Grinding Grain

My recent post about homemade cereal inspired a reader comment/question about how we grind our grain. I responded to that question in the same comment thread, but I believe the issue deserves its own post.

If you want to get started grinding your own grain, there are several good options. The biggest thing to keep in mind is this: just as with any other tool, your level of investment in a grain mill should correspond to the volume and level of use you’re expecting. But get the right tool for what you want to do.

If you already own a KitchenAid stand mixer, one easy way to get started is to add a grain grinding attachment to it. They can be bought new for under a hundred bucks at Amazon,and I used one on my own mixer for some time. They’re good for small quantities of grain, and produce nice flour, but the hopper is not large at all. It’s a good accessory for producing a few cups of flour or cracked grain here and there, but I wouldn’t recommend it for large scale or everyday family use.

We got our first real grain mill in the late 1990s, when we were learning to take more control of our food supply. (Actually, my very first attempt at grinding wheat involved a blender — and it was a total disaster. Unless you’re simply cracking a cup or two of grain for chickens and have no other options, do not attempt this. It’s like trying to drive a nail with the handle of a screwdriver.) The German-made mill we got is still popular and widely available, and goes by various names. “Family Grain Mill” seems to be among the more common. It looks like this:

and a basic set-up for grain can be had for as little as $130. Or perhaps even less. I haven’t priced them lately, but this mill’s wide availability makes it easy to comparison shop online.

We were happy with the Family Grain Mill, and used it for many years. It was a good, well-built tool that produced reasonably fine flour on the first pass through the mill. It can be adjustable from very coarse to fine. It also has several optional attachments available, for rolling oats or grinding meat or any number of other things.

Another nice thing about this mill: you can get started with a hand crank, and upgrade later to a motorized base if you want. The hand crank is not hard to use, especially for smaller batches or coarser settings, but will give you a good workout on the finest settings. It’s also nice to have in case the power goes out, or you’re trying to live a more off-the-grid lifestyle (or preparing for TEOTWAWKI, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog).

Our biggest problem with the hand crank was securing the clamp tightly enough so the base didn’t come loose while we were really cranking hard on it. Also, some of our countertops weren’t designed so anything could be clamped to them. We had to find a clamping spot that would be both comfortable to stand in and allow the use of one’s dominant hand — and still allow clearance for the turning crank arm. An old table you don’t care about scuffing up with clamp marks usually ends up being the best option.

As we began using the mill more and more regularly, we upgraded to the motorized base. We still had the hand crank for emergencies, but never used it again. The motor was absolutely wonderful. We used this mill for many years, even replacing the burrs a couple of times.

Eventually, however, we outgrew it. Two problems developed: the limited size of the grain hopper, and the mill’s inability to produce truly fine rice flour (fine enough for soaking and fermenting into flatbread batter) on the first pass. With a second pass, we could get sufficient fineness — but that involved standing with the mill and making sure all the flour went down the chute.

With the Yeoman Farm Children now needing large quantities of rice flour on a daily basis, we went shopping for a more appropriate tool. We found it in the L’Equip 760200 NutriMill Grain Mill:

In a word, this thing ROCKS. The hopper has a 20 cup capacity, which we will never outgrow. It’s just as adjustable as our other mill, but produces ultra-fine flour on the first pass. It has never jammed or failed us in any way, and we have used it a lot for several years now. For the money (and you can get them for less than $250 – which is actually similar to the motorized Family Grain Mill), it is very hard to beat this mill. Its only drawbacks — neither of which matter to us — are the unavailability of other attachments and that it is electric-only.

Depending on your budget, it’s still possible that none of the options in this post will work for you. There are cheaper hand crank grain mills out there, and we did experiment with one of them in the chicken coop because we had a large quantity of uncracked corn that we needed to do something with; that mill allowed us to crack the corn enough for the chickens to eat. The problem with some of these is that the long handles and large clamps make them hard to install and use in a kitchen. And I can’t vouch for the fineness of the flour they can produce.

