30 August 2007
After six years of building and cultivating this farm...we're moving.
There's nothing wrong with the farm, or the community, or our neighbors; even the most superficial reading of this blog would tell you that. Rather, it's all about a changing and evolving sense of priorities and what's important to us.
When we escaped to this place six years ago, our priorities were simple:
1) Get out of California;
2) Buy a small farm on which we could raise our family's food;
3) Be five hours away from Mrs. Yeoman Farmer's family in Michigan.
This place fulfilled all those priorities, and had many other benefits too numerous to list. However, over the last year or so, we've been increasingly realizing that in our current location we are too isolated from extended family. Our children rarely get to see their grandparents or their cousins, or friends who are children of our good friends in Michigan. The precipitating event which helped put the issue in focus is an extended illness my mother-in-law has been experiencing. As we found ourselves increasingly concerned about her health, and wanting to be involved in the day-to-day happenings up there, we grew increasingly aware of our distance and isolation. And increasingly aware of the real value of proximity to extended family.
The last few times we've been up to MI to visit, we've explored the country properties within a half hour or so of Mrs Yeoman Farmer's parents. Finally, in the last couple of weeks, we've decided on a beautiful seven-acre place which has nearly everything we could ask for. We haven't yet made an offer, but hope to do so soon.
And that brings us to the other big issue: what will become of our farm here in Illinois. Once we began to spread word here in the local community that we are planning to move, our next door neighbor drove over in his pickup truck...and made an offer to buy our property. He currently owns the 75 acres that our old farmhouse and its 5 acres were originally attached to, years ago. He is a building contractor, and constructed his own house over on those 75 acres --- and has personally done all the renovations and remodeling on our house these last six years. He's the best neighbor a person could ask for out here in the country; he and his wife are life-long residents of the area, know everybody, and have been an invaluable resource for us. And they're some of the nicest people you'll ever meet.
Our neighbor wants to help his son, who works with him as a partner in his business, buy our house. He understands the value of being close to family, and wants to keep his own family close. (And for that reason completely understands why we want to move.)
On one level, our neighbor's offer is a Godsend. We could sell our house tomorrow, without any real estate commissions, without doing any of the myriad small repairs and clean-ups that'd be necessary to list the house with a Realtor, without worry about the deal falling through, and so forth.
And yet...we know what would happen to this farm once our moving truck pulled out of the driveway. The fences would come down. The trellis system would come down. The grapes would be uprooted or mowed under. The dozens of fruiting brambles and maturing fruit trees would be forgotten. Mrs Yeoman Farmer's enormous organic garden would fill with weeds. Our pastured poultry pens would be junked. The pasture would become an enormous ATV racetrack. In short, after all the work and all the sweat we've invested these last six years in turning this place from a "country house" into a productive organic farm ... it would once again become simply a country house like any other.
On one level, we'd be happy our neighbor's family was sticking close by each other. And yet, on another level, we'd be disappointed that another family wasn't able to use and enjoy the farm as a farm. Small organic farms are hard to find, and even harder to set up. If there's someone who'd like a farm like this one, it'd be a shame if they couldn't buy it.
So, as much as we'd like to sell this property to our neighbor, we'd first like to throw open an opportunity to anyone out there who might be interested in buying it as a farm. Anyone been reading this blog and wishing they could do what we do? Well, here's your chance.
I've prepared a sheet with basic information about the property, which can be downloaded by clicking on this sentence. Some things to keep in mind, that are not on the sheet: we will include some livestock to help get you started. Want some laying hens? Ducks? Turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas? A doe goat kid? A milking stanchion? Pastured poultry pens? A small starter flock of Icelandic sheep? All that can be discussed. More importantly, we will take the time to show you all the property's features, and what you ought to do to maintain it.
But if you are interested, please let me know quickly via email so we can talk. Things are starting to move faster than I thought they would. If there is a family out there that wants to farm, we want to help them do it.
