New Arrivals

My apologies for the slow posting of late; our family just returned a few days ago from a big vacation in my home town of Seattle. It’s remarkable we were all able to get away from the farm for so many days in the middle of summer, but the trip was a big one and we’d been planning it for nearly a year. What made it possible was finding a friend we could trust to come take care of our animals (including milking three goats) twice a day.

It never ceases to amaze me how much can change on a farm in just nine days. The growth in the garden was dramatic, especially the potatoes. (And the weeds!) But what really struck me was how much larger the ducklings, goslings, and turkey poults are, and how much more feathered they had become. The goslings are still smaller than the mature geese, of course, but are nearly as well feathered:

I’m going to be turning the female ducklings loose in the next couple of days. We’ll keep the drakes in these moveable pens until they reach butchering size in a few weeks.

The biggest surprise, however, was in the deepest and darkest corner of the barn. Back in the kidding pen, a Barred Rock hen had made a nest…and hatched out eight little chicks!

She’s been taking them for walks, and I managed to get a little video. Her deep, reassuring clucks — and the chicks’ eager little peeps — are priceless:

I could watch them for hours. And it’s so blisteringly hot here, I’m not sure I want to do anything more strenuous than watch the poultry grow.

Post Halloween Pumpkins

Until I had a farm and livestock, I never really thought about the degree to which pumpkins go under-utilized in this country. Pumpkins are ubiquitous in October, but chiefly as decorations. Not just the ones that are carved into Jack-O-Lanterns, but the ones that are put out intact on porches and storefronts to sit like giant orange balls. I used to think these kinds of displays were a nice artistic contribution to the fall/harvest mood. Now I see them and think, “Look at all those great pumpkins, going to waste.”

New York City never lets itself be outdone in anything. So I guess it didn’t surprise me when I was recently visiting there on a business trip and saw this:

over and over again, as I walked down 34th Street. Dozens of pumpkins and other fall squashes, filling every one of the large rectangular planter beds that separate the sidewalk from the roadway. There I was, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, dressed in a jacket and tie, unable to think of anything but how many weeks my sheep and goats and poultry would be able to feast on all of these “decorations.”

Will these things be left out until they rot? Will the sanitation department eventually throw them into a trash truck with the rest of the city’s garbage? Or will an enterprising farmer be allowed to take them home to feed to his animals? He’d need a dump truck to carry all of them; there were many many more planters filled with pumpkins all along 34th Street. I wish I knew who in NYC government to contact with these questions, because I’m genuinely curious as to the fate of all this good livestock fodder.

Back here in rural Michigan, the answers are much easier to find. A mile or two from us, there’s a farmer who grows an enormous garden and sells produce from a roadside stand. The Yeoman Farm Children and I stop by there nearly every day in the summer, riding our tandem bicycle, and chat with them as we load up our rack pack with summer squash, zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, and everything else our own garden may be lagging in production of. They do not have any livestock on their farm, but they know we do. Not wanting anything to go to waste, they came out and told us we should take all of their unsold pumpkins remaining after Halloween. For free. Ditto — during the summer — any tomatoes or other produce that are too blemished to sell. We should come on over with buckets and help ourselves.

We were naturally very grateful for this offer, and this morning I was finally able to swing by their place. They had several enormous pumpkins left, and I loaded all of them into the back of our minivan. They’re wonderful pumpkins, totally intact, but admittedly not very attractively shaped for carving or display.

But who cares? Certainly not our sheep. Dot (our leader ewe) saw me unloading these treasures from the van, and was the first of the flock to make a beeline for the gate. Note the geese, preparing to swoop in and poach some of the treat.
Within minutes, the whole flock had followed Dot’s lead. I think the first pumpkin vanished in under five minutes.
I’ve packed the rest of them into the barn, and will smash one per day until they’re all gone. Too bad there were only five.
Next time I go to NYC in the fall, maybe I’ll take a dump truck instead of an airplane.

Illinois U-Pick

If you live anywhere in the Chicago-Champaign corridor and are looking for an opportunity to see a wonderful small farming operation, some good friends of ours from our previous town were just featured in a Chicago Tribune article. They’ve recently started a U-Pick for their organic strawberries (and I can testify these are some of the best on the planet.)