Another option, as always, is eBay. It wouldn’t surprise me if many lightly-used grain mills of all kinds end up there after people have experimented with producing their own flour and then grown tired of the experiment.

As for us, we’re sticking with the NutriMill. It’s definitely an investment, but one of the best that our family has made.

Greener Cereal

What do you do for breakfast? Me, I’ve always enjoyed raisin bran cereal. I have it nearly every day. When I was a kid, I often even had a bowl as a bedtime snack. (Heck, I still do that on occasion.)

Cereal is not such an easy matter for the Yeoman Farm Children, however. With their Celiac disease, most grains are off limits. Rice is pretty much the only grain they can eat, and we practically buy it by the truckload from our food co-op. Plus, given all the additives and other ingredients that go into commercial cereal (even rice-based cereal), the YFCs’ other food allergies mean they’ve never been able to just sit down and pour themselves bowls of anything off-the-shelf for breakfast.

Each morning, we must grind a few cups of organic long grain brown rice in a grain mill, add it to some water in a pot, bring it to a boil, and simmer it for about 20 minutes (stirring constantly) on the stovetop. It then must sit and “set up” for some time before it can be dished into bowls. Think “very slowly cooked Cream of Wheat,” except made from scratch with rice flour.

The YFCs are now old enough to be able to take turns cooking cereal themselves, but when they were younger Mrs Yeoman Farmer had to do it every morning. To this day, we still talk about the time we had some friends visiting overnight; they slid bowls of off-the-shelf cereal in front of their kids, who proceeded to finish eating by the time MYF was still grinding our rice into flour.

Anyway, as much as we tell them how incredibly healthy their diets are, the YFCs have naturally long wondered what it would be like to “eat normally.” This Christmas, after having done extensive research, Homeschooled Farm Girl found a way to give her brothers the gift of eating breakfast like typical kids for a day: at the natural food store, she discovered a certain brand of puffed rice cereal that had no problematic ingredients. She bought it, wrapped it up, and put it under the tree for her siblings.

Needless to say, they were very excited. And this morning, thoroughly enjoying having been liberated from cooking their cream-of-rice, they poured themselves their first bowls of the stuff. They added some of our goat milk yogurt, grabbed some spoons, and sat down to try eating breakfast like other kids do.

The verdict? To my surprise, they quickly decided that commercial cereal is terribly overrated. “I don’t like the texture,” Homeschooled Farm Boy said. HFG, taking no offense that her gift hadn’t gone over so well, heartily agreed. Big Little Brother wasn’t crazy about it, either. They ate as much as they could, but the three of them left quite a bit for the chickens.

It was a very thoughtful gift on HFG’s part, and her brothers did appreciate the effort she put into finding a commercial cereal they could try. I don’t think the three of them quite realize it yet, but they actually ended up getting a gift that no amount of money or research could buy: a real-life lesson that the grass really isn’t greener on other people’s lawns (or breakfast tables, as it were). And that when it comes to food, they’re pretty darn lucky they get to eat the way they do.

Cold Days

I’m not sure the temperature has been above freezing at all so far this month. There may have been one day when we hit a scalding 37F, but that’s been about it. We’ve had several days in the teens, and some with wind chills in the single digits (or below zero). We got quite a dumping of snow last weekend (December 12), with a driving wind to make it even more miserable. It hit us so hard and so fast, we were not able to go to Mass (or anywhere else) that Sunday. These rural roads are a pretty low priority for the County snowplows, and our 4×4 truck only holds four people. The Yeoman Farm Family judged it best to lay low and stoke the fire.

We’re still below freezing today, but the sun is shining and we’re in the upper twenties. I opened the sheep and goats’ barn doors for the first time in a long while, to let them have some fresh air and space to roam around. Their coats are plenty warm enough to be out even in much colder weather, but we keep the barn doors closed to keep their water tanks from freezing solid. The downstairs portion of the barn has just a seven foot ceiling, meaning the animal body heat can’t easily escape upwards. With the doors closed, we can keep the downstairs portion of the barn in the low thirties even on days and nights when it’s much colder outside. Only when we get stiff winds does enough cold air force its way in that the water tanks begin icing over.

