Officially Fall

How do you judge the official arrival of autumn? The first time a southbound gaggle of Canada geese honks overhead? The first explosion of color in the trees? The first time you can rake enough maple leaves to get an aromatic bonfire roaring? The kickoff of the World Series?

All are good candidates, and all serve as good markers that the seasons are really changing. But for us, the ultimate indicator came in the dark, early yesterday morning: the first frost. Once that settles in, it’s the end of the growing season for a large portion of the garden. Oh, sure, there is some cold-hardy produce which can still be harvested even later in the year: leafy greens (such as collards and kale), root vegetables (beets, potatoes, etc), and so forth.  But frost means the end of the line for tomatoes, peppers, and many other cold-sensitive plants. If these sensitive varieties are still out there after frost arrives, the produce is lost.

We’ve had frosts here as early as the 20th of September. Yes, that’s before fall has even arrived on the calendar. Get surprised by something like that, and you lose a lot of the hard work that went into growing now-wasted produce. As a result, we keep a close eye on the weather forecast after Labor Day. Fortunately, this year we were blessed with above-freezing temperatures until well into October.

But that doesn’t last forever – and especially not in Michigan. When we saw lows of 30F forecast for Wednesday night, we swung into action. Once his schoolwork was finished, the 15 y.o. hit the garden and began bringing in everything he could. When his two oldest siblings got home in the early evening, they jumped in to provide reinforcements. The three of them didn’t finish until well after it was too dark to see.

Where does one put that mother lode of garden produce until it can be sorted and consumed or preserved? Anywhere you can. Such as, I don’t know … maybe we could stash some buckets of tomatoes in a bathtub?

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And maybe some baskets of peppers could be placed in the kitchen entryway? (Note the crates of potatoes that still need to be sorted and taken to the root cellar. That’s what the kids had been working on before the frost warning arose.)

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I’m not even going to include a photo of the living room, the floor of which is now completely covered in butternut squashes (brought in last week, to cure, before going into long term storage).

What’s my favorite part of autumn? Running the wood stove has to be near the top of the list. Thursday morning, the house was the coldest it’s been in a while. I laid a fire, and in no time had a wonderful little blaze going. Absolutely nothing heats a home as cozily as a crackling fire. Note the large kettle, which from now on will provide a near-constant supply of hot water on demand. And the nice warming platform for my French press coffee. Not to mention the hanging string of peppers (far right) getting dried for preservation.

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No doubt about it. Fall is officially here. I think we’ll celebrate by making lamb stew for Sunday dinner this week. And throwing another log on the fire, of course.

Nobel Prize for Farming

No, they don’t award a Nobel Prize for farming. Not yet, anyway. But when I heard the winner of another Nobel announced on the radio this morning, it reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to post.

Last year, a professor at my alma mater won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. When I was on campus last October for my 25th reunion, the school had hung banners trumpeting the big news. Then, during a break in the football game on that Saturday, they made a special announcement and presentation honoring the professor. It was really cool, particularly when the stadium cheered as loudly as it would for a clutch touchdown.

Earlier this spring, our alumni magazine published a lengthy feature article about the professor, J. Fraser Stoddart. I didn’t understand much of the technical aspects of his contributions to the field, but still found them fascinating.

What particularly jumped out for me, though, were the details about his life, growing up on a farm in post-WWII Scotland. Please forgive the length excerpt; I’m pasting it all (with some emphasis added), because it’s definitely worth reading in full:

Stoddart’s father caught the farming bug as a child, and after graduating from college in Glasgow, he became the manager of two farms owned by the University of Edinburgh.

Six months after Fraser was born in 1942, his parents decided to take on the tenancy of a 365-acre farm on the Rosebery Estate in Midlothian, about 12 miles south of Edinburgh.

As an only child, Stoddart helped his parents with chores from before sunup to well after sundown. There were dairy cows, cattle, “sheep of all different complexions” and hundreds of free-range chickens to care for. The family also grew everything from root crops to grain. And Stoddart was solely responsible for the fruit and vegetable garden.

