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.


The elaborate stained glass windows in medieval churches were more than just beautiful: in an era of widespread illiteracy, they were also instructive to the faithful. Many lessons about Christ and the saints and church history could be communicated graphically, without a single written word.

It’s sad that so many of these windows were lost from American churches during the wreck-o-vation frenzy of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and unfortunate that modern churches are being built with such banal windows. But take a drive to the country, where money was generally too tight to squander on demolishing perfectly good artwork and liturgical furnishings, and you can find some absolute gems.

A prime example is St. Peter’s in Piper City, which I mentioned in a post several weeks ago. The church’s stained glass windows are nothing short of stunning—but, at the same time, they are also educational. That became especially clear to me this morning, when we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension (don’t get me started on our, uh, disappointment that this feast has been moved from its proper day — that’s a subject for another post). During his homily, the priest directed our attention to the massive window depicting the Ascension (the photo I’ve included doesn’t do this window justice; all I had was a cell phone camera this morning). He then walked us through the symbolism in that image, primarily that the Lord is depicted wearing rose-colored vestments and surrounded by the apostles. Rose is a color of rejoicing, which is an important message of this feast: the apostles returned to town with great joy, and went out to spread the Good News. We need to do the same, and he encouraged us to be more joyful and more apostolic.

The priest’s use of the stained glass window made his homily much more memorable and powerful. I imagine that in the future, when the congregation returns for Mass, even after this particular priest has moved on to another assignment, those who view the Ascension window will see it in a different light (no pun intended) than they did before today. That window will continue teaching the congregation for a long time to come.

Of course, what made the window a powerful teaching tool is that the priest took the time to explain its symbolism — and the relevance of that symbolism for us. I’d looked at that window a hundred times, and had seen only a beautiful picture. Going forward, I will look at it and see a beautiful lesson. I’m not usually one to offer advice to the clergy, but for what it’s worth: if you’re blessed with a treasury of beautiful artwork in your church, help your congregation understand and take advantage of it. It’s a shame so few churches still have these treasures. It’s an even bigger shame when congregations don’t understand, and can’t fully take advantage of, the treasures that surround them.

Death Row

The garden is now largely planted, but there has been a problem: one chicken in particular has repeatedly managed to find a way in and tear up the tender young seedlings. We tried chasing her out, but she’s been extremely resourceful in getting back in. Most mornings when I wake up, she’s already out there poking around.

Around here, that earns a chicken a one-way ticket to Death Row. Particularly since this one is a meat breed that I simply didn’t get butchered last year (and her useless eggs are the size of marbles), her time is up. This old dog cage is where our fowl spend their last hours; the metal cone is what we use for actually butchering them. The bird goes upside down into that cone, then I slit the throat and let the bird bleed to death (kosher style). This method is very effective at bleeding the bird thoroughly, and is much less messy than the “cut the head off with an axe and watch it run around the barnyard” method.

My wife also suspects our three Guinea fowl have been tearing up the garden, and I was preparing to butcher them today as well. But she, acting as Governor, decided to give them a last minute stay of execution. We strongly suspect that this one chicken has been responsible for the bulk of the damage, and she’s willing to spare the Guineas for a few days. If the garden remains unmolested, the Guineas live. If not…I’m getting out my .22 rifle and going hunting. (Guineas fly so well, and roost so high in the barn, they’re nearly impossible to catch.) I really like the Guineas a lot, so I hope they behave themselves. They’re wonderful bug-catchers, and with Japanese Beetle season (and the seventeen year locusts) just over a month away, I’d like to have all hands on deck. Stay tuned.

Out to the Ball Game

Our kids became big White Sox fans during the 2005 playoffs, and watched a great many games with me last year on television. Finally, today, we were able to attend a game at U.S. Cellular Field (aka Comisky Park) on the South Side. My wife, meanwhile, treasured the eight hours of quiet time she’d be getting at home.

We managed to arrive with plenty of time before the first pitch, but faced a tough decision at the ticket counter: great seats for $59 each, so-so seats for forty something bucks, or nosebleed seats for $25? Given that we had to buy four tickets, I opted for the $25 option, but felt guilty about not splurging for the big event. That guilty feeling lasted for exactly ten seconds, however. When I told the kids we were going to the upper deck, all three of them cheered. “Yeah! We get to be on the top level!” They got just as excited about riding the escalator. And once we got to our nosebleed seats, they actually asked if we could go all the way up and sit in the very top row. I explained that we really wouldn’t be able to see anything from up there, and they seemed to accept this answer. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help comparing their attitude to our experience with Christmas: no matter how expensive the gift, what they enjoy the most is playing with the box it came in. These upper deck seats were the box. And they loved being up there on top of the world.

The park was surprisingly full, for a Thursday afternoon; announced attendance was over 30,000. Schools must be letting out for the summer, because there were many children there. Anyway, it was a spectacular day to be at the ballpark: sunny, warm, light wind, blue skies. On reflection, I guess it wasn’t surprising so many people were there.

