In Control Here In the Farm House

Ash Wednesday has rolled around again…and in the last few days I’ve actually found myself looking forward to it.

Last year, I posted a reflection about ashes — the everyday kind that we dig out of our fireplace. The ashes build up and build up, and slowly reduce the amount of space available for burning wood. It’s a gradual process, and we don’t think about it much…until there’s not much room for fire at all. Only when we clear all those ashes out can we begin again. Ash Wednesday is a wonderful opportunity to “clean out” the figurative ashes that have accumulated in our lives.

I thought about that this morning, as I was cleaning the ashes out of our wood burner. We got a new, high-efficiency unit this fall, and it’s a wonderful improvement over what we had last year. It produces so much heat, we’ve made it through this whole bitterly cold winter on just one tank of fuel oil in the furnace. Because the fire is going pretty much around the clock, we need to clean the ashes out every day or two. This morning, as I shoveled them, I couldn’t help thinking about the dead material and bad habits I’d be shoveling out of my life this Lent.

And I think that’s why I’ve been looking forward to Ash Wednesday this year. I have a couple of specific things that I enjoy that I’ll be giving up as a sacrifice. But I’m also making a couple of “positive” resolutions for ways to be more disciplined and focused in my prayer life. As I prepared for Lent, it occurred to me that there is a common factor or “problem” that unites both the things I need to give up and the things I need to be more disciplined about: In these specific areas of my life, I have ceded control over my appetites. And at the root of it, the discipline of Lent is in many ways about regaining that control. Because it’s really hard to make spiritual progress, or to become the kind of friend or family member God is calling us to be, if we don’t first have control over ourselves. And I’m looking forward to being back in control.

For those of us who remember the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, one of the most iconic images of that day was Secretary of State Alexander Haig, standing at the podium, and declaring: “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him.” (An excellent description of the full context of the event, and what led up to Haig’ statement, can be found here.)

Lent is the time that each of us can declare, to our laziness or to our appetites, “I am in control here. I don’t need to indulge my body, and what it is demanding from me. I do not need to let my imagination run wild when I am supposed to be praying. I don’t need to watch that television program, no matter how interesting it looks. I will give my kids the full attention they deserve from me right now. I will read that book I’ve been putting off reading, and not give in to procrastination. I am in control.”

Go ahead and say it, using your best Alexander Haig voice.

Error Corrected

I have corrected an error in the most recent post. In relating a story about a dispute Mrs Yeoman Farmer had with a landlord some 20 years ago, I inadvertantly left out a couple of important facts. MYF has since clarified the full story for me; she and her roommates had been lied to and deceived by the landlord about the terms of their rental contract, and the landlord got a court to issue a default judgment while the students were out of town for the summer. She didn’t even become aware of that judgment until years later, when the bank pulled her credit report as part of the mortgage application process.

I apologize for not clarifying my memories of the incident before publishing that post.

Prairie Fire

No doubt many of you have already seen the video of Rick Santelli’s “Rant of the Year” on CNBC yesterday morning. The thing has gone completely viral, getting hundreds of thousands of views on the web — not to mention getting played all over talk radio yesterday. Santelli, who is a floor reporter at the Chicago Board of Trade, is discussing the President’s recent housing bailout proposal:

Based on what I’m hearing and picking up, I think it’s fair to say that Santelli’s rant is igniting what may grow into a prairie fire of backlash against housing bailouts (no matter what these bailouts are euphamistically called). While the floor traders who applaud him in the video may not be a representative cross-section of the American public, the sentiments he expresses (and the sentiments they are cheering) most certainly are. It’s dawning on people that — the President’s assurances aside — those who made some of the most irresponsible decisions about housing, and who contributed the most to the current difficulties, are about to get shielded from the consequences of their choices. It’s as if the old story of the Grasshopper and the Ant has been updated, and the grasshopper is poised to end up with the ant’s house.

