Worst. Timing. Ever.

I came out to do the chores late this afternoon. The weather was dreary, cold (~35F), and freezing rain had fallen off and on all day. In short, it was about as miserable as could be.

And then I discovered, in the vineyard, an Australorp hen huddled near the feed pan and making an unmistakable cluck-cluck-clucking sound. And, from underneath her (muffled, as it were), was the equally unmistakable cheep-cheep-cheep of a newly hatched chick. Sure enough, as Mother Hen came to get her feed, the chick popped out and joined her.
I haven’t the slightest idea where she had her nest, or how many other eggs she had, or how many of her chicks have already frozen to death…or how long this one will last. I just know that Mother Hen is entirely on her own with this one; I can’t set up a brooder lamp, what with the impending move — and it would be a total waste to generate that kind of heat for a single chick, anyhow. I do hope the chick survives, but this isn’t exactly the weather for it. All I can say is: This will be interesting.

Half Moved

Posting has been slow, what with trying to get moved to our new place in Michigan. We’re back here in Illinois for the week, and make the definitive move this coming Saturday (December 1st).

To our dismay, we discovered there is no hay available for sale anywhere near our new farm in Michigan. It was a bad year for hay generally in the US, with prices spiking higher than we’ve ever seen. (I suspect some of that has to do with hay fields being converted to corn because of the ethanol boom, but don’t even get me started on that one.) Anyway, Roger, our usual supplier of hay here in Illinois, was happy to help me load 150 bales onto a 26 foot U-Haul truck last Tuesday morning; that should be enough to get all of our sheep and goats through the winter. We were assisted by Matthew, the homeschooled 16 year old neighbor that I’ve mentioned in other posts. Matthew and Roger have worked together quite a bit over the last few years, and I was floored at how efficiently they were able to pack those bales into the truck.

Still, even with maximizing the use of space, we weren’t left with much additional room. I managed to get almost all of our books, and quite a bit of the kids’ clothing, but there was very little space for all the other farm equipment we’d planned on taking. We did load both goat milking stanchions, a few stock tanks, several rolls of chain link fencing, and around 100 metal T-posts, and several of our expensive metal farm gates — but then the truck was jammed to the gills.

I’m thinking I’ll probably have to come back here for a third “mop up” trip some time later; there’s simply so much fencing material here, and other farm equipment (poultry brooder, chicken plucker) that won’t fit with the household goods on this coming Saturday’s truck and yet is far too expensive or time consuming to replace. Shocker: T-posts are now selling for $3.28 in Michigan! We have literally hundreds still on the property that I haven’t been able to pull up yet. And there are several expensive metal gates that must stay up until the last minute, to keep the animals contained. No way am I leaving all that equipment here, when we have 15 acres to fence in Michigan.

This is what we looked like, when at last we departed on Tuesday afternoon (Mrs. Yeoman Farmer followed in our minivan):
We pulled in late last Tuesday night, leaving the truck and auto trailer in the front yard of the new house. I got my 1975 Fiat Spyder off the trailer and safely in the garage; the canvas top is ripped, and a storm was headed in. Wednesday morning, we had the closing — and then we headed out to the property to unload the truck. Assisted by my father-in-law, Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I braved a steady drizzling rain and managed to get all 150 bales of hay out of the truck and neatly stacked in the upper level of the Big Red Barn while the kids ran around that barn burning off energy.

But what was supposed to be the happiest day of the year literally turned dark and ugly; the sun went down, the rain intensified…and I couldn’t find my wallet. I’d been carrying far more cash than usual, because so many people had just paid for turkeys and other produce. I tore the van apart, but couldn’t find it anywhere. 300 miles from home, no driver’s license, no credit cards, and no cash. Mrs Yeoman Farmer had a credit card and a little cash, so we’d be able to get home, but I was sick at the thought of having lost everything. The worst part wasn’t so much the money, but what it represented: all that work nurturing turkeys and laying hens, and all the effort to get them butchered. If someone at the McDonald’s I’d stopped at for lunch had stolen my wallet, what they’d really stolen was all of that work I’d put so much of myself into. (And that, really, is why I’ve come to realize that theft is such a serious sin.) Things only got darker and more miserable when we went to return the U-Haul truck. It was in a dinky town way off the beaten path, in a combination pizza parlor/banquet hall/storage facility/truck rental building. And then it took the lady 45 minutes to figure out how to check the truck in; U-Haul was clearly a very minor part of their business, and I wondered why they bothered being licensees at all.

