Just a Couple More

If you’re like me, you’re probably “Nine-Elevened Out” and overwhelmed by the number of remembrances that commentators have been offering up in recent days. The History Channel in particular has been wall-to-wall with 9/11 for some time. (If you watch just one program, make sure you catch their “102 Minutes that Changed the World.” It is phenomenal.) But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to offer just a couple of quick memories of my own.

By way of background, we’d just moved to our first farm, in Illinois, from California, a month and a half before 9/11. We were still figuring everything out, and hadn’t even ordered our first batch of chickens. Our house was a couple of miles outside a town of 420 people, and about 7 miles from a town of 4,500. We’d met a handful of people, but still didn’t have many friends. We’d decided not to hook up satellite TV, and were so far from the nearest broadcast tower that we couldn’t even get signals from the antenna. We had dial-up internet, which was pretty slow.

I’d been in Washington, DC, on business the previous two days, speaking at a conference. I’d flown back to Chicago the afternoon of September 10th, and driven two hours home in my vintage Italian project car as the sun set over the prairie. Everything seemed perfect. Only after getting home did I discover I’d left my sports jacket on the plane. I called United Airlines, asked them to look for it, and went to bed late.

Tuesday morning I slept in, and it was lazy. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and the kids had gone to town for something, and I enjoyed having the house to myself. Sometime in mid-morning, I got around to signing onto AOL for the first time, to check email. I was puzzled by the welcome page, which said something about America under attack and the World Trade Center no longer being there. It seemed so outlandish, I dismissed it as some kind of speculative “what if” scenario. But after a little more browsing, I figured out what’d really happened. And was shocked to the core.

And I’d never so badly wished I had a TV. I switched on the radio, and tried to get some news, but even that reception was pretty bad. I then called Dish Network, and arranged to have satellite service hooked up. Something told me we were really going to want it in the coming days and weeks.

When MYF and the kids got home, we called one of the few friends we had in the town of 4,500 (a family from our parish). We asked if we could come over and watch TV, and they said “absolutely.” We sped into town, and spent a couple of hours glued to the footage while our kids played with theirs. Particularly striking was the reaction the husband of this family had to the events. He was an auto mechanic, and about as strong a guy as you’ll meet. He’d come home from work for lunch, and watched the news with us as he ate. As he was preparing to go back to work, even he had tears in his eyes.

Anyway, I’ll cut right to the biggest thing that struck me about being in a rural community that day. The town of 420 had a Catholic church so small that it didn’t have its own priest. The pastor from the larger town drove out twice a week to say Mass: once on Sunday, and once on Tuesday evening. I’d attended that Tuesday evening Mass pretty much every week, and there were usually about four or five other people in attendance. But on Tuesday the 11th, I counted fifty-five people in that little white frame building. It looked almost like a Sunday morning. Somehow, as the events of that day unfolded, a lot of people were getting the same idea: I need to get to church. I need to come together with other people. I need to pray. It was nowhere so pronounced as in that little town on that night. The sense of “togetherness” in that building was palpable.

Then, after Mass, as we began driving home, I spotted something strange: a long line of cars at the one gas station along the highway that cut through the town. There were so many cars, they were backed up for a long distance around the block. It looked like pure panic-buying of gasoline, but I couldn’t help thinking if maybe all these people knew something I didn’t. Would gas soon become scarce? Would prices go through the roof? I decided it’d be better to be safe than to be without gas, so I got in line and waited a half hour or whatever until I could top off my tank. All the employees were working to get people through quickly, but I had a chance to chat with one of them as our gas was pumping. “You could probably raise your prices and make a fortune,” I commented. “Supply and demand, and all.”

“Oh,” she replied, almost taken aback, “we would never do that. We’re just going to pump until there’s nobody left or we run out of gas.”

As I drove home, I reflected on how strikingly different this place was from Los Angeles. How much the community had come together. How much people seemed to be looking out for each other. And how very glad I was to be living here.

in the closet, I gave the pockets a closer inspection. And found that, in addition to my business cards, I’d also left my boarding ticket there. The date was printed right in the middle, and jumped off the paper at me: September 10, 2001.

I stopped and shook my head. September 10th seemed like an entirely different country, in an entirely different world. Everything, it seemed, had changed. And I was deeply grateful I’d be getting to spend the post-9/11 world in a rural community like the one we’d found.

