Why Do This?

A reader from Southern California (actually not far from where our family lived, pre-farm) who wishes he could be doing what we’re doing, Kevin Aldrich, writes with some important thoughts and observations:

It would seem that the reason to have a family farm is not so much to grow your own food or have a viable business as to have a means of raising your kids well. They are more “in touch” with real life and work with their hands, not just with their heads and technology.

Here’s a kind of a idea for raising kids—not that I’ve done it for any of mine—but a child’s development could kind of follow the history of the development of humanity. It seems like we are more and more cut off from the life that most people have led through most of human history. Not that we want any of the negatives, like mortality rates before modern medicine, or famines before the Green Revolution, or battles followed by rape and pillage.

Rather, it seems like kids would have a huge advantage if their youths were filled with activities like storytelling, memorization, growing your own food, dealing with animals, running, fighting, using weapons, building fires and doing without electricity, dealing with heat and cold and darkness, writing with pencils instead of keyboards, penmanship, building and fixing things, reading instead of watching, talking instead of texting. Have you seen Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E? People are fat and chair-bound and taken care of by robots. It really is the future.

I guess I think about this because I live on the edge of the center of modern, artificial living…

It really is remarkable how different the Yeoman Farm Children are from other kids their age. They get up each morning, go outside, and are responsible for milking two goats. They take the goats out to pasture. In the evenings, they do it all again (in reverse), and hunt all over the barn gathering eggs, and make sure the various animals have the food they need. They are present when lambs and goat kids are born, alert us to any problems those animals may have, work to ensure the health of all those animals … and help load mature animals into the truck when it’s time to go to the butcher. They know how to cultivate soil, how to plant seeds, how to tell the difference between a weed and a “good” seedling, which tomatoes and peppers are ripe, how to handle fresh produce (and eggs) without damaging or breaking anything. And because their severe food allergies make meal preparation such a big production (in the time it takes most kids to finish off a bowl of Fruit Loops, we’re still grinding grain for hot cream-of-rice cereal), they have learned to take the lead in cooking breakfasts and lunches from scratch.

They do not have iPods or cell phones or Facebook pages, do not “text” their friends, have never surfed beyond the EWTN Kids website, and their television viewing is limited and always supervised (and made up of sports, politics, religious, and History Channel type stuff). They read a lot of books, particularly historical fiction. They know how to type, and how to use computers, but do most of their work with pen and paper. They know firearms are not toys, but rather powerful tools which must be respected and handled safely and responsibly.

When we first moved to the country, one of our primary motivations was getting control of our food supply. But the longer we’ve been doing this, and the more we’ve observed the way our kids have thrived, our motivation for continuing to farm has increasingly become the whole lifestyle and culture in which our family is immersed here, and the sorts of well-rounded young adults into which the YFCs are growing. It’s hard to imagine anything that could’ve been better for them. Or for us.

Piglet The Goat Kid

I have given up trying to figure out the names that our children come up with for various animals on our farm. As long as it’s a certainty that the animal in question will eventually be going off to the butcher, I don’t mind too much. (The two most recent goat kids we had butchered were named “Naughty” and “Less Naughty,” respectively…and our children now seem to be recycling those names for the latest twin male goat kids.)

Which brings us to Piglet. Who, despite the name, is a goat kid.

Last Wednesday, Queen Anne’s Lace delivered a pair of beautiful kids. After just a couple of days, however, the male kid was developing problems. He was struggling to get up and nurse, and had a raspy noise in his lungs. Homeschooled Farm Girl immediately realized something was wrong, and reported the problem to Mrs Yeoman Famer.

This proved to be a very good move. Had she come to me, I would have told her “It’s just the male kid. We’ll only be butchering him anyway, and his meat isn’t worth the veterinary bills. And besides, at just two days old, he doesn’t have the reserves to survive whatever he’s sick with. Which is probably pneumonia.”

MYF also diagnosed pneumonia…but took a different approach. She simply announced that she was taking the kid to the vet clinic in the next town over. Period. I ran through my objections, to which she listened politely…and then insisted that we should do everything in our power to save this kid. Because in her opinion, we’d discovered his pneumonia early enough to do something about it.

