25 February 2009

In Control Here In the Farm House

Ash Wednesday has rolled around again...and in the last few days I've actually found myself looking forward to it.

Last year, I posted a reflection about ashes --- the everyday kind that we dig out of our fireplace. The ashes build up and build up, and slowly reduce the amount of space available for burning wood. It's a gradual process, and we don't think about it much...until there's not much room for fire at all. Only when we clear all those ashes out can we begin again. Ash Wednesday is a wonderful opportunity to "clean out" the figurative ashes that have accumulated in our lives.

I thought about that this morning, as I was cleaning the ashes out of our wood burner. We got a new, high-efficiency unit this fall, and it's a wonderful improvement over what we had last year. It produces so much heat, we've made it through this whole bitterly cold winter on just one tank of fuel oil in the furnace. Because the fire is going pretty much around the clock, we need to clean the ashes out every day or two. This morning, as I shoveled them, I couldn't help thinking about the dead material and bad habits I'd be shoveling out of my life this Lent.

And I think that's why I've been looking forward to Ash Wednesday this year. I have a couple of specific things that I enjoy that I'll be giving up as a sacrifice. But I'm also making a couple of "positive" resolutions for ways to be more disciplined and focused in my prayer life. As I prepared for Lent, it occurred to me that there is a common factor or "problem" that unites both the things I need to give up and the things I need to be more disciplined about: In these specific areas of my life, I have ceded control over my appetites. And at the root of it, the discipline of Lent is in many ways about regaining that control. Because it's really hard to make spiritual progress, or to become the kind of friend or family member God is calling us to be, if we don't first have control over ourselves. And I'm looking forward to being back in control.

For those of us who remember the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, one of the most iconic images of that day was Secretary of State Alexander Haig, standing at the podium, and declaring: "As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him." (An excellent description of the full context of the event, and what led up to Haig' statement, can be found here.)

Lent is the time that each of us can declare, to our laziness or to our appetites, "I am in control here. I don't need to indulge my body, and what it is demanding from me. I do not need to let my imagination run wild when I am supposed to be praying. I don't need to watch that television program, no matter how interesting it looks. I will give my kids the full attention they deserve from me right now. I will read that book I've been putting off reading, and not give in to procrastination. I am in control."

Go ahead and say it, using your best Alexander Haig voice.

22 February 2009

Error Corrected

I have corrected an error in the most recent post. In relating a story about a dispute Mrs Yeoman Farmer had with a landlord some 20 years ago, I inadvertantly left out a couple of important facts. MYF has since clarified the full story for me; she and her roommates had been lied to and deceived by the landlord about the terms of their rental contract, and the landlord got a court to issue a default judgment while the students were out of town for the summer. She didn't even become aware of that judgment until years later, when the bank pulled her credit report as part of the mortgage application process.

I apologize for not clarifying my memories of the incident before publishing that post.

20 February 2009

Prairie Fire

No doubt many of you have already seen the video of Rick Santelli's "Rant of the Year" on CNBC yesterday morning. The thing has gone completely viral, getting hundreds of thousands of views on the web --- not to mention getting played all over talk radio yesterday. Santelli, who is a floor reporter at the Chicago Board of Trade, is discussing the President's recent housing bailout proposal:

Based on what I'm hearing and picking up, I think it's fair to say that Santelli's rant is igniting what may grow into a prairie fire of backlash against housing bailouts (no matter what these bailouts are euphamistically called). While the floor traders who applaud him in the video may not be a representative cross-section of the American public, the sentiments he expresses (and the sentiments they are cheering) most certainly are. It's dawning on people that --- the President's assurances aside --- those who made some of the most irresponsible decisions about housing, and who contributed the most to the current difficulties, are about to get shielded from the consequences of their choices. It's as if the old story of the Grasshopper and the Ant has been updated, and the grasshopper is poised to end up with the ant's house.

