Kidding Around

Our goat kids are now five weeks old, and have taught themselves a new trick: jumping onto Mom’s back. One leap, and they’re perched on top of her. Actually, this is nothing compared to their antics running around the barn while we’re milking the two does. They scramble impossibly high up onto piles of hay and straw bales, and perch gracefully even when the bales start tottering. Reminds me that goats, for all we’ve domesticated them, are still basically mountain creatures. And they sure are fun to watch.

Special Delivery

Apart from the lifestyle and being able to produce healthy food for our family, one of the most rewarding things about a small farm is providing specialty products to people who truly appreciate them.

A prime example is duck eggs. Unless you live in an Asian enclave, you will never find duck eggs for sale in an American supermarket. There are many reasons, but it’s chiefly because (1) you can’t cram ducks into factory-style cages like you can with hens; and (2) there is little market for burned-out laying ducks. Most laying hens become Chicken Noodle Soup; there is no similar commercial demand for ducks. But free range laying ducks are a wonderful addition to a small farm: they are easy to raise, fun to watch, and provide plenty of large delicious eggs. The fat content is slightly higher than in chicken eggs, giving them a richer flavor. And there’s nothing as good as duck soup.

But most importantly, some people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat duck eggs. Several such people have found us, and they’re now among our most loyal customers. Every time I’m in the Chicago area, I email them…and they figure out a way to meet me to get their duck eggs. Tomorrow, I am taking ten dozen to a woman in the city who had to go without eggs all winter as our ducks were taking a collective break. Last Friday, when my daughter and I walked around the Loop, our first stop was at an office building near St. Peter’s; an executive, who’d last been able to get our eggs in November, happily came down to get three dozen from us. Chatting with him in the lobby about all he planned to do with the long-awaited eggs, the excitement in his voice was palpable. He emailed me a few days later, again thanking us for the delivery…and asking when we’d be able to bring more.

And then there’s my Filipino customer, who lives in the far western suburbs. He is disabled, but has made a side business of taking our duck eggs and brining them in buckets of salt water; this product is a big seller in the Filipino community. He and his wife have driven all over Chicagoland, meeting me in crazy places (usually at the airport before dawn, when I have a business trip), buying upwards of 30 dozen at a time.

Before we started doing this, I wondered why so many people refer to farming as a “vocation.” The more customers we get to meet, the better I understand it. You can’t do this for the money—and not just because, after the expenses, there is so little profit to a micro enterprise like ours. It’s because there’s no way to put a price on the smile a person gives you, or the heartfelt gratitude they express, when you’ve brought them something they cannot find anywhere else.

March Is Out Like A…


When I went out to the sheep this morning, I noticed that one of them (Maybelle) did not join the flock in rushing to the hay feeder. She was hanging out by herself, near the pasture shelter, just watching the activity. In recent days, I’d observed her spending a lot of time laying down and straggling behind the rest of the flock. Also, her udder was noticeably enlarged. Given that Maybelle is always our earliest lamber, and now she was clearly displaying the “loner” behavior associated with labor, it was time to take action—especially since the weather had turned overcast and chilly. Maybelle’s unexpectedly early (cold weather) deliveries have led to three lost lambs over the years, and the last thing we needed was a repeat.

Maybelle has two problems: (1) she is the only “polled” (hornless) sheep in our flock. All the others have nice horns, making them relatively easy to catch and lead around. (2) She’s by far the wildest and flightiest in the flock, making her the hardest to even approach. In the past, I’ve chased her around the pasture for 15 or more minutes before I could trap or exhaust her. Fortunately, her advanced pregnancy would mean a short chase this morning — but I wondered how, once I had her, I’d be able to move her from the pasture to the barn.

With a bit of sadness, I ran and retrieved Tessa’s collar from my office. After a small adjustment, it fit Maybelle perfectly. (Note, in the photo below, the rabies tag is still in place. Maybelle is probably the only sheep in the county with such a tag.) However, even with the collar, Maybelle dug in her hooves and refused to move. My solution was to pull on her collar with one hand while grabbing her rump with the other—while Scooter barked in her face. At last, Maybelle began moving. A few minutes later, though I was covered in mud, Maybelle was in the small stall in the back of the barn. (The same one which Queen Anne’s Lace the Goat used for kidding, and which I got her and the kids moved out of just in time this weekend.) I got her some fresh hay and water, turned on a light, and left her alone for the rest of the morning.

