Most Difficult Decision

We’ve recently been faced with a very difficult decision. And, at last, we’ve made it.

After six years of building and cultivating this farm…we’re moving.

There’s nothing wrong with the farm, or the community, or our neighbors; even the most superficial reading of this blog would tell you that. Rather, it’s all about a changing and evolving sense of priorities and what’s important to us.

When we escaped to this place six years ago, our priorities were simple:
1) Get out of California;
2) Buy a small farm on which we could raise our family’s food;
3) Be five hours away from Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s family in Michigan.

This place fulfilled all those priorities, and had many other benefits too numerous to list. However, over the last year or so, we’ve been increasingly realizing that in our current location we are too isolated from extended family. Our children rarely get to see their grandparents or their cousins, or friends who are children of our good friends in Michigan. The precipitating event which helped put the issue in focus is an extended illness my mother-in-law has been experiencing. As we found ourselves increasingly concerned about her health, and wanting to be involved in the day-to-day happenings up there, we grew increasingly aware of our distance and isolation. And increasingly aware of the real value of proximity to extended family.

The last few times we’ve been up to MI to visit, we’ve explored the country properties within a half hour or so of Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s parents. Finally, in the last couple of weeks, we’ve decided on a beautiful seven-acre place which has nearly everything we could ask for. We haven’t yet made an offer, but hope to do so soon.

And that brings us to the other big issue: what will become of our farm here in Illinois. Once we began to spread word here in the local community that we are planning to move, our next door neighbor drove over in his pickup truck…and made an offer to buy our property. He currently owns the 75 acres that our old farmhouse and its 5 acres were originally attached to, years ago. He is a building contractor, and constructed his own house over on those 75 acres — and has personally done all the renovations and remodeling on our house these last six years. He’s the best neighbor a person could ask for out here in the country; he and his wife are life-long residents of the area, know everybody, and have been an invaluable resource for us. And they’re some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Our neighbor wants to help his son, who works with him as a partner in his business, buy our house. He understands the value of being close to family, and wants to keep his own family close. (And for that reason completely understands why we want to move.)

On one level, our neighbor’s offer is a Godsend. We could sell our house tomorrow, without any real estate commissions, without doing any of the myriad small repairs and clean-ups that’d be necessary to list the house with a Realtor, without worry about the deal falling through, and so forth.

And yet…we know what would happen to this farm once our moving truck pulled out of the driveway. The fences would come down. The trellis system would come down. The grapes would be uprooted or mowed under. The dozens of fruiting brambles and maturing fruit trees would be forgotten. Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s enormous organic garden would fill with weeds. Our pastured poultry pens would be junked. The pasture would become an enormous ATV racetrack. In short, after all the work and all the sweat we’ve invested these last six years in turning this place from a “country house” into a productive organic farm … it would once again become simply a country house like any other.

On one level, we’d be happy our neighbor’s family was sticking close by each other. And yet, on another level, we’d be disappointed that another family wasn’t able to use and enjoy the farm as a farm. Small organic farms are hard to find, and even harder to set up. If there’s someone who’d like a farm like this one, it’d be a shame if they couldn’t buy it.

So, as much as we’d like to sell this property to our neighbor, we’d first like to throw open an opportunity to anyone out there who might be interested in buying it as a farm. Anyone been reading this blog and wishing they could do what we do? Well, here’s your chance.

I’ve prepared a sheet with basic information about the property, which can be downloaded by clicking on this sentence. Some things to keep in mind, that are not on the sheet: we will include some livestock to help get you started. Want some laying hens? Ducks? Turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas? A doe goat kid? A milking stanchion? Pastured poultry pens? A small starter flock of Icelandic sheep? All that can be discussed. More importantly, we will take the time to show you all the property’s features, and what you ought to do to maintain it.

But if you are interested, please let me know quickly via email so we can talk. Things are starting to move faster than I thought they would. If there is a family out there that wants to farm, we want to help them do it.

Immigrants Will Love You

For us, one of the more unexpected things about running a small farm is the extent to which immigrants have sought us out. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the core customer base for a small farm operation consists of two very different types: (1) upscale urban dwellers seeking high quality organic produce (or pasture-raised livestock) and (2) immigrants of all social classes who very much miss the farm-direct produce and livestock of their home countries. #1 didn’t surprise us at all. What we were not prepared for was the number of calls we’ve gotten from such a wide variety of foreign-born customers. Some examples:

1) The successful electronics entrepreneur from Turkey, now living in an upscale Chicago suburb, who uses GPS navigation in his SUV to find our farm…and then drives off with live laying hens, ducks, and geese in the back, to establish a weekend farm retreat of his own.

