How Do You Know You Live in a Small Town?

It’s the summer of 1986 or 1987. I’m a high school kid, on my way home from my job at McDonald’s in the Seattle suburbs, and stop at a 7-11 for gas. I go inside, give the clerk ten bucks, go back out, and start pumping.

While I’m using a squeegee on the windshield, an old sedan pulls up to the other side of the pump. The car looks like it’s been on a long road trip, and has a couple of kids (with pillows and lots of other stuff) in the back. It’s a warm day, and the windows are rolled down. A middle-aged woman jumps out of the car and puts the nozzle in her gas tank.

A moment later, she yells in frustration to her kids: “Oh! We have to pay first! I forgot we’re not in Eastern Wahrshington [sic] anymore! Nobody here trusts anybody!”

As she slammed the nozzle back into place and stormed into the 7-11, I couldn’t help snickering at the whole thing and wondering what her problem was.

That was over thirty years ago. I’ve of course grown up a lot, and my attitude toward country life has shifted 180 degrees since high school. But I’ve never forgotten that incident at the 7-11. To this day, I use the availability of “pump before you pay” gasoline as an indicator of small town trust that truly distinguishes these places from larger communities.

Our town has three gas stations. Two are just off the freeway, and have standard pay-at-the-pump credit card readers. If you want to pay with cash, you have to go inside and pay before you pump – just like I had to, at the 7-11. Given the proximity to the freeway, and the large volume of travelers coming through, this isn’t at all surprising.

The third station is different. It’s much farther inside the town, on the main feeder road coming in from the country. That station is owned by the Fogg family, which has been in the area forever (and even has a rural road named after them), and which also runs a propane / heating oil delivery service out of that building. There’s no pay at the pump option. Whether you’re using a credit card or paying cash, you pump first. Then you go inside and pay.

And you know what’s even more remarkable? When I need to order propane or heating oil, I don’t need to give my name or address. I’m not a famous guy. I don’t order oil or propane more than a couple of times a year. But, without asking, they know (1) who I am and (2) the address to deliver to. (“Oh, yeah, the truck is going by your place tomorrow morning. I’ll have them stop. How empty is your tank?”) Needless to say, you don’t have to pay first for heating oil, either. If I’m home, I’ll write a check when they deliver it. If not, they leave the slip and trust me to send in a payment.

Remember those two gas stations near the freeway? The Fogg family owns one of those, in addition to the smaller one with pay-after-you-pump. It has a large display sign – the kind with movable letters, that someone has to use a long pole to arrange. The messages change pretty often, and make all kinds of community announcements like “CONGRATULATIONS BOB AND LAURA SMITH MARRIED 50 YEARS”.

You might see a sign like that in a larger town, especially if “Bob and Laura” are well known. But I can pretty much guarantee that a message they displayed last week will never show up outside a small town like ours:

Kidney Sign.jpg

Yes, you are reading that correctly. Someone in the Fogg family needs a kidney – and  they are using this sign to spread the word.

Suburban Seattle High School Me would’ve seen this and wondered what the Foggs were thinking. “After all,” SSHS Me would’ve thought, “who would donate a kidney to a stranger?

But you know what I’ve learned in the 30 years since high school? No one in a rural community is really a stranger. This place is a community. I think it’s wonderful that news and needs can be shared this way.

And it would not surprise me in the least if someone around here calls that number and offers to make that donation.

Chicks for Cheap

Chickens don’t have to be expensive!

Unfortunately, it took us many years to learn this lesson. When we first moved to the country, we routinely ordered batches of baby birds directly from the hatchery. There are several good suppliers out there, and their catalogs (now websites) are fun to browse. We were able to try out various breeds, and arrange for delivery on specific dates all the way into August or September. If there’s a very particular, obscure poultry breed that you’d like to try out, a special order from a hatchery may be the only way to go. And the highly reputable hatcheries, like Murray McMurray, would even provide a refund if any birds arrived dead or died within a certain number of days of arrival.

The hatchery route isn’t a bad way to go, but it can get pricey. Do you want 25 pullet chicks from a good egg laying breed like Barred Rock? At McMurray, those will cost you $2.89 each, plus shipping. From the hatchery nearest us (a couple of hours away), the price is $2.75 each for a box of 25. Then add $15 for shipping. If you want a smaller order, you’ll pay significantly more per bird.

