31 December 2009

Goose Day

It looks like this, the final day of 2009, might go down as "Goose Day" on our farm.

Earlier this week, we were down to five geese: the two older Toulouse females, and three Embdens from this spring's hatch. One very nice thing about having different breeds of geese each year is that it's easy to determine their age; once a goose gets more than about a year old, it isn't really worth butchering (the meat gets too tough). Anyway, I'd been meaning to butcher those final three Embdens, but Yeoman Farm Baby's adoption interfered. That proved to be a good thing, as it gave us time to do more thinking about geese and where we want to go with them.

I took a closer look at those three Embdens, and determined we had two males and one female. The female was definitely a keeper. One of those ganders was very large, and clearly exhibited Alpha Goose qualities; the other gander was no larger than the female. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I decided it would make most sense to butcher the Beta gander and feast on it during the Christmas Octave, and to keep Alpha as a breeder.

Although we haven't had any success with hatching our own goslings in the past, we believe we can help the geese make more effective nests this spring. Back in Illinois, the problem was that after a goose went broody and we gave her a clutch of eggs to sit on, hens would inevitably sneak onto that nest and lay eggs of their own every time the goose got up to take a break. When Lucy Goosie would return to the nest, she'd crush the chicken eggs. This made a nasty, sticky mess and soon the goose eggs were coated with mud and straw. But here in Michigan, our barn is laid out such that we can give a broody goose a nice private area that chickens cannot violate. This spring, we'll see if we can make that work. Goslings are so expensive (nine bucks each, at last check), there's certainly no harm in trying. We will still buy some goslings, just to make sure we have goose to feast on next year, but hopefully our breeders will be able to add to that flock.

Anyway, this morning I went out to the barn to take care of the chores...and discovered that our Embden female had just laid her first egg! The shell was tinged with blood, and an examination of her rear end showed that she hadn't laid it long before. Hopefully we'll get several dozen eggs from her before she goes broody; I'm going to wait at least a couple more months before we even begin saving eggs for her to sit on. In the meantime, we will enjoy eating those goose eggs; each one is large enough to make its own omelet. (The photo is from last year, when I had a couple of goose eggs and wanted to show their size relative to a chicken egg.) When we have extras, we sell them to a Ukrainian woman who blows them out to use for crafts.

I really can't say enough good things about geese; most breeds (other than Canadas) lay several dozen huge eggs each winter/spring, will lay for many years, can get to a good eating size on little other than grass, provide many pounds of meat, are extremely cold hardy, and are fierce enough to defend themselves against most predators. If you want to feed them grain, they will eventually reach live weights of 20# or more --- but the grass-fed fall size (dressed weight of six to ten pounds) has always been plenty for our family. As long as you have a way to keep them out of the garden, and off the grass you want to let your children play on, I highly recommend them for every farmstead.

29 December 2009

Keeping Christmas

One of the Yeoman Farm Children's favorite stories of all time is Dickens' A Christmas Carol. They've not only read it multiple times, but also watched nearly every movie version (and can explain the differences between those versions).

At the very end of the story, we find this wonderful passage:
[Scrooge] had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
A question that has been on my mind of late has been What does it mean to "keep Christmas well"? For our family, a big part of "keeping Chrstmas well" has meant appreciating that Christmas is a season rather than a single day --- and remembering that that season does not begin until the evening of December 24th, and continues until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (January 10th this time).

We do everything possible to avoid Christmas music and celebrations during the four weeks of Advent, and I am grateful to Mrs Yeoman Farmer for insisting on this tradition. Although our trip to adopt Yeoman Farm Baby complicated things somewhat this year, we have a number of traditions to emphasize Advent as a time of joyful expectation that is different from Christmas. In addition to an Advent Calendar, we keep an Advent wreath on the dining room table. Each evening, when we sit down to eat, we light the candles and sing a stanzia from 'O Come O Come Emmanuel' before saying grace.

We don't even buy our Christmas tree until a day or two before the big day. (Back in Illinois, I used to wait until December 24th and was always able to get a fairly decent tree for almost nothing, but here in Michigan many places totally sell out --- and the remaining vendors don't cut their prices below twenty bucks.) The last two years, I've taken a different kid with me in our 4x4 truck to get a freshly cut tree from a local farm; that in itself has become a wonderful custom of its own.

The tree sits in exile on the front porch until the evening of December 24th. Then, after dinner, we put Christmas music on the stereo, set the tree up in the living room, and decorate it. Now, and only now, has the Christmas season actually begun.

As we were driving someplace this Sunday, MYF and I observed that it was sad that so many people were already taking all their Christmas decorations down. Indeed, I made an interesting observation of my own: scanning the radio dial while driving around town on Saturday (the 26th), I didn't pick up a single Christmas song. The closest I got was "Walking in a Winter Wonderland," which isn't really about Christmas. What's maddening is that this year the radio stations began playing Christmas music during the first week of November. I kid you not --- I had to do a very long interstate drive that week, so was scanning the radio dial in many media markets, and it was astonishing how much Christmas music was already being played in so many places. While I'm on this soapbox, I should mention that one station in a nearby town has billboards up proclaiming itself "Jackson's Christmas Music Station". Just for fun, I tried listening to that station while driving around today. Want to guess how much Christmas music I heard on Jackson's Christmas Music Station on this, just the Fifth Day of Christmas? Zero.

So, we'll keep on keeping Christmas on our own, playing Christmas music at home and celebrating this wonderful season for another couple of weeks --- even if the rest of the world has moved on (and is probably already stocking the store shelves for Valentine's Day). We try to take things especially easy during these eight days that comprise the Octave of Christmas...though I do need to get a move on and butcher a goose this afternoon. That goose (or, rather, gander) is going to be the centerpiece of our New Year's feast. Yes, it's a bit Dickensian...but what do you expect, given the YFCs taste in literature?

I hope all of you, my readers, are keeping the season well --- no matter what your faith. All of you are in our family's prayers at this special time of the year.

20 December 2009


I've been stranded at the Baltimore-Washington airport for the last couple of days, due to this enormous winter blizzard. Flew out here Friday morning, and had meetings with clients all day and evening. I also took about 30-40 pounds of meat with me, as Christmas gifts for clients; it's hard to describe how pleased folks were get a heritage turkey, or Icelandic lamb chops or leg roasts. Although we did sell meat to the public at one time, for now we've found that it makes more sense for us to give the meat away to friends, family, and clients as gifts; it's something very special, very personal, and something that cannot be purchased in stores. We may eventually sell to the public again, but for now the "gift" approach seems best for us.

The plan was to fly home on Saturday morning, but 20 inches of snow begged to disagree. All three DC Metro airports were shut down pretty much all day, and I'd be surprised if more than a handful of planes got in or out of the region. There is a television monitor in the hotel lobby, showing flight arrival and departure information at BWI; every time I walked past it, every single flight was marked as "cancelled."

I spent all of Saturday holed up in that hotel near the airport with hundreds of other stranded travelers, watching snow fall. And fall. And fall. Being the consummate introvert, I didn't mind the opportunity to crawl into a "cave" with a detective novel and hibernate for a day. I wish I'd brought another change of clothes, and I wish I had my boots here with me, but I'm grateful that I reached my hotel late Friday night before the worst of the snow fell - and that I was able to extend my stay for an extra night. And while the food here is overpriced, and the restaurant is understaffed, everyone has remained cheerful. There seems to be a spirit of "we're all in it together, and there's nothing we can do to change things, so let's make the best of this situation" with both the hotel guests and staff. For my part, I told the housekeeper that I didn't need any service for my room (other than a few extra packets of coffee for my coffeemaker); I figured she had plenty to do already, given that much of the staff probably couldn't have made it in to work.

The television had lots of footage of children playing joyfully in all this white stuff, and I'm sure the Yeoman Farm Children would've been doing the same if we lived here. They tell me we only got an inch or two back home, which is hardly enough to do anything with. I'm very grateful that Mrs Yeoman Farmer, and the YFCs, have been such good sports about my being stuck here; they've had to pick up the slack with caring for the animals, cooking, and mixing up formula for Yeoman Farm Baby. Southwest Airlines put me on a flight out of here this afternoon, and it's showing "on time" status so far. Given that the sun is shining brightly, and the snow has completely stopped falling, I'm optimistic about getting home tonight.