I can only share our own family’s experience, but I don’t think we’re atypical. We lived in rental housing, and then a mobile home, the first few years we were married. With Mrs Yeoman Farmer home full time, we lived on what I could earn working part-time for a research firm and part-time as a graduate teaching assistant. We had one car. Extra money we could scrape together went toward paying off MYF’s law school loans and saving for the down payment on a house.

In early 1999, MYF (now five or six months pregnant with our second child), had had enough of living in a mobile home in the San Fernando Valley. She insisted we find something with a yard, where our firstborn (then aged two-and-a-half) could burn off more of his toddler energy. I began searching housing listings, and contacting Realtors, but everything in the area seemed priced far beyond our reach. Our bank confirmed this, telling me we qualified for a mortgage of no more than $130,000. There was nothing with a yard in any SF Valley neighborhood for less than $200,000 at that time.

Someone suggested we widen our scope, and look at the Antelope Valley communities of Lancaster and Palmdale. We quickly discovered that this extreme north, high desert portion of Los Angeles County was one of the few remaining enclaves of affordable housing within 75 miles of the UCLA campus. As we began working with a realtor, we learned the reason for all the good deals (and this is very important): there had been a housing boom throughout the 1980s, which peaked around 1990. Prices had skyrocketed, and then supply outstripped demand. In the early-to-mid 1990s, prices tumbled. People got underwater on their mortgages, and many homeowners walked away (does this sound familiar?). Banks foreclosed. And now, lots of those foreclosed homes were on the market at prices that even families like ours could afford.

Like I said, the bank pre-approved us for a $130,000 mortgage. We saw lots of really nice houses in the $110-$120k range, and thought about buying one. And then we thought some more…especially about our monthly payments. So we looked some more, and found that $65k was roughly the tipping point: even in the Antelope Valley, houses under that figure were either (1) in bad neighborhoods or (2) in need of more work than I could perform.

We ended up buying a 1400sf, 4 bed, 2 bath, foreclosed tract house for $72,000. When it had been built, in 1990, it had sold for about $115k. Apart from being filled with foreclosed “cookie-cutter” stucco homes on slab foundations, and on the northern edge of civilization, the neighborhood wasn’t bad. Our yard wasn’t huge, but it was a yard. And the house was in excellent shape, so we were able to move in the week after Baby #2 was born.

If memory serves, we made a 5% down payment, so had to pay PMI, but we got a 15 year fixed mortgage so we could build equity faster. I think our monthly payment was less than $600. But there were two important things our bank made us do before we could get that mortgage: (1) prove my income, by submitting tax returns and pay stubs, and (2) clear up a blemish on MYF’s credit report. We had taken very good care of our credit, paying everything on time and paying off our credit cards in full every month. But way back in law school, MYF and her roommates had been in a dispute with their landlord; the landlord had lied and deceived them about the terms of the rental contract, and while the students were away for the summer got a court to issue a default judgment against them. MYF was not even aware of this judgment; the first she learned of it was when, eight years later, our bank pulled her credit report to approve the mortgage. The amount owed wasn’t huge, but our bank would not lend to us until we resolved it. MYF tracked down the collection agency to whom the judgment had been turned over, we paid what they wanted, and got the credit report cleared up. And only then were able to get our mortgage.

We made every mortgage payment on time, maintained our excellent credit, and watched as the neighborhood filled up (and housing prices slowly increased). In the spring of 2001, for various reasons, we decided to make our move to the country and become Yeoman Farmers. We were able to sell our house for about $110,000. After deducting what we spent on new carpets and paint, and real estate commissions, and moving expenses, we walked away with just enough cash to put a 20% down payment on our Illinois property. Again we opted for a 15 year fixed mortgage, to build equity faster. Again, we took good care of our credit. And as a result, when we decided to move to Michigan a year and a half ago, we were able to do so.

All of this behavior I have described is called “playing by the rules.” Nothing that we did was particularly heroic or extraordinary. None of it required luck, or special consideration. I’d contend that there are tens of millions of families in this country with experiences more or less like ours: we saved, started with what we could, and with patience got to where we wanted to be. We didn’t splurge and buy more house than we could comfortably afford, even when the bank offered it. We had to prove our income. We had to clean up our credit. And it infuriates me that so many others got away with doing otherwise for so long.