With the arrival of the tractor and the car on the farm, he soon learned to take the simple and inefficient engines apart and put them back together.

“I had that wonderful time to watch a very big and fast change in technology up close,” says Stoddart. “So in literally 20 years we went from a horse-and-cart situation to combine harvesters with everything in between.

“The farm was very important to my training because it was multitasking on quite a large scale, particularly at high points of the year, such as March, when we were lambing, or in August and September, when we were bringing in the grain crops.”

In a letter to his daughter Fiona (excerpted below), Stoddart wrote of the significance of growing up on the farm and how it taught him discipline, resilience, resourcefulness and the nurturing of creatures great and small:

“I was present at lambings and calvings from quite a young age and was soon helping by myself to aid and abet the entry of lambs and calves into the world, particularly when it became a matter of life or death and the available work force was stretched to its limits and often close to exhaustion if the weather, as was often the case in that part of the world, decided to have its worst possible say. Wet snow was a killer, and very often newborn lambs had to be brought ’round from death’s door in the bottom oven of the Rayburn cooker in the farmhouse kitchen, while being fed hot cow’s milk laced with whisky! More often than not the lambs that survived this near-death experience were rejected by their mothers, and so the army of pet lambs that had to be fed by hand from bottles of milk four times a day grew to debilitating proportions. 

“During my professional lifetime as an academic, teaching and doing scientific research in eight universities on three different continents, I have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that I learnt a lot more during my first 25 years on the farm than I have at all the universities combined over the past 52 years.

“Indeed, any modest successes I have reaped thereafter can be traced back to the University of Life in the Lothians of Scotland in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s as the country recovered gradually, under rationing in the beginning, from the devastation wrought by the Second World War.”

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The tenant farmhouse where Fraser Stoddart grew up, on the Rosebery Estate in the council area of Midlothian, Scotland.

We’ve found Professor Stoddart’s words to be as true for us today as they were for his own life. A farm is a wonderful first school, and an incomparable one, for coming of age.

Important lessons come not just from the hard work, or the discipline of having to get up early for chores. Or learning that death is an entirely normal part of the cycle of life.

Among the biggest lessons is that on a farm, there are some tasks that simply cannot be put off and must be done now. If rain is threatening, the hay must be brought into the barn. Doesn’t matter how hot the weather, or how heavy those bales are. Goats must be milked twice a day. Period. Somebody has to do it. It doesn’t matter how late the family got home from celebrating Christmas, or from that dinner at a friend’s place. Those goats cannot wait for the morning. The shivering little goat kid, or lamb, that the mother isn’t attending to (or that is having a tough time for some other reason) must be brought inside and warmed up. And fed, somehow. Now. And those other “bummer” lambs and goat kids? They must be fed a certain number of times per day, too.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the two oldest Yeoman Farm Children are now carrying these lessons over to college. Neither of them hesitates about putting in whatever hours are needed for study, and both are proving extremely diligent about getting their projects finished ahead of the deadlines — while continuing to pitch in a great deal here at home.

I don’t have any expectations of the Yeoman Farm Children growing up and winning Nobel prizes, but I am confident that no matter what the five of them do with their lives … they will be more successful at it for having grown up on a farm.

 

Crime Comes Home

Crime rates out here in the country are so much lower than in the cities, we barely even worry about being victimized. Unlike some, we do lock our doors at night or when we’re going to be gone for a bit. We’ve generally done so more out of habit than out of fear.

That changed this weekend.

I’m not sure how I slept through it, but at about 4am on Sunday morning, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer was awakened by the sound of a helicopter circling the area. It was shining a spotlight, and it hovered for a pretty long time. When she told me about it after I got up, she said it sounded like a military helicopter. My first thought was that the National Guard must be doing some kind of nightime exercises.

A few minutes later, I was browsing Facebook, and noticed that several people had posted to our little town’s News page overnight. Everyone was wondering what the helicopter and commotion were about. Turns out, it was the police; they were chasing a fugitive. A couple of people who lived right near the incident posted that they’d seen it happen, and had spoken with the cops.