I can only share our own family's experience, but I don't think we're atypical. We lived in rental housing, and then a mobile home, the first few years we were married. With Mrs Yeoman Farmer home full time, we lived on what I could earn working part-time for a research firm and part-time as a graduate teaching assistant. We had one car. Extra money we could scrape together went toward paying off MYF's law school loans and saving for the down payment on a house.

In early 1999, MYF (now five or six months pregnant with our second child), had had enough of living in a mobile home in the San Fernando Valley. She insisted we find something with a yard, where our firstborn (then aged two-and-a-half) could burn off more of his toddler energy. I began searching housing listings, and contacting Realtors, but everything in the area seemed priced far beyond our reach. Our bank confirmed this, telling me we qualified for a mortgage of no more than $130,000. There was nothing with a yard in any SF Valley neighborhood for less than $200,000 at that time.

Someone suggested we widen our scope, and look at the Antelope Valley communities of Lancaster and Palmdale. We quickly discovered that this extreme north, high desert portion of Los Angeles County was one of the few remaining enclaves of affordable housing within 75 miles of the UCLA campus. As we began working with a realtor, we learned the reason for all the good deals (and this is very important): there had been a housing boom throughout the 1980s, which peaked around 1990. Prices had skyrocketed, and then supply outstripped demand. In the early-to-mid 1990s, prices tumbled. People got underwater on their mortgages, and many homeowners walked away (does this sound familiar?). Banks foreclosed. And now, lots of those foreclosed homes were on the market at prices that even families like ours could afford.

Like I said, the bank pre-approved us for a $130,000 mortgage. We saw lots of really nice houses in the $110-$120k range, and thought about buying one. And then we thought some more...especially about our monthly payments. So we looked some more, and found that $65k was roughly the tipping point: even in the Antelope Valley, houses under that figure were either (1) in bad neighborhoods or (2) in need of more work than I could perform.

We ended up buying a 1400sf, 4 bed, 2 bath, foreclosed tract house for $72,000. When it had been built, in 1990, it had sold for about $115k. Apart from being filled with foreclosed "cookie-cutter" stucco homes on slab foundations, and on the northern edge of civilization, the neighborhood wasn't bad. Our yard wasn't huge, but it was a yard. And the house was in excellent shape, so we were able to move in the week after Baby #2 was born.

If memory serves, we made a 5% down payment, so had to pay PMI, but we got a 15 year fixed mortgage so we could build equity faster. I think our monthly payment was less than $600. But there were two important things our bank made us do before we could get that mortgage: (1) prove my income, by submitting tax returns and pay stubs, and (2) clear up a blemish on MYF's credit report. We had taken very good care of our credit, paying everything on time and paying off our credit cards in full every month. But way back in law school, MYF and her roommates had been in a dispute with their landlord; the landlord had lied and deceived them about the terms of the rental contract, and while the students were away for the summer got a court to issue a default judgment against them. MYF was not even aware of this judgment; the first she learned of it was when, eight years later, our bank pulled her credit report to approve the mortgage. The amount owed wasn't huge, but our bank would not lend to us until we resolved it. MYF tracked down the collection agency to whom the judgment had been turned over, we paid what they wanted, and got the credit report cleared up. And only then were able to get our mortgage.

We made every mortgage payment on time, maintained our excellent credit, and watched as the neighborhood filled up (and housing prices slowly increased). In the spring of 2001, for various reasons, we decided to make our move to the country and become Yeoman Farmers. We were able to sell our house for about $110,000. After deducting what we spent on new carpets and paint, and real estate commissions, and moving expenses, we walked away with just enough cash to put a 20% down payment on our Illinois property. Again we opted for a 15 year fixed mortgage, to build equity faster. Again, we took good care of our credit. And as a result, when we decided to move to Michigan a year and a half ago, we were able to do so.