28 August 2007
24 August 2007
That neighbor has a good friend, Norma, who lives in a nearby residential area --- an area with many established apple trees. Today, as I was working in my office, I heard a horn honking in our driveway. I came out, and discovered Norma and her daughter unloading buckets and buckets of windfall apples from the back of a pickup truck! We dumped one bucket for the handful of ducks, chickens and hatchlings still running on the property; I had her drive the rest of them into the pasture. We dumped some for the sheep, and I put several buckets worth into a large stock tank. My plan is to take half a bucket or so of those "stock tank" apples out to the birds in the pasture pens each day, to give them a little more variety in their diet.
The kicker? Norma thanked me for providing a good place to dump the apples. And said her neighbors were equally excited about windfalls being put to such good use. She promised to return soon with more. I think Artistic Girl and I need to get on the tandem and take at least a dozen eggs to Norma and her neighbors.
22 August 2007
For some religious people, change starts from the ground up, beginning with the way they treat the land. Dr. Adnan Aldayel, a Saudi Arabian financial consultant living in New Rockford, N.D., runs what he believes is the nation’s only organic halal producer, Dakota Halal. “We try to raise our animals the proper way, the right way,” he said. “We are the custodians of the ground.”
What I think is especially encouraging is the ecumenical and apostolic potential of sustainable agriculture, as the "why are we doing this" can become an excellent fodder for discussions of deeper things. I'm fascinated by the following arrangement:
NEAR a prairie dotted with cattle and green with soy beans, barley, corn and oats, two bearded Hasidic men dressed in black pray outside a slaughterhouse here that is managed by an evangelical Christian.
What brought these men together could easily have kept them apart: religion.
The two Hasidim oversee shehitah, the Jewish ritual slaughtering of meat according to the Book of Leviticus. The meat is then shipped to Wise Organic Pastures, a kosher food company in Brooklyn owned by Issac Wiesenfeld and his family. When Mr. Wiesenfeld sought an organic processor that used humane methods five years ago, he found Scott Lively, who was just beginning Dakota Beef, now one of the largest organic meat processors in the country.
As usual, Joel Salatin gets the last word (and the best):
Joel Salatin, who is considered a guru of organic agriculture, said he has seen a change in the people who visit his Polyface farm in Virginia.
“Ten years ago most of my farm visitors were earth muffin tree-hugger nirvana cosmic worshipers,” Mr. Salatin said. “And now 80 percent of them are Christian home schoolers.”
I must say that our own experience has been different; while many of the producers we know are Christian home schoolers, most of the people seeking out our farm products are still secular hippie types from Chicago who've grown up and have lots of money to spend.
21 August 2007
First, I must say that de-stemming and crushing a bucket of grapes is an absolutely wonderful experience. I sat outside on a stump, pulling clusters from one bucket and plucking them into a second bucket, one after another, just enjoying the solitude and allowing myself to get lost in thought. As I began crushing handfuls of grapes, making sure none of them eluded my fingers, I imagined these grapes as being my own sacrifice offered to God. All my work, all my difficulties, all my life...broken open and poured out, so the Winemaker could use the juice to make something far greater.
Anyway, as I suspected, the neighbor's grapes had a very low sugar content: the initial Brix reading on the refractometer, once they were all crushed together, was just 11. That's only half the sugar needed for a complete ferment. My own grapes, however, had a brix of 24 --- absolutely outstanding. (And given how many grapes I lost to sparrows and other birds, further evidence that I should've harvested them a week ago.) Unfortunately, I had 19.5 pounds of grapes from the neighbor...and only 3.5 pounds from my own vineyard. Extremely lame. I'll be fortunate to get even a gallon of wine altogether.
As 3.5# is far too little to ferment by itself, I crushed those grapes and added them to the ones from Ed's farm. I added some sulfites to stun the wild yeasts, and am allowing the bucket to stand overnight. Once the sugar leaches out, and the sulfites run their course, I'll take a final sugar reading for the entire must. Then I'll add the appropriate amount of sugar to get to 22 Brix, and also add the yeast. And then, hopefully, the ferment will begin.
The best part about winemaking? The smell of grape juice on my hands that will not go away, no matter how many times I wash them. And, of course, enjoying the finished wine. But you knew that already.
17 August 2007
The wonderful thing about neighbors like Ed is that they can tell stories about what the area used to be like. As a boy (before the area was electrified), he used to milk several cows each morning by hand, before school. He helped build one of the outbuildings on our farm.