To the banks and financial institutions which made loans without verifying income, or demanding good credit, I say: you deserve to fail, and responsible lenders like ours deserve to fill the vacuum that your demise leaves in the marketplace.

To those who bought more house than they could comfortably afford, and treated their houses like virtual ATMs (cashing out equity to put in swimming pools and dream kitchens): you do not deserve to stay in those houses. Your houses need to go back on the market at reasonable prices that purchasers are willing to pay. Many of those houses will become homes for families like ours was, circa 1999, who would otherwise be locked out of the market if governments were to prop up those inflated prices by trying to provide people like you with the “soft landing” to which you are not entitled.

And, above all, to Rick Santelli, I say: Thank you, sir, for giving us a voice! And if you do decide to have that “Chicago Tea Party” this summer, I will make sure I have a reason for being in town.

Kid Update

Three days later, Marigold’s goat kids are doing very well. Both are nursing regularly, and are prancing energetically around the kidding pen. (In the meantime, Button and her kids have made a smooth transition back to the main goat area.) This is good news, because we have a major winter storm headed in tonight and are expecting eight inches of snow. Makes me really appreciate the big red barn with the high stone foundation.

For those who have asked, Button and Marigold are twins — our first two doe kids. They look Saanen (like their dam), but actually had a Toggenburg sire. A different Toggenburg buck (not their sire) bred both of them this year, which I guess makes these kids three-quarters Toggenburg and one-quarter Saanen.

Urban Composting

We do heavy-duty composting here on the farm, what with all the manure and animal bedding we have. Or, to be more precise, we will be doing heavy-duty composting this spring — once we shovel the whole winter’s worth of bedding out of the barn, and I build the composting bin that Mrs Yeoman Farmer has had on my “To Do” list.

But for those of you who are thinking about farming someday, and are trying to start small by acquiring skills right where you are now, composting is an important technique you can begin learning today. The New York Times has details about this new trend:

Composting in New York City is not for the faint of heart. It requires commitment, space and sharing tight quarters with rotting matter and two-inch-long wiggler worms that look like pulsing vermicelli.

But an increasing number of New Yorkers have been taking up the challenge, turning their fruit skins and eggshells into nutritious crumbly soil in an effort they regard as the natural next step to recycling paper, bottles and cans. Food accounts for about 13 percent of the nation’s trash — it is the third largest component after paper and yard trimmings — and about 16 percent of New York’s.

. . .

Happy worms eat about half their body weight in a day, and the compost is ready for harvesting in about four and half months, Ms. Pulverman said.

. . .

Experienced composters said that saving food scraps soon becomes part of a daily routine, and that the payoff is worth the extra work.

“To be actually able to reuse your food is amazing,” said Ben Stein, 30, a computer programmer who, along with his wife, Arin Kramer, 29, a nurse practitioner, composted for six years in their apartment on the Lower East Side before they moved to a brownstone in Brooklyn last year.

In Manhattan, they kept the bin under the bed, which Mr. Stein said led friends to think, “it’s disgusting, and you’re absolutely crazy.” In Boerum Hill, they can compost in their backyard (where microbial activity and decomposition slow down or stop in the winter, but pick up in the spring).

As for us, almost all of our table scraps and vegetable waste are already recycled — into eggs, via being fed to chickens and ducks. But for those of you lacking poultry…don’t be afraid to try feeding the worms!

Kidding Some More

When I got to the barn at 7:30 this morning to do chores, two new little surprises were waiting:

The kids, both males, belong to Marigold — the twin sister of Button, the goat which kidded exactly two weeks ago. Fortunately, Button’s kids have been doing very well in the kidding pen we put together for them. They only needed the heat lamp for a couple of days, and have gone on to be very spry and active.

But back to Marigold. Both of her kids were huddling in the dirt of the main goat stall, sopping wet, with the afterbirth still hanging out of Marigold’s rear end. Clearly, they had just dropped out within the last hour. And with the temperature in that drafty part of the barn hovering at roughly 32 degrees, I didn’t want them to stay there for long.

