Too-Good Eggs?

With the total number of eggs recalled now growing to over half a billion, I wanted to add a few additional thoughts to my previous post on the topic.

As commenter Bill and Dogs notes (BTW, Bill, it’s wonderful having you as a new reader):

I am currently in the city but have purchased a farm on which to retire and raise cattle and chickens. I have been unable to eat eggs since I left the farm and no longer had my own hens. My birds were contented, active and had both commercial and natural foods. … Store bought eggs are so horrible by comparison that I just don’t bother. I will be eating eggs again in a few years.

I’m not a big egg eater myself, but want to underscore Bill’s point: Once you begin eating your own eggs, or anyone else’s local eggs laid by active and happy hens, it’s extremely difficult to again eat eggs laid by “concentration camp” hens. I travel on business from time to time, and simply cannot order egg-based dishes in restaurants. Farm fresh eggs are so good, they’ve ruined all other eggs for me.

Yesterday morning, I used olive oil and a cast iron skillet to saute a chopped onion and three different kinds of fresh peppers. All were straight from a neighbor’s garden (for various reasons, particularly the adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby, we’ve been unable to stay on top of our own garden this year. But our neighbor’s farmstand is as good a substitute as you can get.) To this I added four scrambled eggs, laid the previous morning by our hens. Once the eggs were done, I served them onto a freshly-picked and chopped garden tomato.

To my knowledge, a dish like this cannot be purchased in any restaurant at any price. And after tasting it, no restaurant omelet or grocery store egg will work for me.

380 Million Reasons to Own Your Own Hens

380,000,000 is the estimated number of eggs now being recalled in response to a salmonella outbreak.

Grocery stores across the state yanked eggs off their shelves after one of the largest U.S. producers recalled 228 million eggs connected to a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people across the nation, including as many as 266 in California.

On Wednesday the Associated Press reported that the recall had expanded to 380 million eggs.

The eggs, produced by Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, also were linked to a number of illnesses reported in June and July in Colorado and Minnesota, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak led to a surge in reports of infection with the bacteria salmonella enteritidis this summer — at least four times the expected number, the agency said in a statement Monday.

Salmonella can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and can be fatal to young children and older people. No deaths so far have been reported in connection with the egg recall.

I’ve posted about egg factories before, and have often extolled the virtues of free-range or cage-free eggs. There isn’t much I can add in this regard, other than to say: this is one of those times when we really, really appreciate having our own healthy livestock and knowing exactly where our food is coming from.

A few quick thoughts, however:

First, if you want an eye-opening experience, do a Google search on the phrase “DeCoster Farms,” which is the agribusiness conglomerate of which Wright County Egg is part. Pretty remarkable how many different controversies this one company has been involved in. But I guess that’s not surprising, when a “farm” (sic) gets so large and disconnected from its customers.

If you can’t keep your own laying hens, I’d strongly encourage you to buy your eggs directly from a small farmer who does. Yes, those eggs can be a little more expensive, especially if the farmer is trucking them in to an urban farmers market. But they don’t have to be, if you’re able to go directly to the source. Around here, there are several farmers selling eggs for $1.50/dozen. The biggest hassle is making an extra stop, not coming up with extra money. But make that extra stop. Have that extra conversation with that extra person. See how their chickens are being kept. And I bet you’ll never worry about your eggs making you sick.

And if you think you can’t have your own chickens…think again. You’d be amazed at how creative some folks have become at keeping them stealthily in urban or suburban environments. And to my readers back home in Seattle: kudos to your city council for just unanimously voting to allow the keeping of up to eight hens on properties within the city limits! It really is becoming possible to be a yeoman farmer nearly anywhere.

Beyond My Limit

Today, I did something I never wanted to do…and was certain I would never bring myself to do: personally put my beloved dog out of her suffering. Over the years, I’ve had to put down injured or sick cats, goats, lambs, and birds. It was never pleasant, but I’d never hesitated. But all that time, dogs remained for me a line I couldn’t cross. Especially a companion like Tabasco.