Each spring, our local feed store / grain elevator puts together a large group buy from that hatchery, with orders arriving on specific days. That saves on shipping, and the price per bird is a little less.

Also in the spring, for several weeks the big farm stores like Tractor Supply will put out large tubs with baby chicks and other poultry, under heat lamps. It’s actually a lot of fun to visit the stores during “chick days,” and to be able to browse all the various birds that are available. You can mix and match whatever you want, and there’s no shipping. Prices are similar to what you’d pay from the hatchery ($2.99 for a Barred Rock pullet chick, for example). The downside is, you’re limited to what they have on hand. If you want something unusual, you’re out of luck.

Chick days.jpg

When we first started doing this, we were big on trying unusual and different breeds of birds. Over time, we came to settle on some favorites — which, fortunately, are the favorites of a lot of other people … which means they are widely available. When it comes to layers, we like Barred Rocks and Buff Orpingtons, but aren’t averse to New Hampshire Reds, Rhode Island Reds, and some of the others like ISA Browns. During spring chick days, farm stores have plenty of birds from these common and popular breeds.

Hens are reliable layers for about two years; after that, their egg production slows — so, we like to butcher our hens in the fall of their second year. How do you know how old a hen is? It’s tough to tell by looking. We solved this problem by getting a very different looking breed each year. In 2015, we had Barred Rocks. We butchered them last fall. In 2016, we got Buff Orpingtons. They’re still going strong. In fact, we got too many, so we didn’t get pullet chicks last year. We will butcher them this fall.

So, as you might guess, it’s now a Barred Rock year. We need about twenty to provide the eggs our family needs. However, given how long the cold weather had been lingering in Michigan this “Spring,” I’d been holding off on actually buying the chicks. Cold and rainy weather means the babies need to be brooded under heat lamps for a longer time, until they’re fully feathered and strong enough to withstand the elements.

With the arrival of nicer weather, I’d begun browsing the local farm supply stores. Yesterday, I hit the jackpot: Family Farm & Home in Mason had a large tub of “senior” Barred Rock pullet chicks, marked down to just one dollar each. They were mostly feathered, and the sales clerk estimated them to be about a week and a half old. That means we’ll only need to keep them in the brooder over the weekend, and we’ll be able to get them out into a pasture pen on Monday.

I bought twenty. And, lest you fear that the store was losing money on me … while I was there, I also bought a new chick feeder and a new waterer (our old ones had definitely seen better days).

Barred Rock Chicks 2018.jpg

Getting chicks this way is hit or miss, but when you get a hit … the payoff is big. This score is right up there with last fall’s post-Halloween pumpkins, (though not quite as good a deal as the absolutely free December 26th Walmart Christmas trees.) Not only did I save around $40 compared to full retail, but I also saved the cost of running a 250 watt heat lamp around the clock for about ten days. Plus the cost of feeding the chicks a high protein ration for about ten days. We also saved ourselves ten days’ worth of the hassle of checking on the brooder a few times a day. Not to mention the fact that chicks are most fragile, and therefore most likely to die, in their first days of life. The twenty I got yesterday are well established and have proven themselves strong.

Here’s looking forward to lots of wonderful eggs in the fall, at a price that can’t be beat!

The Great Lamb Heist

Lambing season drew to a close on Friday, with a twist we’ve never seen before.

Unlike some years, when upwards of five ewes would all deliver on the same day, this lambing season has proceeded at a nearly perfect pace. All the deliveries seemed to have at least a few days between them, allowing each new lamb (or set of twins) to settle in with Mom and get acclimated to the flock before any new arrivals brought disruptions.


We knew exactly which ewe gave birth to which lamb(s), and got each one tagged and recorded promptly. Better yet, up through Lamb #12, we hadn’t had a single death or a terribly complicated delivery. Every lamb got on its feet quickly, and began nursing.

We had a bit of a scare last Saturday, when the ewe we call Paint Bucket (because she looks like someone dumped a pail of black paint onto her head) delivered twins. One was very large, but the other looked impossibly tiny. His twin dwarfed him, and he seemed to weigh almost nothing. Although he had managed to get to his feet on his own, I didn’t really expect him to survive. He’d be a nice bonus if he made it.