2) The Ukrainian woman in McHenry County who buys our goose eggs 30 at a time, blows them out, and then paints them into incredibly beautiful works of art.

3) The several Vietnamese who have called from all over the country, seeking goose eggs to eat. (sorry…we can’t ship them)

4) The Filipino family in Kane County which buys our duck eggs a case at a time, to brine them in buckets of salt water and distribute to others in the Filipino community.

5) The Chinese-Americans who want all the duck eggs the Filipinos don’t take.

6) The Mexican guy 20 miles south of us, who’s come to the farm several times to buy live chickens, old laying hens, old laying ducks, and anything else he can drive home and butcher himself in his back yard. This Saturday, he’s coming to buy our male goat kid. Guess what they’re going to be having for dinner on Sunday? I just hope his neighbors aren’t around when he dispatches it.

7) The Romanian-born architect who buys a lamb each year, for a traditional Orthodox family feast at Easter time.

8) The Poles, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and natives of other Eastern European countries and former Soviet Republics who have bought ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese, eggs, and who-knows-what-else. They often get a large box of stuff, which is no doubt being taken home to Chicago to be shared with others in the community.

9) The several Muslims who have called, wanting to buy a turkey and ceremoniously butcher it on our property according to traditional methods (sorry, but state regulations don’t allow us to let them do that).

10) The Jewish woman who inquired about having a mobile Kosher butchering trailer come down to our property, complete with Orthodox Rabbi to oversee the processing of the chickens. (We didn’t have the volume to make it worth their while.)

I could go on, but you get the point. The pent up demand for farm products like these, particularly in immigrant communities, has astounded us. If we were a bit closer to Chicago, we’d probably be getting even more inquiries. But even at this distance, folks in these communities don’t seem to mind sending one or two people down to get a big box of stuff to bring back for everyone else. We’ve gotten the biggest thrill from showing these folks around the farm, and hearing them excitedly describe either growing up on this kind of property or visiting this kind of property “back home” to get their food.

And the other nice thing about such customers is that they’re not terribly concerned about whether this animal or that animal ate certified organic feed. They care about the big picture, and the big picture is that our animals and eggs are delicious and wholesome, even if they’re not certified organic. And any time we get a customer who wants to take an animal off our hands, live, and butcher it himself…well, that’s one less animal I have to butcher here.

America may no longer be a nation of small farmers, but we still are a nation of immigrants. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the immigrants’ demand helps restore our nation’s yeoman farms?

What a Windfall!

I recently posted about the neighbor who invited me over to harvest his grapes. Those grapes are now crushed and combined with mine, and the ferment is well underway. Nothing beats the smell of fermenting grapes bubbling away.

That neighbor has a good friend, Norma, who lives in a nearby residential area — an area with many established apple trees. Today, as I was working in my office, I heard a horn honking in our driveway. I came out, and discovered Norma and her daughter unloading buckets and buckets of windfall apples from the back of a pickup truck! We dumped one bucket for the handful of ducks, chickens and hatchlings still running on the property; I had her drive the rest of them into the pasture. We dumped some for the sheep, and I put several buckets worth into a large stock tank. My plan is to take half a bucket or so of those “stock tank” apples out to the birds in the pasture pens each day, to give them a little more variety in their diet.

The kicker? Norma thanked me for providing a good place to dump the apples. And said her neighbors were equally excited about windfalls being put to such good use. She promised to return soon with more. I think Artistic Girl and I need to get on the tandem and take at least a dozen eggs to Norma and her neighbors.

Farming for the Soul

Excellent piece in today’s NY Times about the growing numbers of people who are pursuing sustainable agriculture from religious motivations. Many of the farmers interviewed express opinions similar to our own thoughts:

For some religious people, change starts from the ground up, beginning with the way they treat the land. Dr. Adnan Aldayel, a Saudi Arabian financial consultant living in New Rockford, N.D., runs what he believes is the nation’s only organic halal producer, Dakota Halal. “We try to raise our animals the proper way, the right way,” he said. “We are the custodians of the ground.”

What I think is especially encouraging is the ecumenical and apostolic potential of sustainable agriculture, as the “why are we doing this” can become an excellent fodder for discussions of deeper things. I’m fascinated by the following arrangement:

NEAR a prairie dotted with cattle and green with soy beans, barley, corn and oats, two bearded Hasidic men dressed in black pray outside a slaughterhouse here that is managed by an evangelical Christian.

What brought these men together could easily have kept them apart: religion.