When I took a break for lunch, I stopped by the barn before going to the house. Maybelle had delivered two beautiful ewe lambs! Both were still wet, and the afterbirth was still emerging from Maybelle’s rear, but the lambs were up and looking lively. Maybelle was busily licking them off, and I saw one start to nurse before I left. Once the children are ready from a break in the school day, I’m sure they’ll be out to the barn to admire the new lambs. Otherwise, though, the plan is to leave the three of them in peace for the day as they get settled in.

Maybelle is amazing: this is now five years in a row she has twinned (every single ancestor of hers, on both sides of the pedigree, was also a twin…so I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that she’s a reliable twinner).

She comes from a very milky line, and we’ve always wanted to milk her, but with having twins every year…they end up talking all the milk. Plus, when you add her flightiness and lack of horns, even getting her into the stanchion takes more effort than the milk is worth. But her fleeces always provide beautiful wool, and her lambs are always the biggest at butchering time. So who needs her milk, anyway?

Too difficult?

A few weeks back, I blogged about a scientific study which had confirmed the effectiveness of Natural Family Planning.

Now, a piece in Scientific American criticizes that study, saying it is hopelessly unrealistic for couples to abstain for the time during which a woman is fertile each cycle.

Hilda Hutcherson, an ob-gyn and co-director of the New York Center for Women’s Sexual Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, found that her patients often stop using periodic abstinence methods after only a few months. “It’s difficult to abstain from sex for two out of four weeks,” she says. “That means half the month you can’t have sex. That’s very difficult for young couples.”

I suspect that some NFP-backers will respond by arguing that the average couple has to abstain for less than two weeks each cycle, or that the average couple using NFP has relations as many times per month as other American married couples do. But while these statistics are accurate, I believe that citing them is counterproductive in making the case for NFP.

First off, there are couples using NFP who, due to irregular cycles and extremely serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy, must abstain for significantly more than two weeks. The more times such couples hear the mantras about how easy NFP is, the more likely it is that they will grow discouraged or wonder why they’ve been cursed with so few opportunities to be together. Some might even conclude that all the talk about “less than two weeks” and “just as many times per month as other couples” is simply an elaborate bait-and-switch, and abandon NFP. Perhaps that’s why some of Dr. Hutcherson’s patients stopped using it. (Or, perhaps some of them simply decided it was now time to get pregnant…but that’s an issue for another day.)

But more importantly, to respond in such a way is to accept the critics’ premise—and their framing of the issue as a question of “functionality.” Under this frame, NFP is unacceptable and should not be promoted because the measurable output (avoiding pregnancy during a given cycle) requires far more of an input (abstaining for two weeks) than anyone but the most religiously zealous (who are no doubt putting up with the abstinence only because they fear burning in hell) should be expected to provide.

Instead, I think those in the NFP movement can learn a lesson in argumentation from those who farm with draft animals. Plowing, planting, and harvesting crops with horses is a much slower and labor intensive process than using tractors and combines. The measurable outputs (bushels per acre) per unit of time and effort invested are significantly poorer than what can be achieved with mechanization. And many who use draft horses (particularly the Amish) are motivated by religious concerns. However, there still remain a number of draft horse enthusiasts who are not motivated by religion, and who still use these animals in the fields. One of the leaders in this movement is Mr. Lynn R. Miller, author of several books and editor/publisher of The Small Farmer’s Journal, which is dedicated to promoting farming with draft animals.

Miller never argues that this method of farming is easy, or that it isn’t much more difficult than conventional methods of production. As he says on his website:

It is an evasive and subtle craft but it can be learned. In order to succeed you must seek out good help during the learning process. For the small diversified farm or ranch, horsepower is not just an option, it is a tremendous plus for self-sufficiency.


Can I make a decent living with a small farm? Yes. And the good news is that it ain’t easy. You have to work hard and use your imagination and creativity. That’s the fun and rewarding part. The hard part will be making the decision, the commitment, and taking the plunge.

In other words, it sounds a lot like Natural Family Planning! Sure, some may initially approach it because of religious motivations. And it does take an investment of time to learn the method and understand it. But, the longer we use this method, the more rewarding we find it.