A week later, little Pint Bucket (I confess, I just made that name up) is not only holding his own … he’s thriving. He gets around just as well as the bigger lambs, and already seems to be putting on weight nicely (he’s the mostly white one, on the right).

Paint Bucket.jpg

We were stuck at a total of twelve lambs for several days, with the last two bred ewes looking like they could deliver at any time. And yet, day after day, we had no arrivals. Finally, on Friday morning, these two gave us the surprise we never saw coming.

At lunchtime, I gave the barn a quick inspection. Rachael, our solid black ewe, was acting like she was in labor, so I hustled to her first. Sure enough, in the bedding behind her, was a little black and white lamb sopping wet with amniotic fluid. (I call the stuff “lambniotic fluid.”) I set the lamb in front of her, and she began licking like crazy.

That’s when I noticed the other ewe, Holstein (so named because her spotting pattern makes her look like a dairy cow), was also licking off a lamb. So far, everything seemed perfectly normal. Two ewes. Two lambs. I went to the house and got lunch.

After lunch, I returned to the barn to see if either ewe had delivered a second lamb. Neither had, but the lambs had come together — and both ewes were now licking both lambs. Rachael in particular was very aggressively trying to butt Holstein away, as if trying to claim both lambs as her own. But at the same time, Holstein seemed to think that both lambs were hers.

Naturally a bit concerned, I tried to push the two ewes away from each other — and then I noticed it. Only Holstein had bloody afterbirth hanging out of her rear end. Rachael’s rear, and udder, were perfectly dry. That was my lightbulb moment: Holstein had twins. Rachael hasn’t delivered. I kicked myself for not being more observant earlier.

I dragged Rachael out of the barn and into the beautifully sunny outdoor area, with her bellowing the whole way, and latched the door securely. Even then, she wouldn’t budge from the door, trying to nose it open with her muzzle while she called desperately to “her” lambs – both of which were now being well cared for by Holstein.

By late afternoon, when I had to reopen the barn, Rachael had a long strand of stringy mucus hanging from her birth canal — a sure sign that delivery was imminent. I had to leave for a function in town, but briefed my daughter on the situation and asked her to keep an eye on Rachael.

When I got home later that evening, my daughter gave me the sad report: Rachael had twins, but the first was stillborn. The second died almost immediately after birth.

As I went about the dreary task of disposing of the cold, wet lamb remains, I couldn’t help noticing that Rachael was remarkably nonplussed. She was continuing to horn in on one of Holstein’s lambs, insisting on licking it and trying to get it to nurse. I wondered if, that afternoon, she’d somehow known that her lambs weren’t going to make it. Perhaps they’d already been dead or dying inside her, and she’d sensed that Holstein’s lambs were the only ones she would have a shot at mothering this year.

Regardless, I decided not to intervene in the Great Lamb Heist now unfolding. Rachael is a very milky sheep (she’s raised triplets unassisted), and it would be a shame to let that good stuff go to waste. If she wants to help, I don’t mind letting her.

The two ewes spent much of Saturday squabbling over the Holstein’s lambs, with the little ones largely oblivious to the drama. As of this morning, Rachael seems to have settled on one of the two as “hers,” and is leaving the other one for Holstein. Still, when I opened the barn doors this morning and let the flock out, both ewes and both lambs seemed to be sticking together as a unit. A sometimes tense unit, but a unit.

20180422_193421.jpgAnd you know what? It’s actually kind of fun to watch. We’ve certainly never had anything like this happen before. The deaths on Friday night had been a sour note in an otherwise perfect symphony of lambs. Rachael and Holstein are doing everything they can to return that music to its harmony.



Here Come the Lambs!

Lambing season is finally underway here at the farm. Our first new arrivals came a week ago, which is a bit on the late side; in most years, the ewes begin delivering in March. Given how long the wintry weather has been lingering here, though, I don’t mind the delay. Our sheep may be cold-hardy Icelandics, but every newborn does better when it’s a little warmer out.