Ed's farm has all kinds of fruit trees, planted decades ago, which produce much more fruit than he can use. In fact, we first met him a few years back, when he pulled into our driveway in his pickup truck and growled at my wife, "You want any cherries?"
Surprised, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer asked, "Did you bring them? Or do we need to pick them?"
Ed replied with something along the lines of, "H---, no I didn't bring them! Come on over and pick them off the trees!" After several afternoons spent picking cherries and other fruits at Ed's farm, we discovered that under the gruff exterior the guy has a heart of pure gold. He loves kicking back in his riding mower and watching as Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and our kids climb ladders and fill buckets with fruit. He also enjoys our eggs, and bringing over loads of windfall apples to throw down to our chickens.
Anyway, back to the most recent call. He told me that the wine grapes were ripe, and that some of them were even drying up into raisins, so I'd better get over there and get them if I want them. So, I found my clippers, a couple of five gallon buckets, and dusted off my refractometer. The refractometer is a wonderful instrument which measures the Brix (sugar content) of any liquid. Just smear some juice on it, look through the eyepiece while sun shines on the juice, and you'll be able to read the Brix.
It took Ed some time to climb down the steps to his riding mower, but he refused to let me help in any way other than holding the front door open. Then he put the mower in gear, and led the way to the grape arbor. I didn't want to come across too much like I was looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I did need to know the Brix of the grapes before I could make wine. As Ed began picking grape clusters (still sitting on his riding mower), I tested individual grapes from several different vines. Unfortunately, the Brix was only about half (12) of the ideal (22) sugar content for making wine. Glancing around, I immediately understood why: the vines had been planted so long ago, a stand of pine trees had grown all around it and was now blocking the sunlight. There simply wasn't enough sun getting through to get the grapes as ripe as they should be. Again, not wanting to trash the gift horse, I simply said, "The sugar's a little low, but I can fix that by adding some at the start of the ferment. These sure are delicious, aren't they?" (Indeed, the sugar content wasn't bad for an eating/table grape.)
I put the refractometer away, and we went to work. It only took about a half hour, and I only got about five gallons of grapes, but what I enjoyed the most was talking with Ed. As usual, he opined on just about everything --- and, as usual, we agreed about nearly everything. This is the most Republican county in the state, and Ed is about as conservative as they come.
Once home , I took the refractometer out to my own vineyard and tested a few of my own grapes. The Brix was very close to ideal, but it doesn't look like I'll bet getting much of a harvest this year. Because I'm not sure how well those grapes from Ed's arbor will turn out for winemaking, I hesitate to combine his grapes with mine. What I'll probably do is pick and crush mine into a separate bucket, crush his, and see how much must we're looking at (and just how my total sugar content compares to his). At that point, I'll make a decision about combining them. But given the small amounts, it doesn't make much sense to do separate ferments.
Neighbors like these are a big part of what makes country life so rich and enjoyable. I think I'm going to put Artistic Girl on the back of our tandem bike, ride over there, and give Ed a dozen eggs. He'll probably try to pay me for them, but I'm not going to let him.
16 August 2007
Our current dogs, Tabasco and Scooter, are excellent companion animals, very good at herding the sheep, and are wonderful "all around farm dogs." Every farm needs a Tabasco and/or a Scooter. But a farm with this many sheep and other livestock also needs a guardian dog...and neither Tabasco nor Scooter is quite big enough to put the fear of God into a pack of coyotes. We tried importing an adult Great Pyrenees male that another farm no longer needed, but that was a disaster from the get-go; he not only fought with our other dogs, but he wouldn't stay on the property. He'd regularly take off for hours at a time, trotting around miles of the surrounding countryside (and annoying other farmers to no end).
We needed a Great Pyrenees puppy, and those are surprisingly difficult to find. We ended up contacting a breeder in Michigan, near where Mrs. Yeoman Farmer's family is located. They were expecting a litter this summer, and we were among the first to get on their list. Unfortunately, we were the last family to actually get there and pick up their puppy. (More on that later.) We simply weren't able to make it up to MI until this coming weekend, and the breeder said that would be fine. We were all looking forward to a nice trip visiting family, capped off by getting our puppy on the way home.