As regular readers know, we’d had Tabasco for nearly four years. We got her as a stray when we lived in Illinois; she showed up at the local rural animal shelter on the same day our Collie was hit by a car. Our vet happened to run the shelter (it was a really small county), and someone there knew we were looking for a new farm dog. Tabasco, it turned out, was a perfect fit. She was on the older side, and wasn’t terribly large, but had plenty of spunk and energy. She had a wonderful temperament, was good with our kids, loved retrieving tennis balls, enjoyed riding around in cars, and made herself a fierce defender of our property (she was a determined enough “alpha” to stand up even to our Great Pyrenees…not to mention any intruders who might show up unannounced). She had long legs and a long narrow muzzle, and loved spending hours digging her way into field mouse dens. (Mrs. Yeoman Farmer didn’t like it so much when these digs were in the middle of the lawn.)

As Tabasco got older, she increasingly spent her days with me in my office building. She’d go out to relieve herself, but grew less interested in everything else. She slept on my office couch each night, and was my constant companion by day as I worked. I found it particularly heartening when I’d return to the office after a few hours away…and find her curled up on my desk chair. She’d look up with her big eyes, thump her curly tail, and seem to be assuring me that she’d taken good care of my special place.

The first big turning point was last November, when we were gone for several weeks adopting Yeoman Farm Baby. Tabasco developed a hacking cough, bad enough that the family watching our farm mentioned it regularly over the phone. I took her to the vet once we’d returned, and x-rays confirmed a case of pneumonia. We gave her a course of antibiotics, which took care of the worst symptoms, but Tabasco was never the same. She seldom went out at all, or didn’t seem interested in much of anything but eating and sleeping and watching me work. At the time, I chalked this up to the cold winter. But even when the spring thaw came, she never again tried to chase a tennis ball or tag along for chores. The kids would take her to the barn at milking time, but that was more about getting free squirts of milk than anything else.

Then came the bloat. As detailed in another post, her bloat got so bad about a month ago that I took her to the vet…who took another x-ray, and delivered the grim diagnosis: tumors all over her lungs. Technically, pulmonary edema, and possibly lung cancer. At her age, there wasn’t much of anything we could do. The vet gave some medications to drain her fluid and open her airway, but there was never any question of Tabasco making a recovery. The medication was all about buying time so we could say goodbye.

And I am deeply grateful for that. When we were at the vet last month, he wasn’t sure Tabasco would make it through the weekend. The news was such a shock, I broke down right there in the examining room. And then…the medications gave us five more weeks. Tabasco’s bloat was dramatically reduced within a matter of days, and for the next three or four more weeks she seemed almost normal. Slow, subdued, uninterested in strenuous activity, urinating all the time — but stable and able to get around. I treasured every time I walked through my office door and she looked up and thumped her tail. We gave her all the meat scraps and dog treats she would take, and told her over and over what a great great dog she was.

Then came the last week. Suddenly, she had a lot of trouble getting to her feet. Especially on the slick floor of my office. I told her that was okay; I’d help her get up. I wondered if it was a side effect of the steroids, or just her disease running its course. She’d have good days and bad days, but the general trajectory was downward. She went from having trouble getting up, to having trouble walking around. Her joints seemed stiff, and her hind quarters didn’t want to follow her front quarters.

Then, a few days ago, she couldn’t keep herself in a squatting position long enough to relieve herself. Or a standing position long enough to drink from her bucket. I’d hold her at the bucket so she could drink, but then she’d flop down on the grass. She seemed to like the fresh air, so I’d leave her out. And because she couldn’t get to her feet on my office floor, I’d leave her out at night as long as it wasn’t raining.

I sensed we’d reached a turning point, and began thinking more seriously about taking her in for the vet to put her down. I was certain I couldn’t do it myself. I’m a dog person to the core, and Tabasco was my constant companion. Every fiber of my being revolted at the idea of inflicting harm on her body from my own hand. It’d taken four weeks just to get comfortable with the idea of cradling her in a blanket as I allowed a vet to put her to sleep. Tabasco was a survivor, and a fighter. As long as she was physically able to keep going and seemed to have the spirit to fight, I resolved to let her do it. I prayed she’d die on her own, but knowing her…I knew she wouldn’t.

I wondered how I’d know when Tabasco couldn’t go on, and I’d have to make The Call. She wasn’t well at all yesterday, and I started to think Monday would be It. I began thinking about how I could squeeze a vet visit into my crazily busy schedule. I grilled a big batch of lamb steaks for dinner, and made sure Tabasco got every bone and every scrap. Even though she couldn’t move to get anything, she seemed to be having the time of her life as we fed them to her.

Then, this morning when I came to her, I knew it was time. I couldn’t make her wait till the vet opened on Monday. As absolutely revolting as it was to think about putting her down myself, a perfectly clear realization came to me: it was even more revolting to think about making her suffer a single additional day like this. And I couldn’t make her do it. I cared about her too much. I cared about her so much, I knew in my core that I had to end this. Now.

