Unwanted Guest

I was up in Chicago on business all morning today, and took advantage of the trip to deliver chicken and duck eggs to a chef in Lincoln Park who really appreciates them (on the menu, “farm egg” and “poached duck egg” are the references to our produce). Battling early morning traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway (it was more of a parking lot than an “expressway”) made me all the more appreciative of where we now live — not to mention the roughly 100 yard commute from the farmhouse to my office building.

My meetings concluded at about 1pm. As I headed to the car, looking forward to returning to the country, I listened to a voice message that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer (MYF) had left. Her tone was frantic but not panicked, and she spoke quickly as she relayed the information: One of the kids had come in to the back porch and started screaming. MYF dashed to the back porch, just in time to see this “huge, five to seven foot long, really big around” snake slithering down the steps to the basement. She secured the basement door, and Artistic Girl posted a sign reading “No one allowed in basement. There is a SNAKE.”

Once in the car, I called home and MYF and I discussed a plan of action. First, off, we concluded that the snake probably wasn’t poisonous…but we couldn’t be sure. It was probably like the big Bull Snake that I’d run over with the riding mower a few years back — enormous, but more beneficial (as a mouse and rat eater) than dangerous to people. Still, this thing had to be gotten out of the basement ASAP. Given the horrible traffic, it’d be at least 2-3 hours before I could get home. By then, the snake could be camped out under/behind Who Knows What down in that basement. But I assured MYF that as soon as I arrived, I’d find the square headed shovel (nice flat striking surface), track down the snake, and dispatch it. And I must say that for the typical male, there is nothing quite so exciting as the idea of being able to slay a serpent to save his frightened damsel.

But if by chance that thing thing was poisonous, I didn’t want it in the house another minute. The idea of a big, fat, seven foot long monster in my basement for even 2-3 hours, as I was stuck in Chicago traffic, began to worry me. I gave a quick call to my friend Mike, who is an avid outdoorsman and hunter — and who lives less than 2 miles from us. He assured me that it was almost certainly a bull snake, and that there aren’t poisonous snakes around here. We discussed snakes for a few more minutes, and then he said: “Do you want me to go over there and take it out?”

I told him that I’d be perfectly happy to do it myself when I got home, but that if he didn’t mind going over and taking a look, that’d be great. Because as much as I wanted to slay that serpent, it was more important for my family that the serpent get slain (or at least out of our basement) as quickly as possible.

The phone rang about 45 minutes later. “Mission Accomplished!” Mike’s familiar voice laughed. He’d found it under a pile of junk, deep in the basement, after only a few minutes of searching. He hacked it with a hoe, and then tossed it in the ditch across the street from our house. I thanked him profusely, as had MYF.

Turns out, the thing was only about 4 feet long and about an inch in diameter. But that’s still much bigger than anything I want in my basement, no matter how many mice it may consume.

Surprise Visitors

It’s hard to overstate the fascination that small farms have for people who don’t yet have one.

Yesterday afternoon, I’d been in town for about an hour and a half. I arrived back home at about 4:15, and shortly thereafter a car pulled into our driveway. I didn’t recognize it, so strolled from the barn to investigate. It was a middle-aged married couple.

“Did you get our message?” the woman asked.

“I just got home,” I replied.

“Oh,” she continued, “We found you on the Internet and we were in Tuscola [about 45-60 minutes south of here] and we didn’t know if you’d be home but we decided to take a chance and see if we could come see the farm.”

We’re listed in a couple of different online directories of small scale farmers, but she couldn’t remember which one she’d pulled up. Turns out, they live in Florida but have recently purchased a 20 acre spread in Arkansas, to which they hope to move (and eventually retire on) in the next few years. They’d like to have “a little bit of everything,” more or less like us, and wanted to see first hand how we’re doing that. Like us, they don’t want to make money at it. They just want control over their own food supply, and to perhaps sell some surplus to others who appreciate where that food came from. Unlike us, however, they also want to have horses — and that’s why they were in Tuscola. There is an Amish community down there, and they’d come to take lessons in driving horses (e.g. “horse and buggy”). They had some free time, and figured they’d come take a look at our farm.

“You’re just in time for chores,” I told them, which they thought was quite exciting. They followed me all over the property, as I tended to the various animals. We fed the ducks and chickens, checked on the sheep, inspected the grape vines, gathered eggs, and so forth. They admired the chicks in the brooder, and the turkey poults in the pasture pen, and were impressed with Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s garden. They were particularly delighted by the several mother ducks quacking around with their broods of ducklings.