Something You Knew Already

This story won’t come as any surprise to followers of this blog, but it’s always encouraging when the “hard” sciences provide evidence to back up what we know:

Scientists have confirmed what every urbanite has long suspected – life in the city is more stressful.

Researchers have shown that the parts of the brain dealing with stress and emotion are affected by living among the crowds.

The findings help shed light on why those who are born and raised in urban areas are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and schizophrenia than those brought up in the countryside.

The team of international scientists behind the finding are unsure why city life is so bad for the nerves.

However, past studies have shown that exposure to green space reduces stress, boosts health and makes us less vulnerable to depression. The findings come from the brain scans of 32 healthy volunteers from urban and rural areas.

Go read the whole thing.

To be fair, we’ve found that life in the country isn’t exactly stress-free, either. Livestock and gardens produce stresses of their own. Whenever you’re trying to cultivate or nurture living things, life is unpredictable and can lead to worries or difficulties: A surprise late frost wipes out your seedlings. A surprise early frost destroys the tomatoes you were going to can for a winter’s worth of sauce. The barn cat finds a way to go hunting in your poultry brooder, and feeds five baby turkeys to her kittens. (Five baby turkeys that, I might add, every hatchery is now sold out of for the year).

But would I trade these stresses for those of a city? Not on your life. I visit Chicago, DC, and NYC frequently enough on business; I certainly enjoy the change of pace, and appreciate the resources that cities can provide, but you can see in the faces of passersby the toll that day-to-day urban stress wrecks. I’m always more than happy to return home to the quiet of my farm.

I’d a million times rather deal with the stresses of livestock and a garden than with the stresses of city life. Worrying about the garden getting enough rain, or whether enough broilers will survive to maturity, is entirely different from worrying about whether your packed commuter train will get you to work on time. Because when you’ve worked through and solved the “rural stress,” you get to enjoy the wholesome and delicious fruits of your labors. But when you’ve survived the “urban stress,” all you’ve done is successfully gotten to work in a high rise in a concrete jungle.

I’ll take the literal jungle of my pasture over that any day of the week.

Sunday Morning Excitement

Our weekly “day of rest” got off to an interesting start this morning. While heading to the barn at about 7:45am, I heard an unusual commotion in the distance. About 50 yards down the road to the west, I spotted a man and woman who’d parked their pickup truck near the edge of our hay field. They were thrashing around in the brush with sticks or rods, and shouting.

Given how few people are usually even up and moving around here on a Sunday morning, let alone one as cold as today, my initial assumption was that they were hunters in hot pursuit of something they’d wounded. It is, after all, still firearm deer season in Lower Michigan. But why would a hunter with a firearm not use that firearm to finish off the deer? They were acting more like they were after a pheasant or a wild turkey, but I don’t think either of those are in season.

As I continued watching, now both curious and a little nervous, something truly odd happened: a large dark object began inching up a scrawny tree, like a flag being hoisted up a flagpole. The larger of the two people was shouting and swinging a stick at this “flag,” but to no avail.

Realizing that this “flag” must in fact be some sort of varmint, I ran inside and grabbed my twelve gauge shotgun. Once back outside, I shouted and waved at the pair (who were now both swinging sticks at the varmint), and jogged across the hayfield toward them with the shotgun.

“It’s a coon!” the man called out to me.

“Great!” I called back, jogging nearer. “I’ve got a shotgun!”

The couple, who I assume were husband and wife, explained that they were out early delivering Sunday newspapers when the coon had run across the road in front of them. They’d stopped and given chase with makeshift clubs, knowing that a small child lives in the next house down from us.

“And we have kids and livestock,” I added. “I appreciate it, because we’ve lost lots of chickens this last year. I hate these things.”

I loaded the shotgun with buckshot, disengaged the safety, and prepared to line it up with the coon. The thing was about ten feet off the ground, which was most of the way to the top of the scrawny tree. And the sucker was huge. Wouldn’t have surprised me if it’d feasted on several of our chickens and ducks.

“Wait,” the man said, as I drew the shotgun to my shoulder. “Do you want the pelt?”

“I just want it dead,” I replied. “Why? Do you want it?” I’ve never tanned hides, and had no interest in getting started today.

