walk up and down the aisles of the vineyard looking for duck eggs, I also keep an eye on the trunks of the vines. Any little shoots like these that I see, and I immediately pluck them off. Better for the vine as a whole to nip this growth in the bud before letting it take extra nutrients for itself.

And, in that early morning quiet, it occurs to me that this is really a metaphor for ourselves and our own lives: a big part of growing up into mature, responsible adulthood is to scrape off these new little growths that---while not evil or diseased in themselves---aren't compatible with our overall maturity and spiritual health.

It's easy to spot the large dead branches; these are big things that were important to us when we were younger, but that we must "put aside" to concentrate on being a better spouse or parent. For many of us, that might have been a hobby or an athletic pursuit that we really shouldn't dedicate so much time to anymore. You name it. We all had things like that before we got married, and they were probably pretty obvious to most of us---even if some of those big dead branches took longer to actually prune than we'd like to admit.

But these smaller growths are harder to spot, and easier to ignore. They're the selfish tendencies and comfort-seeking that crop up, almost without our noticing, and distract us from doing what we should for those entrusted to us. Maybe they're not a significant drag on us at first, but would surely become so if left to develop. And we need to be alert, to get them at the beginning.

Anyway, that's what I think about in my vineyard.

20 May 2007


The elaborate stained glass windows in medieval churches were more than just beautiful: in an era of widespread illiteracy, they were also instructive to the faithful. Many lessons about Christ and the saints and church history could be communicated graphically, without a single written word.

It's sad that so many of these windows were lost from American churches during the wreck-o-vation frenzy of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and unfortunate that modern churches are being built with such banal windows. But take a drive to the country, where money was generally too tight to squander on demolishing perfectly good artwork and liturgical furnishings, and you can find some absolute gems.

A prime example is St. Peter's in Piper City, which I mentioned in a post several weeks ago. The church's stained glass windows are nothing short of stunning---but, at the same time, they are also educational. That became especially clear to me this morning, when we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension (don't get me started on our, uh, disappointment that this feast has been moved from its proper day --- that's a subject for another post). During his homily, the priest directed our attention to the massive window depicting the Ascension (the photo I've included doesn't do this window justice; all I had was a cell phone camera this morning). He then walked us through the symbolism in that image, primarily that the Lord is depicted wearing rose-colored vestments and surrounded by the apostles. Rose is a color of rejoicing, which is an important message of this feast: the apostles returned to town with great joy, and went out to spread the Good News. We need to do the same, and he encouraged us to be more joyful and more apostolic.

The priest's use of the stained glass window made his homily much more memorable and powerful. I imagine that in the future, when the congregation returns for Mass, even after this particular priest has moved on to another assignment, those who view the Ascension window will see it in a different light (no pun intended) than they did before today. That window will continue teaching the congregation for a long time to come.

Of course, what made the window a powerful teaching tool is that the priest took the time to explain its symbolism --- and the relevance of that symbolism for us. I'd looked at that window a hundred times, and had seen only a beautiful picture. Going forward, I will look at it and see a beautiful lesson. I'm not usually one to offer advice to the clergy, but for what it's worth: if you're blessed with a treasury of beautiful artwork in your church, help your congregation understand and take advantage of it. It's a shame so few churches still have these treasures. It's an even bigger shame when congregations don't understand, and can't fully take advantage of, the treasures that surround them.

19 May 2007

Death Row

The garden is now largely planted, but there has been a problem: one chicken in particular has repeatedly managed to find a way in and tear up the tender young seedlings. We tried chasing her out, but she's been extremely resourceful in getting back in. Most mornings when I wake up, she's already out there poking around.

Around here, that earns a chicken a one-way ticket to Death Row. Particularly since this one is a meat breed that I simply didn't get butchered last year (and her useless eggs are the size of marbles), her time is up. This old dog cage is where our fowl spend their last hours; the metal cone is what we use for actually butchering them. The bird goes upside down into that cone, then I slit the throat and let the bird bleed to death (kosher style). This method is very effective at bleeding the bird thoroughly, and is much less messy than the "cut the head off with an axe and watch it run around the barnyard" method.