And why is that true, even when (and perhaps especially when) the periods of abstinence are long? It’s because NFP practitioners approach the marital relationship holistically, much like the teamster approaches his small farm. A farmer who is only in it for the bushels per acre is a sad and one-dimensional farmer; the farmer who works with his horses through the natural cycles of production and rest can find great satisfaction in that process. The same can be said for spouses: it is sad when unity is only measured by the physical dimension. In fact, for a healthy marriage, many dimensions of unity must be cultivated; artificial contraception allows spouses to ignore these and cut to the physical whenever they like. NFP, precisely because it has the admittedly-difficult periods of abstinence, leads spouses to cultivate all the other dimensions of their relationship and fit them together in their proper places.

I think this line of argument is the most effective response to pieces like the one in Scientific American. NFP is much more than a method of avoiding pregnancy, and we must challenge those who seek to reduce it to such. In terms of ease and maximizing opportunities for physical relations, NFP loses to the Pill as readily as draft horses lose to tractors — regardless of whether the period of abstinence is seven days or fourteen or twenty-one. Rather, we need to step back and re-frame the issue as one of maximizing total marital health and happiness at times when avoiding pregnancy is necessary. In that comparison, NFP wins going away.

Official End of Winter

Doesn’t matter what the calendar says…around here, the Yeoman Farmer thinks spring officially arrives when it’s possible to get the 1975 Fiat Spider project car out of the barn and back on the road. Surprisingly, she started right up yesterday. One of the tires needed air, and the whole car needs a good wash, but other than that everything was fine. (Next year I’m going to do a better job of shrouding the car for the winter … never had this much dust and crud before.) I drove her up and down our road several times, running through the gears and warming the motor up, and she’s ready to rip.

With a full week of temps forecast in the 70s, I’m hoping to get some miles rolled up as I clear out the remaining cobwebs. Who says farm life should be all work and no fun? And what good is a barn if you don’t have a project car to work on in it?

Soil and Seed

This afternoon was the annual “Soil and Seed Mass,” held this year at a parish in Gilman (about a half hour north of us). Bishop J. Peter Sartain was down from Joliet, and he was accompanied by four priests from surrounding parishes (including ours).

Everyone in attendance brought a big bag or box of various seeds and/or a sample of soil from the garden. After the homily, Bishop Sartain had us hold up our soil and seeds so he could deliver a solemn blessing over them. He then walked all over the church, accompanied by an altar boy, sprinkling the soil and seeds with holy water.

After Mass, everyone gathered in the parish hall for a pot luck supper. Our children excitedly told the bishop about our new goat kids, and he seemed impressed. We chatted and got caught up with several families we know from the surrounding area, including the elderly couple which sold us our goat buck last year. (Every time they see us at Mass, they ask us how our goats are doing.)

I think what impressed me the most was how many rural families came together for this whole event, and what a wonderful display of faith and community life it was. This was the first time I’d attended one of these, and it struck me as being an essential part of the “glue” which makes rural life so special. Hard to believe spring is here, and in just a few weeks we’ll all be out planting. And watching for these blessed seeds to start emerging from the ground.


I managed to get the rest of the goat stall shoveled out (actually “pitchforked out”) Saturday afternoon. And, dozens of loads of rotting hay and straw later, the vineyard is nearly completely mulched. Turned out there was exactly enough to thoroughly mulch every grape vine and every blackberry bramble, with some left over to do quite a bit of mulching between vines.

But am I ever sore! As I told my wife last night, I feel the way I used to when I’d spend all Saturday afternoon riding 100 miles on my bicycle. Funny, though, but it was an extremely satisfying kind of all-over soreness. The kind of soreness that says “I spent myself, pulled through, and finished off something big.” Admitedly, some of the mulch still needs to be spread a bit more. And the trellis is going to need some repairing. But none of that takes away from the sense of satisfaction and peace at having gotten over a big hurdle. And I had no trouble getting to sleep last night.

Meanwhile, the goats have all been reunited in the large stall that includes access to the outside, with lots of fresh straw. The two adults butted heads for awhile and struggled to establish dominance; they’ve been separated for several weeks now, so it was interesting to watch them fight it out. By bedtime, they seemed to have settled their issues. For their part, the goat kids are having a grand old time with all this space to run around in.