All of this behavior I have described is called "playing by the rules." Nothing that we did was particularly heroic or extraordinary. None of it required luck, or special consideration. I'd contend that there are tens of millions of families in this country with experiences more or less like ours: we saved, started with what we could, and with patience got to where we wanted to be. We didn't splurge and buy more house than we could comfortably afford, even when the bank offered it. We had to prove our income. We had to clean up our credit. And it infuriates me that so many others got away with doing otherwise for so long.

To the banks and financial institutions which made loans without verifying income, or demanding good credit, I say: you deserve to fail, and responsible lenders like ours deserve to fill the vacuum that your demise leaves in the marketplace.

To those who bought more house than they could comfortably afford, and treated their houses like virtual ATMs (cashing out equity to put in swimming pools and dream kitchens): you do not deserve to stay in those houses. Your houses need to go back on the market at reasonable prices that purchasers are willing to pay. Many of those houses will become homes for families like ours was, circa 1999, who would otherwise be locked out of the market if governments were to prop up those inflated prices by trying to provide people like you with the "soft landing" to which you are not entitled.

And, above all, to Rick Santelli, I say: Thank you, sir, for giving us a voice! And if you do decide to have that "Chicago Tea Party" this summer, I will make sure I have a reason for being in town.

Kid Update

Three days later, Marigold's goat kids are doing very well. Both are nursing regularly, and are prancing energetically around the kidding pen. (In the meantime, Button and her kids have made a smooth transition back to the main goat area.) This is good news, because we have a major winter storm headed in tonight and are expecting eight inches of snow. Makes me really appreciate the big red barn with the high stone foundation.

For those who have asked, Button and Marigold are twins --- our first two doe kids. They look Saanen (like their dam), but actually had a Toggenburg sire. A different Toggenburg buck (not their sire) bred both of them this year, which I guess makes these kids three-quarters Toggenburg and one-quarter Saanen.

19 February 2009

Urban Composting

We do heavy-duty composting here on the farm, what with all the manure and animal bedding we have. Or, to be more precise, we will be doing heavy-duty composting this spring --- once we shovel the whole winter's worth of bedding out of the barn, and I build the composting bin that Mrs Yeoman Farmer has had on my "To Do" list.

But for those of you who are thinking about farming someday, and are trying to start small by acquiring skills right where you are now, composting is an important technique you can begin learning today. The New York Times has details about this new trend:

Composting in New York City is not for the faint of heart. It requires commitment, space and sharing tight quarters with rotting matter and two-inch-long wiggler worms that look like pulsing vermicelli.

But an increasing number of New Yorkers have been taking up the challenge, turning their fruit skins and eggshells into nutritious crumbly soil in an effort they regard as the natural next step to recycling paper, bottles and cans. Food accounts for about 13 percent of the nation’s trash — it is the third largest component after paper and yard trimmings — and about 16 percent of New York’s.

. . .

Happy worms eat about half their body weight in a day, and the compost is ready for harvesting in about four and half months, Ms. Pulverman said.

. . .

Experienced composters said that saving food scraps soon becomes part of a daily routine, and that the payoff is worth the extra work.

“To be actually able to reuse your food is amazing,” said Ben Stein, 30, a computer programmer who, along with his wife, Arin Kramer, 29, a nurse practitioner, composted for six years in their apartment on the Lower East Side before they moved to a brownstone in Brooklyn last year.

In Manhattan, they kept the bin under the bed, which Mr. Stein said led friends to think, “it’s disgusting, and you’re absolutely crazy.” In Boerum Hill, they can compost in their backyard (where microbial activity and decomposition slow down or stop in the winter, but pick up in the spring).

As for us, almost all of our table scraps and vegetable waste are already recycled --- into eggs, via being fed to chickens and ducks. But for those of you lacking poultry...don't be afraid to try feeding the worms!

17 February 2009

Kidding Some More

When I got to the barn at 7:30 this morning to do chores, two new little surprises were waiting:

The kids, both males, belong to Marigold --- the twin sister of Button, the goat which kidded exactly two weeks ago. Fortunately, Button's kids have been doing very well in the kidding pen we put together for them. They only needed the heat lamp for a couple of days, and have gone on to be very spry and active.