Until last night, that is. I got a frantic, emotional email from the breeder; our puppy had been running around in the front yard, all was well, and then a visitor had gotten into a car to leave...and backed right over our puppy. She was extremely apologetic, promised to refund our money, and said they hoped to have another litter next summer. I could tell she was very upset by the whole thing; heck, those are emotions that our family has gotten to know pretty well over the last year. I assured her that it was partly our own fault for not getting the puppy sooner, and that we know these kinds of things happen when you're dealing with living creatures.
In fact, that's how Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I decided we should break it to the kids --- by analogy. We sell turkeys at Thanksgiving. Customers reserve these turkeys in advance, but are told we have only a limited number. If they want to absolutely guarantee they'll get a turkey, they need to come earlier rather than later. When there's just one turkey left to butcher, we've had all kinds of bad things happen: they've wandered into traffic, fallen to predators, or done other stupid turkey things. We're going to tell the kids that in this case, we had a reservation for a puppy - but we were the last to actually get their puppy, and "something happened" to that puppy before we could pick her up. (We don't think the kids, particularly Artistic Girl, are in any frame of mind to process details about yet another car flattening yet another dog.)
In talking with Mrs Yeoman Farmer, I did manage one bit of gallows humor to break the obvious distress we were all feeling. "Hey," I told her, "we're now managing to get our dogs hit by cars before we even bring them home."
I laughed, and she laughed. But we're still going to be remaining Pyrless for the foreseeable future.
15 August 2007
The basic idea for keeping broiler chickens in movable pasture pens comes from Joel Salatin, who raises thousands of birds that way each year in Virginia and has written numerous books on the subject. The idea is to keep the birds in a safe place, but outside in the fresh air, where they have plenty of good green stuff and bugs in their diet. By moving the pens each day, the manure never gets built up too much in one place --- and the birds have a constant source of fresh green stuff.
Our first year here, I built a few crude pasture pens and basically moved them around in the yard. There was little rhyme or reason to how I moved them or where. I also experimented with various materials and styles for building the pens, and wasted a lot of money (which we dubbed "tuition money") in the process. But I took good notes, and improved the pens each year.
Then, last year, came a big breakthrough. I began planting a new vineyard at the north end of the property, and fenced it off securely from the sheep. The vineyard consists of four very long lines of wire trellis, stretching from north to south. The first line, on which I planted approximately 35 vines last year, is about ten feet from the property's western perimeter fence. The next lines (one of which I planted last year, one of which I planted this year, and one which will be planted next year) are each eight feet further east of the previous, and there is an eight foot gap between the final line and the sheep pasture. All five of those 8+ foot aisles are filled with a wide variety of weeds and clover.
Rather than mowing down all that green stuff, I decided to let the chickens do the work. We put three pasture pens, each of which is approximately six feet wide and eight feet long, staggered on various aisles of the vineyard. Two of those pens contain laying hens (to keep them out of our fruiting brambles and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer's garden for the summer), and one contains a mix of broiler chicks and pullet chicks (next year's laying hens). Each day, the kids and I gather eggs from the pens with laying hens, move all three pens one length (8 ft) down the aisle, give the hens some layer ration and the growing birds some broiler ration, and ensure that their waterers are full.
As the pen begins moving, the birds scramble to snap up all the crickets and grasshoppers that are stirred up in the fresh weeds. They then begin picking at the green stuff itself, sometimes even ignoring the supplemental grain I've just put down for them. By the time I come out the next day, they've completely mowed down the weeds and given the vineyard floor a nice layer of fertilizer. This picture shows the amazing degree to which a pen of birds can mow down weeds --- notice the contrast between the aisle behind this pen and the height of the weeds in the adjoining aisles. Before the pen went through, the whole vineyard had weeds that high. (The blue grow tubes are where the grape vines are growing --- the tubes act as a greenhouse, and support the vines to help get them up on the trellis.)
This photograph gives a wider perspective of the vineyard, showing a couple of different pens moving in different directions.
