A friend recently commented, in an email sent to several people spread out around the country:

So the cicadas have made their return to the Chicago area, these gross-looking insects that descend on the area every 17 years. But they are really starting to freak me out for a multitude of reasons. First, they tend to only come out at night so when I’m walking my dog, I’m finding myself inadvertently crushing one of the 100s of cicadas covering the sidewalks. Then last week, I got in my car in the early evening and had to wait for a large gathering of Lake Michigan seagulls to clear out the way–they were feasting on the cicadas.

What’s bizarre is that 17 years ago, I spent the summer in Chicago and had this same perspective on cicadas. They were obnoxious, and the low hum made it nearly impossible to sleep (particularly since it was so hot, and I was a starving student lacking A/C, so the windows were open all night).

The cicadas haven’t arrived here yet (about 90 minutes south of my friend’s neighborhood), but I must admit that I’m actually looking forward to when they come out from their long hibernation. Our large flock of free range ducks stays out all night, and I can already picture them working their way across the field feasting on these nasty critters. And then, when the laying hens come pouring out of the hen house first thing in the morning, they’ll clean up all the cicadas the ducks didn’t get to. Heck, I may be able to stop giving the birds supplemental feed.

Of course, the droning hum may have me singing a different tune after awhile. We still don’t have air conditionning, and it’ll be interesting to see how loud those cicadas will get. Not to mention the sounds of duck bills crushing lots of little bug bodies…

Doing this full time

Perhaps the most influential figure in the sustainable agriculture movement is Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms in Virginia. I’d also call him the most inspirational figure in that movement, because he has developed a working, profitable operation which integrates beef, pork, broilers, rabbits, and eggs. More than that, he takes in apprentices — and travels the country giving speeches, helping others get started. As his website details, you can visit his farm and see how he puts all the pieces together. Some neighbors of ours did just that on a family vacation a couple of years ago, and said it was the highlight of their trip.

Joel has also written a number of books, a couple of which were among the first we read after moving here. They have proven invaluable.

In the next few days, I’ll be putting up a post showing how we’ve incorporated his pastured poultry pens into our own farm.

Great Nests

We’ve had several ducks make nests and go broody, in various places all over the property. Some of these nests were in terribly unprotected places, and/or the mother ducks did a lousy job of tending their eggs, and those nests got destroyed.

Several are off in the high weeds, often inside the wire enclosures we’ve set up around young fruit trees to keep the sheep out. Somehow, ducks can manage to squeeze through or under any fence anyone can build…meaning they figure out odd places to make nests.

One that I especially like is this Khaki Campbell’s set-up, in the hollow of an enormous Green Ash tree that borders my vineyard.

And this Cayuga has picked perhaps the safest location: under a pile of old pallets. I don’t know how she manages to get in or out, but she’s been our most faithful nest-sitter this year.

As I said, there are many more such nests in various places around the property; too many to picture in just one post. I love having heritage breeds of ducks, like Cayugas and Magpies, which will hatch and brood their own young.

Although even the Khaki Campbells — a production egg duck — will hatch a clutch of eggs with the best of the heritage breeds, they have proven themselves to be absolutely horrible mothers. Time and again, I’ve seen them start with eight or ten hatchlings…only to lose one or two per day, until they have zero. Starting last year, we began simply taking ducklings away from the Khaki mothers and brooding them ourselves under heat lamps.

Of course, we can’t count our ducklings before they hatch. But hopefully we’ll be getting plenty of delicious duck before too long.

Memorial Day

Can’t think of a better song for Memorial Day.

As for our family, we took a drive over to the local cemetery this afternoon. The local American Legion and VFW did a wonderful job decorating graves with flags, and had a nice memorial set up at the base of the large flag pole. We walked around, praying for all the various people buried there, but particularly for the veterans. We then sat down on a couple of benches and said the rosary.

All in all, a nice way to spend a beautiful afternoon.

Farming for the Future

There is a really outstanding video out about a movement of small-scale farmers in Southeast Ohio, called “Farming for the Future”. Beautiful visuals, and excellent commentary from the farmers themselves about why they’re doing this and what it all means. Very thought-provoking, and inspiring. You can watch the streaming video here.

These folks are actually making money at organic farming, and it appears to be their full-time occupation, which puts them several steps beyond us. Our own focus is still on producing wholesome food for our family; we only sell excess production to others. But we do know folks who are able to do this kind of thing more or less full time, and this video gives a great view of that.

