29 December 2010

Grinding Grain

My recent post about homemade cereal inspired a reader comment/question about how we grind our grain. I responded to that question in the same comment thread, but I believe the issue deserves its own post.

If you want to get started grinding your own grain, there are several good options. The biggest thing to keep in mind is this: just as with any other tool, your level of investment in a grain mill should correspond to the volume and level of use you're expecting. But get the right tool for what you want to do.

If you already own a KitchenAid stand mixer, one easy way to get started is to add a grain grinding attachment to it. They can be bought new for under a hundred bucks at Amazon,and I used one on my own mixer for some time. They're good for small quantities of grain, and produce nice flour, but the hopper is not large at all. It's a good accessory for producing a few cups of flour or cracked grain here and there, but I wouldn't recommend it for large scale or everyday family use.

We got our first real grain mill in the late 1990s, when we were learning to take more control of our food supply. (Actually, my very first attempt at grinding wheat involved a blender --- and it was a total disaster. Unless you're simply cracking a cup or two of grain for chickens and have no other options, do not attempt this. It's like trying to drive a nail with the handle of a screwdriver.) The German-made mill we got is still popular and widely available, and goes by various names. "Family Grain Mill" seems to be among the more common. It looks like this:

and a basic set-up for grain can be had for as little as $130. Or perhaps even less. I haven't priced them lately, but this mill's wide availability makes it easy to comparison shop online.

We were happy with the Family Grain Mill, and used it for many years. It was a good, well-built tool that produced reasonably fine flour on the first pass through the mill. It can be adjustable from very coarse to fine. It also has several optional attachments available, for rolling oats or grinding meat or any number of other things.

Another nice thing about this mill: you can get started with a hand crank, and upgrade later to a motorized base if you want. The hand crank is not hard to use, especially for smaller batches or coarser settings, but will give you a good workout on the finest settings. It's also nice to have in case the power goes out, or you're trying to live a more off-the-grid lifestyle (or preparing for TEOTWAWKI, but that's beyond the scope of this blog).

Our biggest problem with the hand crank was securing the clamp tightly enough so the base didn't come loose while we were really cranking hard on it. Also, some of our countertops weren't designed so anything could be clamped to them. We had to find a clamping spot that would be both comfortable to stand in and allow the use of one's dominant hand --- and still allow clearance for the turning crank arm. An old table you don't care about scuffing up with clamp marks usually ends up being the best option.

As we began using the mill more and more regularly, we upgraded to the motorized base. We still had the hand crank for emergencies, but never used it again. The motor was absolutely wonderful. We used this mill for many years, even replacing the burrs a couple of times.

Eventually, however, we outgrew it. Two problems developed: the limited size of the grain hopper, and the mill's inability to produce truly fine rice flour (fine enough for soaking and fermenting into flatbread batter) on the first pass. With a second pass, we could get sufficient fineness --- but that involved standing with the mill and making sure all the flour went down the chute.

With the Yeoman Farm Children now needing large quantities of rice flour on a daily basis, we went shopping for a more appropriate tool. We found it in the L'Equip 760200 NutriMill Grain Mill:

In a word, this thing ROCKS. The hopper has a 20 cup capacity, which we will never outgrow. It's just as adjustable as our other mill, but produces ultra-fine flour on the first pass. It has never jammed or failed us in any way, and we have used it a lot for several years now. For the money (and you can get them for less than $250 - which is actually similar to the motorized Family Grain Mill), it is very hard to beat this mill. Its only drawbacks --- neither of which matter to us --- are the unavailability of other attachments and that it is electric-only.

Depending on your budget, it's still possible that none of the options in this post will work for you. There are cheaper hand crank grain mills out there, and we did experiment with one of them in the chicken coop because we had a large quantity of uncracked corn that we needed to do something with; that mill allowed us to crack the corn enough for the chickens to eat. The problem with some of these is that the long handles and large clamps make them hard to install and use in a kitchen. And I can't vouch for the fineness of the flour they can produce.

Another option, as always, is eBay. It wouldn't surprise me if many lightly-used grain mills of all kinds end up there after people have experimented with producing their own flour and then grown tired of the experiment.

As for us, we're sticking with the NutriMill. It's definitely an investment, but one of the best that our family has made.

27 December 2010

Greener Cereal

What do you do for breakfast? Me, I've always enjoyed raisin bran cereal. I have it nearly every day. When I was a kid, I often even had a bowl as a bedtime snack. (Heck, I still do that on occasion.)

Cereal is not such an easy matter for the Yeoman Farm Children, however. With their Celiac disease, most grains are off limits. Rice is pretty much the only grain they can eat, and we practically buy it by the truckload from our food co-op. Plus, given all the additives and other ingredients that go into commercial cereal (even rice-based cereal), the YFCs' other food allergies mean they've never been able to just sit down and pour themselves bowls of anything off-the-shelf for breakfast.

Each morning, we must grind a few cups of organic long grain brown rice in a grain mill, add it to some water in a pot, bring it to a boil, and simmer it for about 20 minutes (stirring constantly) on the stovetop. It then must sit and "set up" for some time before it can be dished into bowls. Think "very slowly cooked Cream of Wheat," except made from scratch with rice flour.

The YFCs are now old enough to be able to take turns cooking cereal themselves, but when they were younger Mrs Yeoman Farmer had to do it every morning. To this day, we still talk about the time we had some friends visiting overnight; they slid bowls of off-the-shelf cereal in front of their kids, who proceeded to finish eating by the time MYF was still grinding our rice into flour.

Anyway, as much as we tell them how incredibly healthy their diets are, the YFCs have naturally long wondered what it would be like to "eat normally." This Christmas, after having done extensive research, Homeschooled Farm Girl found a way to give her brothers the gift of eating breakfast like typical kids for a day: at the natural food store, she discovered a certain brand of puffed rice cereal that had no problematic ingredients. She bought it, wrapped it up, and put it under the tree for her siblings.

Needless to say, they were very excited. And this morning, thoroughly enjoying having been liberated from cooking their cream-of-rice, they poured themselves their first bowls of the stuff. They added some of our goat milk yogurt, grabbed some spoons, and sat down to try eating breakfast like other kids do.

The verdict? To my surprise, they quickly decided that commercial cereal is terribly overrated. "I don't like the texture," Homeschooled Farm Boy said. HFG, taking no offense that her gift hadn't gone over so well, heartily agreed. Big Little Brother wasn't crazy about it, either. They ate as much as they could, but the three of them left quite a bit for the chickens.

It was a very thoughtful gift on HFG's part, and her brothers did appreciate the effort she put into finding a commercial cereal they could try. I don't think the three of them quite realize it yet, but they actually ended up getting a gift that no amount of money or research could buy: a real-life lesson that the grass really isn't greener on other people's lawns (or breakfast tables, as it were). And that when it comes to food, they're pretty darn lucky they get to eat the way they do.

20 December 2010

Cold Days

I'm not sure the temperature has been above freezing at all so far this month. There may have been one day when we hit a scalding 37F, but that's been about it. We've had several days in the teens, and some with wind chills in the single digits (or below zero). We got quite a dumping of snow last weekend (December 12), with a driving wind to make it even more miserable. It hit us so hard and so fast, we were not able to go to Mass (or anywhere else) that Sunday. These rural roads are a pretty low priority for the County snowplows, and our 4x4 truck only holds four people. The Yeoman Farm Family judged it best to lay low and stoke the fire.

We're still below freezing today, but the sun is shining and we're in the upper twenties. I opened the sheep and goats' barn doors for the first time in a long while, to let them have some fresh air and space to roam around. Their coats are plenty warm enough to be out even in much colder weather, but we keep the barn doors closed to keep their water tanks from freezing solid. The downstairs portion of the barn has just a seven foot ceiling, meaning the animal body heat can't easily escape upwards. With the doors closed, we can keep the downstairs portion of the barn in the low thirties even on days and nights when it's much colder outside. Only when we get stiff winds does enough cold air force its way in that the water tanks begin icing over.