I grudgingly agreed, and got back to work. MYF sped off to the vet, and after spending some time in the waiting room (enduring odd/curious looks from all the people who had brought more conventional pets), the vet confirmed our diagnosis of pneumonia. Most likely, the kid aspirated some milk while nursing — essentially “sucked it down the wrong pipe,” getting moisture in his lungs. In the chilly barn, it didn’t take long to develop into pneumonia. He gave the kid a shot of antibiotic, and then gave MYF several more syringes of antibiotic to inject over the next days. He suggested we keep the kid in our warm house, and bottle feed him until (1) he was stronger and (2) the barn warmed up a bit.

So, since Friday afternoon, we’ve had a goat kid living in an old laundry basket in our family room. How our children thought up the name, “Piglet,” I’ll never know…but it’s not something I have any desire to argue about. The wood stove keeps that whole room very comfortable, and Piglet has been thriving. Homeschooled Farm Girl has been a big help in milking Queen Anne’s Lace, and in taking the kid out to her in the warmer parts of the day to nurse directly. Fortunately, Queen Anne’s Lace has not rejected or forgotten him; she bleats urgently as soon as she sees him, sniffs his backside approvingly as he nurses, and bleats plaintively when we take him back out of the barn.

Needless to say, the laundry basket is pretty tight quarters for a growing goat kid. With MYF’s permission, our children let him out a couple of times this weekend (right after he’d relieved himself), and let him romp around the downstairs of our house. Everyone thought this was great fun, though MYF was of course concerned he might try to piddle on the carpet. “Maybe,” I joked, “we can train him to a litter box and keep him in the house.”

“Yeah!” the children cheered.
“Can’t you just see it?” MYF replied. “Him trotting up and down the stairs. Kicking his legs up on the walls, like the other goats do in the barn. Probably smashing windows. And making the whole house smell like goat.”

We all had a good laugh…and hope he’ll be well enough to move back to the barn in the next couple of days.

And, yes, I have eaten my full serving of crow. I’m glad MYF took him to the vet, and have told her so. It’s a tough balance, having livestock. There is a definite “utilitarian” component to farm animals, and it’s much more pronounced than it is for pets. We simply cannot justify squandering resources on an animal that isn’t “worth it.” But there is also a humanitarian component to raising livestock on a small organic farm. In a sense, God has given us temporary custody of these animals…and we have a responsibility to exercise good stewardship with them. That means having a heart, and sometimes making personal sacrifices on behalf of an animal’s welfare — even one which, at the end of the day, might be of borderline monetary value.

In this case, I think we struck a good balance. Piglet’s vet bill was $55, and it will eventually cost $40 to butcher him. That will make his meat more than twice as expensive as the meat from a kid with no medical issues. But given the quality of what we’ll be getting, I think it’s still a bargain compared to buying meat at the supermarket.

The Not So Good Shepherd

Managing sheep, particularly when out watching them graze, is wonderful fodder for prayer about the “Good Shepherd.” Just a couple of weeks ago, after bringing the sheep in to the fold from the pasture, we seemed a few lambs short. I took Homeschooled Farm Girl and Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog back out in the high weeds for a second look — and located the lambs which had become disoriented and left behind.

But every shepherding story doesn’t have such a happy ending. Regular blog readers know we had a bumper crop of lambs born this year; the eight ewes had 16 live births. Tabasco, our occasionally hyperactive Red Healer, killed one of those lambs when it was a week old, but we hadn’t had any other deaths.

Alas, that record was not to stand. With this many lambs, we were due for some kind of disappointment. A few days ago, I noticed that the youngest and smallest lamb was beginning to act a bit lethargic and to hang back from the rest of the flock. I immediately administered an apple cider vinegar drench, which is a nice overall tonic. He would still get up and walk just fine, but I quickly discovered the root of his lethargy problem: he was getting crowded out at the hay feeders. And he was a little too small to reach the drinking water in the stock tank once the level had gone down — and ditto for the mineral in the mineral bucket.

Over the next couple of days, I kept close tabs on him and tried to make sure he got better nutrition…but the damage had apparently been done. Once a lamb gets beyond a certain point, it’s sometimes difficult to get their health built back up again to where they can hold their own with the flock. Saturday afternoon, he was still making an effort to eat — but by Saturday night it was clear he wasn’t going to make it. He’d crawled into a corner, put his head down, and begun breathing heavily.