But back to Marigold. Both of her kids were huddling in the dirt of the main goat stall, sopping wet, with the afterbirth still hanging out of Marigold's rear end. Clearly, they had just dropped out within the last hour. And with the temperature in that drafty part of the barn hovering at roughly 32 degrees, I didn't want them to stay there for long.

With all the other adult goats distracted by the hay I'd just put out for them, I enlisted Scooter's help for the logistics of a "stall swap." Once the gate to Button's kidding pen was opened, she seemed more than ready to push her way out; after two weeks of confinement, I couldn't blame her. With some nudging from Scooter, we easily led her into the main goat area. I then retrieved both of Button's kids and carried them to that same area.

While this was going on, a couple of other goats noticed that the gate to their main area was open --- and they began coming out to explore the rest of the barn. Fortunately, Scooter got in their faces and quickly put an end to that little adventure. (I love Border Collies, and don't know what we'd do without one.) I then scooped up the two shivering and wet newborns, carried them to the kidding pen, and plugged in the heat lamp. Both of them bleated plaintively, and continued shivering, but seemed to appreciate the heat. Finally, with Scooter standing guard at the gate, I grabbed Marigold's collar and led her to the kidding pen. As she worked to finish expelling the afterbirth, I secured all the gates to the various pens.

Before going back to the house, I took a moment to survey the scene. Button's kids were prancing around the main goat area with abandon. Button and the other adults were all chowing down on hay. Marigold's kids were still huddled under the heat lamp, so I made a note to check on them again to make sure Marigold licked them off and got them nursing.
Sure enough, when we returned from Mass (at roughly 9:30), the two newborns were tottering around the kidding pen. They were still quite wet, and splay-legged, but were definitely mobile and definitely nursing. We'll certainly keep close tabs on the whole goat situation throughout the day, but so far it looks like we've had another successful kidding.
And our children will soon enough have another doe to milk. But, as Homeschooled Farm Boy observed, "I'm glad they're both males. We won't have to milk them when they grow up." Then, picking up on my glare and realizing what a bad attitude this was, he quickly added, "And it's good we'll be getting good goat meat from them!"

Yes, indeed. Yum.

16 February 2009

But Are They Socialized?

No, this isn't a post about the massive debt bill that Congress passed on Friday the Thirteenth. It's about the number one question that homeschooled parents tend to be asked. Nine times out of ten, when we tell a non-homeschooler that we're homeschooling our kids, the questioner's initial reaction is to furrow his/her brow seriously and ask, "But are they able to meet and learn to interact with other children?" (The second question is usually some variant on "Are they able to play sports?")

We have a battery of responses we've developed to reply to such questions, and my readers doubtless can add many more of their own. I won't bore you with the whole list, but a few quick ones:

  1. Spending 7 hours a day in the company of 25 other people, all of whom are approximately the same age as oneself, is an extremely unnatural form of socialization that does not prepare a person for the real world;

  2. By contrast, our children are making friends with and learning to interact with children from other homeschooling families --- the ages of whom range from infants to high school;

  3. We don't want our children "socialized" into the prevailing youth culture that thrives in and infects even the best Catholic schools;

  4. Homeschooling allows our children to go places and do things (often involving interacting with other people) that are impossible for kids in institutionalized educational environments.
Today's events provide a good illustration of this. Our church was originally a Polish parish, and still has many older parishioners who are of that ethnicity. One tradition they have is the annual "Paczki Bake," held each year before Lent. Volunteers get together in the parish hall's big kitchen, and over the course of three days and organize the ingredients, bake about 800 dozen paczki, and take orders for them. It's a huge fundraiser for the parish, and draws a large crowd of volunteers. (And, incidentally, is a big tradition in many other Polish communities.)