The local TV station also had a continuous scroll of business and school closures. One thing that was interesting: the number of individual Protestant churches that were announcing the cancellation of all Sunday services. There were only a couple of individual Catholic churches that announced cancellations, and those seemed to be just for Saturday evening Masses, but the TV scroll did include an important general announcement: The Archdiocese is reminding Catholics that church law excuses them from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass if it's unsafe to travel because of the weather.

Note, however, that most Masses in the area will not actually be cancelled. You can bet that attendance will be way down, but the priests will be there and will be offering the Holy Sacrifice. As I thought about it, I realized one obvious reason: most Catholic priests live on the same property where their church building is located. Most Protestant ministers do not. I still remember an amusing incident from the early 1990s, when a similar blizzard hit Michigan; I called a local Catholic church, which was staffed by a community of Franciscans, and an older friar answered the phone. I asked if they were still going to have Mass, and he gave a hearty laugh. Then, in a wonderful southern drawl he replied, "We sure are. You see, we're all in here. The question is: can you get here?" I laughed with him, because the answer was such an obvious No.

But as I thought more about it, I realized that there was an even more important reason why Mass will still be offered in most places today: because, ultimately, it doesn't really matter how many people are in attendance. Yes, it is important for us to attend Mass when we are physically able, but it isn't necessary to have a congregation present for the Mass to "do its thing." In Protestant services, by contrast, the focus is largely on the congregation and the fellowship of the community; if only a couple members of your congregation will be able to come, it doesn't make much sense to have a service. But the Catholic Mass is totally different: it is a true sacrifice, and as such provides countless graces for the whole church, completely separate from the merits of the celebrant or the size of the congregation. When we cannot be physically present at Mass, we can unite ourselves spiritually with it and join in those graces.

A chapter in St Josemaria Escriva's book, Christ is Passing By, has an excellent discussion of the Eucharist, which develops these thoughts in more depth. This particular morning, when the twenty inches of snow outside meant there was no way I would be able to attend Mass myself, I haven't been able to stop thinking about one particular paragraph from that homily of St Josemaria (in point 89, of the chapter linked to above):
Through the communion of the saints, all Christians receive grace from every Mass that is celebrated, regardless of whether there is an attendance of thousands of persons, or whether it is only a boy with his mind on other things who is there to serve. In either case, heaven and earth join with the angels of the Lord to sing: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus...
If you are among those who can't physically attend Mass today, I hope these considerations from St Josemaria are as spiritually fruitful as they have been for me. As a nun from the parish I grew up in used to say, on days when she had to lead a communion service because there was no priest available to celebrate Mass, "put yourself on a patten," spiritually uniting yourself to a Mass that is being celebrated right now, somewhere else in the world.

16 December 2009

A Different Kind of Adoption

This may seem like an odd move, but bear with me. I'd like to merge two recent streams of posts: our adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby, and the natural hatching/brooding of baby birds on the farm.

I've enjoyed the comments and input from various readers, who have asked about and shared their experiences with allowing various types of birds to hatch and brood their own young. Whether you're doing this for the educational experience, the economics, to fly under the radar of NAIS, or purely for the entertainment value...hatching your own baby birds is a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it. But the unfortunate reality is that many good egg layers don't make good nest setters. And many good nest setters don't make good mothers. With broodiness and mothering instincts having been so aggressively culled by commercial hatcheries, it's remarkable to find a bird that can both hatch and successfully mother her own young.

One answer that we've found to this problem: adoption! Unlike larger mammals, mother birds are not terribly particular about which babies are "theirs." A good mother hen will look after and brood any chicks she can get her wings around. We saw this happen frequently in Illinois, when on occasion we had multiple brood hens in the barn at the same time. It was actually fairly amusing to watch as days passed, and the brood of the less interested hen gradually shrank while the brood of the more aggressive/interested hen gradually increased. I still remember one hen that ended up with something like eighteen chicks streaming across the yard with her (which was actually too many --- even she couldn't keep track of that many chicks, and they kept getting lost. And I kept venturing out to help, because there's nothing quite as forlorn as the peeping of a stray chick stranded in the tall grass).

We've observed something similar with ducklings. We've had several ducks of various breeds successfully hatch a nest of eggs, with even greater variability in mothering ability. The Muscovies have been by far the best setters and mothers, with Cayugas a close second. The Khaki Campbells are not bad at setting, but we have yet to see one successfully mother her hatchlings. Every Khaki that has ventured off the nest with a brood has quickly lost every single duckling. Khakis don't look back to see if the ducklings are keeping up, and they don't respond to distress calls from little ones who have fallen behind. We got to the point where we would immediately remove any ducklings a Khaki hatched, and either give them to a mother Cayuga (assuming we had one with new ducklings) or brood them ourselves under a heat lamp.

BTW, I don't say any of this to diss Khakis or Muscovies: they have their place, and Khakis are extremely good egg producers. We had a lot of Khakis when we were producing duck eggs commercially in Illinois, and at one time had a good flock of Muscovies. But we've chosen Cayugas as our primary homestead duck because their egg production is respectable, they are good natural setters/mothers, and they get to a nice eating size. We ultimately decided against Muscovies in part because the females are too small to make much of a meal, but also because Mrs Yeoman Farmer thinks those "caruncles" the males have on their faces/heads are disgusting to look at (not to mention the bizarre social behavior that Muscovies engage in when they're together in groups. I still keep a few Muscovies, just for fun (and where MYF doesn't have to look at them), but they're now too old to good for much of anything.

We've never had very good luck getting a non-broody hen or duck to accept and mother baby birds --- but geese are different. Earlier this year, we bought several goslings from a hatchery and brooded them under heat lamps for some time. Then, when we turned the goslings loose in the pasture, something amazing happened: our two older Gray Toulouse geese swooped in and adopted all eight of them. They proved to be excellent mothers, and took great care of the brood all summer. They were extremely protective, and dutifully led their charges to fresh grass and water (and stood guard attentively as the goslings grazed). The lesson we took from that incident: next year, we will put the goslings in with the mature geese much sooner. Perhaps not as brand new hatchings, but hopefully after significantly less time under the electric heat lamps. I may also try giving the geese a few ducklings at the same time, to see how that works out.

Because adoption need not be limited to the same species! We've had real life "ugly ducklings" hatched on our farm; one of the hens laid an egg in a duck nest when the duck was taking a quick break. Chicken eggs have a shorter incubation period than duck eggs, and the chick ended up emerging along with the ducklings. He/she managed to keep up with the web-footed siblings for several days, but the problem was when Mother Duck took her little charges through puddles. We eventually had to remove the chick for that reason, but it probably would've worked out alright had the mother been a hen and the adopted bird been a duckling. And I bet a goose would be an even better mother to a duckling than a hen would be.

A final thought, for those of you interested in hatching your own eggs: try to find a broody bird to do it for you. We've never had much luck with the commercially-available incubators. We did get some chicken eggs to hatch in them, but usually the temperature ended up a little too high or a little too low (or both, when the air didn't circulate properly). But we never got turkey eggs, duck eggs, or goose eggs to hatch; waterfowl eggs have special humidity requirements (picture a mother duck sitting back down on the nest after taking a quick swim), and humidity is difficult to adjust in most of the more affordable incubators. We decided a long time ago to give up on incubators altogether, and either purchase baby birds or let a broody hen/duck hatch them for us.

15 December 2009

Breaking a Broody

A reader poses a good question in the Comments section for one of the posts about our broody hen:

We've got a broody hen and I don't know what to do with her! My neighbor has told me I need either a bucket or a trap to get the hen 'off the cluck'.

It is indeed hard to break a hen of her broodiness. Once she's in full brood mode, she's already stopped laying eggs. If you can catch her on the first day, she should start laying again in seven days. But if you don't catch her and break her until the fourth day, it'll be another 18 days or so before she begins laying again. We basically let our hen brood this time because (1) we had enough other hens to keep laying; (2) we had a bunch of fertile eggs we didn't need to eat; and (3) it's too much work to break a hen of broodiness --- and we've never had much luck doing it.