As the rest of the flock enjoyed a late evening snack of hay, I took the little lamb in my arms and sat down to comfort him. I’d seen this more times than I care to count, and knew he was now in the death spiral. I talked soothingly to him, rubbed his back and stomach, and tried to find a position that would let him breathe a little easier. Most of all, I told him I was sorry I couldn’t have done more for him.

But I couldn’t bear to put a bullet in his head. I save that action for the most severely injured livestock. For a sick lamb, I hold out hope to the very end that he might get a good night’s sleep, or that his immune system will kick in, or that he’ll find a hidden reserve. So I made him comfortable in his corner of the barn, locked everything up, and called it a night.

Not surprisingly, Sunday morning, he was exactly where I’d left him. As the rest of the flock got busy eating, I found an old paper feed bag and managed to slide his stiffened body into it for disposal. (With the heat this week, I didn’t want to just throw the body into the trash can without something around it to help contain the smell. And I certainly didn’t want to leave his body in the hedgerow, where it might attract predators like the fox I’d just spooked off.)

In a thoroughly melancholy frame of mind, I went about the rest of my morning chores. It always bothers me when I can’t save one of our animals, especially one as innocent as a little lamb. I suppose I ought to be used to it by now, but it still gets to me. And that gave me an awful lot to think about for the whole rest of the day.

Ashes Again

I love heating our house with wood. Particularly up here in Michigan (at least compared to the Illinois prairie where we just moved from), firewood is cheap and abundant. Several people up and down our road, including our next door neighbor (no, not the one with the killer dog), seem to spend their entire summers cutting and splitting mountains of trees. The result is a fairly inexpensive, plentiful, renewable source of American-made fuel.

The house we bought has an oil burning furnace, which is our first experience with home heating oil. Is this stuff expensive or what? Fortunately, the system of baseboards that the furnace pumps hot water up to is pretty intelligently set up. There are three zones: one for the whole downstairs, one for the two childrens’ bedrooms upstairs, and one for the master bedroom upstairs. In other words, during the day, we can use oil to heat just the two rooms where the kids do their schoolwork. The woodburner the previous owners left is one of those sealed fireplace units with a blower fan, and it easily puts out enough heat to keep the whole downstairs comfortable. No, it’s not as nice as the Amish-made wood cookstove we had in Illinois, and the blower won’t do us much good in a power outage, but for daily use it is wonderful. (And we may well replace it with a cookstove next winter.)

Anyway, the biggest problem with this woodburner is the ashes. Our cookstove had slats at the bottom of the firebox, so the ashes would fall through and collect in a long metal drawer underneath. When it got full, it was very simple to pull that drawer out, carefully take it outside, and dump the ashes in a metal can for later use in the garden. In our new woodburning unit, the ashes simply accumulate and pile up in the bottom of the fireplace. Each day, the fire must be built slightly higher than the previous day’s fire. Each day, there is slightly less room for firewood. This is a subtle and almost indiscernable process; you don’t realize how much fire space you’ve lost until you discover yourself struggling to cram pieces of wood into the box.

This weekend, I realized just how much ash had accumulated. We let the fire go all the way out, and then I started shoveling. And shoveling. And shoveling. Had to be careful not to spill ashes on the carpet as I knelt and gingerly emptied each shovelfull into a container. Finally, ten minutes later, the great bulk of the ashes had been removed and we could build another fire.

I’ve been thinking about that process since yesterday, when we had a somewhat different commemoration of ashes. We went to Mass in the morning, and the priest made a large cross of ashes on our foreheads, admonishing us to “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of death; indeed, they are all that’s left over when all the wood’s fuel has been burned. So we put the ashes on to remind us of our own mortality, and that, as St. Paul says, tempus breve est (time is short).

