30 October 2007


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

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

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

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

Nothing, honey. We'll explain it later.

26 October 2007

Ingesting Unnatural Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 October 2007

Carbon Emissions

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

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

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

24 October 2007

More on the Farm Bill

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

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

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

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

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

22 October 2007

Shearing Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Malibu Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 October 2007

Upon Further Review...

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

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

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

18 October 2007

Premature Celebration

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

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

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

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

17 October 2007

We Got The House!

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

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

Here is the house:

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

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

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

16 October 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 October 2007

Really Big Neighborhood Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09 October 2007

Interesting Opportunity - Farm For Sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck.

08 October 2007


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

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

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

HFG: Okay. Minerals.

MYF: What are some examples of minerals?

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

MYF: (Laughs uncontrollably)

HFG: What's so funny?

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

06 October 2007

Happy Columbus Day

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

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

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

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

But I'm not holding my breath.

05 October 2007

As If We Needed Another Reason to Buy Local Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farm or Family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 October 2007

The War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 October 2007

Don't Bury Me on the Old Prairie

It's amazing what you can find in your own back yard, and how even what appears most mundane can become an opportunity for a homeschooling lesson.

Our tiny town of Loda has one cemetery, and it dates to the mid-1800s. In the last six years, we've been in that cemetery dozens of times. And unbeknownst to us, we'd been missing out on an ecological treasure.

Then, this August, I happened to catch an interesting story on our local public radio station. The commentary was part of a feature called "Environmental Almanac," which airs once per week. According to the radio program, as recently as 1820, 60% of Illinois was covered by original prairie grasses and plants. Then agriculture boomed, and almost all of that prairie got plowed under and converted to commercial crop production or pasture. Today, there's nothing left of the original prairie except a few slivers here and there.
And one of those slivers, it turns out, adjoins the Pine Ridge Cemetery in Loda. The cemetery had kept that plot of land unbroken with all the natural prairie grasses growing on it, and had planned to expand into it when it ran out of burial space in the existing plot. Then, about 25 years ago, a local preservation society managed to acquire the prairie land and supply a different plot (probably farmland) for the cemetery to expand into. They've fenced off the 3.4 acres of prairie, and made it a permanent preserve.

But, as I said, we had no idea this jewel even existed before I happened to catch the story on the radio. All the times we'd been in the cemetery, we figured that adjoining plot was just another weed-covered empty piece of land locked up in a state program where they pay you not to grow crops. Unfortunately, the preservationists haven't done a very good job of educating the public as to the value of this prairie; the only sign is a tiny thing warning folks that everything behind the barbed wire is protected by law. Hopefully someday they'll be able to raise enough money to put up an "interpretive" sign that lets people know what they're looking at and why it's so special.

Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I immediately recognized an opportunity for a homeschooling lesson: it was time to take a literal "field trip" and learn about state history and ecology. One by one, I took each child for a tandem bicycle ride over to the cemetery (notice, we also managed to cover Physical Education with this field trip).

We walked around, looked out on and admired the stunning variety of grasses and plants, and I gave a mini-lecture about the site based on what I'd been able to learn ahead of time. I wish we could've actually walked around the prairie land itself, but it was clear from the barbed wire fencing that they didn't want people out there trampling any of the native vegetation. My rather poor camera phone picture doesn't really do justice to the beauty of the place; the Grand Prairie Friends site has many photos which are much better.

The kids thoroughly enjoyed the field trip. And I've resolved to look harder for the the other school lessons that might be hiding in our back yard.