The Great Cheese Plea

This may be the first post I’ve made from an airport. I’m sitting at the gate at DTW, waiting to board a much-anticipated flight to Seattle. After a four-year layoff, I’m at last able to make it out for the big Seattle-to-Portland bicycle ride. (This is of course the event at the center of my novel, Full Cycle; this Saturday will be the first time I’ve been able to participate in STP since the novel’s publication.)

As much as I’m looking forward to the big ride, I’m especially happy to be able to see friends and family while I’m out there; it’s been way too long. Tonight, I’m having dinner at a cousin’s house. My contribution to the evening: a nice container of goat cheese from our farm.

Or at least that was the plan, until TSA intervened. At the checkpoint, my backpack sailed right through the security screening — but my bag of food was yanked for further inspection. The agent took a look at the cheese, in its plastic container, and said it wasn’t allowed. It’s too soft, he explained. Can’t have anything spreadable.

I replied that I had no idea I couldn’t bring it; I thought all food items were acceptable. I would’ve put it in my luggage if I’d known.

And then I rolled the dice and played the Farmer card. “It’s homemade goat cheese, from our own goats. My daughter made this. I’m supposed to be taking it to dinner tonight at my cousin’s house.”

He looked at the container more closely. “Your own goats?” he asked. It wasn’t so much incredulity; it was more a tone of “Yeah, nobody could be making up a story like this.”

I could sense him hesitating. He stepped away for a moment, and conferred with another agent. The only words I picked up were “homemade cheese” and “own goats”.

He returned with the cheese after that brief conversation. “Okay, we’ll allow it this one time, if it passes the surface test,” he told me. “Next time, check it in your luggage.” He swabbed the surface of the cheese container, inserted the swab into some sort of machine, and got the test results.

Satisfied, he returned the cheese to me. I smiled and gave him a heartfelt thank-you, and then packed everything up and cleared the security checkpoint.

I’m not sure what it was about my Great Cheese Plea that changed his mind, but my sense is that most people have a special appreciation for food that’s crafted at home on a farm. Who could bring himself to toss in the trash something that’d been put together with so much care and attention? Perhaps he sensed that saving my cheese was some small way he could participate vicariously in the life of a farm. I don’t know. I’m just really thankful that someone appreciated our farm produce enough to give that extra consideration. We will certainly remember his kindness tonight at dinner!

Never Gets Old

If you were to ask which one thing about living on a small farm never gets old, I would answer immediately: watching mother hens hatch and raise their own chicks.

The overwhelming majority of our birds come from a hatchery; trying to breed and hatch your own on a large scale is an enormous headache (and crap shoot). That said, we enjoy raising egg-laying breeds that haven’t had all their mothering instincts bred out of them. Every once in a while, one of them will surprise us by sneaking off to a dark corner of the property, making a nest, and hatching out a brood.

I recently noticed that our egg production was dropping somewhat. The nine-year-old had been put in charge of gathering eggs this spring, and I suspected that he wasn’t looking hard enough. A couple of weeks ago, I made a thorough search of the barn, to see if he might be missing something.

Of course, it didn’t take long to find the huge cache of eggs which had gone ungathered. An old box had been overturned, with the open side facing a wall. By all appearances, it looked like just an old box that someone had forgotten to take to the burn pile. Upon closer inspection, however, I found a very broody Buff Orpington hen inside — and, under her, about a dozen and a half eggs. She’d removed most of her breast feathers, so as to bring her warm skin into better direct contact with the eggs. When I tried to pick her up, she moved very little (unlike a non-broody hen, which would’ve run off squawking at first touch), and simply let out some deeply disapproving clucks as she tried to peck me.

I hoped that I’d caught her in time, and that these eggs were still good, so I took all of them into the house. As much fun as it is when mother hens hatch their own chicks, the process is too unpredictable to waste a lot of eggs on — especially because this hen was in a place where other hens could be adding fresh eggs to the ones she’d been incubating. I cracked a couple of the eggs, and they were seriously bloody – like they’d been incubating for a long time.

Not wanting to kill any additional developing chicks, I tested the rest of them (one at a time) to see if they would float in water. A handful of them sank right to the bottom and went on their side. That’s usually an indication of a fresh egg; some other hen(s) had likely climbed in and added these to the nest recently. I put them aside for our potential use.

The rest of the eggs either floated, or stood up on end. I took these to the barn, returned them to the box, and placed the hen (who hadn’t gone far) back on the eggs.

Then we left her alone, and waited.

This past Sunday morning, when I went out to the barn to do chores, she was off the nest and lying in the middle of a walkway. Her feathers were puffed up, and she was spread out like she was trying to cover something. A little yellow-and-black chick sat in front of her, seemingly oblivious to the low “come hither” clucking noises she was making. I nudged the chick toward her, and it quickly vanished into the puffy feathers. As she welcomed it under her wings, I could see a couple of other little ones shifting around. Much as I wanted to see how many she had altogether, I thought better of disturbing her.

That evening, she was leading three little chicks all around the barn. Monday morning, I had trouble locating her at first. As I continued looking, I grew concerned that the barn cats had swiped her chicks. To my relief, I found she’d made a temporary nest in the goat separating area. She was again puffed up, giving reassuring clucks. I knew, without looking, that all was well.

Every day since then, she’s led the chicks to a different part of the barnyard. Tuesday morning, they were out very early in the goat area. It looked like she was teaching them how to forage.

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Last night, she had them on the lawn behind the house. They were still browsing the lawn when I came out this morning, but eventually moved back to the barn.