Here versus There

My daughter and I spent the day together in Chicago. This is another nice thing about homeschooling and the flexibility it affords: she knuckled down and got all her work done for the week on Thursday. Ditto for me, being self-employed: I got all my work done last night, and told clients that any additional requests would have to wait for Monday. Everyone was fine with that, so Daddy-Daughter day was a go.

We caught a Metra commuter train, and that hour-long part of the trip was itself part of the thrill for her. We sat on the upper deck and watched the exurban sprawl melt into suburbs, and suburbs melt into urban blight … and then finally the urban brilliance of Chicago emerged. We went to Mass at St. Peter’s in the Loop, and then had nothing in particular on the agenda.

The weather was miserable (it reminded me of a stereotypical gray and drizzly Seattle day), but she didn’t seem to mind. She insisted that we go to the top of the Sears Tower, even though it was so socked-in that we couldn’t see above the 60th floor from the sidewalk. “That’s okay!” she assured me, eyes all a-sparkle. “I want to go in the clouds!”

So, into the clouds we went. I’ll say this: at least we had the place to ourselves. Apart from a few foreign tourists (who all snapped pictures of the “103” floor display on the elevator, while jabbering in Asian languages), the elevator and Sky Deck were empty. We went from window to window, trying to find even the tiniest break in the clouds, but we found none. Turns out the people at the ground floor were right when they listed visibility as “zero.” We couldn’t even see the sidewalk, and we weren’t high enough to be above the clouds. The windows all seemed to be painted gray.

But that was okay with her. She was in the clouds. We called Grandma and Grandpa, and she excitedly told them where she was. Her smile was well worth the twenty bucks we’d paid for the elevator ride.

Back down at the sidewalk, the rain had stopped. We walked all over the Loop, holding hands, gradually making our way to Michigan Avenue. We got a couple of books at the Catholic bookstore, and then had lunch at the train station before heading home. After all that walking, it was all both of us could do to stay awake on the train.

Both of us had a wonderful time, but I think we both came home more appreciative of the quiet and smaller scale of our own rural community. I want our kids to experience the things the city has to offer (even if sometimes it’s nothing more than a walk in the clouds), but to live their lives in a closer-knit environment that is more in keeping with a “human” scale of life and values.

But you know what was the best part? Both of us had a full day with the other’s undivided attention. Neither of us gets enough of that, and I’ve firmly resolved that this kind of extended one-on-one time with each of the children absolutely must become a regular feature of our family life.

And With Spring…

It’s time to shovel out the goat stall. Amazing how much bedding has accumulated since we cleared it out last summer. The goat kids are four weeks old now, and we want to get them and Queen Anne’s Lace The Goat out of the little stall and back into the larger area that includes access to the outside. The kids are doing very well, and are bundles of energy. They really need more space, but I just haven’t had time to get the larger stall ready; we wanted to get all the old bedding out, and lots of nice clean bedding down, before bringing them into it.

The solution: I’ve been chipping away at it, day by day, as a nice afternoon break from office work. It’s remarkable how wonderful it is to take a pitchfork and drive it into that stuff; there’s something about good physical labor that really helps clear one’s mind at the end of a long day.
One wheelbarow load at a time, I’ve been taking it from the barn to my vineyard that’s fairly close by. I’m averaging about 2-3 wheelbarow loads per day. I think that’s the key lesson I’ve learned from trying combine a small farm with a small consulting practice: stop waiting for a big chunk of time before you tackle a project, and don’t be afraid to do a little at a time. Bit by bit, that horrible old bedding is disappearing — and, one row at a time, the vineyard is getting mulched. Here is Double Play, hanging out on what’s left of the old bedding. Note how deep it is, and how much is still left to do.

The stuff at the bottom of the bedding is basically composted, it’s so far deteriorated. Closer to the top, it’s still basically rotting hay and straw. While not perfect organic compost that could be used in the garden, it makes a nice mulch for the vineyard. The composted portion provides nutrients for the soil, while the intact portion blocks weeds and absorbs rainwater. And over time, the rainwater will slowly leach additional nutrients out of the mulch and into the vineyard soil.

Spring at Last

I was out in the vineyard yesterday, looking at the still-dormant grape vines, wondering if we’d lost any to the bitter cold this winter. Then, as I was getting ready to leave, I took a closer look at the blackberry brambles at the north end of the vineyard.

Buds! Spring is truly here at last.