But perhaps the ashes can mean even more than that. Don’t “ashes” also symbolize all the death that we’ve allowed to accumulate in our lives? All the bad habits and self-indulgences? All the creature comforts we allow ourselves? All the duties we procrastinate about fulfilling? All the little ways we waste time at work? Over the course of a year, all these things accumulate and fill the firebox so slowly, we don’t realize how much smaller our fire has gotten as a result. We need to shovel all those things out, and build the fire anew. And that’s what I love so much about Lent.
And you know what really surprised me? When I shoveled the ashes out this weekend, I’d thought the fire had completely cooled. But it hadn’t. Once I started digging deep, I discovered lots of coals that were still burning bright red. Somehow, under all those ashes, with no air or fuel, they had remained unextinguished. As I worked, I moved these coals to the side. When the ashes had been removed, I piled all the coals back up in the middle of the firebox. I then “framed” them on either side with large pieces of wood, and began piling fuel on top of the coals. Paper, twigs, cardboard, and then branches and larger pieces of wood. Soon, the fire was burning again — and bigger than ever.

Under all those ashes we’ve let accumulate since last Easter, I bet each of us still has plenty of nice red coals. Let’s get those ashes out and see what we can do to get our spiritual fires blazing again.

Little Things

When we first got sheep, our worries all centered on the big problems than can befall livestock. We made sure the pasture was securely fenced. We got a Great Pyrenees guardian dog. Any time we heard coyotes howling, I had the 12-gauge loaded and was out the door.

But after nearly five years, we’ve never lost a sheep to the road. Or to a thief. Or to a coyote. Or to any other predator.

All of our losses have come from little things:
An unattended ram that got into a bag of corn and died of bloat.
A lamb that pushed through a poorly-secured gate, ate too much clover, and bloated.
A lamb that found a rusty piece of metal and got tetanus.

And then there are the parasites. When we first got sheep, we didn’t know a thing about worms. But it’s worms that have caused more problems than everything else combined. We’ve tried to keep ahead of the parasites’ life cycle, but somehow or another events keep conspiring to delay our worming treatments.

Somehow, the big magnificent rams are the ones that get hit hardest. Pinch, an absolutely stunning animal, had worms creep up on him so fast we never knew there was a problem until he wouldn’t keep up with the flock. An hour later, he couldn’t get to his feet. The worms had literally bled him white. Meanwhile, the rest of the flock was running around just fine with the same worm load.

And now the same ugly story is replaying itself for Pinch’s one surviving offspring — an equally stunning ram we named Dilemma. I just wormed him about a week or two ago. Then, this morning, I noticed he wasn’t grazing much with the rest of the flock. I caught him (another bad sign; he should’ve had enough energy to stay away from me), checked his eyes, and sure enough…he was getting bled white. I wormed him again, and drenched him with an apple cider vinegar tonic, but I fear it was too late. Even after drenching him again this evening, he’s barely getting to his feet and certainly not grazing. And even if I kill all the worms, how can he regain his strength if he doesn’t eat?

Tonight, as the rest of the flock eagerly grazed on some prime green stuff, Pinch refused to get to his feet. I sat with him for a long time, holding his head in my lap, rubbing his neck and telling him how sorry I was. And I couldn’t help thinking about a passage from St. Josemaria Escriva’s book, Christ is Passing By (section 77):

We must convince ourselves that the worst enemy of a rock is not a pickaxe or any other such implement, no matter how sharp it is. No, its worst enemy is the constant flow of water which drop by drop enters the crevices until it ruins the rock’s structure. The greatest danger for a Christian is to underestimate the importance of fighting skirmishes. The refusal to fight the little battles can, little by little, leave him soft, weak and indifferent, insensitive to the accents of God’s voice.

And as I asked myself why I’d not been vigilant enough about rotating their pastures, and making sure the flock was wormed on a hard and regular schedule:

It has been a hard experience: don’t forget the lesson. Your big cowardices of the moment correspond — clearly — to your little cowardices of each day.You ‘have not been able’ to conquer in big things, because you ‘did not want’ to conquer in little ones. (The Way, #828)

As I came out to my office to prepare this blog post, Dilemma was still laying on the grass just outside that building. The rest of the flock had long been put away in the main pasture, and I’d decided to just leave Dilemma here to die overnight. But as I approached him, he surprised me by climbing to his feet and stiffly trying to trot off to join the main flock. I caught him and drenched him again, all the while saying as many encouraging words as I could.

