Lost Lamb

We lost a lamb to what was almost certainly pneumonia overnight. He’d developed a terrible wheezing hack in his lungs last night, and was struggling to catch his breath. He hadn’t seemed that bad earlier in the day, and I’d wanted to give him a chance to beat it on his own; the sudden nose-dive at 10pm caught me by surprise. I told Mrs Yeoman Farmer that I’d take him to the vet if he survived the night…but that has turned out not to be necessary.

Losing an animal as valuable as an Icelandic lamb is always a big disappointment, but the incident has led me to reflect on a couple of thoughts:

First, animal deaths have gotten much easier to take — and now cause much less emotional distress — than when we we first began farming. The very first animal we lost was a baby chick from our initial batch of broilers. MYF brought it inside when it was having trouble standing up, and we did everything we could to keep it going, but it just wasn’t meant to survive. I remember feeling a sense of personal inadequacy, like I’d failed in some fundamental way. That sense of personal failure would grow more intense when we lost more valuable animals — like the time I fed what turned out to be poison hemlock to our baby goslings, and four of them keeled over dead in the brooder within minutes of each other. The worst of all was when we lost fully-grown sheep to worms or white muscle disease; these were mature breeding stock, and to see them go down was a big blow.

As time has passed, it’s not so much that I’ve become calloused or hardened to the deaths of animals…but rather that I’ve grown to realize that unexpected deaths are simply a natural part of life on a farm. We certainly work to take good care of the animals, and don’t neglect them, but sometimes deaths still occur despite our best efforts. It isn’t a personal statement about us, and I’ve grown to learn not to take it personally. Instead, this morning, I turned to the 13 healthy lambs and gave thanks that we still have so many — and that this is the first lamb we’ve lost in well over a year.

Which brings me to the second point: We have lost far fewer lambs in Michigan than we did in Illinois. And we haven’t lost a single mature sheep here, whereas we lost a few of them in Illinois. MYF and I were discussing this, and we think there are three main reasons:

  1. Hard Water. In Illinois, we didn’t have water pipes leading out to the pasture. Unless we ran three long sections of hose from the house to a stock tank (a huge hassle to do every day), we had to rely on rain water for the sheep. We collected plenty of rainwater off the barn, stored it in an enormous water tank, and released it into the sheep stock tank as needed. We realize now that this ultra-soft water may have been fine for watering a vineyard or supplying poultry water, but the larger mammals would’ve benefited from the iron and other trace minerals in well water. Here in MI, our water is very high in iron, and we have pipes in the barn. Pretty much all the water our sheep and goats drink comes from that well. Not surprisingly, we haven’t had a single case of anemia here — whereas in Illinois we lost many lambs that way.
  2. Mineral. Here in Michigan, the sheep come into a nice secured barn every night; in Illinois, they’d had more simple pasture shelters. It had been very difficult to ensure a steady supply of supplemental mineral. Here, they have a mineral feeder in the barn that never gets rained on and never gets knocked over, and I keep an eye on it every morning — and am constantly filling it. I am buying much more mineral here than in IL, which is a good thing — it tells me that we weren’t using nearly enough of it before. I’m convinced it’s contributed greatly to our flock’s overall health.
  3. Pasture. We have a much larger grazing area here for the sheep, and the grass is much longer. In Illinois, they’d eaten it down so low, they were constantly grazing in their own droppings as they looked for fresh grass. Here, they have lots of long grass and leafy brush to feast on, so they’re never ingesting parasites that may have passed through their droppings. This leads to the parasite chain being broken or at least greatly weakened.

Farming and animal husbandry are a constant learning process, and require frequent adjustments. Often, it’s trial and error (and experiences of failure) that are the best teachers. The lamb we lost overnight will almost certainly not be our last, but I’m trying to keep the focus on how far we’ve come and how much healthier our flock is now…and what practices will help keep us on that upward trajectory.

Driving the Yeomans

Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I were on our way home to Northern Virginia from the Tridentine High Mass at Old St. Mary’s in Washington, DC. It was the fall of 1996, and the future Homeschooled Farm Boy (then a baby) was napping in his car seat as we cruised through the District of Columbia on Interstate 395. I’d just pulled onto the freeway, and traffic was fairly heavy for a Sunday evening; I’d spent so much time wrenching my head around looking for an opening in traffic at the end of the on-ramp, I hadn’t noticed any speed limit signs. But this was a freeway, so I figured the speed limit would be at least 55 MPH — and that’s about what the other cars were moving at. So I settled in, and did my best to stay with the pack.