I’m especially happy that the deliveries have been spaced out. There have been years when upwards of five ewes have all delivered on the same day — and chaos ensues. Imagine eight or nine little lambs, all running around and getting mixed up with each other, while the mothers try to track down and somehow bond with their own offspring. (My only real complaint about our barn is that we can’t separate the animals into individual stalls. Being able to do so would be a huge stress reliever at lambing time.)

As of yesterday afternoon, we’ve now had three ewes deliver a total of five lambs. Thankfully, all five are doing great.

One of our black polled ewes (no, we never got around to naming her or the one who looks virtually identical to her) kicked things off sometime late Tuesday night (April 3rd) or early Wednesday morning, with a beautiful set of twins. By chore time on Wednesday morning, she’d licked both of them dry.  Here they are, a few days later. The one on the left is a female; the one on the right is a solid moorit male. He’s gorgeous. Assuming he stays healthy, and his horns come in nice and wide, I think we already have a buyer who wants him as a breeder.

Born 04.03.2018-3.jpg

Over the weekend, Fletcherbelle (see this post for the story of her name) gave birth to a mixed-gender set of twins of her own. It appears the solid black female will be polled; her brother will have horns. She had them up on their feet in no time, and busy getting their first meal.


We’ve been making a point of going out to the barn several times a day, to keep abreast of any new deliveries. That vigilance paid off yesterday. Around lunchtime, I asked the 15 year old to do a check. He returned, and reported that our very oldest ewe, Pachelbelle, was right then in the process of giving birth. This was important news, because it’s the older ones who tend to have the most trouble; their uterine muscles can weaken to the point where they can’t push the lamb all the way out without some help. (Otherwise, our Icelandic sheep have had very few complications with deliveries — it’s one of the aspects of the breed that we most appreciate.)

I hurried to the sheep pen. Pachelbelle was lying alone in a corner, with a small black lamb head protruding from her backside. The lamb’s presentation looked generally correct, because a foot was sticking out alongside the head. And it moved its eyes enough for me to tell it was still alive.  However, at eleven years of age, poor Pachelbelle seemed in no hurry to start pushing again. Her eyes told me, “I’m getting too old for this.”

No problem. I gently inserted my hands into the birth canal, felt around for a secure hold, carefully drew the lamb the rest of the way out, and set him on the straw bedding.

This is the part when the ewe typically jumps up, turns around, and inspects the slimy wet bundle that she’s just delivered. But Pachelbelle was having none of it.

I made a quick decision: if she won’t go to the lamb, then the lamb needs to come to her. I picked the lamb back up, ran a finger through his mouth to ensure it was clear, and deposited him in front of his mother. She sniffed a couple of times, and then went right to work licking him off. He even began struggling to get to his feet – another excellent sign.

Wanting to give Pachelbelle a little more help, I jogged to the house and retrieved an old bath towel. Back at the barn, I gathered up the lamb, wrapped him in the towel, and spent a minute or two removing as much slime as possible. Once back in front of his mother, she again went to work licking him the rest of the way dry.

Sometime after lunch, I made a quick check on the pair. The lamb was on his feet and getting around (big relief), and so was Pachelbelle (even bigger relief). I was also relieved that she’d only had one lamb; at her age, twins or triplets would’ve been taken an awful lot out of her. Pachelbelle 04.10.18.jpg

I pulled the remaining afterbirth from her backside, and milked a couple of squirts of colostrum from each teat (to ensure everything was clear). I also massaged her udder a bit, confirming she was going to have plenty of milk for the lamb.

It’s a bit poignant, watching her do this for what will almost certainly be the last time. We’ve had terrible luck trying to over-winter sheep that get to age eleven, and have more or less resolved to butcher (in the fall) any that reach that age. This last winter was tough on her, even with exempting her from last fall’s shearing so she could keep her warm fleece. I really don’t want to put her through another Michigan winter.

What makes the decision more difficult is that Pachelbelle is the very last surviving animal who made the move with us from Illinois in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels.” (She was about eight months old at the time.) When she goes, the books won’t just be closing on her life. The books will be closing on a whole chapter of our life.

Fortunately, the fall is still many months off. Lambing is just getting started, and we’re grateful that Pachelbelle has blessed us with another little one. I know we’re going to enjoy watching her raise him this summer, with much gratitude for all eleven years of her life.