Three of them don’t have produce ready yet. But according to farm manager Helen Aardsma, the organic strawberries at Mulberry Lane Farms in Loda Illinois are already hitting their peak; and she is taking picking appointments right now.

Aardsma said she used to have her 10 kids pick the berries but “they all keep getting married and moving away,” so she’s launched a big U-Pick experiment this year.

“It’s a different experience,” she says. “But it’s so rewarding to see the look on a child’s face the first time she picks her own fresh berry learns what it should taste like. We joke that the strawberries you get in the store taste more like straw than berries.”

Organic strawberry operations are so scarce, Aardsma says, because they’re perennials that require attention all year and a lot of weeding. But that’s the kind “of quality we’d want for our own family and so that’s the way we grow them.”

For the next week or so, picking will be done by appointment only, but after that, it goes “open pick.” Call or write for appointments and more details. U-pick strawberries cost $2.49 a pound and you must purchase a minimum of 5 lbs per two people. Be sure to read the rest of Aardsma’s rules and tips before heading down to the farm so you arrive prepared.

Hard to think of a better weekend adventure than getting out to see Mulberry Lane Farm. And if you want to see an example of maximizing production through the creative use of a small piece of property, this is the place to go. If memory serves, they have only 1.5 acres or so. But their use of it is so brilliant and efficient, they get as much production as many people with ten times that acreage. For those of you who’ve been wanting to move to the country or have a farm, but have been concerned about finding or affording “enough” acreage, Mulberry Lane Farm shows what you can do if you’re creative. It’s really not about the number of acres. It’s what you do with them.

We Could Make a Fortune

…if we could build a guest house and find some folks willing to spend $300 per night for a “haycation.” And I’m sure the kids would greatly appreciate getting some help milking the goats.

As the NY Times reports:

In a world where small farmers need to diversify to keep their fields afloat and city dwellers are more desperate than ever to learn where their food comes from, a “haycation” for about the price of a nice hotel room in Manhattan didn’t seem like such a far-fetched idea.

For my family, the appeal was a fancy floored tent with a flush toilet and running water. On the Web site, it looked bigger than a junior one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side.

I’m no stranger to this kind of thing. My mother grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. I was once so tough, I hiked for days across Alaskan tundra. But I have gone soft from all this city living. And my partner makes a point of telling me regularly that her people don’t camp.

On the other hand, we have a toddler who had never seen a live chicken. And I was desperate to get out of the city and eat vegetables still warm from the sun. So what if I had to do chores? How tough could a $300-a-night farm stay be?

This is essentially how we talked ourselves into spending a long weekend at Stony Creek Farm in Delaware County, N.Y., a part of the Catskills so rough that most everyone who grew up there describes it as “two stones to every dirt.”

Go read the whole thing. It’s fun. It might inspire your next vacation. And for all our out-of-town friends and family who came to visit overnight and got to help out with chores for free this summer: Do you feel lucky or what?

But Are They Socialized?

No, this isn’t a post about the massive debt bill that Congress passed on Friday the Thirteenth. It’s about the number one question that homeschooled parents tend to be asked. Nine times out of ten, when we tell a non-homeschooler that we’re homeschooling our kids, the questioner’s initial reaction is to furrow his/her brow seriously and ask, “But are they able to meet and learn to interact with other children?” (The second question is usually some variant on “Are they able to play sports?”)

We have a battery of responses we’ve developed to reply to such questions, and my readers doubtless can add many more of their own. I won’t bore you with the whole list, but a few quick ones:

  1. Spending 7 hours a day in the company of 25 other people, all of whom are approximately the same age as oneself, is an extremely unnatural form of socialization that does not prepare a person for the real world;
  2. By contrast, our children are making friends with and learning to interact with children from other homeschooling families — the ages of whom range from infants to high school;
  3. We don’t want our children “socialized” into the prevailing youth culture that thrives in and infects even the best Catholic schools;
  4. Homeschooling allows our children to go places and do things (often involving interacting with other people) that are impossible for kids in institutionalized educational environments.
Today’s events provide a good illustration of this. Our church was originally a Polish parish, and still has many older parishioners who are of that ethnicity. One tradition they have is the annual “Paczki Bake,” held each year before Lent. Volunteers get together in the parish hall’s big kitchen, and over the course of three days and organize the ingredients, bake about 800 dozen paczki, and take orders for them. It’s a huge fundraiser for the parish, and draws a large crowd of volunteers. (And, incidentally, is a big tradition in many other Polish communities.)