A moment or two later, we came around a bend and I spotted a police car on the right shoulder. Glancing at the speedometer, I confirmed I was still going 55, so didn’t bother getting nervous or slowing down. Until, that is, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw him pulling onto the roadway with his lights flashing. The next thing I knew, he was right behind me and chirping his siren. I began looking for a safe place to pull over, and soon both of our cars were on the right shoulder.

The officer, who happened to be black, approached my window and asked if I knew why I’d been stopped; I replied that I honestly had no idea. He informed me that I’d been driving 56 in a 45 MPH zone, and that he’d like my license and registration and proof of insurance.

Forty-five?” I asked, incredulous, as I dug around for the documentation. “I honestly thought it was 55, because it was a freeway. That’s why I didn’t slow down when I saw you.”

“Well, it was posted at 45,” he said, taking my documents and retreating to his patrol car.

As the officer did who-knows-what, I fumed aloud to MYF about how ridiculous the whole thing was. I was going 55 on a freeway and wasn’t passing anybody! And he pulls me over! She agreed, but there wasn’t much else she could say. HFB was waking up and fussing, and she soon had her hands full getting him calmed back down.

The cop eventually returned from his patrol car with my documents — and a ticket for some amount of money that was about to disrupt our fragile, tight-as-a-drum finances, especially once my insurance rates jumped as a result. I was irritated, but had enough presence of mind to suppress my irritation, take a deep breath, and wait until he’d left before saying anything negative. Even then, I simply muttered something to my wife about probably having been stopped because we had Virginia license plates. MYF made a comment about how unfair the whole thing was, and we were soon back in traffic making our way home. And, yes, I noticed that the first speed limit sign we passed read “45 MPH.” I kept the car in the right lane, the speedometer needle at 45, and fumed in silence as we drove.

The story does have a happy ending: I mailed in the ticket with a written explanation/appeal, but no payment. We moved across the country a few weeks later, and I managed to keep my mail correspondence with the DC Metro Police going long enough for my ticket to get totally lost in the District’s bureaucracy. We never paid the fine, and the ticket was never reported to our insurance company.

The incident eventually faded from my mind, and I didn’t think about it for years — until last week’s story about Professor Henry Gates’ run-in with the Cambridge (MA) police. When officers showed up at his house investigating a reported break-in, all he had to do was give a calm explanation as to why he and his limo driver had had to force the front door open, and produce picture identification with his home address. Instead, he followed the officers outside and began ranting to the whole neighborhood about “this is what happens to black men in America.”

Actually, I thought, this is what happens when you have a chip on your shoulder, lose your temper, and taunt the police.

From everything we’ve read and seen about the incident, it seems clear to both MYF and myself that the individual with the “racial narrative” in his head was the Harvard professor; Officer Crowley seems to have conducted himself with the utmost professionalism. Our only complaint about the arrest is that the Cambridge police dismissed the disorderly conduct charges.

Let’s return to 1996, and the shoulder of I-395. As upset as I was about a perceived injustice, the fact remains that the officer had a good reason for pulling me over. I didn’t agree, and was understandably angry about the traffic stop, but had the self-control to remain calm and wait for my opportunity to “tell it to the judge” and let the system work. But let’s suppose that instead, I’d had the same sort of “racial narrative” in my head that Professor Gates evidently carries around with him. I most likely would have jumped from my car and accused the D.C. cop of having pulled me over because I was a white guy with out-of-state plates in a heavily black city — and that he was giving me a ticket only because he was angry that I’d married a black woman. That he was probably trying to prove he had some power over me.

Those of you who know me know that I don’t see the world through the prism I just described. But had I said and done those things, and had I refused the officer’s instructions to return to my vehicle, the cop would’ve been completely within his rights to have arrested me for disorderly conduct. And my wife would’ve been completely within her rights to have not spoken with me for the next six weeks.

That seems clear enough to us. What MYF and I find particularly troubling about the Gates story is the sharp divide in the way most blacks and whites have reacted to the basic details of the case — and in the way black and white perceptions of and assumptions about the police diverge so sharply. As a recent Rasmussen poll finds:

Seventy-three percent (73%) of African-American voters believe that most blacks receive unfair treatment from the police. Just 21% of white voters share that view. Thirty-two percent (32%) of black voters say that most policemen are racist, but 52% disagree. Among white voters, just seven percent (7%) believe that most policemen are racist and 71% say they are not.

