Great Goat Trend

Wonderful news this morning from Seattle: the City Council has reclassified miniature goats as “pets” rather than “livestock.” This means that residents can now keep goats within the city limits. There are restrictions, of course, but the big picture is what’s important: even urban dwellers can now keep these animals, which are the most environmentally friendly weed-wackers — and an excellent local source of meat and dairy.

The Seattle Times reports:

As of late, goats have gained the environmental status of hybrid cars and bovine-growth-hormone-free milk, prized for their ability to mow lawns without using fossil fuels. University of Washington and Seattle City Light recently hired herds to clear slopes of blackberry brambles.

Monday’s vote marked yet another gain for miniature goats, which are about the size of a large dog. Also known as pygmy or dwarf goats, the animals weigh between 50 and 100 pounds and grow to about 2 feet tall. Owners keep them as pets and sources of milk.

People who want to keep goats will have to license them like a dog or cat and get them dehorned. Male goats must be neutered — the unaltered male gives off a musky scent that some find offensive, goat experts say. To protect sidewalk gardens and park vegetation, goats will not be allowed in off-leash areas or anywhere outside the owner’s yard, with an exception: They can be lent to other owners to graze in their yards. Portland and Everett have passed legislation legalizing the goats.

[snip]

After researching the health risks and finding they were low, Conlin said, he proposed the new law because the goats can provide local milk and serve as “another link to the reality of where food comes from.”

Animal lovers, advocates of urban sustainability and children testified in favor of legalizing the goats at the hearing Thursday. One person criticized the change, saying goats can escape any enclosure and they prefer to eat roses.

Grant sees a pastoral future for Seattle populated with minianimals. “We would be a really charming city if we were a place people could keep minifarms with chickens, goats, a vegetable garden and fruit trees,” she said.

And get this, at the end of the piece:

Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck said there was more to be done. “Why stop there? Why not sheep, llamas … ? I think there is an argument that there are greater heights to be achieved with urban sustainability.”

I hope Steinbrueck runs for Mayor someday.

And I hope that other city councils around the country are paying attention.

Property Rights and Wrongs

A quick addendum and clarification about yesterday’s post concerning out-of-control real estate development going on in Seattle:

I am a big believer in property rights. One thing we like about living so far out in the country is that there are very few restrictions on what we can do with our land or to our house; we’ve never even had to get a permit for any of the extensive remodeling we’ve had done, or for the office building we had put up on the property.

Furthermore, my wife worked for some time as a lawyer at a public interest law organization that defended property owners against unjust eminent domain takings and regulatory injunctions that effectively rendered property useless. (“Sorry, we’ve now classified your 20 acres of prime view property as a wetland, and we’ve found an endangered species of rat living under one of the trees you want to cut down; you can’t build your dream house on it.”) We know very well the difficulties that government regulators can cause property owners.

I can therefore understand very well the position of someone who owns a large forested parcel of land, has watched the value of that land skyrocket, and finally sells that parcel to a developer. That’s his land, and his right, and there are lots of people back in my old neighborhood who seem to be eagerly exercising those rights. And if I was sitting on one of those parcels, and my kids were going off to college or I was preparing to retire, I’d be sorely tempted to cash it all in and get out of town myself.

But here’s the rub: communities also have rights. This is something we’ve run into as we’ve looked for houses in Michigan — there are zoning laws which restrict what a person can do with his property or what he can have on it. Sometimes, these are tough on small farmers; we’ve found a number of otherwise perfect houses, on 5+ acres, whose zoning forbids livestock. That’s a frustrating dealbreaker for us, but understandable. For some people, a neighbor with goats and chickens would be a real nuisance. If enough people in the community agree, they ought to have the right to exclude people like us from that community — just as my community ought to have the right to prevent an ethanol plant or water treatment facility from being constructed across the street.

My question is: Why should a new subdivision, that rips out and replaces the 10-20 acres of heavy woods bordering a long-established neighborhood, be viewed any differently? As a thought experiment: imagine someone wanted to take the same parcel of land and establish an organic goat dairy on it. Want to place a bet on which (the diary or the subdivision) would engender more community organizing and opposition?