I'm not sure exactly how long each trellis line is, but it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 feet. At 8 feet per day, it takes about 25 days for a pen to make it from one end to the other. There is a generous amount of open space at both the north and south end of the vineyard, to allow the pen to be dragged sideways and started down a new aisle. Once all five aisles have had a pen go over them once, we send the pen down whichever aisle's weeds have grown back the most.
It's a beautiful system: the birds are confined in a safe and manageable space, they get fresh air, fresh greens, and plenty of bugs in their diet, and are moved off their droppings. The vineyard gets mowed and fertilized, and a significant number of bugs are removed. It's "ecology" in the truest sense of the word, and I highly recommend it for farmsteads everywhere.
13 August 2007
One thing the article makes very clear, though, is that "cage free" does not equal "free range" or "pastured." As we've been telling our customers for some time, "cage free" simply means the birds are loose in a large building, just like most commercial broiler chickens are raised. It does not mean the birds ever see the light of day, or have anything fresh and green in their diet. Also, as the article mentions, it does not mean the birds are necessarily healthier than those raised in batteries.
Our own chickens are the next step beyond "cage free." They are completely free ranging during most of the year, and during the summer gardening/fruit months they are kept in movable pasture pens. As I'll describe in another post soon, these pasture pens give the birds fresh green stuff every day, take them off their droppings every day, and keep them out in the fresh air in small groups 24 hours per day. (And this system has the added advantage of keeping them away from my ripening wine grapes and away from Mrs. Yeoman Farmer's tomatoes.)
Furthermore, on a more philosophical level, our pastured and free-range chickens give glory to God. This is because we allow them to behave in complete accord with their nature; they are allowed to behave in the way God designed and intended them to behave. Were we to cram them into battery cages, we'd be reducing them to mere egg-laying machines.
The eggs from hens raised in this manner are incomparable, and are usually only found at farmers markets or local health food stores. I only wish we could produce more of them without overwhelming our small farm with chickens.
08 August 2007
I still remember the first time we bought raw milk. I called the seller, which happened to be a convent of nuns in Washington State which had a herd of cows. I called and asked the good sister, "I heard you had raw milk, and we wanted to get some." Her (suspicious) reply: "Who is this?" Only when I assured her I was a father of young children with severe food allergies, looking for natural food, did she relax and talk with me...and give directions to their farm.
Raw milk is not only delicious, it is also wholesome. Pasteurization kills bad bacteria...but it also kills all the wonderful living things that make milk so incredibly healthy. It basically turns a living thing into...chalk water. Granted, you must obtain raw milk from a healthy cow (or goat) milked under clean conditions for it to be safe. Pasteurization basically allows mega farms to milk dirty and/or mastitic cows and pool all the milk and "clean it up" on the back end. In other words, it's industrial agriculture at its worst.
We finally got so frustrated trying to find raw milk, we bought our own goats.
The New York Times had an excellent piece today discussing this issue:
Mr. Milgrom-Elcott never missed a drop. Each month, he joined mothers with newborns and Wall Street titans in search of a box of unpasteurized, unhomogenized, raw milk. He is also part of a movement of perhaps hundreds of thousands across the country who will risk illness or even death to drink their milk the way Americans did for centuries: straight from the cow.
Twenty years ago, the Food and Drug Administration banned interstate sales of unpasteurized milk. This spring the agency warned consumers again that they were risking their health drinking raw milk.
Still, individual states determine how raw milk is bought and sold within their borders. While its sale for human consumption is illegal in 15 states, New York is one of 26 where it can be bought with restrictions. The chief one is that raw milk can only be sold on the premises of one of 19 dairy farms approved by the state. Clandestine milk clubs, like the one Mr. Milgrom-Elcott joined, are one way of circumventing the law, and there are others.
Raw milk drinkers may praise its richer flavor or claim it is more nutritious than pasteurized milk. No matter why they drink it, the demand for it is booming. In 2000, the Organic Pastures Dairy Company in the San Joaquin Valley near Fresno became California’s first raw milk dairy with certified organic pasture land. This year its co-founder, Mark McAfee, expects it to gross $6 million — up from $4.9 last year.