Some of the farmers give eloquent descriptions of their philosophical motivations and objections to conventional (chemical-based) farming; one in particular describes the “warfare technology” most farmers employ—which I think is an apt characterization. The video also does an excellent job of showing the connection between these farmers and the community (particularly at the farmers market). One thing that’s missing, though, is a sense of family involvement and how this style of farming provides harmony not only with nature but with the proper ordering of family life. They do show some husbands and wives farming together, but children are conspicuously absent. But that’s a minor quibble.

Thanks to Athos for alerting me to the video.

Just Plain Busted

Sometimes, unlike the situation with the busted pipe I recently blogged about, it’s just plain impossible to turn a lemon into lemonade.

We have several grape vines growing right behind the house, along a fence that subdivides the property. As these vines are so close to the house, I’ve been able to give them lots of attention the last few years. They’ve gotten plenty of water, and I’ve been able to protect them from Japanese Beetles. They’re far and away the healthiest vines on the property, because they’ve been close enough to get so much care.

Until this morning, when I went out to do the chores and discovered one of them had been utterly destroyed. It was only six feet from the back door, and our dog Scooter always sleeps at the foot of it. At first glance, it looked okay…just a little wilted.

But something was wasn’t quite right, so I took a closer look. The roots had been totally dug up, and the two stalks of the vine were snapped. Even quite a bit of the bark had been stripped off — almost like a deer or goat had attacked it. But a deer or goat would’ve devoured the leaves first; and besides, all the goats were secure. And deer never come this close to the house. And since when has a deer or goat dug up a vine from the roots?

I couldn’t prove it was Scooter, but I was highly suspicious. It also could’ve been Tabasco, who’s always digging up everything on the trail of mouse and rat nests. Between Tabasco’s digging and Scooter’s chewing, it could’ve been a team destruction effort.

This particular vine didn’t have a lot of fruit clusters on it, but it was the principle of the thing: I’d planted this vine, watered it, weeded it, pruned it, and cultivated it for years. It was beautiful, and it was thriving.

Sitting with the sheep later this morning, I had the chance to reflect on the vine and what the incident might be trying to say. On a farm, this kind of thing happens all the time: you spend months or years caring for some living thing (be it an animal, a bush, or a crop), but it’s a living thing. You go to bed and everything’s fine…and come out the next morning and it’s dead. We’ve had more than one beautiful ram drop dead from bloat or parasites. Sometimes there is a dead hen in the chicken house in the morning; no sign of struggle or predation…it just died in the night. In the blink of an eye, we’ve lost two different dogs to collisions with cars. I came home one afternoon and surprised a hawk devouring one of our ducks in the driveway. Our first mother goose sat on a nest for weeks, and her eggs were nearly ready to hatch, when I came out one morning to discover coyotes had torn her to pieces like a feather pillow.

I could continue this this list, but you get the picture: to have a farm is to have a constant education in the virtue of detachment. As you toil and “husband” your livestock and produce, you must never succumb to the temptation of admiring that handiwork and thinking it was all your own invincible doing. Because it can all be taken away overnight. This is something I was largely insulated from when I lived in the city, as I think is the case for most city-dwellers. But the things of this earth, even the ones that you’ve worked so hard to care for (and perhaps especially those things) really are passing away. And that’s a good thing to reflect on. We sure get plenty of chances to do so on the farm.

And now I’ve got to take these grape branches and feed them to the goats.

Creative Water

I recently posted about “making lemonade” from a busted drainage tile. Although it’ll take some work to fix, I wrote, at least the puddle of standing water means I don’t have to haul water to chickens and ducks.

Water is an important issue on every farm, and we were shocked to discover something remarkable about our house: it has no outside hose hookups. None. The first day we moved in, I walked around and around the exterior of the building, looking for a place to put the hose. Zip. Zero. Nada. And there were no hookups on any of the outbuildings. I had to hook the hose up in the basement. If we need water outside, there are two options: string the hose up and out the back door of the house, or haul it out of the basement in five gallon buckets. As you might imagine, the first year we were here both of those options got really old. Really fast.

The nice thing about hauling five gallon buckets of water all over a five acre property is it gives you plenty of time (and incentive) to think of a better way of doing things. None of the outbuildings even have water running to them, so digging trenches from the house and laying pipe would’ve been a big hassle.

But I started to notice something. Every time it rained, there were puddles on the ground. As long as those puddles lasted, I didn’t have to haul water. I began celebrating every time it rained, and praying the puddles would last as long as possible. And I wished I could have puddles all the time.