“Yeah,” the two of them told me. “Can you shoot it in the head?”

I told them I’d do my best, but a twelve gauge is a twelve gauge. And I wasn’t going back inside for my .380 pistol with the laser sight. A buckshot shell contains nine large pieces of metal, which will spray when launched, but the odds were better than using birdshot. I aimed high, and the fairly close range meant the nine pieces of shot would remain pretty much together on impact. With one squeeze of the trigger, the big coon tumbled from the tree like a bag of wet cement.

The man kicked the coon over. When it didn’t move, he picked it up by a hind leg and announced, “Huge hole in the head!” Indeed, it looked like half its skull had been blown off — but the rest of the body was untouched. In all honesty, it was a much better shot than I’d been expecting to make, given the coon’s vertical (head upward) orientation on the tree trunk. The man handed the coon to his wife, who tossed it into the back of their pickup.

They thanked me for letting them keep the coon for its hide, and for dispatching the coon before it could hurt the little boy who lives next door. I told them how much I appreciated their stopping and making so much of an effort chasing the thing down, and giving me the chance to take it out.

They seemed like a nice couple, and pure “country folks” without any pretentions, who really wanted to do the right thing. Which is what I like so much about living out here: no matter what we might do for a living, or what kind of vehicle we might drive, or what kind of property or livestock we might have, we’re all pretty much of one mind about a lot of things.

Like what you do when you catch a big fat coon crossing the road.

No Showcase

We bought our farm here in Michigan three years ago this month. No one is quite sure how old the house is, as it was built before the county kept reliable records. The best guess is it dates from the 1880s, but it’s had considerable work (and additions) done over the years. The cornerstone in the big red barn reads 1913, so we’re pretty sure that’s when that building was erected.

The previous owners had it for about ten years, and were selling so they could retire and move closer to family in Arkansas. We met them a couple of times, and thought they were very nice people, but didn’t really know that much about them. The husband had some kind of a job in town, and the wife was a professional artist. The detached 25′ x 30′ building that is now my office had been her studio. Neither she nor her husband did any kind of farming here. Apart from five house cats, they had no animals. Apart from lots of flowers in the front yard, they didn’t cultivate a garden. Their kids were grown. The upstairs of the big red barn was little more than a basketball court, and the downstairs was little more than storage. The only fence was a white rail composite thing that gives visual separation from the lawn to the pasture — but is far too porous to serve as a barrier to any kind of animal.

When the wife wasn’t working in her studio, she seemed to have spent her time painting everything in the house that didn’t move. Exhibit A: the basement has a poured concrete floor, but she painted it to look like it was made of flagstones. Exhibit B: she painted quotations from her favorite author all over the trim at the top of walls in various rooms. Exhibit C: she painted the fuel oil barrel in the basement to look like a wine cask.

I could go on, but you get the point. She did all kinds of things to the house that were kind of cool, very artistic, but that few other people would ever consider spending time doing.

We’ve stayed in touch with the previous owners, chiefly through Christmas cards, and also with an occasional call to ask about the myriad quirks present in a house this old and the way it was built / added onto. But given that they now live several states away, we haven’t actually seen them since buying the house.

That almost changed this summer. Almost. I was working in my office, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer was inside tending children, when we saw a car pull into the driveway and stop. It pulled a little closer. It backed up. Pulled closer again. Backed up. Stopped. Waited. Waited. Waited. But just as I was preparing to go out and ask if the driver was lost (it happens a lot around here), the car pulled out and drove away.

We wouldn’t have given the incident a second thought, until a letter arrived a few days later. MYF had already read it, and handed it to me with a bemused grin. “We got a letter from [Artistic Previous Owner Lady] today,” she explained. “Just read it.”

I did, but quickly grew so infuriated that I almost didn’t make it to the end. I won’t quote verbatim, but the take-away is this: she’d been in town visiting friends, and had tried to stop by to see us. But she’d taken one look at how terribly we’d neglected the property, and it’d pulled her up short. The longer she’d looked at what a horrific wasteland we’d turned the place into, the more she decided she just couldn’t bear staying. She’d driven off before getting out, because she wanted to remember the property the way it had been in all its glory. This property was such a special place, she said, and they and previous owners had done so much to make it special. She hoped that someday we could get it together and preserve this special place.