We had one type of livestock which unfortunately did not fare as well during last weekend's mini-blizzard: our bees. We got our first "starter" hive this year, and they'd established a strong colony by the fall. We didn't remove any of their honey, choosing to let them have it all to ensure they had enough for the winter. We were looking forward to starting off the spring with a strong and vibrant colony that would split / swarm into a second hive we'd already prepared. Sadly, the blizzard literally swamped them. Wet snow drifted into the hive's main entrance and froze into a nasty ice pack, blocking much of their air flow. Then, when the bees emerged from their smaller upper entrance hole to take cleansing flights, many seem to have gotten disoriented upon returning and finding the main entrance blocked. When I came out to check on them, I discovered dozens of dead bees littered all over the snow in front of the entrance. With their numbers (and body heat) thus decimated, it looks like the rest of the hive froze to death inside.

I feel awful about what happened, and will do a full post-mortem on what was going on inside the hive, but in many ways this is not unlike the mistakes we've made in getting started with other livestock. We lost our first two lambs, for example, because we weren't ready for them and they were born in the pasture on a frigid night. The only real mistake is not learning from this kind of experience. (The rest of the lambs were all born safely, inside a building.)

One huge lesson learned about bees: next fall, I'm putting the hive(s) at least a foot or two off the ground, on pallets or cinder blocks. Another lesson learned: get some insulating foam fitted tightly around the outside of the hive before cold weather sets in. And go out there to check on the colony every day or two when it does get cold.

As for us humans, our family has been enjoying pot after pot of hearty soups and stews, made from the lamb and goat necks in our freezer. When the temperatures get and stay this cold, it's hard to think of a nicer way to warm oneself from the inside out.

I'll close with a lighter anecdote about the cold. If you've been following the NFL at all, you know that the roof of the Metrodome in Minneapolis collapsed from all the snow (same storm system that went on to hit us in Michigan and kill our bees). They haven't been able to repair it, so tonight's game between the Vikings and Bears will be played outdoors at the Golden Gophers' stadium. Upon hearing this news and reflecting on it, Homeschooled Farm Boy's face lit up in a smile. "You know what that means?" he said. "The cheerleaders will have to dress modestly!"

Yes, indeed. There are some good things about the cold.

12 December 2010

Sportsman's Guide

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have found a new supplier that we like a lot and have begun telling our friends about: Sportsman’s Guide. They are an online discount seller of outdoor goods, and their primary focus seems to be hunters and fishermen (note their name), but they carry an enormous variety of related products that just about anyone --- especially those of us who live in the country --- will find useful. And they have some of the best prices we’ve seen.

We’re big believers in buying things in bulk whenever possible. Not just to save money, but also to make sure we always have a supply on hand of things we need. There’s nothing worse than discovering you’re out of something, having to make a special trip to the store, and paying more than you need to.

In particular, I like to buy ammunition in bulk; prices for a 20 or 50 round box at Wal-Mart or the local gun shop can be pretty steep, especially compared to buying by the case. Ammo doesn’t go bad if it’s stored in a dry place, and I know I’ll eventually go through it. And given the unpredictability of supply in certain calibers, I like the peace of mind of knowing I’m immune to production disruptions. I’ve had good experiences buying bulk ammo from various online dealers, but in the last few months I’ve found Sportsman’s Guide tends to have the best prices, most consistent availability, and widest variety of calibers of pretty much anyone else out there. And their Ammo page on the website is easy to navigate.

Sportsman’s Guide has a “Buyers Club” that you’ll be asked to join when you place your first order. This is definitely worth the $30 cost. You not only get discounted prices on pretty much every product, but you’ll get extra savings and free shipping on your first order. Then, as a Club member, you’ll get frequent email offers for “$10 off your next order of $99 or more” or “free shipping on your next order of $99 or more.” Within two orders, my club membership had easily paid for itself. (The free shipping offers, in particular, were a nice opportunity to stock up on bulk ammo. That stuff can get HEAVY.)

The most interesting part of club membership has been the catalogs we get in the mail. We get at least one (and sometimes more) per week. I didn’t pay much attention to these, as I usually just go on their website and order when there’s something I need. I figured they send all these catalogs because so many of their customers are rural and therefore don’t have high speed internet.

But then Mrs. Yeoman Farmer noticed one of these catalogs laying on the dining room table, and began browsing it. She was soon perusing these things every time Yeoman Farm Baby had her pinned for a feeding. And she discovered something: Sportsman’s Guide carries all kinds of cool military and outdoor surplus stuff, that we’ve never seen elsewhere, at great prices. She ordered boots for her and the kids for something like $30 per pair. She got herself a heavy wool cape at a good price. Heavy wool military coats and hats and sweaters. They sometimes don’t have exactly the right size, but kids grow quickly and we just order an extra size up.

Our biggest frustration with boots in particular, from places like Wal-Mart, is how quickly the kids destroy them. And yet we’ve hesitated to buy the kids the really nice Muck Boots, like MYF and I wear around the farm, because they are so expensive. Military surplus boots are looking like they may be a good compromise: Just $30, and built to survive a march across Austria. As I hold these things in my hands and lace them up, I seriously doubt any kid could wear them out even if he wanted to. (I will post an update if Homeschooled Farm Boy or Big Little Brother manage to succeed, however.)

Anyway, this is not to discourage you from supporting local retailers or merchants. MYF and I are big believers in localism --- but sometimes local merchants don’t have what we need, or don’t have what we need at a reasonable price. We’ve been very happy with Sportsman’s Guide, and would encourage you to check them out.

09 December 2010

How Open?

It's now been over a year since we've adopted Yeoman Farm Baby, and I've been wanting to share a few thoughts about the experience. Above all, we remain deeply grateful to the birthmother who entrusted him to us. It takes an enormous amount of love for a mother to recognize that her baby needs to be raised in a home and family that she is unable to provide...and then to actually go through with releasing her child into that more appropriate situation. We've had three biological children of our own, and understand the depth of attachment a mother establishes with her baby during a pregnancy. We cannot imagine how difficult it would be to have to sever that tie.

By way of quick recap: about a year and a half ago, we were contacted by a friend of a friend of the birthmother. She was still relatively early in the pregnancy, and deciding whether to put the baby up for adoption or raise him herself. Her friends and family were helping assemble potential adoptive parents, to give her a sense of the kind of life that other families may be able to offer her child. The go-between approached us because, for various reasons, she (the go-between) thought our family might be a good fit. We thought so, too, and after prayerful discernment decided to offer ourselves as candidates. To our great joy, the birthmother agreed that our family was just the kind of home she wanted her child to be adopted into.

One of the early questions that we and the birthmother needed to agree about was the degree of openness we would have in the adoption. Options can range from completely closed (no identifying information is exchanged, and there is zero contact after the adoptive parents assume custody), to completely open --- to the point of the birthmother actually visiting and playing some ancillary role in the child's life.

In my own personal experience as an infant adoptee, I was grateful that my own adoptive arrangement was completely closed. I could imagine the confusion and divided loyalties that would've been introduced had my birthmother been lurking just off stage and making regular contact with me. I know it would've undermined our family's sense of unity, and caused me to question where I really belonged. When I grew old enough to understand, my parents explained very matter-of-factly that some children join families biologically (like my younger brother), while others join families through adoption (like my sister and I did). But once we're together, we're together. Everyone is a full and equal member of the same family. Had I been getting visits from my birthmother, I know that mixed signal would've confused me.

To this day, I have not had a desire to meet my birth family. I have one mother and one father, and they are really my parents. I neither need nor want any different ones. That said, however, I have a natural curiosity about the birth family, and the circumstances surrounding my origins. The agency through which I was adopted provided a basic two-page overview of the family's social and health circumstances, but nothing about the reasons why my birthmother thought it best I be raised by another family. I'd like to know more about that, and I'd like to be able to tell her in a letter how grateful I am that I was raised by the family that did raise me. It's truly the best thing that ever happened to me. I want to thank her for that, and to let her know that my life has been happy and successful as a result of that self-sacrificing choice she made for me.

These are some of the personal considerations I brought with me, in trying to decide with Mrs Yeoman Farmer what kind of arrangement we wanted for our own adopted son. We wanted to be able to tell him, as he grew older and asked questions, the sort of person his birthmother was. That we'd met her, and gotten to know her. How much she loved him, but why her situation wasn't right for him. If he wanted to know what she looked like, we wanted to be able to show him. If, as an adult, he wanted to meet her or even just send her a letter, we wanted to know how to reach her. But we wanted to ensure our privacy and that he wouldn't get confused by ongoing contact from her in his youth.