It's really sick that Americans today must form "clandestine milk clubs" to obtain raw milk. Or buy their own dairy animal. But for those seeking a business opportunity...this could be very big.
03 August 2007
Do you know your mailman's name? Do you know anything about him? Out where we live, everybody knows Ron Dudley. He's been buzzing around the country roads, delivering mail, ever since retiring from the military and taking this up as a civil service job. There are many more like him in these rural areas, driving a huge territory to make sure the mail gets to everyone. In some cases, the rural mail carrier is the only human being that some isolated people see in a given day. Because of the stability of the population out here, and the stability of postal employment, rural mail carriers end up getting to know just about everyone on their route. And when mail unexpectedly piles up in an elderly person's box, carriers have been known to get out of their cars and investigate whether the resident is alright or not. If you don't know how much postage a large envelope requires, or if you accidentially don't put enough postage on an envelope, many rural carriers will afix the proper amount when they get to the post office --- and then collect the money the next time they see you.
Mr. Dudley has a new automobile which he occasionally uses on the route, but he's usually out in his old blue compact car. Picture a Ford Fiesta or something similar. The thing has no muffler, so it's louder than a motorcycle. We thought at first that it lacked a muffler because he hadn't been able to get it fixed or find a replacement part. Turns out, he deliberately removed the muffler. Why? So people could hear him coming from a mile away! As it turns out, this is a wonderful way to signal that the mail has arrived. Also, there have been countless times that I've heard the "Dudley Drone" coming down our road and I've remembered that I forgot to put the outgoing mail into our box. If I jog slowly down the driveway, I can intercept him at just the right time. We'll exchange mail, joke around for a moment, and then he'll be again droning down the road (with Rush Limbaugh blaring from the stereo, if it's between 11am and 2pm).
At Christmas time, we always bake extra cookies so we can give a dozen to Ron Dudley. Ditto for our UPS driver, Scott. He's been driving this same rural route for many years, and like Mr. Dudley knows everybody. When I'm ordering something and have a choice of shipping options (UPS or FedEx), I choose UPS because that means Scott will be stopping by in his big brown truck and we'll have the chance to talk with him.
These guys are definitely part of the glue that holds a rural community together.
I reset the trap, but two days went by with no further activity. I figured I'd leave the trap out for one more day, then pack it away until the next sign of rodent invasion.
Procrastination turned out to be a good move. On the third morning, there was a very small mouse caught in the trap; it was only one-third to one-half the size of the two we'd caught before. Clearly, we deduced, the original two were adults and they must've been making a nest back there. Knowing mice seldom have just one offspring at a time, I reset the trap. Sure enough, the next morning, we caught another juvenile.
There was a time in my life that I might have felt guilty about being a "baby mouse killer." All I can say is: it's remarkable what living in the country does to one's attitude toward animals in general --- and toward rodents in particular. If I catch Thumper in Mrs Yeoman Farmer's garden, and the 12-gauge is close at hand, Thumper is going down no matter how old or young he is. Ditto for anything that takes up residence in the house.
We don't appear to be raising any Democrats in this family. Yesterday, my eleven year old and I were driving around running errands. At a stop light, he pointed to the car in front of us and remarked (approvingly), "Look at those bumper stickers, Daddy. 'Rush is Right,' and 'Bush-Cheney.' Those people must be Republicans!"
Then, when we got home, the eight year old greeted us with big news. Just like how Daddy had recently published a research piece about abortion attitudes, she had decided to write her own article about abortion --- complete, like Daddy's, with "numbers." Here is how it reads, in part:
Abortion's a bad thing. 3,9225,6225. Abortion's horable (sic). 6535,23560. ... I'm a Republican and do not support abortion. 3225,82201128.
Speaking of that article I wrote, one of our more remarkable findings is the dramatic pro-life swing among Generation Y over the last 15 years. The WSJ's James Taranto, among others, has speculated that this may be due in part to the "Roe Effect." In other words, those who are pro-choice tend to have more abortions than those who are pro-life, leading to a skewed population today. I've seen other research showing that Republicans tend to have more children than Democrats do. It'll be interesting to track the long term impacts of these fertility differences on the American electorate.
As for us here on the farm in Illinois...we're doing our part.