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens lists several tips for breaking up a broody hen (p. 181):
  • Don't let eggs accumulate in the nest
  • Repeatedly remove the hen from her nest
  • Move or cover the nest so she can't get in
  • Move the hen to different housing
  • Put the hen in a "broody coop," which is a hanging cage with a wire or slat floor, for a few days.
How hard you work to break a broody hen will depend in part on why you're raising chickens in the first place. If your egg production is tight, and you're interested in nothing but eggs, and you have just a few hens, you'll want to do everything you can to break her. You may even want to cull a persistent broody hen, if broodiness is a trait you do not want in your flock.

But for us, in our situation, raising chickens has always been about more than maximizing egg production. We've fortunately always had enough "extra" hens, and have always had roosters running with them, so we can allow broody hens to remain broody. Broodiness is a trait that we actually appreciate, and it gives us another "teachable moment" in homeschooling our children. The kids are learning that chicks don't come merely from a hatchery; nature has a beautiful and mysterious way of ensuring that the cycle of life continues itself without our mechanical intervention. Also, there are few things as fun or entertaining as watching a hen escort a brood of chicks around the barnyard, keeping them close and showing them what is good to eat.

We've also wondered if there may come a time when it's difficult to obtain chicks from a hatchery, or when hatchery chicks become prohibitively expensive. For that reason, we've wanted to have some heritage breeds of chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese that will be capable of "getting the job done" without our help, and ensuring that we will always have some home-produced supply of meat and eggs. The birds haven't always been successful in brooding and raising their own young. We're just glad that, in a pinch, we have some brood-capable birds we can work with.

13 December 2009


Yesterday, we received a bill for the medical services which Yeoman Farm Baby received as a newborn in the hospital. As his adoptive parents, we knew we would be responsible for those expenses; fortunately, the total was less than what we'd been bracing ourselves for.

Reading the "patient data" section of the bill, I remarked with amusement that YFB's original name --- given him as a placeholder by the birth mother --- was the one used on the bill. Let's call him "Miller, Ronald J." for the moment (although that name is a total invention). I commented that it will be nice when the baby is no longer known anywhere as Ronald J. Miller, but only by the name that we have given him.

Mrs Yeoman Farmer then pointed out that the baby, in various documents, is already known by a great many different names:
  • Ronald J. Miller
  • Baby Boy Miller
  • [The names we have given him] [Our last name]
  • Baby Boy [Our last name]
  • Yeoman Farm Baby
To which I remarked, "The kid has so many aliases, you'd think he was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list."

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer simply lifted the baby so she could make eye contact, smiled, and --- addressing him --- said, "Yes! You are without a doubt the most wanted baby in the whole world. Aren't you?"

Yes, indeed. But readers of this blog already knew that.

10 December 2009


We had a nasty winter storm move in last night. There wasn't much snow, but the temperatures dropped from the upper thirties yesterday afternoon down to about 10F overnight, with winds approaching gale-force speeds. The snow we did get has been blowing and drifting everywhere, and the roads have a good coating of ice on them. Getting into the upper thirties yesterday seems to have melted the snow we got over the weekend...and going into the teens last night turned that stuff into ice. Especially with the winds and the whipping/blowing snow, I'm not venturing off the property today. I'm just glad I brought plenty of firewood in yesterday, ahead of the storm; the wind has now deposited a fairly substantial snowdrift in front of the wood pile.

Unfortunately, when you have livestock, it's still necessary to venture out to the barn a few times a day no matter what the weather. (But the Yeoman Farm Children are happy that the goats are not in milk right now.)We're keeping the barn doors closed tightly, and the animals have generated enough body heat to keep their downstairs area in the mid-thirties. The big bonus of that: their water has remained liquid.

But, milk or no milk, I've had to go out to the barn. And it's impossible to express how thankful I was this morning for having made a certain investment: good boots. When we first moved to the country, my temptation was to cut corners and buy cheap rubber boots from Wal Mart. We quickly discovered, however, that cheap boots are no bargain. When you wear boots every time you go outside, those boots take a lot of abuse. Cheap rubber boots literally fall apart after just a couple of months of getting that kind of use. And even before they become completely unusable, they leak moisture; there are few things as uncomfortable as wet socks on a ten degree morning in Michigan.

The solution we settled on long ago: invest in a good set of high quality boots. Yes, they cost substantially more at first --- but they easily pay for themselves because they last so much longer. My favorites are made by a company called Muck, and they're available for sale at most feed stores (the company's website has a dealer locater that will help you find a place nearby). There are places that sell Muck Boots online with free shipping, but their prices don't seem much better (if at all) than the local feed store. I've never bought these things online. Besides wanting to support a local small business, I also like being able to try the boots on and make sure they fit comfortably. They are a big investment, and I'd be miserable for the next year if they were a little too tight or a little too loose.

Muck makes several models of boots, depending on the application, but all of them are very solidly made and with care should last a full year on the farm. We usually get the Chore model, in either mid-calf or "high" height. The taller ones are heavier, and can make your legs feel tired more quickly after a long day of walking around, but on a cold day with blowing/drifiting snow they are sure nice to have.

When you're thinking about moving to the country, boots probably aren't high on your list of things to acquire. They certainly weren't on our radar. But good boots should be among the very first investments you make. And in our experience, it's hard to go wrong with anything from Muck.

07 December 2009

Best Mother Hen

The decision to allow the broody hen to incubate some chicks, despite the impending cold weather, is turning out to be a very good one; thanks again to all who wrote with encouragement to allow her to do so. The most recent post I published about Henny Penny and her chicks was based on information from the neighbor who was watching our farm while we were out of town for Yeoman Farm Baby's adoption. (I got the hen set up in her new nest before the adoption trip, but the chicks didn't start hatching until we were gone.) It turns out, she managed to hatch six of the seventeen eggs she was sitting on --- which is not bad at all, given the terrible weather (and the fact that other hens laid five additional eggs on top of her original twelve, which made it more difficult for her to incubate them and led to different hatching dates for the various eggs).

The six chicks are doing very well, and have already grown to be noticeably larger than newly-hatched chicks usually look. (Which makes sense, because they began hatching two weeks ago.) The chicken tractor has proven extremely effective in keeping the new little chicken family together, ensuring that food and water are always close by, and protecting the chicks from being trampled or scattered by other animals. Thanks again to Rachael for reminding me of the value of using a chicken tractor to enclose a brood hen.

Just how good of a mother is Henny Penny? The temperature got down to 15F both Friday night and Saturday night, and to 23F last night --- normally a death sentence for featherless baby birds. But when I came out to check on them each morning, all six chicks were peeping happily. Henny Penny had ensured that all six spent each night in the shelter of her warm body, providing the featherly protection that they are still trying to grow for themselves. The only thing I needed to get for them each morning was fresh water; their waterer was naturally frozen solid.

A mother hen is fascinating to watch, and can entertain us for hours with the way she clucks at her little charges, puffs herself out, and hovers near her brood. It's especially fun to go out to the barn late at night, when all is quiet and dark, and just spend a moment listening to the deep, reassuring clucking noises she makes to the little ones that are nestled beneath her. And to remember the passage from the gospel about Christ wanting to gather the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings --- and to allow myself to be gathered in that way, and to trust that His own protection and providence are infinitely more effective than that of any hen on any farm on earth.

Such a Deal!

If you're looking for a great Christmas gift, Amazon has knocked 10% off the cover price for my novel. I'm not sure how long the $13.45 price will last, but this appears to be a pre-holiday promotion.

UPDATE: It appears that Barnes and Noble is currently offering the same deal. $13.45 is usually their "members only" price for my novel, but they are temporarily giving all customers the "member" price.

More information about the novel itself can be found at the book's website.

05 December 2009

Introducing Yeoman Farm Baby

We have big news: All of us are now home with the newly adopted Yeoman Farm Baby! He is happy and healthy, and the whole family is very excited about the new addition. Many thanks to all of you who were praying for us; it made more of a difference than you can imagine. The hand of Divine Providence was all over this experience, and we are incredibly blessed to have been chosen to be YFB's parents.

Posting has been slow of late, because the whole family was holed up in a hotel for the last few weeks in the birth mother's city. We got custody of YFB upon his release from the hospital, but it was necessary to clear certain legal hurdles before we were allowed to leave that state and travel home. Unfortunately, all of this coincided with the long Thanksgiving weekend, which greatly slowed the process down. But eventually things worked themselves out, and we got "The Call" from our attorney earlier this week. After a few hours of packing our minivan to the gills with kids and food and baby paraphernalia, we were on the road and headed back to our farm.