We decided, with the birthmother, on a "semi-open" arrangement. We would not exchange last names, and she would never know exactly where in Michigan we live (not even the town or metro area). We did provide her with a very long family profile letter, and many photos, to help her be as comfortable as possible about where her baby would be growing up. We visited with her before the baby's birth, and met her family, in her city. We agreed to take custody of the baby upon his release from the hospital, and invited her to visit us/him while we remained in her metro area. In conjunction with her, we agreed to email update letters and photographs every three months for the baby's first year and every six months for his second year; we will decide together what to do after that.

This has proven to be a good arrangement for all of us. The birthmother has been able to know how well her baby is thriving, and to see how happy he his --- and to see how much happiness he has brought to our whole family. She's been able to hear about his growth, his doctor's visits, and all his milestones. We've been able to tell her how much we appreciate having him here with us, and how much we love him. She's also sent us some notes of her own, which we have been able to keep and tell YFB about when he gets older.

But the most surprising benefit is that the process has forced us to sit down and think about and document all of YFB's milestones. Yes, to be honest, I sometimes feel some resentment when the "due date" for an update is approaching and we have to take time away from normal family activities to write it up and organize the photos we'll be sending. "He's ours. This is our family. This is our time. This is our life," the voice in my head complains. But now that we've been doing this for 12+ months, I've come to realize something: we have a more complete written record of YFB's first year, all in one place, than we do for any of our biological kids. And we have more photographs of him than most families ever have of their youngest child. (MYF is the youngest in her family, and has almost no pictures from her youth.) Because we've wanted to show how much YFB is part of our whole family, we've also ended up taking a lot more pictures of our other kids --- especially #3 --- than we would have otherwise, or than we did before YFB's arrival.

I realize that these kinds of "semi-open" arrangements don't always work out the way people would like. There may be less detailed contact than the birthmother would've wanted. There may be more contact --- or more intrusive contact --- than the adoptive family would've wanted or expected. Some adoptive families opt for an international adoption, in part to avoid all of these issues.

In our case, cooperation and understanding on both sides have helped us come to a solution that's worked well for everyone. In reflecting on YFB's first year, I wanted to share this with you; I know some of you may be considering adopting, or be in a position to advise a birthmother who is putting her baby up for adoption. I offer our family's experience as an example of what can be done to help make a difficult situation as optimal as possible for all.

07 December 2010

Weathergirl

Homeschooled Farm Girl, describing how bitterly cold it is here in MI this week:

"If you tried to butcher a goose, Daddy, the blood would probably all freeze before it could get out."

Yeah.

Good reason to stay inside by the fire and leave the butchering for another day.

28 November 2010

Sunday Morning Excitement

Our weekly “day of rest” got off to an interesting start this morning. While heading to the barn at about 7:45am, I heard an unusual commotion in the distance. About 50 yards down the road to the west, I spotted a man and woman who’d parked their pickup truck near the edge of our hay field. They were thrashing around in the brush with sticks or rods, and shouting.

Given how few people are usually even up and moving around here on a Sunday morning, let alone one as cold as today, my initial assumption was that they were hunters in hot pursuit of something they’d wounded. It is, after all, still firearm deer season in Lower Michigan. But why would a hunter with a firearm not use that firearm to finish off the deer? They were acting more like they were after a pheasant or a wild turkey, but I don’t think either of those are in season.

As I continued watching, now both curious and a little nervous, something truly odd happened: a large dark object began inching up a scrawny tree, like a flag being hoisted up a flagpole. The larger of the two people was shouting and swinging a stick at this “flag,” but to no avail.

Realizing that this “flag” must in fact be some sort of varmint, I ran inside and grabbed my twelve gauge shotgun. Once back outside, I shouted and waved at the pair (who were now both swinging sticks at the varmint), and jogged across the hayfield toward them with the shotgun.

“It’s a coon!” the man called out to me.

“Great!” I called back, jogging nearer. “I’ve got a shotgun!”

The couple, who I assume were husband and wife, explained that they were out early delivering Sunday newspapers when the coon had run across the road in front of them. They’d stopped and given chase with makeshift clubs, knowing that a small child lives in the next house down from us.

“And we have kids and livestock,” I added. “I appreciate it, because we’ve lost lots of chickens this last year. I hate these things.”

I loaded the shotgun with buckshot, disengaged the safety, and prepared to line it up with the coon. The thing was about ten feet off the ground, which was most of the way to the top of the scrawny tree. And the sucker was huge. Wouldn’t have surprised me if it’d feasted on several of our chickens and ducks.

“Wait,” the man said, as I drew the shotgun to my shoulder. “Do you want the pelt?”

“I just want it dead,” I replied. “Why? Do you want it?” I’ve never tanned hides, and had no interest in getting started today.

“Yeah,” the two of them told me. “Can you shoot it in the head?”

I told them I’d do my best, but a twelve gauge is a twelve gauge. And I wasn’t going back inside for my .380 pistol with the laser sight. A buckshot shell contains nine large pieces of metal, which will spray when launched, but the odds were better than using birdshot. I aimed high, and the fairly close range meant the nine pieces of shot would remain pretty much together on impact. With one squeeze of the trigger, the big coon tumbled from the tree like a bag of wet cement.

The man kicked the coon over. When it didn’t move, he picked it up by a hind leg and announced, “Huge hole in the head!” Indeed, it looked like half its skull had been blown off --- but the rest of the body was untouched. In all honesty, it was a much better shot than I’d been expecting to make, given the coon’s vertical (head upward) orientation on the tree trunk. The man handed the coon to his wife, who tossed it into the back of their pickup.

They thanked me for letting them keep the coon for its hide, and for dispatching the coon before it could hurt the little boy who lives next door. I told them how much I appreciated their stopping and making so much of an effort chasing the thing down, and giving me the chance to take it out.

They seemed like a nice couple, and pure “country folks” without any pretentions, who really wanted to do the right thing. Which is what I like so much about living out here: no matter what we might do for a living, or what kind of vehicle we might drive, or what kind of property or livestock we might have, we’re all pretty much of one mind about a lot of things.

Like what you do when you catch a big fat coon crossing the road.

26 November 2010

Rest

As mentioned one of this blog's earliest posts, our family has grown to have a great appreciation for the custom of Sunday rest. Unless some kind of true necessity arises, such as unavoidable professional work or bringing in hay before the rain ruins the crop, we spend Sundays going to church and hanging out with family or close friends. We try not to even shop on Sundays, apart from last-minute dinner necessities that may arise.

I was initially skeptical --- and resistant --- about this new approach to Sunday, but Mrs. Yeoman Farmer insisted we give it a try. For that I am grateful; it's really changed our family for the better. I can't imagine trading our current Sundays for the ones we used to spend.

Especially when I'm forced by circumstances to revisit those "bad old" Sundays, as I was a couple of weeks ago. Two Sundays before Thanksgiving, we planned to spend the day visiting MYF's brother and his family in the Detroit suburbs. We hadn't seen them in awhile, and the timing was also good for delivering the Thanksgiving turkey.

The day didn't go as planned. Oh, we made it to church just fine that morning. We came home and got ready to go to Detroit just fine. We got onto the freeway just fine. But less than a mile down I-96, I heard the unmistakable sound of one of our minivan's tires blowing out and rubber flapping on pavement.

I managed to steer onto the shoulder, and got out to inspect the damage. The right rear tire was basically shredded, so I prepared to fix it. Keep in mind the weather was cold and overcast, and cars were whizzing by a few feet away. Mrs Yeoman Farmer was in the car with all four kids, plus our new dog (Pepper), who we can't yet leave alone at home for extended periods. We also had the frozen turkey in a cooler, of course.

On a Dodge Caravan, the spare tire is under the chassis and must be lowered by turning a bolt inside the vehicle. I'd done this once before, so was familiar with the mechanism. However, unlike that other time, on this particular day the tire refused to lower itself. The bolt turned fine. The cable of the winch system played out just fine. But the tire itself remained stuck to the bottom of the van. I pried at it with the minimal tools available. It wouldn't budge, no matter what I tried.