Piecing together their stories, and news accounts, I got a rough idea as to the situation. Early Sunday morning, a man with a long criminal record was caught after stealing something from a Sam’s Club lot in Jackson (about 20-25 minutes from us). He got into an altercation with the arresting officers, injured one of them, and fled the scene. Officers from many surrounding jurisdictions, including the Michigan State Police, joined the chase northbound. The surface street he chose is a good long one — but it terminates in a T at the road we live on, just a quarter mile from us.

Instead of turning onto our road, he kept right on going into the cornfield. He ditched the car, and disappeared into the tall corn. In addition to the helicopter, the police also combed the area with K9 units (maybe even the one that nearly outran our tandem earlier this summer). As of the time I was reading these reports, the police had left — but the suspect had not been caught.

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Doesn’t look like he even slowed down when he came to the cornfield at the end of the road.

My first thought was: could this guy have taken shelter in our barn? I hadn’t noticed anything when I’d gone out at 6:30am to do my chores, but maybe I’d overlooked something. Or maybe he even arrived at the barn after I finished feeding the sheep. My daughter was about to go milk the goats, and I knew one thing: I wasn’t taking any chances.

I have a Concealed Pistol License (CPL), and carry a handgun with me at virtually all times. It’s now such a regular part of getting dressed in the morning, I don’t feel “complete” without feeling its weight in the IWB holster against my hip. Sometimes I’ve questioned whether it’s really necessary to carry as I go about my routine on the farm. As of yesterday morning, I will never ask that question again. I shudder at the thought of what could’ve happened if the fugitive had been hiding in our barn — and I’d left my carry piece in the house.

Before allowing my daughter to milk the goats, I returned to the barn with my full-size Springfield XD Tactical .45 pistol — this time, unholstered and drawn. I carefully inspected every nook and cranny of the building. Once I was satisfied it was clear, I gave my daughter the green light to milk.

As an aside: Yes, I do use that huge pistol as my everyday carry (EDC) piece. I originally bought it, many years ago, for home defense and to dispatch predators; it has an accessory rail, to which a tactical light can be easily mounted. The long barrel and heavy weight made it a really nice shooter, and I liked the high-capacity magazines. We were in Illinois at the time, and concealed carry wasn’t even an option; it was the only state that didn’t issue permits at all. Once we moved to Michigan, and I got a CPL, I tried a series of small pistols for EDC. I didn’t like the way any of them shot. I hated practicing with them. Then I got a crazy idea: why not try carrying the XD? I discovered Crossbreed Holsters had some excellent IWB kydex options, so I ordered one. Their “Supertuck” model was so comfortable, and carried the big XD so nicely, I quickly forgot I was even wearing it. It now goes with me everywhere it’s legal to carry.

Back to our story. With the fugitive still on the loose, we were nervous about leaving home for church (and then visiting family for the afternoon). We locked one dog in my office, and left the other outside with the run of our fenced yard. We closed and locked all the windows, and put a car in a prominent place in the driveway. Should the criminal come by our place, I hoped this would convince him to keep moving.

All day long, I monitored the local news sites. Every updated report said the fugitive was still at large. Ugh.

When we arrived home, everything seemed fine. No doors or windows had been tampered with. However, not wanting to take any chances, I again unholstered the XD and did a thorough sweep of the barn. Satisfied it was clear, we did our chores and got the goats milked again.

Later that evening, we finally got a report that the fugitive had indeed been apprehended. Turns out, he was out on parole; that would explain why he went to such lengths to avoid capture this weekend for what was a relatively minor offense.

I slept well last night, knowing we didn’t have a fugitive at large in the woods behind our property.

One of the best parts about living in the country is we are seldom threatened by crime. (Note, when Mrs Yeoman Farmer mentioned the helicopter to me, “fugitive manhunt” didn’t even cross my mind.) However, the problem is, when we are indeed threatened by crime … the police are generally a long ways away. I guess I’ve always had a theoretical understanding that we’re “on our own” to protect ourselves out here. That theoretical understanding is now a much more practical reality. We really are on our own here, and threats really can come from anywhere.