There is much to be told about the experience, and many insights that I'd like to share; I expect to have several posts over the next week or two discussing our adoption saga. Keep in mind, however, that for confidentiality reasons I will have to omit certain details from the story --- and the usual blogging rules about not naming our children or showing their photos will also apply to YFB.

01 December 2009

Soy and its Discontents

One consequence of having children with severe food allergies is that Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I have had to study the ingredient list of everything we put in front of them. In fact, it was nutritional and allergy issues that first got us thinking about buying a farm nine years ago and taking more control of our food supply.

The Yeoman Farm Children have celiac disease, which rules out all gluten-containing grains, but they also have sensitivities to a wide range of other foods and food additives. Unfortunately, two of these (and all their derivatives) are among the most ubiquitous crops in the USA: corn and soybeans. Due in large part to crop support payments and subsidies, products derived from corn and soy are cheap and widely available to food processors --- and have thus found their way into nearly everything on the supermarket shelf. If you want an unsettling experience, take a stroll down any aisle at the grocery store, and start reading ingredient lists from randomly-selected packaged products. High Fructose Corn Syrup is among the most common sweeteners these days, and soy derivatives are among the most common protein supplements.

The problem is that it isn't always called "soy." For example, even if you buy tuna canned in "spring water," a closer look at the ingredient list will usually reveal "vegetable broth" or some such thing. That's code for "soy." There are exactly two brands of tuna we're aware of that don't have added soy: the Whole Foods 365 store brand, and the Polar brand. (Long time readers will recall an incident from nearly three years ago, when even our half-starved lost dog wouldn't touch the tuna with added soy, but gladly wolfed down some Polar tuna.) For whatever reason, both of these brands are significantly more expensive than those not containing soy; whenever we see one of them on sale, we buy a case and put it in storage.

So...you don't have food allergies. Your kids don't have food allergies. Why should you care about soy finding its way into nearly every processed product on the supermarket shelves? This recent article is among the very best, and most succinct, summaries that MYF and I have found that details (1) the ubiquity of soy, (2) why you should be concerned about its impact on your health --- even if those impacts don't immediately register in your body the way they do with our children's bodies, and (3) why you might want to start eating a less-processed diet.

But soy's glory days may be coming to an end. New research is questioning its health benefits and even pointing out some potential risks. Although definitive evidence may be many years down the road, the American Heart Association has quietly withdrawn its support. And some groups are waging an all-out war, warning that soy can lead to certain kinds of cancers, lowered testosterone levels, and early-onset puberty in girls.

Most of the soy eaten today is also genetically modified, which may pose another set of health risks. The environmental implications of soy production, including massive deforestation, increased use of pesticides and threats to water and soil, are providing more fodder for soy's detractors.

All of this has many people wondering if they should even be eating it at all. And you are most likely eating it. Even if you're not a vegetarian or an avid tofu fan, there is a good chance you're still eating soy. Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, explains that soy is now an ingredient in three-quarters of processed food on the market and just about everything you'd find in a fast food restaurant. It's used as filler in hamburgers, as vegetable oil and an emulsifier. It's in salad dressing, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets.
If there is any hidden blessing from the YFCs food allergies, it's that we've been forced to cook things from scratch and eliminate the processed-to-death additives such as these that can wreck such long term havoc in the human body. Go read the whole article, and follow some of its links and citations, and see if you don't agree.

And if you're ready to get serious about eating better, I can't think of a better place to start than the Weston A. Price Foundation --- and Sally Fallon's book, Nourishing Traditions.

26 November 2009

Hundred Dollar Turkeys

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Our family has a tremendous amount to be thankful for this year; more on that in subsequent posts. But among other things, it seems we can be grateful that we'll be feasting on a home-grown heritage turkey that would've cost well over a hundred dollars from any number of merchants.

As the New York Times reports:
Many small farmers sell their birds direct to customers for as much as $10 a pound, or 10 to 20 times the cost of a typical supermarket turkey.

That means a heritage turkey big enough for a large Thanksgiving gathering, say 18 pounds, can run $180. Even at that price, farmers who breed heritage turkeys are recording brisk sales.

Heritage turkeys are old-fashioned breeds that resemble their wild ancestors more closely than do modern breeds. Devotees say they are more flavorful and have a higher proportion of dark meat than the modern birds.

But even with high demand and prices to match, many of the producers say they are having trouble making money. That is because the old-time breeds — with names like Black Spanish and Bourbon Red — take longer and cost far more to raise than their modern competition, a turkey breed known as the Broad-Breasted White. Broad-breasted turkeys grow quickly, have lots of white meat and are docile enough that they can easily be mass-produced in large-scale poultry operations.

The whole piece gives some excellent background about heritage turkeys, and the market for them --- but also explains why, despite the prices some are willing to pay, it remains difficult to make much money raising these birds. The poults are very expensive, and you'll pay a lot of money to have them processed at a USDA-inspected facility.

Still, we find raising the heritage breeds to be very rewarding. They are special birds, and provide a truly unique eating experience that isn't available in stores. If you're really serious about going into this business, you'll do like some of our friends in Illinois: they keep breeding stock, incubate and hatch their own eggs, do the processing on-farm, and only sell directly to consumers who pick the birds up from the farm. This way, they capture many of the dollars that otherwise would go to hatcheries, shippers, butchers, and so forth.

As for us, we'll be enjoying a 15# Blue Slate tom turkey this year. And giving thanks we were able to raise it ourselves --- and not paying $150 for the privilege.

23 November 2009

Henny Penny Gets a New Nest

Last month we had a Buff Orpington hen go broody, and (despite the worsening weather) to allow her to try hatching a dozen eggs. Her nest was in an area of the barn that a lot of other chickens had access to. Unfortunately, over the course of the next week or so, a number of those other hens got into her nest and laid some eggs of their own. When I checked back on it, she had 17 in total. That's a lot of eggs to keep warm, and those laid after the initial dozen would have different hatch dates. Plus, looking ahead, assuming she did manage to hatch some chicks, I wanted her to have a more secure place to tend and feed those chicks.

The best solution was to move one of our 4' x 8' chicken pasture pens in from the garden, and put it on a tarp in the upstairs portion of the barn. There are no animals (other than barn cats, as Homeschooled Farm Girl just pointed out to me) upstairs; it is just a hayloft and basketball court. I then covered the tarp with a good layer of straw, and set up a 5 gallon waterer. I also filled a feeder with grain, and then Henny Penny's new condo was all set. (This, incidentially, is the same way we brooded the large numbers of baby birds we got from the hatchery in the spring --- but with a heat lamp instead of a mother hen.)

I went back downstairs, and then carefully nabbed the (indignantly clucking) Henny Penny and put her eggs into a box with styrofoam peanuts. With the hen under one arm, and the box under the other, I made my way upstairs. Once the eggs were arranged into a new nest, I set her down next to it. After another several indignant and scolding clucks, Henny Penny carefully climbed onto the eggs and made herself comfortable.
Finally, I put a lid on the pen to keep her in and any troublemaking barn cats out. With all that feed and water, I knew she wouldn't need any further attention from me for quite some time.

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, the chicks have begun hatching. There appear to be three little peepers so far, but she's keeping them very much under her fluffed-out feathers ao it's hard to tell for sure.

Stay tuned!

20 November 2009


Geese are wonderful farm birds. Although goslings are fairly expensive, the finished birds get to a nice weight --- and, most importantly, they can do it with relatively little grain. Our geese spend almost all of their time out in the pasture, eating little other than grass. They do swipe some grain from the egg laying hens, when they're locked in the barn at night, but we're fine with that. Grain helps the geese put on a little more weight --- and, most importantly, develop a nice layer of fat.

A woman from Ohio writes with some questions, after having raised her first batch of geese; I sent her a personal response, but in so doing realized that her note (and my reply) would be worth sharing with all of my readers. With her permission, here is her question and my response [I have edited both a bit]:

Hello, This is my first year raising geese. I have the Pilgrim breed. Being that I am so new to this, did I wait too long to butcher them at 7 months? Would they have been OK to process at 6 months? The processor was concerned about them not having pin feathers, which they didn't. But would they have grown out their pin feathers at 6 months or sooner? My birds have free access to pasture (in with steer) and also to free-choice mixed grains with 1/3 pellets mixed in. Do you think that I should not have offered them the grains during the peak pasture season (on unimproved, possibly less palatable, pasture)?