This morning, everything got underway after Mass. It was remarkable how many cars were in the parking lot, and how many volunteers were streaming toward the parish hall. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and Homeschooled Farm Girl joined them, and I drove home with the two yeoman farm boys. HFG had been looking forward to this day for quite some time, as it's not just a break from the regular school routine --- it's also a chance to do something "hands on," and to spend hours working and talking with the adults and other homeschooled kids of the parish. As she explained later, I got to do something that was fun, and I got to play some, too.

And no doubt she and MYF will be back down there again tomorrow for more.

08 February 2009


One thing that people don't usually give a lot of thought to before moving to the country and starting a small farming operation: You are chained to it. Much faster, and much more thoroughly, than you ever could have imagined. The things you took for granted while living in the suburbs --- going away for the weekend, going on vacation for a week, even staying out late at a friend's house or a show --- become major productions when you have livestock. Goats and cows need to be milked at reasonably regular intervals. Sheep need to be brought in from pasture before the predators are active. Poultry need to be secured in a barn or coop, and fed, and eggs gathered. And so on. And so on.

How much of a production? Our last family vacation was in November, 2004. And it was combined in part with an election-related trip I needed to take for work anyway.

When we lived in Illinois, we were seldom all out of town at the same time. If I had a business trip, Mrs Yeoman Farmer and the kids would stay home. If MYF and the kids went to see her folks in Michigan, I would stay home (and rent action movies, and eat pizza, and drink beer...but that's another story). On the few occasions when we all went to Michigan together, we had a homeschooled neighbor boy ("Rent-A-Son") named Matthew who was extremely mature and responsible, and was able to come to our place twice a day to take care of things when we were out of town visiting Mrs Yeoman Farmer's family. He fed the various livestock, made sure everything was in order, and took care of milking our goats. We'd usually talk by phone at least once or twice a day, and he sometimes had to do extraordinary things to save livestock which had gotten into peril. Because even when you're not physically present on your farm, the farm is never far from your mind. Matthew was our long distance "eyes and ears." Not to mention "arms" and "hands."

Here in Michigan, we have yet to all leave town together. Unfortunately, we have not yet found a local "Matthew" who we trust.

This is on my mind because I recently received an invitation to go to South Bend in April and give a talk to a Republican group, about my work in politics. The person who invited me is familiar with our farming activities, and himself lives on a country property. And has aspirations about establishing a farming operation. As part of his invitation, he encouraged me to bring the whole family --- so they could meet his family, and we could get to know each other better, and so we could exchange ideas about farming.

Fantastic aspirations and intentions. I would have loved to have responded in the affirmative. But my first thoughts were: April. Lambing season. Multiple goats needing to be milked twice a day. Sheep needing to be let out, and brought back from, pasture. Dogs need to be fed. Chickens need to be fed. Chickens? We'll have lots of pullet chicks in the brooder! And turkey poults. And ducklings. And the garden will be going in! Who will water it?

Who? Simple: When I am gone, MYF and all the Yeoman Farm Children.

I graciously accepted the speaking invitation, but explained why the rest of the family couldn't come along. He completely understood, and I thought his response was worth quoting verbatim:

I had not considered being so tied to a family farm. Man, that complicates things. I travel a little for work and I often take the family with me when we can. We’ll have to think that through. We’re a couple years from pursuing the farm as it is…

Yes, it definitely complicates things. And we hadn't considered it, either, before we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of it. And we'd only been on our Illinois property for 13 months when it was already causing huge problems: MYF was 9+ months pregnant, staying in Chicago with the other two kids in anticipation of a C-section, and I was shuttling 80 miles each way to get home to feed our chickens. And was at the house when she went into labor, and had to go to the hospital by ambulance (with the other two kids riding in a police car), leaving me to go bombing up I-57 at 80 MPH so I could arrive with minutes to spare before our son's birth. And then I took the older two home with me, fed the animals, and then drove back. And so on. And so on.