As for me … I’ve renewed my resolve to always be ready, and to never leave my EDC piece behind.

Greatest Chase

For an avid cyclist, country life beats city life hands down. The roads are wide open, have little traffic, and there are virtually no stop signs or lights. The few times I’ve visited big cities and rented bikes, I’ve come home with an even greater appreciation for country roads.

However, there is one downside to riding in the country: dogs. We tend to have a lot more of them running loose, and even those “invisible fences” don’t always work. We’ve gotten a pretty good idea of where every loose dog lives along our favorite routes, and are usually prepared for the inevitable chases. It’s usually not a big deal at all. The dog gallops along, barking, making a big show of ensuring you exit his personal territory as quickly as possible. As soon as you reach his invisible border line, he breaks off the chase and trots home. It’s virtually always more theater than genuine threat.

Last night, we had a very different experience. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this one.

My seven-year-old son and I were out for a nice, easy, evening ride on our tandem. Just pedaling along, enjoying a wonderful rural road, canopy of trees overhead. I was somewhat familiar with this road, but hadn’t ridden it in a long time. I chose it for our tandem ride in part because it was especially isolated and low-traffic.

About a half-mile down this particular rode, we came upon a run-down house, with four State Police vehicles parked in front of it. Cops everywhere. My first thought was “meth lab,” but there was no hazmat team. More likely, they’d tracked a fugitive to the house. I commented to my son that there sure were a lot of police cars there, and somebody dangerous was probably inside. We smiled and nodded at a young state trooper, and kept cruising along at about 15 MPH.

We pedaled on for a bit, everything seemingly normal. I heard and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I got an uneasy feeling. Something told me to look over my shoulder; in retrospect, I’m sure it was my guardian angel (and my son’s). Lo and behold, a huge dog was closing in on us like a heat-seeking missile. He immediately struck me as different from the typical “country dog” who’s just making a show of escorting us through his territory. For starters, he wasn’t barking. He was just running, and doing so with a sense of singular purpose. The way he was looking at us, and the intensity of the way he carried himself, he appeared to be a deadly serious professional. He wasn’t going to quit until he’d taken us down.

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Stock photo. No, I didn’t take this picture from the bike.

I noticed something else that was different from the typical country dog: he was dragging a leash. That’s when I put two and two together, and realized this must’ve been an escaped police dog. He’d somehow confused me for the fugitive, and broken away. This dog actually had the skills and training to take me (and my seven year old) down hard. And that really scared the hell out of me.

Behind the dog, I could see a blue police car already joining the chase, but I doubted the cop could call the dog off in time. My son and I were on our own. I stomped on the pedals, and cranked like our lives depended on it. Problem is, it’s not easy accelerating a tandem with a young kid on the back; his power-to-weight ratio just hasn’t developed enough to be of much help. Still, thanks to a crazy adrenaline rush, I managed to get up to about 29 MPH, all the while glancing back. The dog closed to just behind our rear wheel, and was in the middle of the street, looking like he was trying to find a way to strike.

Fortunately, the police car was closing in as well. He was blowing his horn wildly over the PA speakers, doing everything he could to get the dog to break off the chase. As the dog got a bit winded, I was eventually able to pull away a little, and it looked like the cop pulled his car in front of the dog to cut him off.

I glanced back a couple of times, to make sure everything was contained, but otherwise hightailed it out of there and went straight home.

We never did find out what all the police activity was about. Coincidentally, just as we reached our driveway (several miles away, along a more major feeder route), the first couple of state police vehicles came cruising past. I thought about flagging one of them down, and asking if they’d caught whoever they’d been trying to catch — and, more importantly, how in the world they’d let that dog get loose.

But I supposed it didn’t matter, and it wasn’t worth raising a ruckus about. We’d made it home safely, and my son and I got some excitement we’ll never forget. This was definitely a dog chase for the books.