We did pilgrims once; they are a nice-sized bird, and have the unusual trait of being naturally sex-linked; in other words, the males and females can be distinguished by the color of their feathers. Pilgrims also have a reputation for being good natural mothers, which also appealed to us. Unfortunately, they turned out to be "too good" at mothering, and made nests out in the yard...where they got picked off by predators. In the years since, we gave up on trying to get geese to hatch their own goslings --- and stuck with Embdens, because they get larger faster. And they have a nicer temperament than some other breeds (like White Chinese).

The writer's time frame for butchering is perfectly fine. We raise them to the same age she did; I just butchered a bunch, myself. They're delicious at this age. If she'd waited until next spring, that's when they'd start to get tough. I wouldn't have expected pin feathers at the age she butchered them. The geese may have been okay to eat at 6 months, but my opinion is "the bigger the better." I have three more that we're keeping alive, to butcher for eating fresh at Christmas. They'll be 9 months old then, but in our experience that's always been fine.

Our geese are mostly out in pasture with the sheep, but get some supplemental grain when they steal it from the laying hens in the barn. We keep them separate much of the time, but geese definitely have a mind of their own. As long as they're mostly on pasture, grain is good for their development, and helps them reach a bigger size. I think it also helps them develop some fat --- which is absolutely wonderful when it melts off a slow-roasted goose, and can be used for cooking potatoes or spread on bread. The only reason we don't give them more grain is the expense of it. We have a huge pasture, and the geese love grass, so we figure we're saving money by letting them graze it. We also have a naturally wet, semi-swampy area in the pasture that they enjoy.

The writer indicated that she had sent the geese out to a butcher for processing. In her case, that makes sense because her time is worth more to her than the cost of butchering (much like the calculation we have made about butchering lambs or goats.) But if you're not too squeamish about it, I'd strongly encourage you try butchering your own birds. It doesn't require much special equipment, and geese are still small enough to be manageable. (i.e. it's not like butchering a cow or pig). We tie a cord around both legs, hang them from a nail or tree branch, then slit the throat and let them bleed to death. Geese bleed out very fast. The only problem with geese is that it's hard to get all those feathers off. We find that dunking them in very hot water helps a lot to loosen those feathers. Still a chore, but we enjoy doing it ourselves.

11 November 2009

How Much Does the Turkey Matter?

As we prepare for Thanksgiving, that question may be on many people's minds. Kim Severson, writing in today's NY Times about a dispute with other food writers (and the ensuing cook-off she won hands down), comes down solidly on the side of "After the Bird, Everything Else Is Secondary."

From turkey comes stock, the flavor-giving fluid that pumps through the entire meal. Good gravy depends on good stock. So does stuffing (more on our stuffing fight in a moment). Delicious turkey does not come from a 29-cent-a-pound supermarket bird with cottony, bland breast meat. They are, as my favorite turkey breeder says, the Red Delicious apples of turkeys.

A bird that has been bred to reproduce naturally and thrive in the open develops tastier meat. I’ve eaten dozens of both, and I will swear to that basic truth on my favorite turkey platter.

There is a catch. Growing a great turkey takes time and serving one costs money. But if you can afford it, it’s the way to go.

The turkeys from Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., spend their days on pasture and get organic feed. Much attention has been paid to their husbandry. They are certified by the Humane Farm Animal Care program. True, they start at
$125. But frankly, no expense was too great in proving Moskin wrong.

It's hard to think of a more fitting tribute to heritage breed turkeys, or a better explanation for why we continue to raise them --- even though the baby poults cost twice as much and reach a finished weight of less than half of what their broad breasted supermarket cousins can get to.

The piece goes on to give some excellent tips for cooking a heritage turkey. If you plan to get one, this article would be a good "clip and save." But hopefully you've already reserved yourself a turkey; most small producers sell out far in advance of Thanksgiving. And hopefully you'll be able to pay less than the $125 that Severson had to come up with.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, for a whole host of reasons. To say that I'm looking forward to feasting on one of our Blue Slate tom turkeys later this month would be a gross understatement.

10 November 2009

More Options on Guns

With this week marking the the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there have been a number of stories about the event --- and some interesting stories about Communist consumer goods making a comeback. One "commie good" that has largely gone unremarked in press reports, however, is surplus military firearms and ammunition. The Eastern Bloc produced a lot of really nice weapons, and these are now available in the West at quite reasonable prices. Many gun shops only focus on newer-type firearms, and only carry the Eastern Bloc stuff if a customer sells it to them or consigns it --- but, if you know where to look, picking up an old Commie gun can literally yield a lot of bang for the buck.

First, I'd like to provide a more general update about firearms. Several months ago, I put up posts with thoughts about basic guns that are useful on a farm or ranch, and about the remarkable surge in gun / ammo sales that followed the previous Presidential election. I will reiterate: every farm should have a good pump-action shotgun, preferably a 12-gauge, for home defense and predator control. A longer range rifle can also be very useful, for varmint shooting or hunting larger game, but many find they can can do just fine with a basic .22 rifle. (They are cheap, and so is the ammo.) It all depends on your circumstances, and what you think you might need to shoot. I've personally found that a handgun is nice to have as well; it can be easily grabbed and carried to the barn, and either mounted with a tactical light or used with one hand while the other hand holds a spotlight.

Although ammo in some popular pistol calibers, such as .380 ACP, is still quite expensive and extremely difficult to find (our local Wal-Mart and Meijer stores have been sold out for months, and our gun shop imposes a limit of one 50-round box per customer, and that box costs $26), it appears that production of semi-auto rifles and ammo has caught up with demand. The gun shops I've visited tend to have a good supply of both AR-style and AK-style rifles, and online dealers are again stocking bulk packages of ammo in popular calibers (other than .380 ACP, of course). One online retailer, which just a year ago was "sold out to the bare walls," has lately been offering outstanding cut-rate deals because they are so overstocked. As they admit:



--- and they are even offering 7.62x39 ammo by the pallet load, something that would've been unheard of just a few months ago. Yep, you can get 40,320 rounds for $7,600 (plus freight), which works out to about .19/round. Since most of us aren't resellers, or preparing for TEOTWAWKI, they also offer 1260-round cases for $250 each. That's not quite as cheap as buying by the pallet, but still considerably cheaper than prices earlier this year.

Which brings us back to Eastern Bloc weapons. One good source for such firearms is gun shows; one can find a dizzying array of items there that a typical gun shop would not be able to stock. But if gun shows are an impractical option, there are other sources. Classic Arms, the online retailer mentioned above, updates its website daily --- and usually offers a fascinating array of firearms. They tend heavily toward AK-variant rifles, but carry the whole spectrum. I usually browse their site once a day, just for the entertainment value and to see what's available.

One of the more interesting firearms they're currently offering is the Draco pistol; think "sawed-off, semi-auto submachine gun version of the AK-47." It's not terribly accurate, and I have no need of one, but for just $350, you can get what might be the ideal survival tool if you're ever stuck in an urban riot situation. It can be fitted with a 30 or 40-round clip of powerful 7.62x39 rifle ammo, but is as compact and maneuverable as a large pistol.

In most cases, if you want to buy a firearm from them, it is necessary to have it shipped to a FFL (Federal Firearms License) holder (typically, a local gun shop), who will complete the background check and record the transaction. This usually entails a fee of about forty bucks, but it varies from shop to shop. However, many of Classic's guns are legally classified "Curio and Relic" --- meaning anyone who has a C&R FFL can purchase such guns from them directly and have them shipped right to one's door. I don't have a C&R FFL, but they are fairly easy to get and not very expensive. Basically, buying one C&R firearm with a C&R FFL saves enough money on the transfer fee to cover the cost of the license.

And what kind of Eastern Bloc bang can you get for your buck? I recently picked up a Mosin-Nagant M91/30 rifle for $80, plus $20 shipping and $40 for the transfer. The Mosin-Nagant is one of the most popular battle rifles of all time, and was used in the Soviet empire up until about 1960. It's a five-shot bolt action rifle that is as powerful as a 30-06 --- but uses military surplus 7.62x54r ammo that comes in a 440-round metal tin and costs about a fourth of what 30-06 ammo does. It comes with iron sights, but optical scopes and mounting kits run about $110 total and can be installed without gunsmithing. Presto: instant deer rifle or long range varmint gun. I haven't yet invested in a scope; I've been basically breaking the thing in, shooting in my back yard.