The Sox played a great game, and our kids had fun interjecting all the play-by-play terminology that the team’s legendary announcer, Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson uses on television: “He gone,” after a strikeout; “can of corn,” for an easy pop fly; “duck snort,” for a flare single; and “you can put it on the board…YES!” after a home run. It’s really fun how these kinds of things have become a family ritual with me and the kids.

There was a group of twenty or so people in front of us who were clearly all together. Many kids, and several parents punching away on Blackberries and Treos. Most of the kids were about the same age as our own, in the 8-12 range. As I watched those kids, I couldn’t help noticing how much “older” than our children they seemed. Not sure how else to describe it. It wasn’t a question of maturity. There was something in the way they dressed, and carried themselves, and interacted with each other that seemed to speak of growing up faster than our children are. Our kids seemed so much more…what’s the word I’m looking for? Innocent? And I mean that in a good and healthy way. Something about the children in front of us just seemed to speak of having been marketed to their whole lives, and to immersion in youth culture. Don’t get me wrong: they seemed like very nice kids. But they seemed to be living on a different planet from our own. And I like our planet better than theirs.
One little example: As much as our kids love the Sox, we’ve emphasized that we do not cheer against other teams or hope other teams lose. Our children have no concept of “rivalries.” On the rare occasion when the Chicago Cubs win a game (sorry, had to throw that in), our kids think it’s great that another Chicago team has picked up a victory. When the Sox play the Mariners, they know Daddy cheers for the Mariners…but he’s not upset if the Sox win, and they’re not heartbroken if Seattle wins.
Why do I bring this up? As we were walking to the ballpark today, several vendors were out in the parking lot selling t-shirts. One of these had shirts declaring “CUBS SUCK,” and other (unprintable) derogatory things about the Lovable Losers on the northside. I tried to hustle the kids past these vendors, but my daughter couldn’t help spotting them. “Daddy,” she asked, “What does that mean: Cubs ‘SOU-kay’?” Although part of me was tempted to burst out laughing, I immediately caught myself…and was overcome with gratitude that this beautiful little eight year old girl was so innocent that she didn’t even know the word “suck” — let alone understand that it could be used to denigrate a rival. Heck, she didn’t even understand the concept of “rivalry.” I told her it was a silly shirt, and that she shouldn’t look at these things. And that was good enough for her.
A moment later, as we approached the gate of the ballpark, my oldest son excitedly commented, “This is so much fun already!” I gave them all a hug, and replied, “And it’s only going to get more fun.” And I marveled at how easy it was to entertain them. They haven’t been saturated with contemporary media culture. They haven’t been bombarded with children’s television programming, or cartoons, or movies, or marketing campaigns. They’ve had the freedom to be kids. They’re still childlike, which is exactly what children should be.
Thank God for that. And hopefully we can keep them that way for a long, long time.

Soup’s On

I’m typing this as I’m waiting for my bowl of chicken soup to cool enough to eat.

One of the unexpected benefits of having a farm overrun with laying hens and laying ducks is that these birds make wonderful soups and stocks when culling time comes. A laying hen has a good productive life of two years; for a laying duck, it’s usually about three years. We color coordinate our hens each year, so we can always know the age of the various birds within the flock. Three years ago, we had Rhode Island Reds. Two years ago, we had Black Australorps. Last fall, when eggs slowed to a trickle, I filled the freezer with Rhode Island Reds. This spring, we will be raising Buff Orpingtons, a gold-colored chicken. This fall, once the Buffs start laying, the Australorps will all go in the freezer.

We then make soup with those birds all year long. Typically, I take one out of the freezer and let it thaw until Saturday afternoon. Saturday evening, I put it in a stock pot (feet and all – the feet are filled with gelatin) with some apple cider vinegar, a carrot, and an onion. It sits for an hour or so, then I put it on the heat. Once it boils, I skim any scum off the top (usually there’s very little), then replace the cover, reduce the heat, and let it simmer all night. In the morning, I pour everything through a colander into a second stock pot. The chicken meat stays in the colander to cool, while I slice onions, potatoes, and carrots to add to the liquid. I also add salt, pepper, basil, and oregano. By the time the liquid returns to a boil, I’ve usually managed to de-bone the chicken. I tear the meat into small pieces, and add it to the liquid. Let simmer for another hour or so, and turn off the heat. Let it cool all afternoon, and in the evening I ladle all the soup into quart jars for refrigeration. There’s usually enough soup for 1.5 quarts each day for lunch. Once I run low, I get another bird out of the freezer.

The procedure is basically the same with ducks, but since Khaki Campbell ducks are so small we usually use two at a time. Sometimes, for variety, I’ll use neck bones from our sheep.

These soups are incredibly rich in nutrients, and absolutely delicious. Also very convenient, because a whole week’s worth can be easily made at once. Try it just once, and you’ll never again be able to eat the stuff that comes from a can. Especially when you compare the life of a chicken-noodle-soup hen with that of a free range farm hen.

Time to eat lunch.