How did I know? And how did I do it? Some of you may be uncomfortable with the details, but I think they need to be shared. For that reason, the details will be after the jump. Continue reading only if you want to.

(I don’t know why the “Jump Break” doesn’t work, so I’m inserting the following manual break instead.)

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Tabasco’s inability to stand on her feet, or to squat to defecate, was the core of the problem. I didn’t mind carrying her around, or holding her as she drank. The issue became hygiene, and it was a lot worse than I’d thought. Bottom line: flies started to love her. By Saturday afternoon, they were all over her rear end. Saturday night, I got a look at what they were doing to her: her orifices were crawling with fly larvae. I hosed her down, and that brought some relief. Her spirits, despite everything, seemed to remain high.

Then, this morning, the larvae were back with a vengeance. And she smelled absolutely horrible. And Tabasco’s spirit was gone. I sat her on her tail in my lap, put on a latex glove, and used peroxide to clean her up as best I could. But as much as I cleaned, the larvae kept coming. And, despite the early hour, the adult flies were already swooping in to lay more eggs. I knew there was no way whatsoever we could let her go a full additional day in this condition. Not in this heat. Not in this humidity.

It was time.

I went in the house and advised Mrs. Yeoman Farmer as to the situation. She agreed there was really no other option. It’d be cruel in the extreme to make Tabasco linger for another 26 hours while we waited for the vet to open, and we certainly couldn’t call a vet to the farm on a Sunday morning to administer an “emergency” euthanasia.

We broke it to the kids, who took it surprisingly well. I think the five weeks of preparation helped a lot with that. Homeschooled Farm Girl got choked up, brought me a fabric flower that she’d been saving, and asked if I would bury it with Tabasco. Despite the huge lump in my own throat, I assured her I would.

I took a shovel to the pasture, and dug the deepest hole I could. When I came back to retrieve Tabasco, Homeschooled Farm Boy asked if he could go with me. I let him carry my (unloaded) pistol, while I cradled Tabasco in a blanket for the trek.

We set Tabasco in the bottom of the hole, and helped her curl up as comfortably as we could. HFB and I both said our last good-byes, and then I covered her head with an old dish towel before delivering the bullet that would end everything.

I’d actually given a lot of though to the type of round I wanted to use. A shotgun slug or .45 pistol or 7.62x54R rifle would be too big. I didn’t want to blow her head off. A .22 or .380 might be too small and not do the job the first time. I settled on a 7.62×25 pistol; it’s a relatively small but extremely powerful round that would be effective without overkill.

And it indeed was the perfect choice. One pop (which, I confess, I closed my eyes as I delivered), and it was over. No doubt, but no mess. HFB and I quickly covered Tabasco’s body with rocks, and then filled the hole the rest of the way with dirt. We tamped it down, and then made our way back to the house with heavy hearts.

Strangely, my heart didn’t remain heavy for long. Yes, I felt a sad pang the first time I entered my office and looked for Tabasco’s thumping tail greeting that would never come again. But, at the same time, I felt oddly liberated. It was over. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer agreed: it was a relief to finally have resolution to the situation. Finally, we knew how it was going to end. Finally, we could move on.

I’m still surprised I found it within myself to pull that trigger, and I’ve sensed an odd change within myself today as I’ve reflected on it. I’m a stronger person now. I’ve confronted and overcome a challenge I ever even wanted to confront, let alone overcome. The other big challenges in life seem strangely less insurmountable today.

All that said, I have missed Tabasco today. Especially when I was de-boning the meat for lamb stew, and thinking about how much she would enjoy feasting on the scraps…before remembering.

But it’s going to be okay. Scooter loved those scraps. And Tabasco…I’m just glad her suffering is over. And I’m grateful God gave me the strength to render that service.

Rent-A-Goat

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article out, discussing a growing business category: Rent-A-Goats.  An excerpt:

As more homeowners, businesses and towns seek to maintain land with fewer chemicals or fossil-fuel-powered machinery, a growing number are trying goats to get rid of unwanted vegetation. Internet rivals Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. hired herds to clear around their Northern California headquarters this year. So did the Vanderbilt Mansion, a national historic site in Hyde Park, N.Y. And this April, nannies and billies were deployed at the U.S. Naval Base Kitsap Bangor in Silverdale, Wash., to annihilate pesky scotch broom plants.