So…rain-soaked, dark, late, hungry, exhausted, covered with hay dust, missing several hundred dollars and a driver’s license and wondering how I’d cancel all my credit cards, we made our way back to my in-laws’ house. Stopped at the McDonald’s where I last knew I had my wallet, but it hadn’t been turned in. My emotions reached a new bottom.

And then, once we brought everything in to the house, I found the wallet! It had been in my laptop bag, where I’d stashed it so I wouldn’t lose it. I’d thought I’d left it there, but hadn’t been able to find it in any of the pockets when I’d searched back at the new house. Only now, with the bag out of the van and sitting on my bed, was I able to find the wallet at the bottom of an inside pocket. Sheesh. Relieved, I took a long hot shower and turned my thoughts to the next day.

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving with family, and then went back out to the new house on Friday and Saturday. My father in law, brother in law, and 14 year old nephew helped get the lower level of the barn all set for livestock, and we even managed to drive several posts outside to mark out an initial grazing area. Getting the entire property fenced will have to wait for the spring, but at least we’re all set to bring the animals next weekend. There is a goat area, a sheep area, and a chicken area we can turn various critters loose into.

We drove home Sunday, and tried to catch our breath last night. Matthew took good care of things while we were gone, and we’re going to miss having someone like him around. But, as MYF pointed out, we won’t need someone to come over and do farm chores for us in Michigan — because we’ll never be all going out of town to visit family. Excellent point.

I’ll just be glad when it’s all over and we can finally settle in.

Squatters!

We are now officially…squatters! And I never thought I’d be so happy to announce it.

Everything went smoothly this morning with the sale of our Illinois farm, and the road appears all clear for closing on our house in Michigan next week. But in the meantime, we are neither homeowners nor renters.

Homeschooled Farm Girl was afraid this would make us “homeless.” Nope, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer replied, we’re “squatters.”

Gotta love it.

Alert: Turkey Available!

For local readers:

A large, broad breasted bronze hen turkey has just become available. I’d been holding it for someone, but the ultimate size turned out to be too large for their oven.

I actually don’t know the dressed weight, because I haven’t butchered her yet. But if the other BBB hens are any indication, she’ll dress in the 24-25 pound range. Your price: $60. First person to make me an offer gets her. Otherwise, if I don’t hear from anyone by this weekend, she’s getting cut up into smaller pieces and going into one of our chest freezers.

More on turkeys

It never ceases to amaze me…we’re again getting flooded with emails and calls from people looking for a Thanksgiving turkey. Happens every year, the first or second week of November. I have to remind myself that for the typical consumer, they have no idea how early in the year these things sell out. They don’t start thinking about turkeys until they start planning Thanksgiving dinner…which is right about now. Of course, the farmer must begin planning in April.

We sold out well over a month ago, and everyone else we know is also sold out. My advice if you want a farm-fresh turkey: contact the farmer over the summer. The customer coming today did just that. She’s ordered several times from us in the past, and knew she needed to call in June or July. She’s getting three nice large Bourbon Red turkeys today, along with several stewing hens and roasting ducks.

Speaking of farm visits, we had a nice visit yesterday with a family from the suburbs. They’ve been down before, and have a three year old daughter who absolutely loves our sheep and goats. The parents are immigrants from one of the former Soviet republics, and the woman’s family had a traditional farm with fresh livestock. I’m just so happy we can supply this family something they miss from the old country, and that they are so appreciative of both the food and having a place they can take their daughter to maintain that connection to their food. They took 14 hens, 5 ducks, and several dozen eggs…and they want a lamb next year. Yum.

Heritage Turkeys

We raise two kinds of turkeys: Broad Breasted Bronze (BBB), which are similar in body type to what you buy at the grocery store, and Bourbon Red, which are a smaller, heritage breed of turkey.

The BBBs are for people who are accustomed to a larger turkey, that can feed a large gathering. I just finished butchering almost all of them, and they were enormous: the two toms dressed at 35 pounds, and the hens were all 24-25 pounds. We really need to start butchering them earlier in the year, or starting the poults later in the year, because that’s too big of a turkey for most people. We have one customer who likes the 35# toms; they have 50+ people over for Thanksgiving, and will use all that meat. She bought one of them; the other tom I cut up into pieces for us to freeze and eat next year. On a turkey that large, a leg quarter is an entire meal for our family.