This morning, everything got underway after Mass. It was remarkable how many cars were in the parking lot, and how many volunteers were streaming toward the parish hall. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and Homeschooled Farm Girl joined them, and I drove home with the two yeoman farm boys. HFG had been looking forward to this day for quite some time, as it’s not just a break from the regular school routine — it’s also a chance to do something “hands on,” and to spend hours working and talking with the adults and other homeschooled kids of the parish. As she explained later, I got to do something that was fun, and I got to play some, too.

And no doubt she and MYF will be back down there again tomorrow for more.

Sloppy Mess

We’ve endured feet of snow here the last couple of weeks, and the temps haven’t gotten above freezing to melt any of it. As a result, the driveway has become packed with snow and ice, and impenetrable to the average snow shovel. We’re at the point now where it makes most sense to wait for the thaw, and in the meantime simply follow our tire tracks from the garage to the road to get out.

And that worked fine, until this morning. Overnight, it began to rain; the temps had gotten just high enough so we weren’t getting new snow — but it still wasn’t warm enough to really melt what was already on the ground. The result is a heavy, slushy, sloppy mess…sitting on top of a sheet of packed ice.

Naturally, we didn’t realize just how bad it was until I went out at 9:30 to fetch the car. A half hour is usually more than enough time to get to the 10am Mass. But this time, I was able to do little more than back the car out of the garage before it got stuck. Mrs Yeoman Farmer came out to join me, and we took turns driving while the other one pushed/rocked the car to free it. I also attempted to shovel the wheels free, but the underlying layer of ice wouldn’t budge.

Twenty minutes later, we managed to get the car (which even has front wheel drive, by the way) pointed in the right direction and about halfway up the sloped driveway…but we couldn’t get it to go any farther.

Time to call in the 1984 Ford Bronco II 4×4. It only has four seats, so we couldn’t all take it to Mass, but the thing is very handy for rescuing other vehicles. In fact, I keep a tow chain in the back at all times. But even with the 4×4, it was still after 10am before we managed to get the Taurus out to the road.

So…we were down to Plan B: wait another hour, and go to the 11:30 “last chance” Mass. We don’t normally like going so late, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

And something funny happened: sitting near us was a family with five kids, and their ages looked similar to our own. The mother and the three daughters were all wearing chapel veils, just like MYF and Homeschooled Farm Girl were. As soon as Mass was over, MYF whispered: “I want to meet them!” Three minutes later, they were talking like old friends. Turns out, this family usually goes to a whole other parish, at 8:30am. But guess what? Their driveway was so sloppy this morning, they couldn’t get out, either! We stuck around for quite a while, chatting and getting to know them. They also homeschool, and also have a small farm. We exchanged phone numbers, and the wives are already figuring out a way we can get the families together for something.

Just goes to prove, I guess, that…once again, God’s timing is always perfect.

What a Windfall!

I recently posted about the neighbor who invited me over to harvest his grapes. Those grapes are now crushed and combined with mine, and the ferment is well underway. Nothing beats the smell of fermenting grapes bubbling away.

That neighbor has a good friend, Norma, who lives in a nearby residential area — an area with many established apple trees. Today, as I was working in my office, I heard a horn honking in our driveway. I came out, and discovered Norma and her daughter unloading buckets and buckets of windfall apples from the back of a pickup truck! We dumped one bucket for the handful of ducks, chickens and hatchlings still running on the property; I had her drive the rest of them into the pasture. We dumped some for the sheep, and I put several buckets worth into a large stock tank. My plan is to take half a bucket or so of those “stock tank” apples out to the birds in the pasture pens each day, to give them a little more variety in their diet.

The kicker? Norma thanked me for providing a good place to dump the apples. And said her neighbors were equally excited about windfalls being put to such good use. She promised to return soon with more. I think Artistic Girl and I need to get on the tandem and take at least a dozen eggs to Norma and her neighbors.