My wife also suspects our three Guinea fowl have been tearing up the garden, and I was preparing to butcher them today as well. But she, acting as Governor, decided to give them a last minute stay of execution. We strongly suspect that this one chicken has been responsible for the bulk of the damage, and she's willing to spare the Guineas for a few days. If the garden remains unmolested, the Guineas live. If not...I'm getting out my .22 rifle and going hunting. (Guineas fly so well, and roost so high in the barn, they're nearly impossible to catch.) I really like the Guineas a lot, so I hope they behave themselves. They're wonderful bug-catchers, and with Japanese Beetle season (and the seventeen year locusts) just over a month away, I'd like to have all hands on deck. Stay tuned.

17 May 2007

Out to the Ball Game

Our kids became big White Sox fans during the 2005 playoffs, and watched a great many games with me last year on television. Finally, today, we were able to attend a game at U.S. Cellular Field (aka Comisky Park) on the South Side. My wife, meanwhile, treasured the eight hours of quiet time she'd be getting at home.

We managed to arrive with plenty of time before the first pitch, but faced a tough decision at the ticket counter: great seats for $59 each, so-so seats for forty something bucks, or nosebleed seats for $25? Given that we had to buy four tickets, I opted for the $25 option, but felt guilty about not splurging for the big event. That guilty feeling lasted for exactly ten seconds, however. When I told the kids we were going to the upper deck, all three of them cheered. "Yeah! We get to be on the top level!" They got just as excited about riding the escalator. And once we got to our nosebleed seats, they actually asked if we could go all the way up and sit in the very top row. I explained that we really wouldn't be able to see anything from up there, and they seemed to accept this answer. Meanwhile, I couldn't help comparing their attitude to our experience with Christmas: no matter how expensive the gift, what they enjoy the most is playing with the box it came in. These upper deck seats were the box. And they loved being up there on top of the world.

The park was surprisingly full, for a Thursday afternoon; announced attendance was over 30,000. Schools must be letting out for the summer, because there were many children there. Anyway, it was a spectacular day to be at the ballpark: sunny, warm, light wind, blue skies. On reflection, I guess it wasn't surprising so many people were there.

The Sox played a great game, and our kids had fun interjecting all the play-by-play terminology that the team's legendary announcer, Ken "The Hawk" Harrelson uses on television: "He gone," after a strikeout; "can of corn," for an easy pop fly; "duck snort," for a flare single; and "you can put it on the board...YES!" after a home run. It's really fun how these kinds of things have become a family ritual with me and the kids.

There was a group of twenty or so people in front of us who were clearly all together. Many kids, and several parents punching away on Blackberries and Treos. Most of the kids were about the same age as our own, in the 8-12 range. As I watched those kids, I couldn't help noticing how much "older" than our children they seemed. Not sure how else to describe it. It wasn't a question of maturity. There was something in the way they dressed, and carried themselves, and interacted with each other that seemed to speak of growing up faster than our children are. Our kids seemed so much more...what's the word I'm looking for? Innocent? And I mean that in a good and healthy way. Something about the children in front of us just seemed to speak of having been marketed to their whole lives, and to immersion in youth culture. Don't get me wrong: they seemed like very nice kids. But they seemed to be living on a different planet from our own. And I like our planet better than theirs.

One little example: As much as our kids love the Sox, we've emphasized that we do not cheer against other teams or hope other teams lose. Our children have no concept of "rivalries." On the rare occasion when the Chicago Cubs win a game (sorry, had to throw that in), our kids think it's great that another Chicago team has picked up a victory. When the Sox play the Mariners, they know Daddy cheers for the Mariners...but he's not upset if the Sox win, and they're not heartbroken if Seattle wins.