Thank God for AAA. They got us a tow truck within about 20 minutes, and the driver (a really nice, younger guy) had fortunately seen this exact problem before. After a couple of minutes of fiddling and prying with his crowbar, the spare tire dropped free. He filled it to maximum capacity with air, lifted the van with his hydraulic jack, removed the old wheel with his impact driver, and had the spare installed in no time flat. He even gave us a jump start, because we'd run our four-way flashers so long the battery no longer had enough power to turn the motor over.

We thanked him, and were again on our way toward Detroit. This was my first time driving with one of those lousy temporary "donut" spare tires, and it was as bad as I imagined. Even fully inflated, it wasn't safe to drive more than about 55-60 MPH on the freeway. The handling was terrible. We stayed in the right lane, and let everybody else buzz past us.

We arrived very late, but all in once piece. I dropped everyone else off at my in-laws', then headed up to the local Sam's Club in search of a new set of tires. There was no way I was driving 70 miles home that night, in the dark and in the cold, on that temporary thing, with the whole family in the car and no spare to fall back on. Given that we'd put over 70,000 miles on this set of tires, I figured it was just a matter of time before the rest of them started going. This was definitely the day to get a whole new set.

Unfortunately, the Sam's Club just up the street didn't have a tire center. The tire store in the same shopping center was closed on Sundays. As was the Belle Tire a few miles down Grand River. My brother in law suggested I try the Sears Auto Center at the local shopping mall; they did in fact turn out to be open. But because they were pretty much the only place open that day, everybody and his brother had come to get their cars worked on. (With the cold snap that morning, they apparently were doing a booming business installing new batteries.) They did have a set of tires in my size, but said it'd be 90 minutes to get them installed. I had no choice but to get my car in line and wait.

And wait. And wait. They did have a football game on in the waiting room, which was nice. But I'd a thousand times rather have been hanging out with my in-laws, watching the game at their place with them. The game dragged on, and then the late game came on. Sears ran into problem after problem with my tires; first, they turned out not to have the cheaper tires in the right size for our vehicle and had to get my permission to spend lots more installing a more expensive set. Given that I was basically stuck, I told them to go ahead and do it. Then, as they were pulling the old tires, one of the mounting studs snapped off. They had to find me again, ask if I wanted to pay for a new one, and then search around to see if they had the part.

Once it became clear my van would be unavailable for a lot more than 90 minutes, and I'd lost interest in football, I decided to take a stroll through the Twelve Oaks Mall for a change of scenery. All I can say is: I am never going to willingly set foot in another suburban shopping mall again. Especially not on a Sunday. The place was jammed, and already decked out with Christmas decorations in mid-November. Kids were getting their photos taken with Santa. But the worst part was the cacophonous noise, and the impossibility of escaping from it. That, and the utter frivolity and idiocy of so much of what was for sale. Not just the skanky lingere stores. Or the "clothing" aimed at teenagers. So much of what the stores were peddling were frivolous trinkets, and junk I couldn't imagine letting my kids waste their money on.

I grabbed a cup of coffee and retreated to the relative peace and quiet of the Sears Auto Center waiting room as fast as I could. Our van didn't get finished until nearly 6pm, so I had plenty of time to be alone with my thoughts. I was grateful for several things: that we homeschool, and our kids aren't asking to dress the way most kids at the mall were dressing. That we live so far away from suburban shopping malls, and don't need to visit them for anything but emergencies. That we've rejected the frivolity and consumerism on such blatant display at these places. And, above all, that Sundays have become such a welcome refuge for our family from all this noise and chaos. When I was single, and living in the Detroit suburbs myself, I used to regularly patronize this very same mall on many Sundays...and used to think nothing of it. In fact, I used to enjoy getting out and going there. Now, as I sat in Auto Center Purgatory, I couldn't imagine any more foreign place than a suburban shopping mall to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Once the van was ready, I hurried back to rejoin the family for what remained of our Sunday refuge from the world. Dinner was just being served as I arrived, and it was absolutely wonderful. Not just the food, but especially the company. I was sorry to have missed so much of the day, but grateful to at least be spending the main meal together. And especially grateful to Mrs. Yeoman Farmer for her insistence that we live the custom of Sunday Rest the way we have. Catching a glimpse of what life is like without that rest was a powerful confirmation of its value.

And I must add one more thing for which I'm grateful: the AAA dispatcher, the tow truck driver, those folks at Sears Auto Center, and all the others who must work on Sundays to ensure that families like ours can still get the essential services we might need. I sincerely hope that all of them are able to get some other day of rest with their families during the week.

Gratitude

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving yesterday, wherever you are. We spent the day with Mrs. Yeoman Farmer's brother and his family, in the Detroit suburbs. They grilled one of our turkeys, which we'd taken over a couple of weekends ago. It was fantastic, as was the rest of the feast they put together.

The best part, by far, was spending a relaxing day hanging out with family. But in so enjoying our time together with them, it was hard not to think back on the contrast with the way we spent last year's Thanksgiving day. It was the only TG we've spent away from family in a long time, but it was also one of the most memorable and one that we may be especially grateful for for many years.

Last November, we were literally a thousand miles away from home. Yeoman Farm Baby had just been born, and we'd been staying in an extended stay type of hotel in that city with him and all the kids. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer had continued homeschooling the older ones, which after so many days in small and unfamiliar surroundings was getting old fast. It was all we could do to get them out to run around at various parks and playgrounds every afternoon. We were eager and anxious to get home, but we were legally not allowed to leave the state with him before we got formal written permission from both YFB's state of birth and our state of residence. Given the impending Thanksgiving holiday, lots of staff at the courts and other bureaus were out on vacation. Our legal process ground to a crawl, and we (only half jokingly) began to wonder if we'd make it home by Christmas.

And then came the invitation we'll never forget. MYF had managed to meet several other Catholic homeschooling families in the area; she's a natural extrovert, and seems capable of making friends no matter where she goes or how long she's staying in a place. Once everyone realized we were going to be stuck so far from home thru at least the first of December, we got not one but two different invitations for Thanksgiving dinners. One was very far away, but the other was just a few miles from our hotel. We accepted the more local invitation, and had an absolutely wonderful afternoon and evening together with that family --- and their extended family.

Particularly moving was the effort our hostess made to accommodate the YFCs' food allergies. She basically ended up cooking two Thanksgiving dinners: one that our kids could eat, and the other for everyone else to eat. We did contribute one of our turkeys, and tried to help with food preparation and cleanup as much as we could, but having a newborn made that complicated. Their generosity was incredibly moving; they'd only known us for a short while, but went to unbelievable lengths to welcome us into their home and family while we were so far from our own.

We've stayed in touch with our host family, and even some members of their extended family, in the year since. I want them, and all of you, to know how grateful we remain for the time when we were strangers and were welcomed. We have lots of other things that we're grateful for this Thanksgiving, of course, and I'll try to mention some of them in upcoming posts. But that particular incident from last year has been on my mind, and I wanted to make sure I shared it first.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

13 November 2010

Pumpkins Galore!

We thought we were doing well collecting five free pumpkins recently from a local farmer after Halloween.

Today, we hit the absolute pumpkin trove: a much larger farm stand, about seven miles up the road. They do an enormous volume of business each year, on a family owned parcel of land, but we don't drive that direction very often. This morning, I noticed a sign in front of their stand: "Pumpkins. $10 per pickup load." I took a closer look, and realized they had more than two full hay wagons loaded with pumpkins that never found a home before Halloween.

On my way home that afternoon with the kids, we stopped and chatted with the lady. I explained that our pickup truck died a few years back, but that I'd like to take the equivalent number of pumpkins home in our minivan. I gave her ten bucks, and packed as many pumpkins as I could around the kids and my groceries. She said that wasn't even half a pickup truckload, and that I should feel free to come back later to get as many more as I could carry.

We got home, unloaded the first load, and tossed a great many to the sheep and chickens. They were quickly all over their new treats.

I went back out, van empty of kids and groceries, determined to maximize my next load. Here's what I got in the back:

And here's what I got in the passenger compartment:

I could've loaded more, but didn't want to over-do it.

She told me they nearly always have way too many pumpkins, and mark them down like this the day after Halloween every year. You can guess who will be first in line next year, with his minivan emptied of all interior seats.