Actually, what I've been "breaking in" is my shoulder: the Mosin-Nagant kicks like a mule, and it takes some practice to learn how to handle it properly. But this beast is in great shape and is as cool as can be. Mine has "1941" and various Cyrillic characters stamped on it --- and comes with a wicked looking bayonet that's about as long as my forearm (and doubles as a flathead screwdriver when disassembling the rifle). One can only imagine the stories that this rifle could tell. Most remarkable, IMO, is the following that these rifles have attracted; one quick Google search reveals a great many user groups, support forums, and sources for parts/accessories.

And there are lots of similarly powerful Eastern Bloc surplus rifles you can get, also at reasonable prices. How about a Yugoslavian-made M24/47 that fires 8mm Mauser ($.29/round military surplus) ammo? Sometimes they also carry ex-Nazi Mauser rifles, which the Soviets captured at the end of WWII and then shipped around the world to their proxy armies. Or, if you're looking for a powerful semi-auto handgun that uses inexpensive ammo, it's hard to do better than a Romanian TT-33 pistol; the list price is $209, and the 7.62x25 Tokarev ammo is around .11/round. Classic also carries CZ-82 ex-police pistols, chambered in 9x18 Makarov, for around the same price; the Makarov holds more rounds, but is not as powerful as the Tokarev, and 9x18 ammo tends to cost more.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: if you've been looking for a powerful but affordable bolt action rifle, but have been discouraged by the high prices for brand new American-made 30-30s and 30-06s at the local gun shop (not to mention the cost of ammo), take a look at Eastern Bloc military surplus weapons. Ditto if you've been trying to find a good semi-automatic handgun. These Eastern Bloc firearms are very good; the Soviets may have made lousy consumer products, but they did know how to make effective weaponry. And with the Berlin Wall down, these guns are available here for reasonable prices.

That, to me, is one of the most remarkable legacies of the last 20 years: I can buy in the free market, and own, a rifle that for decades was employed by those who sought to destroy our freedom and way of life. And how can one put a price on that?

08 November 2009


A few days after taking our eleven lambs to the butcher shop, I got an interesting phone call from the owner. He'd nearly finished processing them, and said they'd be ready for pickup in two days. The call came fairly late in the evening, after the shop's closing time, and I could hear plenty of activity in the background. It sounded like they were indeed swamped with work, and I was thankful they'd been able to work our eleven lambs into their schedule.

He then told me what the total price was going to be. The standard charge would be $55 per lamb, or $605 altogether. (I usually put that on a credit card.) However, he continued, if I wanted to pay cash...he would drop the total to $500.

Needless to say, that's a pretty substantial discount. Some readers may suspect that cash payments are merely a way for a shopkeeper to evade taxes; I can't speak to that...what I do know is that the guy who runs this shop strikes me as a very honest and upstanding person. And I will say this: credit card companies can charge some fairly steep transaction fees, especially for merchants with relatively lower sales volume. For the savings he was offering, I was perfectly happy to go to the ATM and withdraw what was needed (though, being a hard core Casablanca fan, I must confess that I couldn't stop thinking about this classic scene the whole time I was doing it --- the key clip comes at about 1:15 on the linked video).

Given current economic conditions, and that all of us are looking for ways to save some money, I wonder if we will see "cash discounts" become more widespread. I like using credit cards for the convenience, the "float" on the use of the money, and the rewards benefits. (We pay in full each month, so there are no finance charges.) But if merchants are willing to offer a lower price for the use of cash, so they can avoid the CC fees, I'll leave the credit card in my wallet and pay with cash.

Is anyone else out there starting to see more "cash discounts" being offered? I'm starting to think it might even be worth asking merchants straight out, especially smaller shops and tradespeople, what kind of discount they would be willing to offer if we pay in cash.

Why Do This?

A reader from Southern California (actually not far from where our family lived, pre-farm) who wishes he could be doing what we're doing, Kevin Aldrich, writes with some important thoughts and observations:

It would seem that the reason to have a family farm is not so much to grow your own food or have a viable business as to have a means of raising your kids well. They are more “in touch” with real life and work with their hands, not just with their heads and technology.

Here’s a kind of a idea for raising kids—not that I’ve done it for any of mine—but a child’s development could kind of follow the history of the development of humanity. It seems like we are more and more cut off from the life that most people have led through most of human history. Not that we want any of the negatives, like mortality rates before modern medicine, or famines before the Green Revolution, or battles followed by rape and pillage.

Rather, it seems like kids would have a huge advantage if their youths were filled with activities like storytelling, memorization, growing your own food, dealing with animals, running, fighting, using weapons, building fires and doing without electricity, dealing with heat and cold and darkness, writing with pencils instead of keyboards, penmanship, building and fixing things, reading instead of watching, talking instead of texting. Have you seen Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E? People are fat and chair-bound and taken care of by robots. It really is the future.

I guess I think about this because I live on the edge of the center of modern, artificial living...

It really is remarkable how different the Yeoman Farm Children are from other kids their age. They get up each morning, go outside, and are responsible for milking two goats. They take the goats out to pasture. In the evenings, they do it all again (in reverse), and hunt all over the barn gathering eggs, and make sure the various animals have the food they need. They are present when lambs and goat kids are born, alert us to any problems those animals may have, work to ensure the health of all those animals ... and help load mature animals into the truck when it's time to go to the butcher. They know how to cultivate soil, how to plant seeds, how to tell the difference between a weed and a "good" seedling, which tomatoes and peppers are ripe, how to handle fresh produce (and eggs) without damaging or breaking anything. And because their severe food allergies make meal preparation such a big production (in the time it takes most kids to finish off a bowl of Fruit Loops, we're still grinding grain for hot cream-of-rice cereal), they have learned to take the lead in cooking breakfasts and lunches from scratch.

They do not have iPods or cell phones or Facebook pages, do not "text" their friends, have never surfed beyond the EWTN Kids website, and their television viewing is limited and always supervised (and made up of sports, politics, religious, and History Channel type stuff). They read a lot of books, particularly historical fiction. They know how to type, and how to use computers, but do most of their work with pen and paper. They know firearms are not toys, but rather powerful tools which must be respected and handled safely and responsibly.

When we first moved to the country, one of our primary motivations was getting control of our food supply. But the longer we've been doing this, and the more we've observed the way our kids have thrived, our motivation for continuing to farm has increasingly become the whole lifestyle and culture in which our family is immersed here, and the sorts of well-rounded young adults into which the YFCs are growing. It's hard to imagine anything that could've been better for them. Or for us.

28 October 2009

Farming Detroit?

It's difficult to describe just how hollowed-out the City of Detroit has become, or how cheaply vacant land (and even houses) can be had. As I like to tell people: if you ever have a little time to kill and want some entertainment, get on Google Earth and fly around Detroit for awhile. You'll be shocked at how much open space there is. Then get on Realtor.com and see how much land you can buy there, in some cases using the coins you can probably dig out of your sofa or from under the front seat of your car.

This piece from The Urbanophile takes an in-depth look at what's been happening to Detroit, and explores the possibilities available to entrepreneurs who are willing to think creatively about what to do with a city whose population has shrunk but whose boundaries have not. There is now some serious, organized urban gardening going on inside the city limits, and many have been exploring possibilities for more serious farming. The piece has a number of excellent links to other stories and bloggers who have also looked at other farming-related projects in and proposals for Detroit.

His conclusion bears reprinting verbatim:

As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age. No doubt in the 19th century many of those sitting secure in their eastern citadels thought these homesteaders, hustlers, and fortune seekers crazy for leaving the comforts of civilization to head to places like Iowa and Chicago. But some saw the possibilities of what could be and heeded the call to “Go West, young man.” We’ve come full circle.

Here Goes Nothing

I've decided to let the broody Buff Orpington hen try her hand at actually hatching some eggs. Thanks to those of you who left comments; although all three of you live in more temperate climates than MI, your sentiments reinforced my own inclination.

I gave her a dozen, as I'm uncertain how many of these are fertile. We have multiple roosters, and they're not shy about doing their thing, but they have a lot of hens to cover. Anyway, I went through the 14 eggs that had been sitting at room temperature overnight, and removed the two that were cracked.