With all the other adult goats distracted by the hay I’d just put out for them, I enlisted Scooter’s help for the logistics of a “stall swap.” Once the gate to Button’s kidding pen was opened, she seemed more than ready to push her way out; after two weeks of confinement, I couldn’t blame her. With some nudging from Scooter, we easily led her into the main goat area. I then retrieved both of Button’s kids and carried them to that same area.

While this was going on, a couple of other goats noticed that the gate to their main area was open — and they began coming out to explore the rest of the barn. Fortunately, Scooter got in their faces and quickly put an end to that little adventure. (I love Border Collies, and don’t know what we’d do without one.) I then scooped up the two shivering and wet newborns, carried them to the kidding pen, and plugged in the heat lamp. Both of them bleated plaintively, and continued shivering, but seemed to appreciate the heat. Finally, with Scooter standing guard at the gate, I grabbed Marigold’s collar and led her to the kidding pen. As she worked to finish expelling the afterbirth, I secured all the gates to the various pens.

Before going back to the house, I took a moment to survey the scene. Button’s kids were prancing around the main goat area with abandon. Button and the other adults were all chowing down on hay. Marigold’s kids were still huddled under the heat lamp, so I made a note to check on them again to make sure Marigold licked them off and got them nursing.

Sure enough, when we returned from Mass (at roughly 9:30), the two newborns were tottering around the kidding pen. They were still quite wet, and splay-legged, but were definitely mobile and definitely nursing. We’ll certainly keep close tabs on the whole goat situation throughout the day, but so far it looks like we’ve had another successful kidding.

And our children will soon enough have another doe to milk. But, as Homeschooled Farm Boy observed, “I’m glad they’re both males. We won’t have to milk them when they grow up.” Then, picking up on my glare and realizing what a bad attitude this was, he quickly added, “And it’s good we’ll be getting good goat meat from them!”

Yes, indeed. Yum.

But Are They Socialized?

No, this isn’t a post about the massive debt bill that Congress passed on Friday the Thirteenth. It’s about the number one question that homeschooled parents tend to be asked. Nine times out of ten, when we tell a non-homeschooler that we’re homeschooling our kids, the questioner’s initial reaction is to furrow his/her brow seriously and ask, “But are they able to meet and learn to interact with other children?” (The second question is usually some variant on “Are they able to play sports?”)

We have a battery of responses we’ve developed to reply to such questions, and my readers doubtless can add many more of their own. I won’t bore you with the whole list, but a few quick ones:

  1. Spending 7 hours a day in the company of 25 other people, all of whom are approximately the same age as oneself, is an extremely unnatural form of socialization that does not prepare a person for the real world;
  2. By contrast, our children are making friends with and learning to interact with children from other homeschooling families — the ages of whom range from infants to high school;
  3. We don’t want our children “socialized” into the prevailing youth culture that thrives in and infects even the best Catholic schools;
  4. Homeschooling allows our children to go places and do things (often involving interacting with other people) that are impossible for kids in institutionalized educational environments.
Today’s events provide a good illustration of this. Our church was originally a Polish parish, and still has many older parishioners who are of that ethnicity. One tradition they have is the annual “Paczki Bake,” held each year before Lent. Volunteers get together in the parish hall’s big kitchen, and over the course of three days and organize the ingredients, bake about 800 dozen paczki, and take orders for them. It’s a huge fundraiser for the parish, and draws a large crowd of volunteers. (And, incidentally, is a big tradition in many other Polish communities.)

This morning, everything got underway after Mass. It was remarkable how many cars were in the parking lot, and how many volunteers were streaming toward the parish hall. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and Homeschooled Farm Girl joined them, and I drove home with the two yeoman farm boys. HFG had been looking forward to this day for quite some time, as it’s not just a break from the regular school routine — it’s also a chance to do something “hands on,” and to spend hours working and talking with the adults and other homeschooled kids of the parish. As she explained later, I got to do something that was fun, and I got to play some, too.

And no doubt she and MYF will be back down there again tomorrow for more.