We had one type of livestock which unfortunately did not fare as well during last weekend’s mini-blizzard: our bees. We got our first “starter” hive this year, and they’d established a strong colony by the fall. We didn’t remove any of their honey, choosing to let them have it all to ensure they had enough for the winter. We were looking forward to starting off the spring with a strong and vibrant colony that would split / swarm into a second hive we’d already prepared. Sadly, the blizzard literally swamped them. Wet snow drifted into the hive’s main entrance and froze into a nasty ice pack, blocking much of their air flow. Then, when the bees emerged from their smaller upper entrance hole to take cleansing flights, many seem to have gotten disoriented upon returning and finding the main entrance blocked. When I came out to check on them, I discovered dozens of dead bees littered all over the snow in front of the entrance. With their numbers (and body heat) thus decimated, it looks like the rest of the hive froze to death inside.

I feel awful about what happened, and will do a full post-mortem on what was going on inside the hive, but in many ways this is not unlike the mistakes we’ve made in getting started with other livestock. We lost our first two lambs, for example, because we weren’t ready for them and they were born in the pasture on a frigid night. The only real mistake is not learning from this kind of experience. (The rest of the lambs were all born safely, inside a building.)

One huge lesson learned about bees: next fall, I’m putting the hive(s) at least a foot or two off the ground, on pallets or cinder blocks. Another lesson learned: get some insulating foam fitted tightly around the outside of the hive before cold weather sets in. And go out there to check on the colony every day or two when it does get cold.

As for us humans, our family has been enjoying pot after pot of hearty soups and stews, made from the lamb and goat necks in our freezer. When the temperatures get and stay this cold, it’s hard to think of a nicer way to warm oneself from the inside out.

I’ll close with a lighter anecdote about the cold. If you’ve been following the NFL at all, you know that the roof of the Metrodome in Minneapolis collapsed from all the snow (same storm system that went on to hit us in Michigan and kill our bees). They haven’t been able to repair it, so tonight’s game between the Vikings and Bears will be played outdoors at the Golden Gophers’ stadium. Upon hearing this news and reflecting on it, Homeschooled Farm Boy’s face lit up in a smile. “You know what that means?” he said. “The cheerleaders will have to dress modestly!”

Yes, indeed. There are some good things about the cold.

Sportsman’s Guide

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have found a new supplier that we like a lot and have begun telling our friends about: Sportsman’s Guide. They are an online discount seller of outdoor goods, and their primary focus seems to be hunters and fishermen (note their name), but they carry an enormous variety of related products that just about anyone — especially those of us who live in the country — will find useful. And they have some of the best prices we’ve seen.

We’re big believers in buying things in bulk whenever possible. Not just to save money, but also to make sure we always have a supply on hand of things we need. There’s nothing worse than discovering you’re out of something, having to make a special trip to the store, and paying more than you need to.

In particular, I like to buy ammunition in bulk; prices for a 20 or 50 round box at Wal-Mart or the local gun shop can be pretty steep, especially compared to buying by the case. Ammo doesn’t go bad if it’s stored in a dry place, and I know I’ll eventually go through it. And given the unpredictability of supply in certain calibers, I like the peace of mind of knowing I’m immune to production disruptions. I’ve had good experiences buying bulk ammo from various online dealers, but in the last few months I’ve found Sportsman’s Guide tends to have the best prices, most consistent availability, and widest variety of calibers of pretty much anyone else out there. And their Ammo page on the website is easy to navigate.