Check back in 21 days to see what actually comes of this experiment. Given that she's made the nest in a 40 gallon tub, it should be easy for her to keep the hatchlings together and keep them warm --- and for me to provide supplemental water/feed for them.

What fun is a farm if you never try crazy things?

27 October 2009

Broody Henny Penny

I have an odd dilemma: one of our pullet hens has gone broody. She wants to do nothing put sit on a nest, and has picked a spot in a 40 gallon tub with hay in it. Originally, there was an egg in that spot...and she really wanted to hatch it. I took that egg away, but she's still incredibly broody and keeps returning to that spot no matter how I try to separate her from it.

We've lost her as an egg layer for several weeks no matter what (once they go broody, hens stop laying --- much like mammals stop ovulating when they're pregnant). I'd normally be inclined to give her a dozen eggs or so and let her "have at" brooding them in a nice isolated nest that no other hens can get into and lay more eggs. We're big believers in letting mother hens do their thing, and hatching out a brood of chicks they can raise on their own. But here is the problem: 21 days from now (when those eggs would begin hatching), it will be mid-November. In Michigan. Unless she's the mother of all Buff Orpingtons, those chicks would need supplemental heat for quite some time. The dead of winter is a lousy time to be letting a hen walk around with a clutch of chicks.

FWIW, we have eggs coming out our eyeballs and I can easily spare a dozen for this experiment. But I'm not into animal cruelty, and would hate to see a dozen chicks freeze to death.

Any thoughts from my dear readers? I need to make a decision shortly.

22 October 2009

Urban Chickens Have Issues

Living in an urban or suburban area, and thinking about raising some stealth chickens? Today's NYT has a nice rundown of "issues" that others have encountered. And you know what? Many of these "issues" are difficulties you'll encounter in raising chickens, and other livestock, no matter where your house is located.

An excerpt:

They get diseases with odd names, like pasty butt and the fowl plague. Rats and raccoons appear out of nowhere. Hens suddenly stop laying eggs or never produce them at all. Crowing roosters disturb neighbors.

The problems get worse. Unwanted urban chickens are showing up at local animal shelters. Even in the best of circumstances, chickens die at alarming rates.

“At first I named them but now I’ve stopped because it’s just too hard,” said Sharon Lane, who started with eight chickens in a coop fashioned from plywood and chicken wire in the front yard of her north Berkeley home. She’s down to three.

Ms. Lane, who is close friends with the restaurateur Alice Waters, wanted exceptional eggs, plain and simple. But her little flock has been plagued with mysterious diseases.

She has not taken them to the vet because of the high cost, but she goes to workshops and searches out cures on the Internet. She has even put garlic down their throats in hopes that the antibacterial qualities of the cloves might help.

“I’m discouraged but I’m determined to figure this out,” Ms. Lane said. “I still get more than I give.”

The last line I quoted might be the most important one in the story: Raising chickens, or any other kind of livestock, is often discouraging. But there is a wonderful reward that comes from the very struggle to figure out what the problems are and in trying different solutions. And along the way, you learn that --- despite pouring your heart out and doing everything you can imagine doing --- animals die. But you keep going. You learn. You do things differently the next time.

And you know what? Whether your next batch of chickens dies or thrives...you get more than you give. Because you've learned, and you've grown, and no one can take those experiences away from you.

And, yes, you will eventually get some really really good eggs. Just keep at it and never give up.

Getting Started

Our family very much enjoys having other families over for dinner and giving tours of the farm. It's particularly gratifying when the guest family has been thinking for some time about getting started with a farm of their own, and we are able to give a practical introduction to what such a farm could look like.

A few weeks ago, a close mutual friend introduced us to a family which had recently relocated to the general area from out of state. It turned out that our families had a lot in common, and we were glad when they accepted our invitation to come over for dinner. The kids immediately hit it off, and all of them were soon having a grand time tromping around the barnyard. The adults sat down to talk; in the course of the conversation, they explained that they were renting an apartment until their old house sold, at which point they planned to begin looking for a place in Michigan.

Things have been going well, and I received the following email recently:

Hey, do you have a recommendation for a couple of books on "hobby farming" or small scale farming? We're set to close on the 10 acre house in two weeks and are starting to think about what to do first. We're thinking big, big garden, and some animals like chickens, turkeys, or pigs. I suspect it is easy to get in over your head pretty quickly with all the excitement. [My wife] has made contact with the local 4h group, which seems to be full of Catholic homeschoolers. Anyway, I thought you'd be the guy to ask since I remember you saying that you must have read every book there was on the subject.

Indeed, the list of books in the blog's right margin is only part of the library we've accumulated. But if I had to choose just one book for the aspiring homesteader, it would have to be Carla Emery's The Encyclopedia of Country Living. As I told my correspondent, there is no single book that is as comprehensive as this one. It covers a massive amount of territory, easily enough to get you started with whatever you want to try. Once you decide that you like a particular thing (chickens, pigs, gardening, etc), you can invest in specialized books about that subject. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I spent hours reading Carla Emery's book, even while still living in a California subdivision, and it was a huge help in allowing us to hit the ground running in Illinois.

I'd also add, as has been stated ad infinitum on this blog, Do Not Try To Start Too Big. It's extremely tempting to jump in with both feet and try a hundred different things at once. Slow down. Do your reading and study. And try one thing at a time --- each of them on a small scale.

Blog readers, do you have any other good introductory / overview books that you could recommend to my friend (and others in a similar situation)?

21 October 2009

Life and Death

On a day like today, with lambs having been taken to the butcher, and when a melancholic mood is practically unavoidable...it's always nice to have things brightened a happy arrival. And today, we had two such happy arrivals:

Button, one of our dairy goats, surprised us with twin kids. One male, one female. The timing couldn't have been better: this means that we will now have at least one doe in milk all winter.

Deo Gratias!

The Butcher

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I just got back from the local butcher. Our flock was shorn over the weekend, so this was an ideal time to get the lambs processed. We got up early, then jammed eleven lambs into the back of our old 1984 Ford Bronco II. The trip is always interesting, to say the least, with that many nervous animals in the back --- especially when slowing for stop signs, starting back up from stops, and going around curves.

As I've noted previously, these custom slaughter operations are getting increasingly difficult to find. Back in Illinois, we had to drive a great distance to reach the one and only place for many miles around that still does this kind of work. Here in Michigan, the place is closer --- but it is still our only option. With the decline of small farming operations, it seems there has also been a decline in small meat processing operations.

The one near us is one of the survivors. It's run by a man named Jack, and he looks to be in his mid to late fifties. He has employees, but he is personally involved with every aspect of an animal's trip through the facility. Dressed in a blood-spattered white apron, he meets our truck when we pull in the back with a load of lambs or goats, helps us unload and secure them in a holding pen on death row, and then goes around to the retail portion of the place to write up our order. Put all the animals together or keep them separate? How many people in your family will be sharing a package of steaks or chops? You want the ribs, or should we remove the meat and grind it? Shanks? Rear legs as whole roasts? You want the organs? Neck as soup bones? Okay, I think that's it.

Jack is not a chatty or extroverted guy, but this morning he happened to mention something interesting. As he finished writing up our order, I asked him if we could get a couple of male goat kids in next week. He flipped through his order book (it's all still done by hand --- nothing in the place is computerized), and sighed about how incredibly jammed they are. And then he added something to the effect of, "I hate killing those little baby animals, and having to charge you for all that labor."

I assured him they weren't "babies," but that I totally understood if he wanted to wait on taking the goats in. He said we should hold off, because (waving at the calendar on the wall), they are super busy from the time of the Fair through February. Nobody wants to over-winter anything more than they need to. And then there are all the deer that hunters want processed. You could see from his face, and the way that he leaned on the counter, that he's tired. But the tiredness was more than physical, and gave a further hint as to why these custom slaughter operations are getting harder to find (despite how much business they can do). "Everybody wants us to kill this, kill that," he said, shaking his head. "When I first started doing this, it was easy for me to kill everything. I'm starting to hate killing things."