Why do I bring this up? As we were walking to the ballpark today, several vendors were out in the parking lot selling t-shirts. One of these had shirts declaring "CUBS SUCK," and other (unprintable) derogatory things about the Lovable Losers on the northside. I tried to hustle the kids past these vendors, but my daughter couldn't help spotting them. "Daddy," she asked, "What does that mean: Cubs 'SOU-kay'?" Although part of me was tempted to burst out laughing, I immediately caught myself...and was overcome with gratitude that this beautiful little eight year old girl was so innocent that she didn't even know the word "suck" --- let alone understand that it could be used to denigrate a rival. Heck, she didn't even understand the concept of "rivalry." I told her it was a silly shirt, and that she shouldn't look at these things. And that was good enough for her.

A moment later, as we approached the gate of the ballpark, my oldest son excitedly commented, "This is so much fun already!" I gave them all a hug, and replied, "And it's only going to get more fun." And I marveled at how easy it was to entertain them. They haven't been saturated with contemporary media culture. They haven't been bombarded with children's television programming, or cartoons, or movies, or marketing campaigns. They've had the freedom to be kids. They're still childlike, which is exactly what children should be.

Thank God for that. And hopefully we can keep them that way for a long, long time.

15 May 2007

Soup's On

I'm typing this as I'm waiting for my bowl of chicken soup to cool enough to eat.

One of the unexpected benefits of having a farm overrun with laying hens and laying ducks is that these birds make wonderful soups and stocks when culling time comes. A laying hen has a good productive life of two years; for a laying duck, it's usually about three years. We color coordinate our hens each year, so we can always know the age of the various birds within the flock. Three years ago, we had Rhode Island Reds. Two years ago, we had Black Australorps. Last fall, when eggs slowed to a trickle, I filled the freezer with Rhode Island Reds. This spring, we will be raising Buff Orpingtons, a gold-colored chicken. This fall, once the Buffs start laying, the Australorps will all go in the freezer.

We then make soup with those birds all year long. Typically, I take one out of the freezer and let it thaw until Saturday afternoon. Saturday evening, I put it in a stock pot (feet and all - the feet are filled with gelatin) with some apple cider vinegar, a carrot, and an onion. It sits for an hour or so, then I put it on the heat. Once it boils, I skim any scum off the top (usually there's very little), then replace the cover, reduce the heat, and let it simmer all night. In the morning, I pour everything through a colander into a second stock pot. The chicken meat stays in the colander to cool, while I slice onions, potatoes, and carrots to add to the liquid. I also add salt, pepper, basil, and oregano. By the time the liquid returns to a boil, I've usually managed to de-bone the chicken. I tear the meat into small pieces, and add it to the liquid. Let simmer for another hour or so, and turn off the heat. Let it cool all afternoon, and in the evening I ladle all the soup into quart jars for refrigeration. There's usually enough soup for 1.5 quarts each day for lunch. Once I run low, I get another bird out of the freezer.

The procedure is basically the same with ducks, but since Khaki Campbell ducks are so small we usually use two at a time. Sometimes, for variety, I'll use neck bones from our sheep.

These soups are incredibly rich in nutrients, and absolutely delicious. Also very convenient, because a whole week's worth can be easily made at once. Try it just once, and you'll never again be able to eat the stuff that comes from a can. Especially when you compare the life of a chicken-noodle-soup hen with that of a free range farm hen.

Time to eat lunch.

13 May 2007

Small Town Gas

Here's something you don't see much outside of small towns like Piper City (population ~800):

That's right --- a gas station without pay-at-the-pump. And, what's more, you don't have to pay before you pump! When we moved here after several years of life in Los Angeles, it was astounding to discover that there were still places in America where they trusted you to pump first and pay second.

The gas station/convenience store in our town (the Loda Quick Stop) had similar pumps when we arrived in 2001. They've since upgraded to pay-at-the-pump, but if you want to pay cash you can still pump first and then come inside to pay. I also pay inside whenever I'm going to buy something in the shop, like dog food. I can pump the gas, go inside and get the dog food, and pay for everything in one transaction. The owner, George, knows and greets nearly every customer by name --- and, locally, the store is usually referred to as "George's" rather than as "the Quick Stop." ("I need to run over to George's and get a case of beer.")