Sportsman’s Guide has a “Buyers Club” that you’ll be asked to join when you place your first order. This is definitely worth the $30 cost. You not only get discounted prices on pretty much every product, but you’ll get extra savings and free shipping on your first order. Then, as a Club member, you’ll get frequent email offers for “$10 off your next order of $99 or more” or “free shipping on your next order of $99 or more.” Within two orders, my club membership had easily paid for itself. (The free shipping offers, in particular, were a nice opportunity to stock up on bulk ammo. That stuff can get HEAVY.)

The most interesting part of club membership has been the catalogs we get in the mail. We get at least one (and sometimes more) per week. I didn’t pay much attention to these, as I usually just go on their website and order when there’s something I need. I figured they send all these catalogs because so many of their customers are rural and therefore don’t have high speed internet.

But then Mrs. Yeoman Farmer noticed one of these catalogs laying on the dining room table, and began browsing it. She was soon perusing these things every time Yeoman Farm Baby had her pinned for a feeding. And she discovered something: Sportsman’s Guide carries all kinds of cool military and outdoor surplus stuff, that we’ve never seen elsewhere, at great prices. She ordered boots for her and the kids for something like $30 per pair. She got herself a heavy wool cape at a good price. Heavy wool military coats and hats and sweaters. They sometimes don’t have exactly the right size, but kids grow quickly and we just order an extra size up.

Our biggest frustration with boots in particular, from places like Wal-Mart, is how quickly the kids destroy them. And yet we’ve hesitated to buy the kids the really nice Muck Boots, like MYF and I wear around the farm, because they are so expensive. Military surplus boots are looking like they may be a good compromise: Just $30, and built to survive a march across Austria. As I hold these things in my hands and lace them up, I seriously doubt any kid could wear them out even if he wanted to. (I will post an update if Homeschooled Farm Boy or Big Little Brother manage to succeed, however.)

Anyway, this is not to discourage you from supporting local retailers or merchants. MYF and I are big believers in localism — but sometimes local merchants don’t have what we need, or don’t have what we need at a reasonable price. We’ve been very happy with Sportsman’s Guide, and would encourage you to check them out.

How Open?

It’s now been over a year since we’ve adopted Yeoman Farm Baby, and I’ve been wanting to share a few thoughts about the experience. Above all, we remain deeply grateful to the birthmother who entrusted him to us. It takes an enormous amount of love for a mother to recognize that her baby needs to be raised in a home and family that she is unable to provide…and then to actually go through with releasing her child into that more appropriate situation. We’ve had three biological children of our own, and understand the depth of attachment a mother establishes with her baby during a pregnancy. We cannot imagine how difficult it would be to have to sever that tie.

By way of quick recap: about a year and a half ago, we were contacted by a friend of a friend of the birthmother. She was still relatively early in the pregnancy, and deciding whether to put the baby up for adoption or raise him herself. Her friends and family were helping assemble potential adoptive parents, to give her a sense of the kind of life that other families may be able to offer her child. The go-between approached us because, for various reasons, she (the go-between) thought our family might be a good fit. We thought so, too, and after prayerful discernment decided to offer ourselves as candidates. To our great joy, the birthmother agreed that our family was just the kind of home she wanted her child to be adopted into.

One of the early questions that we and the birthmother needed to agree about was the degree of openness we would have in the adoption. Options can range from completely closed (no identifying information is exchanged, and there is zero contact after the adoptive parents assume custody), to completely open — to the point of the birthmother actually visiting and playing some ancillary role in the child’s life.

In my own personal experience as an infant adoptee, I was grateful that my own adoptive arrangement was completely closed. I could imagine the confusion and divided loyalties that would’ve been introduced had my birthmother been lurking just off stage and making regular contact with me. I know it would’ve undermined our family’s sense of unity, and caused me to question where I really belonged. When I grew old enough to understand, my parents explained very matter-of-factly that some children join families biologically (like my younger brother), while others join families through adoption (like my sister and I did). But once we’re together, we’re together. Everyone is a full and equal member of the same family. Had I been getting visits from my birthmother, I know that mixed signal would’ve confused me.