They stayed for about 45 minutes, and then had to head back to Tuscola. I went into the house to wash eggs, and found myself thinking about why we like farming so much: apart from the rural lifestyle and good food, it’s all the people we’ve been able to meet and share our farm with.

I should add: If you’re ever in East Central Illinois and would like a tour of our farm, we’d by all means enjoy having you visit. But please contact us more than an hour in advance. We’d hate to have you show up when we weren’t home to meet you.

The Chickenator

The mother hen and her chicks are now very active, and all six chicks are doing extremely well. All it takes is a few insistent clucks, and the whole clutch falls into line.

They spend their nights back under the stanchion, and their days patrolling the barn. They seem to spend most of their time in the goat stall. Henney Penney scratches up a section of soiled litter, steps back, clucks instructively as she bobs her beak toward the scratched-up section, and the six chicks swarm in to look for bugs, larvae, and seed-heads. A minute later, Henney Penney moves on to the next section of litter.

By the time these chicks grow up and move out of the barn, the goat litter will be very nicely aerated. Call it “chickenated,” by the “chickenator.” Then we’ll shovel it out and take it to the vineyard, where it will make a wonderful organic mulch.

Getting to Work

The turkeys are getting to work. Yesterday afternoon, the kids helped me move the the turkey poults (now about three weeks old) from the brooder to a pasture pen. With the kids poking at the poults from one end of the brooder, it was easy for me to grab each bird and get them all into a cardboard box for transport.

The final count, after all brooder deaths: 10 Bourbon Reds and 8 Broad Breasted Bronze poults still alive. Not great, but enough. Hopefully we won’t lose too many more before Thanksgiving. I think the high brooder death rate was due to a sudden and unexpected drop in temperature, and I didn’t have a large enough heat lamp in there at the time. Once I realized how cold it had gotten, and the poults were dropping like flies, I installed the bigger heat lamp and the deaths ceased.

All 18 poults, plus a couple of stray ducklings, are now ensconced in a pasture pen and are ready to get to work. The pen is 8 feet long and 6 feet wide, with solid plywood walls on two sides and chicken wire mesh on the other two sides, with barbed wire woven in to discourage predators. The top is made of scrap sheet metal. Inside, the birds have a five gallon watering can and a pan of food.

The beauty of these pastured poultry pens, inspired by Joel Salatin, is that they allow the birds to be moved to fresh forage every day. Right now, the poults are so little that we’ll leave the pen in place for several days between moves. There, they’ll chomp down all the weeds inside the pen. Once they’ve decimated that area, and the pen moves, they’ll get to work clearing the next 6′ x 8′ space. And so on, across the property they’ll go, clearing weeds and getting moved off their droppings to fresh clean forage every day. If the pen gets too crowded (and it will, when the birds are fully grown), we’ll split some of them off to another pen.

The vineyard has several of these pens in it, just waiting for turkeys and chickens. Once filled with birds, we’ll run those pens up and down the aisles of the vineyard. It’s a wonderful system: the birds clear the weeds, eat bugs, and then provide the vineyard with fertilizer. It’s “ecology” at its very finest.

From Under the Stanchion

For the last few weeks, a mother hen has been sitting on a nest under the goat-milking stanchion. She is a cross-breed, and was hatched and raised by a mother hen in the same barn last year. Her mothering instincts are apparently very good, so I decided we should take advantage of them. When she went broody under the stanchion a few weeks ago, in a place where we’d been gathering the eggs daily, I figured this was the time to act. I selected eight good-looking eggs and slipped them under her. She puffed herself up, clucked contentedly, and I don’t recall even seeing her leave that spot again.

Thursday evening, as I separated the goat kids from their mother for the night, I could hear a faint peeping noise coming from somewhere. Once the kids were secure, I knelt by the stanchion and listened more closely. Sure enough, the chicks were beginning to hatch.

When I came out Friday morning to milk, the peeping had grown louder. I glanced under the stanchion, and saw that a couple of chicks had already fluffed up and come out to explore a bit. They were still staying close to Henney Penney, though; she was sitting tight, and apparently still had more chicks she was working on hatching.

The peeping continued the whole time I was out there, and made a wonderful background music as goat milk squirted into the metal pan.

As a mother hen gathers her brood… kept going through my mind, and I tried to remember the rest of that passage. Eventually, it came to me: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldst not?

Squirt, squirt, squirt. Peep, peep, peep. Squirt, quirt squirt…

Of late, I’d been rather anxious about a few different things—and I’d been allowing that anxiety to drive me to distraction. Now, as the milk squirted and the chicks peeped, I realized that Matthew 23:37 was about more than just Jerusalem. It was an admonition to me. An admonition to let myself be gathered in. An admonition to let God shelter me. An admonition to let go of the anxiety and trust that things would be taken care of. Yes, I still need to use all the human means available to me. But I must do more to remember the supernatural means, and to trust in them.