On 9/11, George's was the site of a very important early lesson in rural community life. We'd been in the area less than two months, and we were still being initiated into the local culture. As we drove by George's that evening, we saw a long line of cars queued up to get gasoline (remember how frightened we all were about oil disruptions?); there were easily two or three dozen vehicles, and the line snaked around the corner. I did a double-take, thinking I'd been transported back to the 1970s. Anyway, it's sad to admit, but right then I got caught up in the fear --- and decided to get in line so I could top off my gas tank.

George had pretty much his entire staff out at the gas pumps (remember, this was before pay-at-the-pump). After each customer filled up, the staffer would write the amount on a piece of paper, give that paper to the customer, and then tell him/her to pull ahead, park, and go inside to pay. They'd then reset the pump and pull the next customer in. If someone had wanted to sneak off without paying, it would've been easy to have done so in that chaos --- but I don't think anyone did. And George knew no one would.

That in itself was an eye-opening lesson, after living in Los Angeles. But what stuck with me even more was my conversation with George's young employee who was tending my gas pump. As we waited for the tank to fill, I commented that with all this demand for gasoline I was surprised they hadn't raised the prices. She gave me a look of astonishment and said, "We would never do that. We're just going to pump until we run out."

I thought about that a lot over the next few days and weeks, as reports of outrageous price-gouging rolled in from other places around the country. We would never do that. Not here. That's when I knew, without a doubt, that this place was different from pretty much every other place I'd lived before. And my only regret was that we hadn't been able to come sooner.

12 May 2007

99 Balloons

There's a very moving video out about the life of a baby with Trisomy-18.

What's particularly remarkable is how the parents manage to shower a lifetime of love on their son in such a short period of time. It's hard to watch this without thinking about all the things that we could and should be doing to better appreciate and love our own kids.

Hat Tip: Amy Welborn.

11 May 2007


The kids and I went to Chicago today, to deliver chicken and duck eggs to a restaurant in Lincoln Park. The chef very much appreciates our eggs, and once carried a case of them onto an airplane to take with him to a demonstration in Florida. Anyway, he wanted a good supply of our eggs for the expected crush of customers for Mother's Day, and we were happy to oblige.

As our van navigated Lake Shore Drive into the city, my oldest son piped up from the back seat with an observation: "Look! They're building a new building over there!"

"Yes," I muttered, dodging traffic.

"Of course!" Drama Queen Daughter agreed. "They're building another building. They're always building buildings here. There are too many buildings in Chicago already!"

I burst out laughing, and continued weaving my way through traffic, but didn't say anything.

"You're probably going to put that in your blog, aren't you Daddy?" she asked.

The only thing I could do was keep laughing.

09 May 2007

Light it Up

Out here in the country, we get our electricity from what's called a "rural electric cooperative." There are many technical ways in which a co-op differs from a municipal or corporate electric utility, but an obvious one is price. We pay much more for electricity here in the country than folks do who live in town --- and that's even after all the private utilities jacked their rates earlier this year.

When we first moved here, I was taken aback at how high our electric bills were. And then I started thinking about it: We live a half mile from the closest main road. There's another house a few hundred yards past us. The next house after that is a mile away. And it's like that everywhere you go out in the country around here. The distance between neighbors is one of the reasons we moved here; we didn't want the noise and crowding of a city or even a small town. HOWEVER, a consequence of low population density is that it takes a lot of wire and a lot of poles to provide service to very few people. As I understand it, the average co-op has seven customers per mile---compared to 47 per mile for municipal utilities. That's a lot of overhead that must be paid for by a small number of customers. No private utility in its right mind would take on that kind of burden, which is why the New Deal created these co-ops as public-private partnerships. As much as it pains me to praise a New Deal program, or to pay these electric rates, I happily write those checks each month for one reason: it sure beats living without electricity.