Our animals are going to be feasting for a long time.

12 November 2010

Turkeys Were Here

No, it's not graffiti. But the turkeys left their mark on the hay field as clearly as if they'd used spray paint. Green spray paint:

This year, we kept the turkeys in three portable pasture pens that we moved in a staggered formation along the edge of the hay field. Each pen is four feet wide and eight feet long. In their staggered formation, the three pens therefore took up the first twelve feet of the hay field. Because that portion of the field is bordered by fence, mowing and raking it into hay is a tricky proposition anyway. It seemed like a good place to let the turkeys clean up some overgrown grass. And since we have plenty of hay stored up in the barn, we didn't mind seeing the harvest reduced by a few bales.

We moved the three pens each day, allowing the birds to feast on fresh alfalfa and grass (in addition to their 21% protein grain ration). As the pens were dragged forward, the turkeys would also scramble to snap up all the crickets and other bugs being disturbed by the moving grass, further supplementing the protein in their diet. Moving the pens got the turkeys off their droppings, and ensured their fertilizer would be spread fairly evenly.

The photo above is from a spot where the turkeys were over the summer. Each day, they consumed a huge amount of the grass that their pen had been covering. Judging by how well the "replacement" grass has been coming up, and how green it is, the turkeys left behind some serious fertilizer and is doing some serious work. It'll be interesting to see how well that portion of the hay field yields next year. Maybe we won't lose any bales after all.

Where are the turkeys now? Here, where the final two are meeting their end this afternoon (note the rooster cleaning up spilled grain from the previous day):

I've been butchering like crazy over the last few weeks; note the large pile of feathers on the right. That's the fence post where every turkey hung upside down from twine tied to its feet, to bleed out, before getting dry-plucked. That took about 75% of the feathers off. I then took each bird into the barn, dunked it in scalding water to loosen the remaining feathers, and hung the bird from a nail in the rafters so I could finish plucking. I found that if I did no more than two or three in a day, it wasn't too burdensome. Hefting around big turkeys can become a real pain in the back if you save all the butchering for a single day.

We had so many poults survive the brooder, and the freezer is getting so full, we've decided to overwinter two toms and several hens. Those birds are now in the barn at night, hanging out with the chickens and ducks and geese. They can go out and range in the pasture during the day if they like, but they've preferred to lie low for now. Given how well some of our Buff Orpingtons managed to hatch out and brood their own chicks this past year, I think we'll try collecting turkey eggs and giving them to the chicken hens to manage (assuming the turkey hens don't do the job themselves --- it's just that we've never had any luck in this department in the past). But if the Buffs succeed, we'll be able to save at least seven bucks for every poult we don't have to purchase from a hatchery next spring.

In the meantime, we're going to enjoy roasting up the turkeys in our freezer. A heritage breed hen makes a nice Sunday dinner for our family, with enough left over for a second meal and some soup. The toms are a good size to break out when entertaining guests.

And, needless to say, we're very much looking forward to our Thanksgiving feast later this month.

10 November 2010

Pepper Makes It Better

After Scooter's tragic demise a couple of months ago, we've been left without a traditional herding-breed of dog. I've lost track of the number of times I've wished I had him around to help, and not just with the sheep. Scooter had an uncanny ability to know exactly where I wanted animals of all kinds (including chickens and ducks and geese) to be, and how to position himself to optimize the chances they'd either get there or stay there. Remarkable that a dog who could be so dumb in so many other ways (including trying to cross an unlighted road in the dead of night with a car coming) had such sharp instincts with the livestock.

Wilbur the puppy has continued to settle in, and he's growing like a weed. We like him, boundless energy and chewing tendencies and all, but I doubt he'll ever be more than a guardian and companion.

We'd been waiting for my professional work to slow down, so we could renew our search for a dog with herding genetics. One litter of shepherd puppies came into the local animal shelter, but were snapped up before we could take one. Then, last Friday, the intrepid Mrs. Yeoman Farmer spotted a new listing on the shelter's website: a beautiful-looking, four year old Australian Shepherd mix female. She'd been a stray, but was totally housebroken and even leash trained. and despite being labeled a "mix," she looked almost purebred.

MYF drove to the shelter during Yeoman Farm Baby's next nap, and liked the dog so much she put down a deposit to hold her. The Yeoman Farm Children and I went in on Saturday, and instantly knew this dog was a keeper. She has a wonderful, calm disposition. She was really good with the kids. And she even got along with Wilbur (we took him with us to the shelter, to test their interaction).

We took her home that day, and she's working out extremely well. She really is housebroken. After a couple of days of stand-offish adjustment, she and Wilbur have even begun playing and rough-housing together in my office.

The only problem was a name. The shelter had named her "Carly," but that just wasn't going to work for us. Every time I called her, or even referred to her, I knew I'd think of Carly Simon screaming "You're so vain!" And MYF had similar associations with the name. After considerable deliberation and negotiation, the whole family managed to settle on "Pepper" as an alternative.

We take her on the leash with us all over the farm, particularly when doing things with livestock. But especially since she was a stray in the past, we don't want to let her walk freely until we've had a solid adjustment period and she's positive that this is where she belongs. Back in Illinois, we had one shelter stray wander off and disappear because we let her free too early.

It's unclear so far whether and how well Pepper's herding instincts will eventually kick in; she's mostly intimidated by the livestock, and will not enter the barn unless she's carried through the door. We're hopeful that this will be temporary. But even if she never matches Scooter's abilities, we're none the worse for the deal: she's an absolutely wonderful companion with me in my office. I'll take that.

The only other odd thing about her: she doesn't like cameras. At all. The shelter had the hardest time getting a good picture of her for the website. I tried snapping a few pictures, but she turned and ducked her head every time she saw the camera.


Finally, I had Homeschooled Farm Girl hug Pepper tight and make her face the camera. So...this may be the best photo you get of her for awhile.

09 November 2010

No Showcase

We bought our farm here in Michigan three years ago this month. No one is quite sure how old the house is, as it was built before the county kept reliable records. The best guess is it dates from the 1880s, but it's had considerable work (and additions) done over the years. The cornerstone in the big red barn reads 1913, so we're pretty sure that's when that building was erected.

The previous owners had it for about ten years, and were selling so they could retire and move closer to family in Arkansas. We met them a couple of times, and thought they were very nice people, but didn't really know that much about them. The husband had some kind of a job in town, and the wife was a professional artist. The detached 25' x 30' building that is now my office had been her studio. Neither she nor her husband did any kind of farming here. Apart from five house cats, they had no animals. Apart from lots of flowers in the front yard, they didn't cultivate a garden. Their kids were grown. The upstairs of the big red barn was little more than a basketball court, and the downstairs was little more than storage. The only fence was a white rail composite thing that gives visual separation from the lawn to the pasture --- but is far too porous to serve as a barrier to any kind of animal.

When the wife wasn't working in her studio, she seemed to have spent her time painting everything in the house that didn't move. Exhibit A: the basement has a poured concrete floor, but she painted it to look like it was made of flagstones. Exhibit B: she painted quotations from her favorite author all over the trim at the top of walls in various rooms. Exhibit C: she painted the fuel oil barrel in the basement to look like a wine cask.

I could go on, but you get the point. She did all kinds of things to the house that were kind of cool, very artistic, but that few other people would ever consider spending time doing.

We've stayed in touch with the previous owners, chiefly through Christmas cards, and also with an occasional call to ask about the myriad quirks present in a house this old and the way it was built / added onto. But given that they now live several states away, we haven't actually seen them since buying the house.

That almost changed this summer. Almost. I was working in my office, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer was inside tending children, when we saw a car pull into the driveway and stop. It pulled a little closer. It backed up. Pulled closer again. Backed up. Stopped. Waited. Waited. Waited. But just as I was preparing to go out and ask if the driver was lost (it happens a lot around here), the car pulled out and drove away.

We wouldn't have given the incident a second thought, until a letter arrived a few days later. MYF had already read it, and handed it to me with a bemused grin. "We got a letter from [Artistic Previous Owner Lady] today," she explained. "Just read it."