I’m not so naive as to pretend that race doesn’t play a role in police work. As recently as this year, my father-in-law was visiting my brother-in-law’s family in a large East Coast city with a history of ethnic tension. On two separate occasions, while out for a walk on the streets of his son’s upper-middle-class, heavily white neighborhood, my father-in-law was stopped and questioned by the local police about what he was doing. My father-in-law knew perfectly well that he was being questioned because he was black, and therefore looked out of place in that neighborhood. But he was friendly and cooperative, answered the officers’ questions politely, and came away reporting that he’d had “a really nice conversation” with one of the cops. He didn’t point fingers, didn’t make accusations about how “black men in America” are treated, and didn’t raise his voice. He treated the officer with respect, and was treated with respect in return.

Treating people with respect, and not constantly looking at the world through the prism of race, are pretty simple lessons, really, and ones that MYF and I have been teaching our kids. Too bad the President of the United States passed up an opportunity to be truly “post racial” and to have made this same point when asked about the incident in his recent press conference.

As for MYF, this is what she told me:

“I am incensed at Gates’ behavior toward the police, I’m infuriated by the President’s and the professor’s race-baiting, and I’m embarrassed that both of them are giving blacks a bad name.”

And there is nothing more I can add to that.

What is Home?

My apologies for the slow posting of late; I’ve returned to Michigan after several days visiting Seattle, where I grew up, for the first time in nearly two years. It was a wonderful trip; altogether too short, but when you have a farm…getting away for even a few days in the middle of summer is asking a lot. I went alone, and am grateful that Mrs Yeoman Farmer and the Yeoman Farm Children (particularly the older two) were able to carry the burden in my absence.

The purpose of my trip was to ride the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic on July 11th, and I will be putting up a separate post describing that adventure. It’s an event I’ve done many times in the past, but not since 1996. Being able to get in shape again, and manage all the logistics of getting myself and my bicycle to Seattle (and then to Portland) once more, fulfilled a dream that had been simmering in my mind for several years. As I pedaled along Lake Washington Blvd on Saturday morning, with the rising sun framing the Cascade range in purple, and Mt. Rainier standing with all its immensitude in the crystal clear summer daybreak, my heart overflowed with joy. I’m really here. I’m really doing it. This is truly happening. Everything in the world is exactly right.

It occurred to me that this could be a rough working definition of “home”: not simply the place where a person happens to be living at the moment, but the place in the world where everything seems right. The place where a person senses he belongs, and the place from which a person feels exiled when he is not able to be there. Circumstances and grave obligations may force a long — even permanent — exile. But it takes much more than relocation to change one’s sense of “home.”

I had several days, largely to myself, to reflect on these and other thoughts. In a sense, the trip was not unlike a retreat. I spent last Wednesday getting to Seattle and retrieving my bike from the mechanic to whom I’d shipped it. Then, apart from reconnecting with an old friend for dinner one night, and the big event on Saturday, and spending Sunday afternoon with relatives, I had few scheduled obligations for the rest of the trip. I was able to spend much of Thursday and Friday simply riding all over…and thinking, and praying, and reflecting. I rode the Burke-Gilman trail to the small town where I grew up, pedaled past our family’s first house, and rolled around town.

The community swimming pool was still there. So was the football field. And the Ranch Drive-In. But there were also uncomfortable changes: the local library — my favorite spot as a young child — was now a cold municipal office building; the books had been relocated into a larger and more modern structure nearby. One of the grand old school administration buildings had been razed and was now a parking lot. Other buildings had disappeared. There were new buildings I didn’t recognize. And so on. And so forth.

And I couldn’t help asking myself: Is this where everything seems right? Because it’s funny how, the longer you don’t live somewhere, the more it lives in memory … even if the reality has become quite different.

In that town, and all over Seattle, I did see plenty of other places and things that were familiar and comfortable, and were reassuring in their seeming permanence. But despite the joy of being in Seattle, it was hard to avoid a simultaneous sense of melancholy…because nothing in Seattle is truly “mine” any longer. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t be attached to it. As much as I may feel a sense of belonging in that city, I don’t truly belong there now. And it was these two competing senses about “belonging,” pulling in opposite directions, that triggered the melancholy.