What's funny is that as time as gone by, I've become increasingly appreciative of our Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative. The power has almost never gone out, and even when it has gone out it's usually been restored very quickly. In the last six years or so, we've never been more than 12 hours or so without power, even when the whole region was hammered by ice storms. When the power does go out and I need to report a problem, my call is not routed to a phone bank in India. It is answered by a local person just down the road in Paxton---sometimes by the head of the field repair department himself (who also happens to be the treasurer of our local Knights of Columbus council). There's nothing quite like reporting a blackout to a friend who replies, "Yeah, Chris, we know about that one and we're going to get it back up right away. Our guys are on their way. But thanks for telling us about it."

The EIEC is on my mind today because one of their white pickup trucks showed up in our driveway this morning. The guy had one of those measuring wheels and was counting the number of feet from the road to our meter. I came out and greeted him, and he explained that later this year they'd be replacing all the poles and wires along our road, and he was collecting the necessary measurements. Nothing wrong with the infrastructure---just replacing it on schedule before it does go bad.

And then the EIEC guy asked a remarkable question: "How did everything turn out with your well?"

"Our well?" I asked.

"Remember this winter when I was out, replacing the surge protector on your water heater, and you were having trouble with the well? How'd that turn out?"

Suddenly, I remembered. Our well had stopped pumping on a bitterly cold day, and we'd feared the worst: a frozen/broken pipe, or a dead pump. At times like that, living in the country makes you feel really isolated and vulnerable. Just by coincidence, this EIEC guy had been at our house checking on the surge protector. He stayed for quite a while, testing our junction boxe and trying to diagnose the problem, but to no avail. It wasn't his job to fix our well, but he'd gone way above and beyond the call of duty just trying. The problem turned out to be at the breaker box, with one of the switches; the EIEC guy hadn't been able to trace it that far, but our local plumber did when he came later that afternoon (again, a great example of having specific local people who will put other things on hold to help with a crisis).

I explained to the EIEC guy how it had turned out to be a bad breaker switch, and he said he was glad it was something so simple, and that we'd gotten our water back so quickly. Funny that I'd almost completely forgotten about that incident---but he hadn't. Very soon after he'd greeted me this morning, it had been one of the first things he'd asked about.

I love living here.

Kidding Again

Just a few days ago, I posted a picture of a very-pregnant-goat trying to get comfortable on a hot day.

Yesterday, she delivered her kid! I was working in my office, shortly before noon, when one of our children excitedly began pounding on my door with the big news. I put down what I was doing and made a detour to the goat stall on my way in for lunch. Sure enough, she had delivered a beautiful little buck kid. Though he was still damp with amniotic fluid, he was drying off fast in the 80 degree weather (couldn't have asked for a better day for him to arrive), and was already up and wobbling around testing out his legs.

His mother, Double Play, has a chronic case of mastitis, which we have tried everything imaginable to remedy but to no avail. This wouldn't be a problem if we were simply pasteurizing and then drinking the milk. However, to make the cultured milk drinks our children require, raw (unpasteurized) milk is necessary. And raw mastitic milk doesn't set up well at all in these cultures; we've tried several times, and ended up feeding it all to chickens.

Fortunately, our other goat (Queen Anne's Lace) has been giving milk that's been excellent for raw cultures. We've decided to keep her, and sell Double Play to a friend who wants to pasteurize her milk for drinking. As soon as they finish building a stall for her, she and her newborn kid will be moving. All part of life on the farm, and a lesson for our children: as much as you might like a particular animal (and the children really do like Double Play a lot), you can't get attached to them or turn them into pets.

06 May 2007


Because of various shift trades with members of other teams, I worked Knights of Columbus Bingo again last night at our parish. As described in a recent post, it's a good time and a good cause.

But the most memorable event of the evening came late in our ninth game, and shows just how big a deal Bingo is to these players. Several numbers had been called in that game, and then ball I-18 came into the chute. The caller announced that number.