No matter where she decides to take them tonight, I do know one thing: this entertainment never, ever gets old.

Anyone Have a Break for Sale? (UPDATED)

We’re wondering if anyone out there has a break for sale. Because, when it comes to bringing in this year’s first cutting of hay, we haven’t even been able to buy a break.

You’ve no doubt read or heard stories about the sopping wet weather that has inundated much of the country’s grain belt this year. Many of the commercial corn-and-soybean farmers were very late getting into their fields to plant, if they managed to plant at all, because the ground had been so wet.

We’ve had many of the same problems here in Michigan, with an unusually wet Spring, but not with the same degree of impact as on the prairie; I think that’s in part due to the smaller amount of row crop farming that is done here. Some people here do grow corn and soybeans commercially, but it’s not the kind of wall-to-wall immersion that we saw in Illinois.

The much bigger problem for us, and for others nearby, has been harvesting hay. We’ve lived here since late 2007, so our first hay harvest was in the spring of 2008. This makes the 12th year we’ve been bringing in hay from our five-acre field, all assisted by the same local farmer who has the necessary specialized equipment. Most years, the first cutting is getting ready to harvest by the end of May, and we’ve managed to bring it in by mid-to-late June (depending on our farmer friend’s availability). This has set us up well for a second or third cutting most years.

Not this year. Bringing in hay requires a certain window of dry weather. You have to cut it, allow it to dry in the field, and then rake / flip it until it dries completely. If you’re lucky enough to get dry, hot weather (especially with a stiff wind), it can be ready to bale after as little as a couple of days. But we haven’t had anything like that this spring. There was one brief window in mid June, with perfect haying weather, but we only saw a handful of farmers actually take advantage of it. Why? The forecast hadn’t initially showed the weather would be so good, and few wanted to chance getting the hay rained on.

Rain is indeed the big worry. If the hay gets soaked while it’s lying on the ground, all the previous drying is of course lost. You can hope for another string of warm weather, but there’s a limit to the number of times you can flip the hay. Eventually, the structure of the grass becomes unstable and it crumbles into an unbaleable mess. And if it keeps raining, so it stays wet long enough? It’ll start to rot, or mold.

After putting it off and putting it off, and not being sure which weather forecasts we could trust, and whether any of the forecast “scattered thundershowers” would actually hit us, we and our farmer friend decided to roll the dice and cut hay on Tuesday of this past week (July 2nd). That very evening, after a beautiful sunny day, one of those thunderstorms scattered its way straight into our hay field.

Our farmer friend has been doing his best to get back over here and flip / rake the hay, but the rain has just kept coming. Thursday morning the weather was really nice, and gave all indications of being a perfect day; we hung two loads of laundry out to dry, and the nine-year-old and I enjoyed cruising to a car show in my classic Fiat with the top down. Then, Thursday afternoon, while we were visiting family a half-hour away, a thunderstorm dumped two and a half inches on our property. There’d been no rain at all where we’d been, so coming home and finding everything absolutely soaked was a very nasty surprise.

We’d initially hoped to bale on Friday, but that was now of course impossible. Our farmer friend came over to rake / flip the hay, to start drying after its Fourth of July soaking. Then, not thirty minutes later, this was the scene:

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You can see the hay field in the background, on the other side of the animal enclosure near the barn. Looks like a partly-cloudy day, right? It was indeed, when he began running his tractor. Actually pretty sunny. But look closer. See the stream of water gushing from the barn’s downspout? That’s how hard it had begun raining right over our property. A concentrated rain cloud had come out of nowhere, and had begun dumping on us. As I snapped this picture, our farmer friend was hightailing it out of the field. Adding insult to injury, he later discovered that one of the wheels on his rake was busted.

The weather on Saturday was largely cloudy and humid (not great conditions for getting hay to dry), but at least it didn’t rain. Same on Sunday. When we got back from visiting family on Sunday, our friend’s rake was parked in our front yard, looking repaired and ready to hit the field again.

But, at this point, who knows how good that hay is going to be. It’s been sitting in the field for nearly a week. It’s been rained on (and soaked) multiple times. I suppose we’ll know more later today, when he gets out there and works with it. My big concern is that it sat wet for too long, and is getting rotten or molding.

At least from here on out, the weather is supposed to be pretty good. Here’s hoping that the harvest can still be salvaged!

*****UPDATE (8:10 PM)

It wasn’t the best-quality hay we’ve ever had, and quite a few more bales than usual were so wet that they needed to be put aside for additional drying, but we did manage to get everything into the barn this afternoon. Soon after I put up the original post, our farmer friend stopped by with his equipment. He raked the hay into final windrows, and then around 1:30 or so began baling. One of the Yeoman Farm Children rode on the hay wagon and stacked bales, and another YFC helped me unload each wagon in the barn. I’m a bit fuzzy on the exact number of bales we got, but it’s solidly north of 400.

Given that hay is currently fetching $10 per bale at the local auction, I feel a lot better about how sore and exhausted I feel right now. No, we’re not going to sell any of our harvest (even at $10 per bale), tempting though it may be at that price. What I’m feeling good about is NOT HAVING TO SPEND $10 per bale to feed our sheep and goats this coming winter. Yes, that price will probably decline in coming weeks, as more farmers manage to bring in their hay. But, still … given how screwy the weather has been, I bet the price remains significantly higher than in past years.

Over and out for tonight. Time to join the rest of the family for our evening rosary. We’ll be offering it up in thanksgiving for this wonderful harvest.