Believe me: we still talk about this incident. And we didn't even have that many animals at the time. But the ones we had (mature broiler chickens, out in pastured poultry pens) needed considerable attention. If it'd just been a handful of free range laying hens, we wouldn't have worried. They can take care of themselves. But those big meaty broilers would've been dropping right and left if I hadn't kept running home to tend to them.

This isn't to try talking anybody out of farming. I just hope it helps you stop and think about all the implications of what you're getting yourself into when you have a farm --- before you find yourself "in it." And wonder what on earth you have done.

03 February 2009

Midwinter Surprise

We've had a foot of snow on the ground for over a month now. I can't remember the last time the temperature climbed above freezing. Mrs Yeoman Farmer's mail-order garden seeds have been arriving nearly ever day, but I'm wondering when we'll ever be able to plant them.

In short: it is really, really, really dreary and depressing here in Michigan. Has been for some time, and will be for the foreseeable future.

And then, today, a surprise greeted me in the barn when I went out to do the afternoon chores:

Yes, a goat kid. In fact, TWIN goat kids:
I hurried back to the house and announced the news. The children cheered and screamed with excitement, and I've never seen them move so quickly to get dressed. Within minutes, all of us were out in the barn to look at our two new beautiful little girls (both do appear to be female).

Unfortunately, the kidding pen was in serious disrepair. Fortunately, I'd patched the fence and installed a new gate a few weeks ago --- but the pen itself was full of junk, and we had no water bucket set up in there. And the gate needed some chain link material fastened to it, to keep little kids from slipping out.

Our whole family went to work, clearing the junk from the kidding pen and getting it ready for our new arrivals. I set up a 250W heat lamp (usually used for brooding chicks), so the kids could get some extra warmth for the next couple of weeks. Mrs Yeoman Farmer found some goat mineral. I brought an armload of clean straw down from the loft. Homeschooled Farm Girl carried both goat kids to the pen, while I made sure their mother ("Button") followed. I then got her some grain, and MYF put some hay in her feeder.

As the kids got accustomed to their new pen, MYF and I went to work fastening chain link material to the gate. Apart from being cold (and freezing our fingers), that went off without a hitch. I went to the house and filled a bucket with warm water, and brought it back out for Button. She slurped it like there was no tomorrow.

The most amusing participant in this whole circus was Scooter, our Border Collie mix. Bottom line: it astounds me the instincts that God has given him. As MYF and I worked on the gate, Scooter hovered protectively over the goat kids. He nudged and herded the barn cats away from them, and then sat down to lick the amniotic fluid off one of the kids. When both kids were near Button, Scooter made sure he approached them in his most "subservient" posture: head down, full crouch, tail between his legs --- as if to communicate to Button that he didn't represent a threat, and was only here to help. Once near the new little goat family, he stood protectively and continued nudging the barn cats away.

At last, everything was set and the chores were finished. Scooter and I returned to my office, and the children excitedly returned to the house to finish their schoolwork. Just another dreary midwinter day at the farm...made much brighter by the addition of two beautiful new lives.

Ready for Taxes?

(Click to enlarge.)

01 February 2009

Chickens: The Basics

I've had several posts, over the years, about chickens (click on the subject word "Chickens" below to pull up all of those posts). But as chickens are among the most basic of homestead livestock --- and can even be raised stealthily in an urban or suburban environment --- they are always worth another mention. This post is prompted by a recent reader email:

We are wanting to get chickens this spring. I have checked out Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens from the library, but I need to go ahead and buy it. I guess a couple of my big questions at this point are what kind of chickens to get, when to get them and where to get them from. We are wanting layers this year. I have checked a few places online for chickens and it seems most of them require a minimum of 25 chickens. I don't really want 25 chickens!

Any advice you could give me would be most appreciated!

I sent her a personal reply, but we both decided that my response would be worth sharing with the wider blog readership. Here it is, with some modification and embellishment:

Storey's Guides are definitely a good investment. I have a link to the Amazon pages for several of these books, over in the right margin of the blog. (The only Storey's Guide we found unhelpful, and are glad we didn't buy, is the one about turkeys. That book seems to assume an industrial production model, with fairly little about heritage turkeys or pastured/free range models.)