To this day, I have not had a desire to meet my birth family. I have one mother and one father, and they are really my parents. I neither need nor want any different ones. That said, however, I have a natural curiosity about the birth family, and the circumstances surrounding my origins. The agency through which I was adopted provided a basic two-page overview of the family’s social and health circumstances, but nothing about the reasons why my birthmother thought it best I be raised by another family. I’d like to know more about that, and I’d like to be able to tell her in a letter how grateful I am that I was raised by the family that did raise me. It’s truly the best thing that ever happened to me. I want to thank her for that, and to let her know that my life has been happy and successful as a result of that self-sacrificing choice she made for me.

These are some of the personal considerations I brought with me, in trying to decide with Mrs Yeoman Farmer what kind of arrangement we wanted for our own adopted son. We wanted to be able to tell him, as he grew older and asked questions, the sort of person his birthmother was. That we’d met her, and gotten to know her. How much she loved him, but why her situation wasn’t right for him. If he wanted to know what she looked like, we wanted to be able to show him. If, as an adult, he wanted to meet her or even just send her a letter, we wanted to know how to reach her. But we wanted to ensure our privacy and that he wouldn’t get confused by ongoing contact from her in his youth.

We decided, with the birthmother, on a “semi-open” arrangement. We would not exchange last names, and she would never know exactly where in Michigan we live (not even the town or metro area). We did provide her with a very long family profile letter, and many photos, to help her be as comfortable as possible about where her baby would be growing up. We visited with her before the baby’s birth, and met her family, in her city. We agreed to take custody of the baby upon his release from the hospital, and invited her to visit us/him while we remained in her metro area. In conjunction with her, we agreed to email update letters and photographs every three months for the baby’s first year and every six months for his second year; we will decide together what to do after that.

This has proven to be a good arrangement for all of us. The birthmother has been able to know how well her baby is thriving, and to see how happy he his — and to see how much happiness he has brought to our whole family. She’s been able to hear about his growth, his doctor’s visits, and all his milestones. We’ve been able to tell her how much we appreciate having him here with us, and how much we love him. She’s also sent us some notes of her own, which we have been able to keep and tell YFB about when he gets older.

But the most surprising benefit is that the process has forced us to sit down and think about and document all of YFB’s milestones. Yes, to be honest, I sometimes feel some resentment when the “due date” for an update is approaching and we have to take time away from normal family activities to write it up and organize the photos we’ll be sending. “He’s ours. This is our family. This is our time. This is our life,” the voice in my head complains. But now that we’ve been doing this for 12+ months, I’ve come to realize something: we have a more complete written record of YFB’s first year, all in one place, than we do for any of our biological kids. And we have more photographs of him than most families ever have of their youngest child. (MYF is the youngest in her family, and has almost no pictures from her youth.) Because we’ve wanted to show how much YFB is part of our whole family, we’ve also ended up taking a lot more pictures of our other kids — especially #3 — than we would have otherwise, or than we did before YFB’s arrival.

I realize that these kinds of “semi-open” arrangements don’t always work out the way people would like. There may be less detailed contact than the birthmother would’ve wanted. There may be more contact — or more intrusive contact — than the adoptive family would’ve wanted or expected. Some adoptive families opt for an international adoption, in part to avoid all of these issues.

In our case, cooperation and understanding on both sides have helped us come to a solution that’s worked well for everyone. In reflecting on YFB’s first year, I wanted to share this with you; I know some of you may be considering adopting, or be in a position to advise a birthmother who is putting her baby up for adoption. I offer our family’s experience as an example of what can be done to help make a difficult situation as optimal as possible for all.

Weathergirl

Homeschooled Farm Girl, describing how bitterly cold it is here in MI this week:

“If you tried to butcher a goose, Daddy, the blood would probably all freeze before it could get out.”

Yeah.

Good reason to stay inside by the fire and leave the butchering for another day.