Got Nothing Against the Big Town: The Yeoman Farmer’s Urban Adventure

We’ve been living on rural properties for nearly sixteen years now (hard to believe it’s been that long), and at this point I’m not sure I could ever again live or work in a city – or even a suburb. Once you get used to having this much open space, this much quiet, so many wonderful country roads, such beautiful night skies, and such terrific home-produced food … it’s not an easy thing to give up. We’re especially fortunate in that we live just outside a small town. Our township is rural and unincorporated, but we’re still close enough to town for high speed DSL internet — and we’re still just minutes from a hardware store, a grocery store, and a freeway to even more resources.

As much as I love country life, I do look forward to — and thoroughly enjoy — visiting bigger cities. Business travel takes me mostly to Washington, DC; when I’m there, I try to carve out some time to see the Smithsonian or other historical sights — or rent a bike and explore even farther.

And there is no other city quite like New York. I could never live there, or even work there on a regular basis. It’s far too large and too crowded for me — and not to mention extremely expensive. But what an amazing place to visit! What I’m always most struck by when I go there: New York seems to have a little bit of everything, and it’s all mixed together, and it’s all happening all at once. Every street is a kaleidoscope of sounds, different ethnic groups, languages, shops, restaurants, and activity. There never seems to be enough time to see everything, or to take everything in.

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Springing Forward with the Clothesline

The calendar says Spring is still more than a week away, but the weather forecast here in mid-Michigan is saying Spring’s already here. Sunny, and should get into the low 60s this afternoon. Homeschooled Farm Girl and I are planning to take a long, much-anticipated bicycle ride.

The other way I’m celebrating may sound a little odd: I’m hanging laundry out on the line! Sure, it’s a little more work. And the cost savings for this one load probably don’t amount to a lot. But today, it’s about The Principle of The Thing. It’s sunny enough. It’s warm enough. So, I’m putting that laundry out to take advantage of it.

It’s actually kind of interesting, riding around on a bike out in the country: you notice a lot of houses with clotheslines. Much more so than in suburban housing developments (and don’t get me started on the planned communities which actually ban clotheslines). Having a clothesline is one of those unexpected advantages that we’ve discovered about living on a farm. There’s nothing quite like pulling a line-dried shirt on over your head, and smelling its authentically fresh scent. I haven’t had that experience in months, and am looking forward to getting it back.

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Wildlife

When a person begins raising livestock, it’s remarkable how swiftly one’s attitude toward wildlife — especially potential predators — changes. Overnight, “cute” becomes “Quick! Don’t let it get away!” Especially after a time or two of witnessing the mayhem that those “cute” little critters are capable of inflicting. I’ll never forget the mornings I’ve followed a trail of blood and feathers into a field, trying to locate the spot where a predator finished off his victim.

Several years back, when we were living in Illinois, our farm was separated from a small housing development by about a mile of open fields. One morning, while driving along the road running in front of that development, I noticed a new homemade sign. It read, “SLOW! BABY FOXES”, and had an arrow pointing down to a culvert where a mother fox had made a den. My first thought was: Whoever made this sign so doesn’t have livestock. My second thought was: I wonder how many of my chickens the mother fox will make off with to feed these babies. My third thought was: I wonder how many of my chickens these babies will make off with once they grow up.

Fortunately, we haven’t been hit with predator strikes any time recently. But I did spot a raccoon in a large tree across the street a couple of nights ago, peering across at our farm, so I suppose it’s just a matter of time. (I didn’t have a clean shot at him, and he wasn’t on our property anyway.) And while Homeschooled Farm Girl and I were out on a long bicycle ride this weekend, we saw a mother raccoon with six little ones run across the road in front of us. I made a mental note to re-bait and re-set our traps once I got home.

Needless to say, I got a smile out of this article that I recently stumbled across:

A man was biking to work one day when by the side of the road he noticed a poor fox that lay dying. Here is his account of what transpired:

I’m sure the person who posted it thought it was heartwarming. The overwhelming majority of people who commented on it certainly did. I’m also confident that few — if any — of them raise livestock.

And I suppose on one level this is a heartwarming story — but don’t blame me for being conflicted. I’m just hoping the fox in question gets to live out the rest of his days being cared for in a very secure zoo or other wildlife facility. Far from my farm.