Our BBBs are the size of a supermarket turkey, but the flavor and meat quality is very different. Our birds are raised on pasture, and have had a good diet of green stuff. Plus, they live to be old enough so the muscle matures and are used more than factory-farmed birds (which are raised in confinement and slaughtered at 16 weeks). Something we’ve observed, and others have commented to us: after feasting on one of our turkeys for Thanksgiving, we don’t feel sick the next day.

The heritage turkeys are the ones people are really interested in, as they’re a much different eating experience. The breasts are smaller, and better proportioned to the size of the bird. They can fly, and run fast, and as a result end up using more of their muscles in more ways that the enormous lumbering BBBs do — and that makes for different meat. The hens only dress at 8-10#, and the toms are more like 15# — not a bad size, but it won’t feed a large crowd. We charge $3.50/lb for them, and could probably charge more (other farmers do), and people drive from as far away as Chicago to get them. (We charge $2.50/lb for the BBBs.)

The biggest problem with Bourbon Reds and other heritage turkeys is the cost of poults; they can run as much as $7 or $8 each, compared to about $4 for BBB poults. And we always lose several of them in the brooder, and usually one or two die after reaching maturity, so the actual cost to acquire each bird is significantly higher. It’s not really worth it from a financial standpoint; we’re doing this for the pleasure of being able to provide our family and others with a really excellent Thanksgiving experience. Perhaps when we get to Michigan, we’ll be able to figure out how to do this more profitably.

The New York Times has an excellent article today, spotlighting a breeder who is taking the lead in preserving these wonderful birds.

Virtually all of turkeys raised in the United States come from one basic line, a broad-breasted White that George Nicholas developed in California in the 1950s. By the 1960s, he had perfected a breed that produced meat so efficiently that it became the industry standard.

The problem is, the birds can’t fly or reproduce without the help of artificial insemination, and their bland meat has produced a nation of diners for whom dry, overcooked Thanksgiving turkey is an annual disappointment.

“It’s as if everyone in America was eating only one kind of apple,” Mr. Reese said. “It’s like saying we will only use Red Delicious apples for everything.”

The dominance of the broad-breasted White concerns those who worry that American agriculture is on the brink of losing its once-diverse strain of plants and animals. For the last 20 years, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has been working to save turkeys like the ones on Mr. Reese’s farm.

Swamped

Posting has been and will remain slow for a bit; we’re swamped with preparations for the big move.

I finally got to see the new property in Michigan this weekend; still hard to believe we bought this thing sight unseen, on the word of my father in law that it was “absolutely perfect” for us. And now that I’ve seen it…I wholeheartedly agree. It’s hard to imagine a property that’s a better fit for us, all the way around.

We’re frantically packing boxes, while making all kinds of other last minute preparations. The plan is to load a 24′ U-Haul truck on Monday-Tuesday before Thanksgiving, with all of the FARM stuff. All the T-posts we’ve been ripping up, fencing material that can be salvaged, dozens of hay and straw bales, tools, stock tanks, brooder lamps, and the myriad other things we’ve accumulated that are too dirty or too bulky to be packed with our household goods. I will drive that truck up on Tuesday before Thanksgiving, towing our old pickup truck (great for hauling stuff around the farm and around town, but I’d never trust it on a 300 mile drive). Mrs. Yeoman Farmer will follow the U-Haul with our minivan, with kids taking turns getting to ride in the big truck with me.

We close on the MI property on Wednesday, the day before T-giving. After closing, we will unload all the farm stuff into the Big Red Barn and return the U-Haul.

Friday and Saturday after T-giving, our family and friends will help us put up fence posts and gates, so we can establish a basic pasture and separate the sheep from the goats from the chickens in the barn.

We’ll drive back that Sunday, and then spend the next week packing all our household goods. We’ll load another U-Haul, then drive it up towing my 1975 Fiat Spider (great car, but I’d never try to drive it 300 miles…especially not in December). Again, MYF will follow in the minivan. If all goes well, we’ll have everything unloaded on December 1st.

It’s still uncertain how we’re getting the livestock up here. A neighbor has a large livestock trailer, but it must be pulled with his own truck (can’t hitch it to a U-Haul). He may be able to drive up with us on December 1st, and then I’d ride back to Illinois with him the next day to retrieve the last of our vehicles. But that’s still up in the air.

And somewhere in the midst of all this packing, I need to get the last of the turkeys and laying hens butchered. All this adds up to little time for blogging, but I will put up some posts with updates as we get closer to the big move.