The two Hasidim oversee shehitah, the Jewish ritual slaughtering of meat according to the Book of Leviticus. The meat is then shipped to Wise Organic Pastures, a kosher food company in Brooklyn owned by Issac Wiesenfeld and his family. When Mr. Wiesenfeld sought an organic processor that used humane methods five years ago, he found Scott Lively, who was just beginning Dakota Beef, now one of the largest organic meat processors in the country.

As usual, Joel Salatin gets the last word (and the best):

Joel Salatin, who is considered a guru of organic agriculture, said he has seen a change in the people who visit his Polyface farm in Virginia.

“Ten years ago most of my farm visitors were earth muffin tree-hugger nirvana cosmic worshipers,” Mr. Salatin said. “And now 80 percent of them are Christian home schoolers.”

I must say that our own experience has been different; while many of the producers we know are Christian home schoolers, most of the people seeking out our farm products are still secular hippie types from Chicago who’ve grown up and have lots of money to spend.

Wine underway

Today, I finally got around to crushing the grapes I picked at a neighbor’s place on Friday. I also finally got around to picking my own grapes, into a separate bucket.

First, I must say that de-stemming and crushing a bucket of grapes is an absolutely wonderful experience. I sat outside on a stump, pulling clusters from one bucket and plucking them into a second bucket, one after another, just enjoying the solitude and allowing myself to get lost in thought. As I began crushing handfuls of grapes, making sure none of them eluded my fingers, I imagined these grapes as being my own sacrifice offered to God. All my work, all my difficulties, all my life…broken open and poured out, so the Winemaker could use the juice to make something far greater.

Anyway, as I suspected, the neighbor’s grapes had a very low sugar content: the initial Brix reading on the refractometer, once they were all crushed together, was just 11. That’s only half the sugar needed for a complete ferment. My own grapes, however, had a brix of 24 — absolutely outstanding. (And given how many grapes I lost to sparrows and other birds, further evidence that I should’ve harvested them a week ago.) Unfortunately, I had 19.5 pounds of grapes from the neighbor…and only 3.5 pounds from my own vineyard. Extremely lame. I’ll be fortunate to get even a gallon of wine altogether.

As 3.5# is far too little to ferment by itself, I crushed those grapes and added them to the ones from Ed’s farm. I added some sulfites to stun the wild yeasts, and am allowing the bucket to stand overnight. Once the sugar leaches out, and the sulfites run their course, I’ll take a final sugar reading for the entire must. Then I’ll add the appropriate amount of sugar to get to 22 Brix, and also add the yeast. And then, hopefully, the ferment will begin.

The best part about winemaking? The smell of grape juice on my hands that will not go away, no matter how many times I wash them. And, of course, enjoying the finished wine. But you knew that already.

Gift Horse

I got a call the other day from an elderly farmer who lives around the corner from us. Ed is a widower, well into his 80s, whose health has not been good in recent years. He can hardly walk, and usually leans on a walker when he does so. But he can still drive his pickup truck, and uses a riding lawn mower to get around his property. Come harvest time, he will be out in the fields driving a combine. Yes, he’ll need help climbing up into the cockpit. But once he’s there, look out. The corn is coming in.

The wonderful thing about neighbors like Ed is that they can tell stories about what the area used to be like. As a boy (before the area was electrified), he used to milk several cows each morning by hand, before school. He helped build one of the outbuildings on our farm.

Ed’s farm has all kinds of fruit trees, planted decades ago, which produce much more fruit than he can use. In fact, we first met him a few years back, when he pulled into our driveway in his pickup truck and growled at my wife, “You want any cherries?”

Surprised, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer asked, “Did you bring them? Or do we need to pick them?”

Ed replied with something along the lines of, “H—, no I didn’t bring them! Come on over and pick them off the trees!” After several afternoons spent picking cherries and other fruits at Ed’s farm, we discovered that under the gruff exterior the guy has a heart of pure gold. He loves kicking back in his riding mower and watching as Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and our kids climb ladders and fill buckets with fruit. He also enjoys our eggs, and bringing over loads of windfall apples to throw down to our chickens.

Anyway, back to the most recent call. He told me that the wine grapes were ripe, and that some of them were even drying up into raisins, so I’d better get over there and get them if I want them. So, I found my clippers, a couple of five gallon buckets, and dusted off my refractometer. The refractometer is a wonderful instrument which measures the Brix (sugar content) of any liquid. Just smear some juice on it, look through the eyepiece while sun shines on the juice, and you’ll be able to read the Brix.