I did, but quickly grew so infuriated that I almost didn't make it to the end. I won't quote verbatim, but the take-away is this: she'd been in town visiting friends, and had tried to stop by to see us. But she'd taken one look at how terribly we'd neglected the property, and it'd pulled her up short. The longer she'd looked at what a horrific wasteland we'd turned the place into, the more she decided she just couldn't bear staying. She'd driven off before getting out, because she wanted to remember the property the way it had been in all its glory. This property was such a special place, she said, and they and previous owners had done so much to make it special. She hoped that someday we could get it together and preserve this special place.

"How. Dare. She," I seethed.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer simply laughed and asked if I wanted to read the response she'd already written. Being the queen of graciousness and tact, MYF's letter led off by telling the previous owner how beautiful we thought her flowers and manicured yard had been, how much we like the house, and how much we wish she would have stopped by and spoken to us. Because if she had done so, we would have explained why the property no longer looks the way it used to. Instead of spending our limited resources cultivating flowers and decorative shrubs, and putting up beautifully-painted bird feeders, we have:

  • Fenced the entire pasture, including subdividing it for sheep and goats (this project took basically an entire summer, and cost many hundreds of dollars in fencing material);
  • Built three livestock areas in the barn's basement and subdivided outdoor paddocks;
  • Built pasture pens for poultry, and raised many dozens of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys;
  • Harvested and stored well over a thousand bales of hay in the upstairs portion of the barn. (This was made possible in part by spending over $2,000 one year on fertilizer, which was necessary because no one had bothered fertilizing the hay field for the last ten years and the yields were dropping crazily low);
  • Grown our flock of sheep and herd of dairy goats significantly;
  • Replaced all the windows in the house with brand new, energy efficient ones;
  • Done the same with all the windows in the office building;
  • Dramatically increased the amount of insulation in the attic (to our shock, there was basically zero up there when we moved in);
  • Been saving money to replace the roof (which we ended up doing later this fall);
  • Planted and fenced an enormous garden, which we have admittedly have not had time to properly weed and cultivate this year, because we have also...
  • Adopted a baby, who is the light of our life, but who requires all the attention any baby requires. While homeschooling three other children, including a high school sophomore. Which is much more draining for a woman in 40s than for a woman in her 20s.
MYF's letter concluded by encouraging Previous Owner to stop by the next time she was in town. And that if she could give us a few weeks' notice, we'd make sure we spiffed up the front yard before her arrival.

I told MYF that her letter was perfect, and was again grateful to be married to the Queen of Graciousness and Tact. We puzzled over why Previous Owner would send such a nasty note, because she'd struck us as a very nice lady.

Whatever the reason, the incident reminded us of something we'd read someplace. There are two basic types of rural properties with acreage: (1) The Working Farm and (2) The Country Showcase. The previous owner had gussied our property up into a Country Showcase worthy of a glossy magazine, and in her head it still was. But many years ago, it'd been one of the biggest working farms in this township --- and we could still see and appreciate its possibilities to become one again. With a lot of sweat and time, we'd invested our resources into making it the Working Farm that our family needed.

Working farms aren't always pretty, but they're productive. And in our minds, that gives them a beauty all their own. I'd a thousand times rather gaze out on two dozen Icelandic sheep grazing behind a utilitarian metal fence than look at an empty field bordered by a pretty white porous rail fence.

We know of a few Country Showcases in the area which are also working farms, but they tend to be special cases. One of them is the family with the produce stand I discussed in the most recent post; their place is beautiful to look at, and also extremely productive. But that's possible for them because the wife works full time at a professional job, while the husband tends the garden full time (he's the world's greatest green thumb). They have no children to tend to, so the farm can get all of their attention. The other "working country showcase" properties tend to belong to breeders of expensive purebred horses (or people who stable such horses on behalf of city people), where image is an important component of their business. They tend to look something like this (note the McMansion, pretty white fence, immaculate horse barn, and perfectly trimmed pastures):

Which is not what our yard looks like. But we really couldn't care less. It works for us, and that's what matters.

UPDATE: Mrs. Yeoman Farmer pointed out that the FRONT view of this particular house is even more of a beautiful showcase. I managed to get a picture of it this morning.


The house across the street from it is also pretty amazing:

By way of a postscript, a few weeks after sending the letter to Previous Owner, we got an extremely contrite note back from her. She apologized for jumping to conclusions about us, said she was very sorry she didn't stop and visit, and assured us she would do so the next time she was in town. And then she said something revealing: her friends in the area had been telling her we'd been "letting the property go," so when she'd stopped by to look at it her first glance only reinforced that preexisting supposition. She apologized for not getting the whole story directly from us.

We appreciated that explanation, but then couldn't help wondering: What have the neighbors been saying about us? Not like we care, but still...it'd be nice if the locals would get to know us rather than talking about us behind our backs.

No matter. Gossip is a part of life everywhere, maybe especially so in small towns. We'll just keep on loving our Working Farm as much as ever.

05 November 2010

Post Halloween Pumpkins

Until I had a farm and livestock, I never really thought about the degree to which pumpkins go under-utilized in this country. Pumpkins are ubiquitous in October, but chiefly as decorations. Not just the ones that are carved into Jack-O-Lanterns, but the ones that are put out intact on porches and storefronts to sit like giant orange balls. I used to think these kinds of displays were a nice artistic contribution to the fall/harvest mood. Now I see them and think, "Look at all those great pumpkins, going to waste."

New York City never lets itself be outdone in anything. So I guess it didn't surprise me when I was recently visiting there on a business trip and saw this:

over and over again, as I walked down 34th Street. Dozens of pumpkins and other fall squashes, filling every one of the large rectangular planter beds that separate the sidewalk from the roadway. There I was, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, dressed in a jacket and tie, unable to think of anything but how many weeks my sheep and goats and poultry would be able to feast on all of these "decorations."

Will these things be left out until they rot? Will the sanitation department eventually throw them into a trash truck with the rest of the city's garbage? Or will an enterprising farmer be allowed to take them home to feed to his animals? He'd need a dump truck to carry all of them; there were many many more planters filled with pumpkins all along 34th Street. I wish I knew who in NYC government to contact with these questions, because I'm genuinely curious as to the fate of all this good livestock fodder.

Back here in rural Michigan, the answers are much easier to find. A mile or two from us, there's a farmer who grows an enormous garden and sells produce from a roadside stand. The Yeoman Farm Children and I stop by there nearly every day in the summer, riding our tandem bicycle, and chat with them as we load up our rack pack with summer squash, zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, and everything else our own garden may be lagging in production of. They do not have any livestock on their farm, but they know we do. Not wanting anything to go to waste, they came out and told us we should take all of their unsold pumpkins remaining after Halloween. For free. Ditto --- during the summer --- any tomatoes or other produce that are too blemished to sell. We should come on over with buckets and help ourselves.

We were naturally very grateful for this offer, and this morning I was finally able to swing by their place. They had several enormous pumpkins left, and I loaded all of them into the back of our minivan. They're wonderful pumpkins, totally intact, but admittedly not very attractively shaped for carving or display.
 
But who cares? Certainly not our sheep. Dot (our leader ewe) saw me unloading these treasures from the van, and was the first of the flock to make a beeline for the gate. Note the geese, preparing to swoop in and poach some of the treat.

Within minutes, the whole flock had followed Dot's lead. I think the first pumpkin vanished in under five minutes.
I've packed the rest of them into the barn, and will smash one per day until they're all gone. Too bad there were only five.

Next time I go to NYC in the fall, maybe I'll take a dump truck instead of an airplane.

16 October 2010

Trimmed Again

Fall sheep shearing was last weekend; I intended to post this sooner, but the professional work requests have kept on coming. Not complaining at all...much like our bees need to pack their honey supers as much as they can while the flowers are in bloom, those of us who work in politics and opinion research must do the same in even numbered years (up until the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, anyhow).

For the shepherd of a fine wool flock like Icelandics, a good shearer is beyond price. It's easy to get someone to fleece a bunch of meat-breed sheep whose wool is good for little other than insulation or tennis balls. It's another matter to find someone who can pull a fleece off in a single piece and in a manner that maximizes its value for processing. Our "sheep shearing lady," Lisa, is such a person. She's been coming to our farm since we had just four animals (in late 2002), and from her home base in Indiana covers a wide territory. Now that we're in Michigan, she coordinates our spring and fall shearing dates with those of other clients up here. Last Sunday was our day.