What I’m questioning is why so many communities have become blinded to values other than “growth growth growth” and “maximum monetary profit.” Although there are certainly local building codes, and folks must get permits for turning a forest into a subdivision, no one in suburban Seattle seems sufficiently motivated (or organized) to try to slow the developers down or insist that new home developments be constructed in a “New Urbanism” style that maximizes walkability and possibilities for interaction with neighbors. And I’m not even coming at this from an environmental angle; the deforestation is bad enough in itself, but what’s possibly even worse is the degradation of community character — and loss altogether of a sense of community by the constant construction of these massive swaths of tract homes.

Others have written much more eloquently on this subject; I guess I’m trying to say that this weekend in Seattle I had my own first-hand epiphany as to the contrast between the kind of small community we now live in (and the close-knit neighborhood in which I grew up) and the kinds of “communities” that are rapidly taking their place.

Can You Really Go Home Again?

I’m back from a brief trip to Seattle; it was my 20th year high school reunion last night. I flew out there Thursday afternoon, enjoyed a couple of days of seeing the city and some friends and family, and then spent yesterday evening at a big bash getting caught up with folks from high school. And then it was a mad dash to Sea-Tac Airport to hop the redeye back to O’Hare. I got just enough sleep to make the drive home and to do the morning chores at the farm, but I’m going to need a nap this afternoon.

Some initial thoughts:

1) I was shocked to discover things I now had in common with people I barely knew 20 years ago. One person, for instance, had moved his family to a ten acre cherry orchard in central Washington State ─ for many of the same reasons we moved to the country ourselves. I didn’t even know this person in high school, and yet we spent quite a bit of time last night comparing notes about rural life. Another person has made business trips to Gibson City to visit his company’s suppliers ─ that town is just 15 minutes from our house, and where we buy all our livestock feed. When I heard the words “Gibson City” come out of his mouth, I had to pause to pick my jaw up off the floor. Simply astounding.

2) The Seattle area has grown so much in recent years, the outlying communities are unrecognizable. Woodinville, for example, is now a solid patch of pavement and chain stores. When I was in grade school in the late 1970s, a good friend lived on a heavily wooded lot on what was then the edge of Woodinville. It was so private, we would shoot rifles in those woods. Now, that entire hillside is covered with tract homes. And our grade school has basically doubled in size. They ought to rename the place “Pavementville.”

3) Everywhere you look, driving around Seattle, there are signs signs advertising “green” this and “environmentally friendly” that. And yet, the “green” was disappearing everywhere. And the massive developments going in sure didn’t look like they were trying to minimize any kind of footprint. As my thoughts drifted back to the very green organic farm that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have sweated to build up these past six years, I couldn’t help wondering how many of the people who put up these signs or buy those products would tolerate a neighbor who wanted to pasture a goat and a few laying hens in their residential area ─ as was common in all big cities as recently as the 1940s? Or is “green” becoming just another consumer product that people can purchase at a natural food store?

4) Particularly dismaying was visiting the neighborhood where I’d grown up and where my family lived for over 25 years. The neighborhood had basically been carved out of a thick cedar forest, more than 40 years ago. The roads and lots followed and respected the natural contours of the land, and many original old-growth cedars had been left near the homes themselves. Even as new houses had been added over the years, the heavily-wooded perimeter (and remaining old-growth trees in people’s yards) ensured that the neighborhood maintained a quiet and private feel. But in just the last year or two, one of the major bordering landowners sold out to developers. An enormous swath of trees has been completely ripped out and bulldozed, and a road has been put in to establish a new subdivision of tightly-packed popup houses. No respect for land contours, or any existing trees — just blow it all down, re-shape it to maximize the number of building lots, and put those houses up. My neighborhood no longer has the sense of being carved out of the forest. It now looks like one big piece of pavement.

5) About a mile or two away from our neighborhood was a huge horse farm and pasture; it took up literally hundreds of acres. Somehow, as shopping centers went up all around it, this farm always managed to preserve itself. Even when I was out to visit last summer, it was a relief seeing that piece of pasture holding out. I nearly cried when I saw what has happened since: the farmhouse where we used to buy fresh eggs has vanished, along with all the barns and outbuildings. Bulldozers have swept the whole thing clean, and are beginning to chew up the pasture.