While predators, poisonous plants and peeved neighbors can test goats on the job, the small livestock are well-suited for such labors.

Easy to manage, they relish prickly brush and weeds and their agility makes them “popular employees” for navigating steep slopes that can thwart humans and machines, says Brian Faris, president of the American Boer Goat Association in San Angelo, Texas.

It cost 55-year-old Mr. Holdaway $200 to clear a 1,700-square foot swath on his land with goats, pricier than the weed-whacking he’s been doing himself for a decade with a gas-powered trimmer. “But like many organic practices, you are going to have to pay a premium sometimes,” Mr. Holdaway says.

A few years back, I posted about a NY Times article that discussed a similar type of rental herd. It seems that goat rental entrepreneurs are getting more widespread, and using goats for a wider variety of projects. I’ve always thought it would be excellent if the road department made use of sheep to trim those big patches of grass near freeway on-ramps. Sheep would be well-suited for that, because the land tends to be grassy. Goats will eat grass, but they really love the bigger and weedier stuff.

As always, my biggest concern about portable livestock “landscapers” is fencing. There are good portable fencing systems out there; as the article points out, some of these goat services even set up electric fences powered by solar panels. We’ve personally never used portable fencing, and I’m not sure I’d trust it if the goats were working unsupervised — especially near a busy road. Our goats are constantly challenging their fences. And they’re not stupid. Given enough time unsupervised, they always seem to find a way to go under, over, around, or through to the other side. Because, you know, it’s forbidden. So it must be better over there. Where the grass (or brush) is greener.

I guess this is on my mind because I just came in from spending a couple of hours mending the fence in our goat pasture. It’s amazing how much damage they’ve been able to do in just a few months. Fortunately, the Yeoman Farm Children and I seem to have secured all the places the goats were managing to escape.

At least for now. But as those of you with livestock know, mending fences is never done. Especially not with goats on the job.

Darkness…and Lights

One thing that strikes you pretty quickly, once you make the move to a rural property, is just how dark it can get at night. The lack of light pollution from nearby cities can make for much more beautiful star gazing. And it’s especially nice on nights where there’s something special going on in the sky: a comet, the relatively close passage of another planet, a meteor shower, or any other such sight. Some of my nicest memories from Illinois are of reclining on the windshield of our old dead Suburban and looking up at the night sky with one of the Yeoman farm children.

The recent “solar tsunami” meant that a big cloud of charged particles was headed toward earth, with the potential for some spectacular displays of the northern lights. Driving home from an election night party on Tuesday, we did notice something going on in the sky. It wasn’t the kind of aurora which was visible farther north that night; for the really cool stuff, you’d have to go way up from here. But by 1am Wednesday morning, we had lots of pulsing white strobes going on in the sky. It was an interesting sight, and something we would’ve completely missed if we lived in the city.

That said, there’s a downside to darkness: it can get really hard to find your way across a barnyard when it gets pitch dark at night. Even with a security light to illuminate one’s driveway, how do you go looking in the pasture for that lost sheep which didn’t come in with the others? Or spot the predators lurking along the fence line? Or investigate what’s spooking the ducks?

We’ve found that a big, rechargeable, pistol-grip spotlight is an essential tool on the farm. There’s nothing like being able to sweep a three million candlepower beam across the property, lighting up the treeline (and the eyes of any animal that might be looking your direction). Or searching a particular tree for any signs of a raccoon or possum. Or … or … simply having the power to turn any given section of pitch darkness into bright daylight at the press of a button.

They’re not even terribly expensive. Yes, they’re more than a cheap flashlight that’s only effective at close range. But I’ve seen good ones at Meijer or Wal-Mart for under fifty bucks. Yes, that may sound like a lot for a light, but it’s a good investment. We use ours nearly every night, and have never regretted having it. I can’t imagine living out in the country without one.

Farm Surge

The Boston Globe has a great piece about locals (their locals, anyway) increasingly adopting this crazy lifestyle we’ve embraced:

After decades of decline, farming is resurging across the state. New farmers are graduates fresh out of college, immigrants with farming backgrounds, or former professionals starting second careers. Many begin as part-timers while hanging on to day jobs to supplement their incomes.

Those looking to make a new living from tilling the soil begin at training programs run by the state, universities, or nonprofit organizations — and the skills they learn have as much to do with running a business as with harvesting a crop.

Go read the whole thing.