25 chickens is the absolute minimum you can mail-order. They don't stay warm enough if there are fewer bodies in the box. And it's not a bad idea to start with more than you think you'll need; we killed many baby birds when we were learning how to care for them.

But if you want to end up with, say, 10 layers, there are a few routes you can go:

1) The local feed store, or Big R, or Rural King, Tractor Supply, Family Farm & Home, Farm & Fleet (whatever you have in your area). Call and ask when they'll have chicks; you can usually buy any number of chicks you want --- but sometimes they insist on a minimum as well. Just ask. If you want to try getting a few turkey poults, or ducklings, this is also a good way to get started. And, as a bonus, the babies may be as much as a week or two old by the time you take them home --- that's all the less you need to feed them, and the less exposure you have to their most fragile/vulnerable time period. (We find that brooder deaths decrease rapidly after the first week or so. The weaklings don't tend to make it past the first several days.)

2) Mail order a "straight run" of 25 chicks of a decent dual-purpose breed, and butcher the cockrels once you can tell the difference between the sexes. They don't make the best eating birds, but they're not bad. You really can't go wrong with any of these breeds: Buff Orpingtons, Black Australorps, Barred Rock, New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red. We've had good luck with all of them. We color-code our flock, buying different breeds in different years so we can tell which ones are older. You can expect two laying seasons from a hen, and then they go downhill pretty quickly. With all the work getting our new farm in shape, we didn't buy any pullets last year; we're going into the second season of laying with our Barred Rocks, so we'll definitely be getting more pullets this spring. We will be getting Buff Orpingtons, which are easily distinguishable from the black-and-white Barred Rocks. Once the former start laying, we'll begin filling the freezer with the latter (and then enjoying chicken soup all of next winter).

3) Place an order for 15 pullet chicks and 10 Cornish Cross meat bird chicks. The Cornish Cross will grow much faster, and will be ready to butcher in 6-8 weeks. They are an outstanding, meaty bird --- there's a reason they are the industry standard. Once you taste your own home-grown ones, you'll never want to buy chicken from the grocery store again.

In terms of timing: do yourself a favor and get your first batch of chicks in later spring (May, if you're in the upper Midwest like we are and the questionner is). The somewhat warmer weather will give the birds an easier time, and make the transition from supplemental heat all the faster. In good spring/summer temperatures, we've gotten babies out from the brooder and into a pastured poultry pen in as few as 10-14 days. When you start earlier in the spring, at least in the upper Midwest, they need more brooder time to get ready for the colder temps.

For suppliers, the very best (though a bit more expensive) is McMurray Hatchery. I usually recommend people get their first few orders from them. Their website is a tremendous resource, and they have an excellent guarantee on their birds. If any die in transit or in the first day or two, they refund that cost. One time our package got delayed in transit, and a whole bunch of birds died. McMurray didn't question it or grill us about it; the customer service rep expressed genuine sympathy about how hard it must've been to see all those dead birds, and asked if I'd prefer a refund or a new (free) order to replace them.

A lower-cost alternative is Cackle Hatchery. They don't have as wide of a selection, and we've seemed to have had more deaths with birds from them, and the website isn't as professional. But Cackle does have all the basic breeds of chickens and turkeys; unless you're looking for something really exotic, they probably have it. When you compare their very basic website and catalog to McMurray's, you'll understand why McMurray has to charge more for their product. Anyhow, with Cackle I've found it's best to call them and place your order over the phone, once you've figured out what you want, so you can be certain they know which day you want your birds. McMurray lets you nail down the shipping date right on the site.

(Warning: when you load the Cackle site, it has REALLY annoying chicken noises. I always turn my speakers off.)

If you've been thinking about taking the leap and trying some chickens...go for it! And don't hesitate to email me with any questions of your own.