Apparently, I’m not the only person dismayed by what’s going on out there. Just a half mile from the ruined horse farm, yet another stand of trees had been bulldozed and was being prepared for yet another subdivision. But look what someone spray painted on the developer’s sign:


I don’t usually approve of vandalism, but sometimes the truth is the truth.

Made it all the more poignant when I went to Mass yesterday evening and heard a booming homily about “stewardship.” God made the earth so beautiful, with all its complexity, because (as Aquinas explains), that way it is a more perfect revelation of God’s goodness and love than if he had only created a few simple things. And while the earth is here for us humans to use and have dominion over, when we simply exploit that creation for our own naked ambitions and profit (the priest didn’t use the same word the spray paint vandal did, but it fits) we diminish and cloud the revelation of God’s perfection. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

God have mercy on these developers. And on all of us who, directly or indirectly, have fueled the out-of-control demand that keeps the trees falling and these developments coming.

Tax Time

Most folks only think about their taxes in April. Those of us who are self-employed have to think about their taxes at least every quarter, when we send in our estimated tax payments to the IRS and (for those living in states like Illinois) the state department of revenue. Today happens to be the day that third quarter checks must be postmarked.

I must admit that when I was employed and bringing home a regular paycheck, and taxes were being withheld by my employer, I rarely thought about how much I was paying. In fact, I rarely thought about taxes until I filed my return in the spring and received a tax refund check. Like most people, my first (and emotional) response to that refund check was to think of it as a bonus. It filled me with good feelings about the special treat I might now be able to afford. My thoughts rarely, if ever, took the next logical step: indignation that the Government had had control of my money for the last year and wasn’t paying me a dime of interest for the privilege.

As I said, I rarely thought about taxes. Sure, when my paycheck came, I “saw” the amounts being withheld for FICA and for Federal/State income taxes…but they weren’t real to me. In putting together our family budget, my “income” was the take-home amount on the check. To use round numbers, I didn’t think of my “income” as $2,000 every two weeks, or whatever I was making back then. I thought of it as $1,574.27, or whatever the take-home amount was.

Once I became self-employed, and began writing out checks for my taxes every three months, my mindset changed entirely. Every dime that I earned from every project went into my bank account, and I saw it there in my account. And then I had to pull it out of that account and send it off to the government myself, just like any other bill or expense. I began planning ahead, establishing a separate savings account into which I held at least two quarters worth of tax payments. When I check my accounts, I see those amounts generating interest income for our family. And then, every quarter, I must slash those numbers and watch the interest income plummet along with our family’s liquidity.

In short order, I found myself thinking a lot more about government. After all, when you’re writing a check and paying a bill, you think about what you are receiving in exchange for that payment. When I write a check to the feed store, or my transcriptionist, or a focus group facility, or my survey data collection fieldhouse, I think about the quality of the product or service they provided. When I write a contribution check to our church or a charity, I think about the good works I am helping them provide.

So…when I write out those checks to “United States Treasury” and “Illinois Department of Revenue,” what am I getting?

The late Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have explained that “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” Fair enough. But if that’s true, it would be a healthy thing for Americans to reflect a bit more on the nature and quality of civilization that their taxes are purchasing. Why not require each and every one of us to sit down once per quarter, open up his checkbook, and transfer money from his own account to the United States Treasury? If the government is secure and confident about the quality of civilization it provides with those tax dollars, wouldn’t it be a good thing for her citizens to take a few moments each quarter to reflect upon that quality civilization?

Possible Impact

A week ago, I posted about the massive new Planned Parenthood clinic preparing to open in Aurora. Our Bishop called for a day of prayer and penance last Friday, which was the subject of my post.

Interestingly, the Chicago Tribune is reporting that legal action is now looking like it may derail the scheduled opening of that clinic. It is supposed to open on Tuesday — but a hearing is slated for Monday, which may result in a long delay. I wonder how much of this is due to the recent outpouring of prayers and sacrifices across the Joliet diocese:

A letter Wednesday from Aurora said the city would not issue a permanent occupancy permit — even though the city already issued a temporary occupancy certificate — until an investigation is completed into how the clinic was approved for construction.