Killing things isn't fun. We butcher our own chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese; I've personally killed and cleaned hundreds of birds over the last several years. But I've been holding off on butchering our larger animals. As HFG and I drove home in our truck, I couldn't help feeling a little guilty for "outsourcing unpleasantness" onto someone else. If I invested in a good set of knives, and a block-and-tackle, I could butcher our lambs and goats myself. It wouldn't be pretty, and I wouldn't be able to package things up as neatly as Jack's people do. But is the quality of the finished product the only reason I've balked at butchering our own lambs? Am I hesitant about looking a lamb in the face before putting a bullet through its brain? Do I have the emotional strength to cut the lamb's throat so it can bleed out as it thrashes with death throes? Can I get my hands dirty cleaning out a lamb's intestines and lungs? And pulling the pelt off?

I don't see "butchering my own meat" as a moral obligation or anything --- but I am a believer in taking a personal stake and having a personal connection with one's food, unless there's a good reason not to. For instance, there is simply no way I could possibly butcher a beef cow. But lambs are small enough for anyone to handle. And if squeamishness is the real reason I've been outsourcing this work to Jack, I'm starting to wonder if I should at least give butchering a try next fall with one of our lambs.

14 October 2009

Wanted. Very Much Wanted

Our family continues to prepare for the adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby; all has continued to go well with his gestation, and our family's excitement in anticipation of his due date is growing daily.

Naturally, we have been spreading the word among friends and colleagues. In this regard, I recently had an interesting experience --- one that Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I both believe should be shared.

I was attending a conference last week with about 25 other Catholic men. In the course of introductions and various conversations, I mentioned that we were preparing to adopt a baby who will be born soon. Everyone responded to this with great joy and congratulations, and many obviously wanted to know more of the details. To this end, one older gentleman asked, "So, did you find a mother who's having a baby she doesn't want?"

Careful readers will note that this question actually had two parts. The second part caught me off guard, so I initially focused my reply on the first part. No, I explained, we didn't find her. She found us. Or, rather, a mutual friend/acquaintance connected her with us. The way everything played out, all of us were utterly convinced that divine providence was behind these events.

The gentleman nodded. And then I turned my attention to the second part of his question: is this a baby that she doesn't want? To expand on the answer I gave him: NO! In fact, the birth mother very much wants this baby. She loves him with all her heart, as almost all mothers naturally do. She would lay down in front of a train for this baby. She very much wants to raise this baby herself, and to give him all of her love --- but, at the same time, she knows she is not in a position to supply what he needs. She loves him so much, she is sacrificing her own desires ("wants") for the greater good of her child.

I should emphasize that in giving this reply to my questionner, my tone was not at all one of correction; it was rather one of explanation and of sharing insights that we ourselves had been learning in the process.

It is hard to imagine a more complete, or a more selfless, love than what we have observed from our birth mother. She is a mother who very much wants to keep her child, but loves him too much to actually do so. And when our son is old enough to understand, we intend to tell him precisely that.

This is our happy Yeoman Farm Baby, as of a few days ago:

We can hardly wait to meet this very wanted baby and welcome him into our family.

29 September 2009

Too Much Milk

From the Department of Unintended Consequences From Messing With Nature, today's NY Times reports on a new development in the dairy industry: sexed semen, resulting in...

Three years ago, a technological breakthrough gave dairy farmers the chance to bend a basic rule of nature: no longer would their cows have to give birth to equal numbers of female and male offspring. Instead, using a high-technology method to sort the sperm of dairy bulls, they could produce mostly female calves to be raised into profitable milk producers.

Now the first cows bred with that technology, tens of thousands of them, are entering milking herds across the country — and the timing could hardly be worse.

The dairy industry is in crisis, with prices so low that farmers are selling their milk below production cost. The industry is struggling to cut output. And yet the wave of excess cows is about to start dumping milk into a market that does not need it.

“It’s real simple,” said Tony De Groot, an early adopter of the new breeding technology, who milks 4,200 cows on a farm here in the heart of this state’s struggling dairy region. “We’ve just got too many cattle on hand and too many heifers on hand, and the supply just keeps on coming and coming.”

I personally don't have a problem with artificial insemination; it can be an excellent tool for improving a herd's genetics, by bringing in genes that would otherwise be unavailable on a given farm. We know many small breeders who use it for sheep and dairy herds. But I do find it remarkable that no one seemed to see the consequences of widespread adoption of "sexed semen" coming.

Driving around the country here, there are several smallish dairy operations with herds of Holstein cows. And, if you look closely at the other small farms, you'll often see individual Holstein steer calves being raised for meat. Holsteins are not the most efficient breed for meat, but provide a nice 4-H project for a farm kid and a good amount of beef for the typical rural family. In other words: even though male Holstein calves don't fetch a lot of money, they do have some value.

If the agricultural sex-selectors really want to make a difference, by eliminating males which have no value at all (and are otherwise immediately exterminated), they ought to focus their energies on the chicken industry. Help the egg producers hatch 90% females in their Leghorn flock, and you'll have made an enormous contribution. Unlike the situation with cattle, which must be bred (and therefore must continue producing calves) to keep them in milk, if the egg producers managed to hatch 90% females they could simply scale back the total number of eggs incubated. We could get the right number of replacement pullets, without hatching enormous numbers of cockrels which would need to be immediately euthanized.

Or, we could just encourage more yeoman farmers to raise traditional dual-purpose breeds of chickens. But that would be too easy.

18 September 2009

Organic Tuscan Kale

We have absolutely GOT to start growing certified organic Tuscan kale on our farm. I had no idea the lengths to which some people would go, and how much they would spend, to purchase it. And that purchasers (at least ones with their own bullet-proof limos) are also willing to fork over five bucks a dozen for eggs.

Seriously, I never thought I would see a story like this one in the Washington Post:

Let's say you're preparing dinner and you realize with dismay that you don't have any certified organic Tuscan kale. What to do?

Here's how Michelle Obama handled this very predicament Thursday afternoon:

The Secret Service and the D.C. police brought in three dozen vehicles and shut down H Street, Vermont Avenue, two lanes of I Street and an entrance to the McPherson Square Metro station. They swept the area, in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs, with bomb-sniffing dogs and installed magnetometers in the middle of the street, put up barricades to keep pedestrians out, and took positions with binoculars atop trucks. Though the produce stand was only a block or so from the White House, the first lady hopped into her armored limousine and pulled into the market amid the wail of sirens.

Then, and only then, could Obama purchase her leafy greens. "Now it's time to buy some food," she told several hundred people who came to watch. "Let's shop!"

Go read the whole thing. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.

17 September 2009

Defusing the Population Bomb

At the risk of turning this into "Norman Borlaug Week," I wanted to pass along an excellent piece from Gregg Easterbrook about the father of the green revolution.

He gives a nice review of Borlaug's accomplishments, and the significance of his work. This datum in particular is startling:

Green Revolution techniques caused both reliable harvests, and spectacular output. From the Civil War through the Dust Bowl, the typical American farm produced about 24 bushels of corn per acre; by 2006, the figure was about 155 bushels per acre.

Making a similar point as my original post about Borlaug, Easterbrook observes:

Paul Ehrlich gained celebrity for his 1968 book "The Population Bomb," in which he claimed that global starvation was inevitable for the 1970s and it was "a fantasy" that India would "ever" feed itself. Instead, within three years of Borlaug's arrival, Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production; within six years, India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals.

But Easterbrook's most important --- and insightful --- observations might be these:

After his triumph in India and Pakistan and his Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug turned to raising crop yields in other poor nations especially in Africa, the one place in the world where population is rising faster than farm production and the last outpost of subsistence agriculture. At that point, Borlaug became the target of critics who denounced him because Green Revolution farming requires some pesticide and lots of fertilizer. Trendy environmentalism was catching on, and affluent environmentalists began to say it was "inappropriate" for Africans to have tractors or use modern farming techniques. Borlaug told me a decade ago that most Western environmentalists "have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things."

Environmentalist criticism of Borlaug and his work was puzzling on two fronts. First, absent high-yield agriculture, the world would by now be deforested. The 1950 global grain output of 692 million tons and the 2006 output of 2.3 billion tons came from about the same number of acres three times as much food using little additional land.

"Without high-yield agriculture," Borlaug said, "increases in food output would have been realized through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation, losses of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion." Environmentalist criticism was doubly puzzling because in almost every developing nation where high-yield agriculture has been introduced, population growth has slowed as education becomes more important to family success than muscle power.

Go read the whole thing.