It took Ed some time to climb down the steps to his riding mower, but he refused to let me help in any way other than holding the front door open. Then he put the mower in gear, and led the way to the grape arbor. I didn’t want to come across too much like I was looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I did need to know the Brix of the grapes before I could make wine. As Ed began picking grape clusters (still sitting on his riding mower), I tested individual grapes from several different vines. Unfortunately, the Brix was only about half (12) of the ideal (22) sugar content for making wine. Glancing around, I immediately understood why: the vines had been planted so long ago, a stand of pine trees had grown all around it and was now blocking the sunlight. There simply wasn’t enough sun getting through to get the grapes as ripe as they should be. Again, not wanting to trash the gift horse, I simply said, “The sugar’s a little low, but I can fix that by adding some at the start of the ferment. These sure are delicious, aren’t they?” (Indeed, the sugar content wasn’t bad for an eating/table grape.)

I put the refractometer away, and we went to work. It only took about a half hour, and I only got about five gallons of grapes, but what I enjoyed the most was talking with Ed. As usual, he opined on just about everything — and, as usual, we agreed about nearly everything. This is the most Republican county in the state, and Ed is about as conservative as they come.

Once home , I took the refractometer out to my own vineyard and tested a few of my own grapes. The Brix was very close to ideal, but it doesn’t look like I’ll bet getting much of a harvest this year. Because I’m not sure how well those grapes from Ed’s arbor will turn out for winemaking, I hesitate to combine his grapes with mine. What I’ll probably do is pick and crush mine into a separate bucket, crush his, and see how much must we’re looking at (and just how my total sugar content compares to his). At that point, I’ll make a decision about combining them. But given the small amounts, it doesn’t make much sense to do separate ferments.

Neighbors like these are a big part of what makes country life so rich and enjoyable. I think I’m going to put Artistic Girl on the back of our tandem bike, ride over there, and give Ed a dozen eggs. He’ll probably try to pay me for them, but I’m not going to let him.

Still Pyrless

Long time readers of the blog will remember the tragic story of Tessa, our Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dog, that was hit by a car earlier this year. For those unfamiliar with these events, the four key posts are listed in chronological order in the right margin of the blog, under the heading “Goodbye to a Great Dog.” Those were difficult days, particularly since we’d just lost our beloved Collie on the same stretch of roadway a few months earlier.

Our current dogs, Tabasco and Scooter, are excellent companion animals, very good at herding the sheep, and are wonderful “all around farm dogs.” Every farm needs a Tabasco and/or a Scooter. But a farm with this many sheep and other livestock also needs a guardian dog…and neither Tabasco nor Scooter is quite big enough to put the fear of God into a pack of coyotes. We tried importing an adult Great Pyrenees male that another farm no longer needed, but that was a disaster from the get-go; he not only fought with our other dogs, but he wouldn’t stay on the property. He’d regularly take off for hours at a time, trotting around miles of the surrounding countryside (and annoying other farmers to no end).

We needed a Great Pyrenees puppy, and those are surprisingly difficult to find. We ended up contacting a breeder in Michigan, near where Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s family is located. They were expecting a litter this summer, and we were among the first to get on their list. Unfortunately, we were the last family to actually get there and pick up their puppy. (More on that later.) We simply weren’t able to make it up to MI until this coming weekend, and the breeder said that would be fine. We were all looking forward to a nice trip visiting family, capped off by getting our puppy on the way home.

Until last night, that is. I got a frantic, emotional email from the breeder; our puppy had been running around in the front yard, all was well, and then a visitor had gotten into a car to leave…and backed right over our puppy. She was extremely apologetic, promised to refund our money, and said they hoped to have another litter next summer. I could tell she was very upset by the whole thing; heck, those are emotions that our family has gotten to know pretty well over the last year. I assured her that it was partly our own fault for not getting the puppy sooner, and that we know these kinds of things happen when you’re dealing with living creatures.

In fact, that’s how Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I decided we should break it to the kids — by analogy. We sell turkeys at Thanksgiving. Customers reserve these turkeys in advance, but are told we have only a limited number. If they want to absolutely guarantee they’ll get a turkey, they need to come earlier rather than later. When there’s just one turkey left to butcher, we’ve had all kinds of bad things happen: they’ve wandered into traffic, fallen to predators, or done other stupid turkey things. We’re going to tell the kids that in this case, we had a reservation for a puppy – but we were the last to actually get their puppy, and “something happened” to that puppy before we could pick her up. (We don’t think the kids, particularly Artistic Girl, are in any frame of mind to process details about yet another car flattening yet another dog.)

In talking with Mrs Yeoman Farmer, I did manage one bit of gallows humor to break the obvious distress we were all feeling. “Hey,” I told her, “we’re now managing to get our dogs hit by cars before we even bring them home.”

I laughed, and she laughed. But we’re still going to be remaining Pyrless for the foreseeable future.