Gemini Office Development LLC applied for the permits, not revealing until recently that Planned Parenthood would operate the clinic.

Aurora officials want to delay the opening while they investigate whether Gemini fully disclosed the purpose of the clinic during the permitting process.

What I found most chilling about the story is this:

Trombley has said 13 appointments already have been scheduled for Tuesday, the planned opening day of the $7.5 million, 22,000-square-foot medical facility at 3051 E. New York St. on Aurora’s east side. The clinic, one of the group’s largest in the country, will offer reproductive health-care services, including abortions.

Thirteen appointments already. Thirteen babies who have the same date with the same executioner, but who right now are still alive. Let’s all redouble our prayers this weekend that the executioner doesn’t get the opportunity to open his doors.

When Turkeys Attack

An unfortunate part of having livestock is that sometimes they attack each other. The roosters are most notorious for “cockfighting,” but they don’t usually inflict serious or lasting damage on each other. One wins the fight, the other backs down and retreats in shame, and the Pecking Order is established.

Turkeys, on the other hand, tend to be more persistent in their attacks. When one turns on a weaker turkey, the attack doesn’t usually stop until the victim is dead. Yesterday afternoon, I caught just such an attack in progress. Unfortunately, the aggressor had already opened up a large wound in the head and neck of the victim. Even with immediate treatment with iodine, I sensed that this injury was not survivable. With time, the victim would probably develop an infection and die anyhow.

Naturally, the victim was a very expensive and desirable Bourbon Red turkey. Although I can no longer sell this turkey, that doesn’t make it a total loss. I separated it in a holding cage last night, and will butcher it this afternoon. (The bird survived the night just fine, but the wound is still much larger than I think is survivable long term.)

Guess what delicious dish we’re going to be having for Sunday dinner this weekend?

Foreigners Everywhere

I recently posted that “Immigrants will love you” when they discover your small farm. This weekend, we had a particularly interesting experience with foreign-born visitors.

The call came in Friday afternoon from a woman with an unplacable accent. Her name sounded Indian, but I couldn’t be sure; the accent wasn’t quite Indian, but wasn’t quite anything else. Anyway, she was looking for ducks, geese, goat…anything we might have fresh. I told her she was a week late on the goat, as our Mexican customer had bought the goat kid last weekend, taken it home, and butchered it himself. She laughed and said they certainly couldn’t do that up in the Chicago suburbs. I said we had some older laying ducks, that they’d be excellent slow-roasted or stewed, and that I could butcher as many as she liked for $2.50/lb. She said she’d take four, and that they’d be down Saturday afternoon to pick them up.

So, yesterday, a large white SUV pulls into our barnyard…and a whole crowd of Indians pours out. But it turns out they’re not just Indians: the family moved to the tiny South American country of Suriname about 200 years ago. The woman who’d called me had gone to college in the Caribbean, met her husband (an Indian-born Indian) there, and the two of them had settled in Chicago about ten years ago. All the other Indians in the SUV were members of her family, just arrived from Suriname for a three week visit. They wanted to get fresh farm produce, and to see “what America looks like.”

I told them they’d come to the right place, and gave them a tour of the farm (which was cut short when it started raining heavily). The funniest part of the tour was when the woman’s mother excitedly began fingering one of the large weeds growing along the fence line. She spoke quickly in a mix of what I later learned was Dutch and Hindi. “That’s a weed, ” I explained, “and I think it’s poisonous.”

“Oh no,” the woman told me. This is ____ [I couldn’t understand the name she said, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been unable to find the name of it in her field guide]. In Suriname, it is a very expensive delicacy.”

“Heck,” I replied, “You can clear out as much of this stuff as you want!”

And with that, they began yanking out huge armloads of the weeds. One of the kids fetched a plastic bag from the house, and my customers appeared as excited about the weeds as they had about the ducks.

We continued our rain-soaked tour, and had a very nice conversation. If you’d told me six years ago that by moving to an obscure corner of downstate Illinois our farm would become a magnet for a dizzying variety of international customers seeking food unavailable anywhere else…well, I would’ve laughed myself silly.

And to think that people still ask if we worry about our kids being too isolated from the rest of the world living here…