Lisa does much more than cut the fleece from the sheep neatly. She helps us inspect and evaluate each animal as she works with it; she's seen and held orders of magnitude more sheep than we ever will, and is alert to potential health issues that we may not have noticed. A couple of quick examples: I'm well aware of two telltale signs of worm infestation. Last weekend, Lisa pointed out several more that we should be on the lookout for (not currently present in our flock, but that she's seen elsewhere). Also, during last fall's shearing, she identified a ram lamb with a hernia; she advised us not only not to keep him for breeding, but to butcher him before any other lamb --- before the hernia could develop into a life-threatening condition. She also helps us identify the lambs whose body types and conformations would make them the best breeders.

I could go on, but you get the idea. For the adults and lambs we're keeping as breeders, Lisa also trims their hooves and helps us de-worm them. In addition, she gives every animal a drench of about 20-30 cc's of apple cider vinegar cut 50-50 with water. She also trims the hooves of all our dairy goats.

This time, we had a special additional task: removing the horns of one of our breeding rams. I can't believe we still haven't named this particular ram; we kept him as a backup breeder in case anything happened to Dilemma, but we never got around to naming him. He's now over a year and a half old, and had developed a stunning set of horns. But there was a big problem: as frequently happens, the curve of the horn was starting to press against his face. If we let it go much longer, the growing horns would either crush his skull or prevent him from eating. Either way, we'd lose him.

So, just as we had to do with Dilemma this spring, we used a pair of halters to secure the ram between two rings in the barn doorway. At first he lunged and jumped and struggled to free himself. But once he calmed down, the procedure went off very quickly and without incident.


We used a metal cable to saw back and forth through the horn, and this time used a heavier material than we did with Dilemma. The friction of the sawing action creates so much heat, the blood flow through the horn is largely cauterized immediately. We applied bandages, and secured them with duct tape, to stanch the rest of the bleeding.

There are no nerve endings in the horns, so the sawing itself didn't cause the ram any pain; his only discomfort came from being tied up and having the smell the burning horns being sawed off. As you can see, within minutes he was back outside and feeding with the rest of the flock (and note how nice Dilemma is looking - he's the one right in the middle, facing the camera).

We sold Dilemma's horns to a knife maker, who wanted to use them to make knife handles. I'm trying to locate a buyer for these horns now as well; if anyone is interested, please email me. We'd like to get $25 for the pair. That includes shipping to anywhere in the USA.

07 October 2010

The Stinker Slips Away

We've had our share of tangles with skunks over the years, and I must say something: I've never smelled anything worse than what they let loose. I'm sure there's something even more putrid out there, but I haven't yet encountered it. They are nasty little creatures, nothing at all like the cutsie children's book characters. Or Pepe Le Pew (who, for the record, is high on my list of most annoying cartoon characters. Right behind Tweetie Bird. But don't get me started.)

Our first skunk was in Illinois, just a few months after we'd moved to the country. I spotted it entering the chicken house, where I had our first batch of 25 pullet chicks in a very vulnerable area. The thing could've wiped out the whole brood, easy. I ran into the house for my shotgun, and kept hoping it'd come back out. Instead, it wandered into a corner where it was trapped. I shot it once, but not with a direct enough hit to kill. It filled the air with its stink bomb, which I had to approach so I could line up a second shot. I smelled so bad, Mrs Yeoman Famer made me sleep in a separate room. I think I ended up burning the clothes I'd been wearing. And the smell was in my hair for days.

Our next skunk came some time later, still in Illinois. I had a large batch of goslings I was brooding in an outbuilding. They were young and quite vulnerable. I was about to call it a night, and was taking one last look at them, when I noticed some kind of dark shape moving aggressively inside their pen. The goslings were in panic, running every which way. In the fading light, I managed to spot the white stripe down the animal's back and tail...and again sprinted for my shotgun. (I can't repeat often enough what an essential farm tool a good twelve gauge pump is.) This time, I took the thing out with a single shot. Unfortunately took a gosling or two out with it, and the skunk had already managed to kill a gosling or two, but the rest of the brood was safe. Covered with skunk stench, released as pieces of shot tore the animal open, but safe.

Here in Michigan, we've had a skunk visit our property occasionally. At 9pm or so, when coming in from my office, there have been several nights where the smell of skunk has hung heavy in the air. I imagine it released the scent when a dog or cat had startled it. Regardless, no matter how much I searched the yard and under the porch with a flashlight, I never managed to actually spot the skunk itself.

Until last night. I awakened at 2am, and couldn't get back to sleep. There was a certain project from work that I couldn't get off my mind, and couldn't shake a gnawing anxiety that I may have done a particular thing wrong and allowed a particular error to get into my data. At 3:30, unable to get back to sleep, I decided I might as well go out to my office and check the data.

I got dressed, went downstairs, got my spotlight, and switched on the back porch light. The instant I stepped onto the porch, I spotted the skunk. There was absolutely no missing the white stripe and angular body. He was running up the slope toward our barn, about 50 feet from where I was standing. I shone the spotlight on him, and he looked back. And then ran faster.

I sprinted back upstairs, retrieved the shotgun, and hoped I'd get back down before he disappeared. Fortunately, he was now up against the barn and moving slowly toward the six foot drop-off that our firewood pile is currently stacked in. But I had a special challenge with him that I wouldn't have had with a raccoon or possum: get too close, and even a perfect shot means I get covered with skunk stench. So I kept my distance, and tried to position myself for the best possible shot.

Where he was right then, a shot would've blown holes in the barn door. As he moved toward the woodpile, he crossed in front of a window. Didn't want to blow the window out --- killing a skunk isn't worth all that. Then he was on the woodpile, and dropping six feet or so from it to the ground. That would've been a perfect time to have blasted him, except my nice huge metal pot was sitting there on the ground, from butchering chickens earlier in the day. Didn't want to blow holes in that.

He continued moving, and was about to disappear into the high weeds along the barn, and I knew I was running out of time. The big problem now was my spotlight. I had a clear shot, but couldn't fire a twelve gauge one-handed while holding a spotlight in my other hand. I tried putting the spotlight between my legs, but couldn't keep the beam focused. (Note to self: You REALLY need to get an aftermarket tactical light to mount to this shotgun.) Figuring this was my only chance, I lined him up as best I could...and pulled the trigger. And waited for the smoke to clear.

And soon realized he was still moving. And definitely disappearing unhurt into the high weeds. Not wanting to get close, I swung wide around the barn and tried to see if he'd emerge, but there was no sign of him. Never saw him come back out, on either side. My light now getting dim, I decided I should count my blessings: even with the noisy report of the shotgun, the skunk didn't let loose with a stink bomb. And hopefully I scared him enough to stay away for awhile. And he stayed outside; the barn had been closed up securely enough to protect our livestock.

Out in my office, I quickly put my mind at ease about the project; everything was fine. I headed back to the house, scanning the barnyard one last time as the last of my battery power faded, but the skunk was nowhere to be seen. I plugged the light in for a recharge, and then headed upstairs to catch a few hours of recharging for my own body.

And dreamed about someday finally actually getting to take that skunk down once and for all.

The Concentration Camp Isn't Really that Bad

In an interesting followup to this summer's story about massive egg recalls, the NY Times takes a look inside some of the more modern egg plants and the methods they're employing to manage manure. The conveyor belt system sounds fascinating, and I imagine it saves an enormous amount of labor. It also seems to keep the facility much cleaner.

But this is the quote that struck me:
“We’ve had to completely change the way we look at things,” said Mr. Krouse, who is also chairman of the United Egg Producers, an industry association. “Thirty years ago, farms had flies and farms had mice, everything was exposed to everything else. They just all happily lived together. You can’t work that way anymore.”
Don't get me wrong: I'm not a fan of flies or mice or any other vermin. What bothers me is the industrial scale of these operations, and the necessarily attendant obsessiveness with making them "sanitary." If you're going to have 381,000 hens living under one roof in a concentration camp eggery, you can't have everything exposed to everything else. You must compartmentalize, and obsess about sanitation. Otherwise, you quickly lose control.