“How. Dare. She,” I seethed.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer simply laughed and asked if I wanted to read the response she’d already written. Being the queen of graciousness and tact, MYF’s letter led off by telling the previous owner how beautiful we thought her flowers and manicured yard had been, how much we like the house, and how much we wish she would have stopped by and spoken to us. Because if she had done so, we would have explained why the property no longer looks the way it used to. Instead of spending our limited resources cultivating flowers and decorative shrubs, and putting up beautifully-painted bird feeders, we have:

  • Fenced the entire pasture, including subdividing it for sheep and goats (this project took basically an entire summer, and cost many hundreds of dollars in fencing material);
  • Built three livestock areas in the barn’s basement and subdivided outdoor paddocks;
  • Built pasture pens for poultry, and raised many dozens of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys;
  • Harvested and stored well over a thousand bales of hay in the upstairs portion of the barn. (This was made possible in part by spending over $2,000 one year on fertilizer, which was necessary because no one had bothered fertilizing the hay field for the last ten years and the yields were dropping crazily low);
  • Grown our flock of sheep and herd of dairy goats significantly;
  • Replaced all the windows in the house with brand new, energy efficient ones;
  • Done the same with all the windows in the office building;
  • Dramatically increased the amount of insulation in the attic (to our shock, there was basically zero up there when we moved in);
  • Been saving money to replace the roof (which we ended up doing later this fall);
  • Planted and fenced an enormous garden, which we have admittedly have not had time to properly weed and cultivate this year, because we have also…
  • Adopted a baby, who is the light of our life, but who requires all the attention any baby requires. While homeschooling three other children, including a high school sophomore. Which is much more draining for a woman in 40s than for a woman in her 20s.

MYF’s letter concluded by encouraging Previous Owner to stop by the next time she was in town. And that if she could give us a few weeks’ notice, we’d make sure we spiffed up the front yard before her arrival.

I told MYF that her letter was perfect, and was again grateful to be married to the Queen of Graciousness and Tact. We puzzled over why Previous Owner would send such a nasty note, because she’d struck us as a very nice lady.

Whatever the reason, the incident reminded us of something we’d read someplace. There are two basic types of rural properties with acreage: (1) The Working Farm and (2) The Country Showcase. The previous owner had gussied our property up into a Country Showcase worthy of a glossy magazine, and in her head it still was. But many years ago, it’d been one of the biggest working farms in this township — and we could still see and appreciate its possibilities to become one again. With a lot of sweat and time, we’d invested our resources into making it the Working Farm that our family needed.

Working farms aren’t always pretty, but they’re productive. And in our minds, that gives them a beauty all their own. I’d a thousand times rather gaze out on two dozen Icelandic sheep grazing behind a utilitarian metal fence than look at an empty field bordered by a pretty white porous rail fence.

We know of a few Country Showcases in the area which are also working farms, but they tend to be special cases. One of them is the family with the produce stand I discussed in the most recent post; their place is beautiful to look at, and also extremely productive. But that’s possible for them because the wife works full time at a professional job, while the husband tends the garden full time (he’s the world’s greatest green thumb). They have no children to tend to, so the farm can get all of their attention. The other “working country showcase” properties tend to belong to breeders of expensive purebred horses (or people who stable such horses on behalf of city people), where image is an important component of their business. They tend to look something like this (note the McMansion, pretty white fence, immaculate horse barn, and perfectly trimmed pastures):

Which is not what our yard looks like. But we really couldn’t care less. It works for us, and that’s what matters.

UPDATE: Mrs. Yeoman Farmer pointed out that the FRONT view of this particular house is even more of a beautiful showcase. I managed to get a picture of it this morning.

The house across the street from it is also pretty amazing:

By way of a postscript, a few weeks after sending the letter to Previous Owner, we got an extremely contrite note back from her. She apologized for jumping to conclusions about us, said she was very sorry she didn’t stop and visit, and assured us she would do so the next time she was in town. And then she said something revealing: her friends in the area had been telling her we’d been “letting the property go,” so when she’d stopped by to look at it her first glance only reinforced that preexisting supposition. She apologized for not getting the whole story directly from us.

We appreciated that explanation, but then couldn’t help wondering: What have the neighbors been saying about us? Not like we care, but still…it’d be nice if the locals would get to know us rather than talking about us behind our backs.