Suddenly, at a nearby table, several older ladies started laughing and yukking it up like all get out. I hadn't been paying attention, and so didn't catch what they were saying to each other in between all the laughter.

The chuckles died down, and the caller moved on to the next number. I leaned toward the other guy working with me and asked, in a low voice, "What was that all about?"

"They'd been wondering if that ball was really in there," he explained. "It hadn't been called all night."

"You mean," I asked, "We're in the ninth game, and they've been keeping track of which balls haven't come up, and they knew I-18 was one of them?"

"I guess," my partner laughed, incredulously.

"They should go to Vegas and count cards on the blackjack tables," I said, shaking my head in disbelief, "and make some real money."

05 May 2007

World's Easiest Cheese

We've been separating the goat kids from their mother at night, as a means of beginning the weaning process. For the last week, we've locked them in a separate stall in the evening, to allow Queen Anne's Lace The Goat to build up a full udder of milk overnight. We milk her first thing in the morning, and then allow the kids to nurse at will all day. Even with just that one milking, we're getting nearly a quart and a half from her.

We strain the milk through a paper filter, but do not pasteurize it. There is nothing quite as creamy and delicious as raw milk, and it's a shame that the stuff is nearly impossibly to purchase legally. If you want it, you pretty much need your own dairy animal...or find a sympathetic small-scale farmer who's willing to sell a little on the side. The big producers will not even consider selling raw milk, because of the web of regulations prohibiting it.

With the long layoff, the fil mjolk culture my wife had been using spoiled some time ago. Now that we again have a regular supply of milk, she has re-ordered a fresh culture (our kids can only drink milk that has been cultured into something like fil mjolk or keefir). But until that starter gets here, the milk is all mine.

I use the half-quart on cereal. But that still leaves a full quart, which is way too much for me to drink. The best use I've found for that extra milk is to make a basic "farmer cheese." The process is about as simple as it gets: fill a clean mason jar nearly to the top with filtered raw milk, screw the lid in place, and leave the jar on the counter at room temperature. After a day or two, the solids begin separating from the liquid. By the end of a week or so, the curds and whey are completely separate. Here are the most recent five quarts of milk, in various stages of separation --- from freshly-milked (on the far left) to completely finished (far right):

The liquid (whey) can be poured off into another container, through a strainer, and fed to the chickens by mixing with their usual feed. After sitting in the strainer for a couple of hours, to ensure all the whey has drained, the curds are put in a plastic food container and stored in the refrigerator. And that's literally all it takes. In this picture, the bowl on the left has the fully-strained cheese; the liquid has been poured off to the bowl on the right, to be fed to chickens.

The milk doesn't spoil on the counter because it hasn't been pasteurized. Pasteurization kills any harmful microorganisms, and gives the milk a longer shelf life in the fridge, but it also kills all the good and healthy bacteria. It is those good bacteria which naturally culture the milk into cheese; if you were to try making my "farmer cheese" with pasteurized milk from the store, it would simply go rancid.

We don't need to pasteurize our milk because we take care to milk the goats in clean conditions and wash their udders thoroughly before milking. And before milking out what we're going to keep, we squirt the first teaspoon or so of milk straight out onto the stanchion. That way, any bacteria that might be there in the teat, from the kids' nursing or whatever, don't go into the pail with the milk we're keeping.

Things don't always go perfectly, though. On occasion, some bad bacteria gets into the milk and spoils it. For that reason, before straining the cheese, we make sure to smell it. It's always very obvious if it's gone bad; in that case, we simply discard it.

This soft goat cheese is wonderful for nearly everything. I put it on tacos, eat it with corn chips as an appetizer, spread it on bagels in place of cream cheese, and add it to egg dishes. Just this morning, I made an omelet with three freshly-laid duck eggs some of that soft goat cheese. Wow. Only thing missing was a fresh tomato from my wife's garden.

Summer can't get here fast enough.