But the problem with emphasizing the sanitation strikes me as possibly designed to convince the public that "that makes it okay" to produce eggs in this way. Sure, we have 381,000 hens under one roof. Yeah, they're crammed into little cages. No, they don't ever see the light of day. But we have some really great manure removal systems, and the eggs are really really clean. And the hens get vaccinated against all the diseases you'd expect them to catch while living in this kind of environment. So, eat up! Nothing to see here.

As for the Yeoman farm family, we'll take the "messy" eggs laid by hens happily living together with the ducks and the geese and the sheep and the goats. The eggs that sometimes get manure on them, and that we have to wash. The eggs laid by hens that keep the barn mouse-free because any time one appears, they gang tackle it and use it as supplemental protein for their diet. As they do with the flies and the crickets and even frogs.

You can get away with that kind of "messiness" when you're farming on a small scale. On a human scale. Producing outstanding food for humans who appreciate it.

06 October 2010

Thanks for Your Service

Now that my professional work has gotten caught up, I've been turning my attention to getting long-postponed farm projects caught up as well.

My number one priority: the old laying hens.

We color-code our breeds, so it's easier to tell how old the birds are. Once hens are mature, it's nearly impossible to distinguish a yearling from a three year old. Hens have a productive laying life of about two years, and drop off dramatically in the third year. Our approach is to raise a batch of one breed in the spring of Year 1, which will start laying in the fall of that year. When then start a different colored breed in the spring of Year 2. In Year 3, we either try another new breed or go back to what we had in Year 1. Either way, in the fall of Year 3, we butcher the hens from Year 1.

If we repeat the Year 1 breed in Year 3, as we did this time with Barred Rocks, we must race against the clock to butcher the old hens before they become indistinguishable from the new pullets. The key features are the size of the comb and wattle on their heads. Also, younger birds tend to have yellow feet but older birds' feet tend to get white with age. And once you pick up an older hen, it's often obvious from the weight and fattiness of the belly that this bird has been around for awhile.

My work was so busy in recent months, I put the butchering off way too long. The pullets' combs are starting to grow out, and I'm worrying that I may kill some of them by mistake. With the nice weather yesterday, I knew I had to get caught up. Homeschooled Farm Girl helped me chase down and catch six older hens, and then assisted me as we butchered them. Five are destined for the freezer, and we started a stock pot immediately with the sixth. Overnight, it turned into some of the richest and most delicious chicken soup imaginable. I had some for lunch today, and it'll be the centerpiece of tomorrow's dinner.

This morning, I managed to pluck an additional four hens off their roosts. Guess how I'm going to be spending my sunny Wednesday afternoon?
 
There may be a few more older hens to butcher after today, but I'll need to wait until tonight (when they again come home to roost) to get a good look. In the meatime, we appreciate all the wonderful eggs our Barred Rocks gave us. And we'll appreciate the chicken soup just as much.

Surprises never Cease

First we had Dot's surprise, out-of-season lamb. We're still hopeful that she'll get big enough and wooly enough before winter sets in. Thus far, she's been doing great.

This new situation, however, was perhaps even less expected:
Yes, that's Lucy Goosie. And she's made a nest. In October. Out in the middle of the pasture.

I wasn't even aware she was laying eggs, but she'd been quietly collecting them out there. She now has about a half dozen. A few days ago, she went broody and will only come off the nest for quick breaks.

I don't want to move the nest into the barn; she'd almost certainly abandon the eggs if I did. I'm not even sure the goslings are developing, given the cold weather we've had. And even if they hatch, what are their odds of survival in late October or early November?

I can be certain of this: if I trash the nest, they'll die for sure. If I don't trash the nest, we may get some surprise goslings. The thing I'm most concerned about is Lucy Goosie's safety out there in the middle of the night. In Illinois, we lost a few broody geese to coyotes. Fortunately, there aren't any of those around here. Foxes, raccoons and possums are a concern, but an adult goose defending a nest is a pretty tough fighter.

I'd lay my bets on Lucy, if it came to that. And her nest is near enough to the house, I'd be able to hear her alarm honk and come to her assistance.

Still, it's tough to shake the feeling that this isn't going to end well. But we'll see. Around here, we never seem to run out of surprises.

29 September 2010

Fall Frame of Mind

Autumn has definitely arrived here in mid-Michigan. Leaves are beginning to turn. We've just had a few days in a row of dreary and overcast skies, drizzle, and temperatures that haven't climbed out of the mid-fifties. On Monday I brought in some firewood, cleared the cobwebs out of our wood burner, and within a few minutes our family room was glowing with the kind of warmth that only a fire can produce. Unsurprisingly, the Yeoman Farm Children have begun camping out on the carpet in front of it to do their school work. Little Big Brother in particular likes to set up shop there, first thing after I fire it up in the morning, before his siblings come downstairs.

The arrival of fall has also led to a change of menu: soups and stews are back. I found a couple of lamb necks in the freezer, added a couple of chicken feet from this summer's crop of broilers, and let the whole thing soak for a couple of hours with an onion and carrot in a large pot of water with some apple cider vinegar. I then brought the thing to a boil and let it simmer all night. Around mid-day, I de-boned the meat and then added seasonings and a lot of sliced carrots and potatoes (a food processor makes quick work of these). That pot simmered all afternoon, and proved an extremely popular dinner. We had a couple of quarts left over for lunches, but it otherwise disappeared the first night. I made another pot yesterday, and it was again a popular dinner centerpiece.

I'll probably make lamb stew later in the week. My soups and stews are all basically simple variations on the same theme. With stew, I'll lightly marinate some lamb stew meat or shanks in the crock pot with a little apple cider vinegar and an onion for a few hours. I'll then add a bit of water, and let the crock pot run on low all night. By morning, the meat falls off the bone and is simmering in a wonderfully thick sauce. After removing the bones, I'll fill the crock pot with sliced carrots, potatoes, onions, seasonings, and the cooked stew meat. It then cooks on low the rest of the day. By afternoon, the whole house is filled with an incredible aroma...and by dinner, everyone is more than ready to dig in. We're usually lucky if there's a serving or two left over.

With eleven or so lambs going to the butcher in a couple of months, and a whole bunch of laying hens still needing to be butchered, we're trying to clear out as much of last year's meat as we can. I have a feeling we're going to be keeping the crock pot and soup pot full for a while.

27 September 2010

The Takedown

Late yesterday evening, I secured the barn and began walking back toward the house to call it a night. Remember that post over the summer, where I talked about what an important farm tool a pistol-grip spotlight is? I take that thing with me every time I go out at night, and am more or less constantly scanning the trees and fields as I walk. Last night, it proved itself especially useful. As I approached the house, I used the spotlight to illuminate the tall bushes near the back porch. Suddenly, a pair of eyes lit up in the middle of one of those bushes, about eight feet off the ground.

The eyes weren't moving, and my first thought was that they belonged to a cat. After all, when you have as many barn cats running around as we do, that's what these things usually end up being. And this animal's fur even appeared to be the same color as one of our cats. But as I drew closer, something about it didn't seem quite right. The head wasn't the right shape. And it wasn't sitting like a cat.

It looked like a possum. But since its tail was hidden in the bushes, and branches covered a fair amount of its body, I wanted to be sure before I did anything rash. I summoned Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, lit the animal up with the spotlight, and asked MYF if she thought it was a cat. "No way," she replied. We agreed it was definitely a possum. And I figured it was stalking the barn cats which congregate on the back porch at night.

MYF held the spotlight on the possum, to "freeze" it, while I dashed upstairs to retrieve what may be the most essential of farm tools: a 12-gauge Mossberg pump action shotgun. Back on the porch, I racked a shell of 00 Buck into the chamber, disengaged the safety, and lined the little predator up in my sights from about 25 feet away. One squeeze of the trigger, and he fell through the branches. He was still gripping the branch with that long muscular tail, and at first I wasn't sure I'd landed a lethal blow. But before I had to waste a second shot, he dropped to the lawn with a thud --- and it was clear from the wound that he wasn't "playing possum."

Just another night, living in the country, and marveling at the way all these different tools can work together for the safety of our property. And grateful that I'd remembered to give the spotlight a full charge the night before. And invested in a bulk case of 00 Buckshot, so we'd never have to worry about having some close at hand when we needed it.