No matter. Gossip is a part of life everywhere, maybe especially so in small towns. We’ll just keep on loving our Working Farm as much as ever.

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.

Getting Started

Our family very much enjoys having other families over for dinner and giving tours of the farm. It’s particularly gratifying when the guest family has been thinking for some time about getting started with a farm of their own, and we are able to give a practical introduction to what such a farm could look like.

A few weeks ago, a close mutual friend introduced us to a family which had recently relocated to the general area from out of state. It turned out that our families had a lot in common, and we were glad when they accepted our invitation to come over for dinner. The kids immediately hit it off, and all of them were soon having a grand time tromping around the barnyard. The adults sat down to talk; in the course of the conversation, they explained that they were renting an apartment until their old house sold, at which point they planned to begin looking for a place in Michigan.

Things have been going well, and I received the following email recently:

Hey, do you have a recommendation for a couple of books on “hobby farming” or small scale farming? We’re set to close on the 10 acre house in two weeks and are starting to think about what to do first. We’re thinking big, big garden, and some animals like chickens, turkeys, or pigs. I suspect it is easy to get in over your head pretty quickly with all the excitement. [My wife] has made contact with the local 4h group, which seems to be full of Catholic homeschoolers. Anyway, I thought you’d be the guy to ask since I remember you saying that you must have read every book there was on the subject.

Indeed, the list of books in the blog’s right margin is only part of the library we’ve accumulated. But if I had to choose just one book for the aspiring homesteader, it would have to be Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living. As I told my correspondent, there is no single book that is as comprehensive as this one. It covers a massive amount of territory, easily enough to get you started with whatever you want to try. Once you decide that you like a particular thing (chickens, pigs, gardening, etc), you can invest in specialized books about that subject. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I spent hours reading Carla Emery’s book, even while still living in a California subdivision, and it was a huge help in allowing us to hit the ground running in Illinois.

I’d also add, as has been stated ad infinitum on this blog, Do Not Try To Start Too Big. It’s extremely tempting to jump in with both feet and try a hundred different things at once. Slow down. Do your reading and study. And try one thing at a time — each of them on a small scale.

Blog readers, do you have any other good introductory / overview books that you could recommend to my friend (and others in a similar situation)?

Small Town Banking

From the NY Times comes a remarkable look at the “other side” of the banking industry: a small town bank in Nebraska, which is only in the news because it was recently robbed for the first time in half a century.

Yes, institutions like this one still exist in America. They may not have economies of scale going for them, but they are well-managed and in the closest possible contact with their customers. And they are most certainly not lining up for federal bailout dollars.

Its one-story brick building, built as a bank more than 100 years ago, has remained a local fixture while most buildings in downtown Carleton, such as it is, are bricked up or closed up: the old Weddel’s grocery store; the old post office that partially caved in a few years ago; the old Little Café, where Thelma and Shirley sold fresh pies of apple and cherry.

Just outside the bank, a Cargill grain operation grinds away. Truckloads of soybeans and corn are weighed and dumped with a sound like a sigh into the mammoth grain elevators looming over the empty storefronts. Every few minutes, another long Union Pacific freight train loudly announces itself.

Inside the bank, Mr. Van Cleef, 46, is usually helping local farmers figure out how to finance the fertilizer, chemicals, machinery, fuel and irrigation needed to grow their crops, all while guessing what beans and corn will go for.

There is no online banking here. It’s all face-to-face, how are you, Mike, see you later down at TJ’s for a burger.

The Van Cleef business has not exactly followed the Wharton School model. Mr. Van Cleef’s father, Lloyd, 72, was a Navy veteran working as a meter reader for a gas company in Fairbury, about 40 miles away, when a local banker offered him a career change. He worked his way up the banking ranks and then, in 1975, decided to buy the Citizens State Bank in Carleton.

His teenage son, Michael, did not appreciate moving from a town with a Pizza Hut and a movie theater to a town where the passing trains served as entertainment. But he started working in the bank after high school, attended banking seminars instead of attending college, set aside aspirations of law school and eventually became a bank president without pinstripes.

“You do loans, you do deposits,” he says. “You scrape the snow outside. You change the light bulbs.”

Go read the whole thing. And admit it: you want to live in this town and do business with this bank.