Squirt, squirt, squirt. Peep, peep, peep. Squirt, quirt squirt…

Turnaround on Abortion

A colleague and I recently put together an analysis of abortion attitude data, a version of which was published today on MercatorNet. The piece quantifies the degree to which the climate surrounding this issue has shifted over the last 15 or so years.

We combined over 30,000 survey interviews from Missouri, spanning 1992-2006, and looked at changes in pro-life/pro-choice self-identification (national Gallup Poll numbers are similar). We find there have been dramatic shifts in the pro-life direction: in 1992, the electorate was 30% pro-life and 43% pro-choice. The two labels reached a rough parity in 1997, and the pro-life label has since grown to a 41% to 30% advantage. In other words, the turnaround has been nearly complete.

Some of the demographic subgroup changes are especially interesting. For example, young women had been the most strongly pro-choice group in 1992; now they are the most strongly pro-life. Other dramatic shifts have occurred among voters who rarely or never attend church services, and those with post-graduate degrees; they had been very pro-choice in 1992, but have abandoned that label in droves.

The most likely cause of the attitude changes, we speculate, is the silencing of confrontational clinic protests—coupled with the ascendancy of partial-birth abortion as the new frame for the issue. The public has clearly changed its mind as to who the “abortion extremists” are.

There have also been implications for the party coalitions. The Democratic coalition is now much more divided on this issue than the Republican coalition is, which may explain why Democrats in most states no longer make such a big deal of their pro-choice stance. The pro-life label no longer carries the stigma it once did, and pro-life candidates should not shrink from identifying themselves as such.

A slightly different version of the article, which includes graphical displays of the trend and subgroup data, is available for download from my consulting website. These graphs didn’t really fit MercatorNet’s format or style, but please do download this document and take a look at them: they show at a glance just how dramatic the over-time changes have been. They also give much more detail about how the data break out; the MercatorNet version had to truncate some of those details for journalistic purposes.

Pork

Most commercial pork is raised in industrial-style buildings, using one breed of pig. That’s why hogs are treated as a commodity; every one is pretty much identical to every other one, and therefore interchangable. As Corby Kummer described in an excellent 2004 article for the Atlantic Monthly, the pork industry has spent decades developing a breed that is very low in fat — but is also very low in flavor. That, by the way, is why these pigs must be raised indoors. They simply don’t have enough fat to stay warm outside.

Small-scale sustainable farmers, however, can raise any breed they choose. Some of our neighbors do raise these “homestead hogs,” and they’re absolutely delicious. My wife, unfortunately, isn’t a big pork eater, so we’ve never tried raising hogs — and neither have we bought much pork from our neighbors. But don’t dare get between me and the fried, breaded pork chop that Matthew, our homeschooled neighbor, gave me in exchange for putting a bullet in the pig’s head for him on butchering day.

Anyway, there is hope that “traditional” pork (with all the fat) might be making a larger comeback. A recent story in the New York Times profiles a few different NYC restaurants that are serving “whole hogs”, in the middle of a table, and letting everyone in the dinner party simply dig in.

They’re porky times, fatty times, which is to say very good times indeed. Any new logo for the city could justifiably place the Big Apple in the mouth of a spit-roasted pig, and if the health commissioner were really on his toes, he’d draw up a sizable list of restaurants required to hand out pills of Lipitor instead of after-dinner mints.

The list would encompass more than steakhouses, which have multiplied exponentially over the last five years, because what’s lumbered into particular favor with culinary tastemakers and the food-savvy set isn’t just beef and isn’t just any old piece of meat.

It’s a piece of meat that’s extra-messy, like one of the fat-ringed slabs of lamb at Trestle on Tenth, which opened last year. Sometimes it’s a mammoth cut, sometimes just gooey nuggets of animal parts less conventionally appreciated or lyrically named than the tenderloin.

[snip]

Now …“lardo is sought after, and it no longer raises people’s hackles,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “People finally realize that fat is truly delicious, particularly pork fat.”

The story doesn’t discuss which breeds of pig are being raised for these restaurants, or how they’re being raised, but I’d bet that these are not traditional factory-farmed hogs. And if these restaurants are currently settling for factory-farmed breeds of pork and lamb, just wait until they try a heritage breed that has been raised with a more natural, healthy layer of fat.

I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. And wondering if I have one of Matthew’s pork chops left in my freezer.