Something inside my head clicked. Rainwater. Save the rainwater and make it last. How can I save the rainwater and make it last? WATER TANKS! Hook up a good set of gutters on all the outbuildings, run them into enormous water tanks, attach a valve to each one, and presto! Instant puddles, any time I want one!

This photo shows the 1500 gallon tank we hooked up on the back of an old garage. My first vineyard borders this building, and a flock of ducks has the run of that area. Notice the yellow handle at the bottom of the tank; that’s how we open the valve and let water out. There is a hose attached to that valve, so I can run water downhill to anywhere in the vineyard. And with a hose extension, I can reach the sheep stock tanks in the pasture. (BTW, note the organic compost heap next to the tank.)

There is a similar 1500 gallon tank on the big barn, and a 1050 gallon tank behind my office building. They are far and away the best investment we’ve made, at least as far as my back is concerned. Each one was only about $300 or so, but the biggest challenge was finding a way to get them here. The solution was to hire a neighbor who has an enormous flatbed trailer; for $50, he went with me to the farm supply store 18 miles away and helped me haul them home.

An absolute bargain, any way you look at it.

Busted Pipe Lemonade

You know that expression, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? It happens all the time when you live on a farm. The lemons, anyway. Making lemonade is where you need to get creative.

One example: in July, we get inundated with Japanese Beetles. They wreak a horrible toll on grape vines, to the point where I wonder why I bother trying to grow grapes organically around here at all. I’ll post more about it in July, but we’ve developed a partial solution: put out lots of pheromone traps, drown the beetles we catch, and feed them to the chickens. Free protein!

More recently, we had a piece of drainage tile break. It’s one of those plastic pipes, buried about 2-3 feet down, that helps drain the property. I noticed a big puddle developing in a certain spot, and from time to time bubbles would appear. When that spot never got dry, I knew the water had to be coming from below. I got out a shovel, and spent some time excavating the area. Eventually, I found the tile—and, sure enough, could feel a small hole in the top of it. As soon as I’d bail all the water out of the hole, more would bubble out of the pipe. Grrrrr.

Eventually, I’m going to have to dig a much larger hole and expose the whole pipe so it can be fixed. But for now, I’ve been trying to make lemonade. With this constant puddle of water, I don’t have to take water to the chickens and ducks! At all!

Or so I’ve told myself for the last couple of weeks. Now, my wife has reminded me of two things: (1) kids have a remarkable way of falling into puddles of water, and two feet is plenty big enough for drowning; and (2) standing water is a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes. She wants my lemonade puddle gone. Yesterday.

Looks like the Yeoman Farmer will be getting his shovel out again this weekend…


When I first planted a vineyard, I imagined that pruning the vines would be a once-a-year project. I figured I’d get a pair of clippers, walk up and down the aisles, and trim where necessary. And that would be that.

Was I ever wrong.

Particularly in their first few years, when they’re getting established, grape vines have a tendency to put out all kinds of unwanted growth. My vines seem especially prone to develop shoots from the lower trunk, far below the trellis line. In theory, those shoots could be left to grow—but they will not be productive, and will simply drain energy that the vine could be putting to a better use. Each morning, as I walk up and down the aisles of the vineyard looking for duck eggs, I also keep an eye on the trunks of the vines. Any little shoots like these that I see, and I immediately pluck them off. Better for the vine as a whole to nip this growth in the bud before letting it take extra nutrients for itself.

And, in that early morning quiet, it occurs to me that this is really a metaphor for ourselves and our own lives: a big part of growing up into mature, responsible adulthood is to scrape off these new little growths that—while not evil or diseased in themselves—aren’t compatible with our overall maturity and spiritual health.

It’s easy to spot the large dead branches; these are big things that were important to us when we were younger, but that we must “put aside” to concentrate on being a better spouse or parent. For many of us, that might have been a hobby or an athletic pursuit that we really shouldn’t dedicate so much time to anymore. You name it. We all had things like that before we got married, and they were probably pretty obvious to most of us—even if some of those big dead branches took longer to actually prune than we’d like to admit.

But these smaller growths are harder to spot, and easier to ignore. They’re the selfish tendencies and comfort-seeking that crop up, almost without our noticing, and distract us from doing what we should for those entrusted to us. Maybe they’re not a significant drag on us at first, but would surely become so if left to develop. And we need to be alert, to get them at the beginning.

Anyway, that’s what I think about in my vineyard.