Because no matter what I might feel, the inescapable reality remains: I chose to leave and go to college in Chicago. I chose to take a job in Detroit after college. I chose to attend graduate school in California. And, above all, I chose to marry a woman who grew up in Michigan, with deep roots in that part of the country, who very much dislikes the part of the country in which I grew up. One of the better definitions of “adulthood” that I’ve come across goes something like this: doing the things we ought to do and need to do, and not necessarily the things we want to do. And in our family’s case, there is no doubt about what we ought to be doing, and need to be doing: living in rural Michigan, near the town in which MYF grew up and has so many friends and so much family. And I have no doubt that “adulthood” was calling me to do all the other things (education, career) that took me farther and farther away from Seattle, one step at a time. Funny how easy it was to take each of those steps, without reflecting on the larger picture of how much distance each of them was putting between me and the city I loved so much. And yet even if I had seen the whole picture, with all its consequences, I wouldn’t go back and change any of those steps.

I will no doubt be living in Michigan for many years, and I have few illusions that the passage of time will make it seem any more like “home” than Seattle always will. I will always be, in some sense, an exile here. But you know what? That’s okay. And the more I pedaled around the region where I grew up, and the more I thought about it, the more okay with everything I became. My family is infinitely more important to me than getting to live in any particular place…and at the end of the day, I’m much happier living with my family in a place that is so completely right for them than I ever could be if they were compelled to live in a place that was “right” for me but completely wrong for everyone else. Because it’s ultimately not being in any particular place that makes us happy…it’s being with the people we love, and above all it’s living our lives in the way God wants. And I have absolutely zero doubts that that this little farm in this little town in this Rust Belt state is exactly where God wants me — and my family — to be.

Street Farming

For all of you who are wondering how you can get started farming, right where you are, this weekend’s NY Times Magazine has an excellent story about Will Allen’s efforts to spread the practice of urban farming.

Like others in the so-called good-food movement, Allen, who is 60, asserts that our industrial food system is depleting soil, poisoning water, gobbling fossil fuels and stuffing us with bad calories. Like others, he advocates eating locally grown food. But to Allen, local doesn’t mean a rolling pasture or even a suburban garden: it means 14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side, less than half a mile from the city’s largest public-housing project.

And this is why Allen is so fond of his worms. When you’re producing a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of food in such a small space, soil fertility is everything. Without microbe- and nutrient-rich worm castings (poop, that is), Allen’s Growing Power farm couldn’t provide healthful food to 10,000 urbanites — through his on-farm retail store, in schools and restaurants, at farmers’ markets and in low-cost market baskets delivered to neighborhood pickup points. He couldn’t employ scores of people, some from the nearby housing project; continually train farmers in intensive polyculture; or convert millions of pounds of food waste into a version of black gold.

With seeds planted at quadruple density and nearly every inch of space maximized to generate exceptional bounty, Growing Power is an agricultural Mumbai, a supercity of upward-thrusting tendrils and duct-taped infrastructure. Allen pointed to five tiers of planters brimming with salad greens. “We’re growing in 25,000 pots,” he said. Ducking his 6-foot-7 frame under one of them, he pussyfooted down a leaf-crammed aisle. “We grow a thousand trays of sprouts a week; every square foot brings in $30.” He headed toward the in-ground fish tanks stocked with tens of thousands of tilapia and perch. Pumps send the dirty fish water up into beds of watercress, which filter pollutants and trickle the cleaner water back down to the fish — a symbiotic system called aquaponics. The watercress sells for $16 a pound; the fish fetch $6 apiece.


Today Allen is the go-to expert on urban farming, and there is a hunger for his knowledge. When I visited Growing Power, Allen was conducting a two-day
workshop for 40 people: each paid $325 to learn worm composting, aquaponics construction and other farm skills. “We need 50 million more people growing food,” Allen told them, “on porches, in pots, in side yards.” The reasons are simple: as oil prices rise, cities expand and housing developments replace farmland, the ability to grow more food in less space becomes ever more important. As Allen can’t help reminding us, with a mischievous smile, “Chicago has 77,000 vacant lots.”

Just imagine if we could get something similar going in Detroit. I don’t think it’s even possible to count the number of vacant lots there…