Then I opened the pasture gate, let him through, and he bellowed to the flock as he approached. It wasn’t his usual bellow, and I still wouldn’t put money on his being alive in the morning, but it was a beautiful sound all the same.

Just Plain Busted

Sometimes, unlike the situation with the busted pipe I recently blogged about, it’s just plain impossible to turn a lemon into lemonade.

We have several grape vines growing right behind the house, along a fence that subdivides the property. As these vines are so close to the house, I’ve been able to give them lots of attention the last few years. They’ve gotten plenty of water, and I’ve been able to protect them from Japanese Beetles. They’re far and away the healthiest vines on the property, because they’ve been close enough to get so much care.

Until this morning, when I went out to do the chores and discovered one of them had been utterly destroyed. It was only six feet from the back door, and our dog Scooter always sleeps at the foot of it. At first glance, it looked okay…just a little wilted.

But something was wasn’t quite right, so I took a closer look. The roots had been totally dug up, and the two stalks of the vine were snapped. Even quite a bit of the bark had been stripped off — almost like a deer or goat had attacked it. But a deer or goat would’ve devoured the leaves first; and besides, all the goats were secure. And deer never come this close to the house. And since when has a deer or goat dug up a vine from the roots?

I couldn’t prove it was Scooter, but I was highly suspicious. It also could’ve been Tabasco, who’s always digging up everything on the trail of mouse and rat nests. Between Tabasco’s digging and Scooter’s chewing, it could’ve been a team destruction effort.

This particular vine didn’t have a lot of fruit clusters on it, but it was the principle of the thing: I’d planted this vine, watered it, weeded it, pruned it, and cultivated it for years. It was beautiful, and it was thriving.

Sitting with the sheep later this morning, I had the chance to reflect on the vine and what the incident might be trying to say. On a farm, this kind of thing happens all the time: you spend months or years caring for some living thing (be it an animal, a bush, or a crop), but it’s a living thing. You go to bed and everything’s fine…and come out the next morning and it’s dead. We’ve had more than one beautiful ram drop dead from bloat or parasites. Sometimes there is a dead hen in the chicken house in the morning; no sign of struggle or predation…it just died in the night. In the blink of an eye, we’ve lost two different dogs to collisions with cars. I came home one afternoon and surprised a hawk devouring one of our ducks in the driveway. Our first mother goose sat on a nest for weeks, and her eggs were nearly ready to hatch, when I came out one morning to discover coyotes had torn her to pieces like a feather pillow.

I could continue this this list, but you get the picture: to have a farm is to have a constant education in the virtue of detachment. As you toil and “husband” your livestock and produce, you must never succumb to the temptation of admiring that handiwork and thinking it was all your own invincible doing. Because it can all be taken away overnight. This is something I was largely insulated from when I lived in the city, as I think is the case for most city-dwellers. But the things of this earth, even the ones that you’ve worked so hard to care for (and perhaps especially those things) really are passing away. And that’s a good thing to reflect on. We sure get plenty of chances to do so on the farm.

And now I’ve got to take these grape branches and feed them to the goats.

Busted Pipe Lemonade

You know that expression, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? It happens all the time when you live on a farm. The lemons, anyway. Making lemonade is where you need to get creative.

One example: in July, we get inundated with Japanese Beetles. They wreak a horrible toll on grape vines, to the point where I wonder why I bother trying to grow grapes organically around here at all. I’ll post more about it in July, but we’ve developed a partial solution: put out lots of pheromone traps, drown the beetles we catch, and feed them to the chickens. Free protein!

More recently, we had a piece of drainage tile break. It’s one of those plastic pipes, buried about 2-3 feet down, that helps drain the property. I noticed a big puddle developing in a certain spot, and from time to time bubbles would appear. When that spot never got dry, I knew the water had to be coming from below. I got out a shovel, and spent some time excavating the area. Eventually, I found the tile—and, sure enough, could feel a small hole in the top of it. As soon as I’d bail all the water out of the hole, more would bubble out of the pipe. Grrrrr.

Eventually, I’m going to have to dig a much larger hole and expose the whole pipe so it can be fixed. But for now, I’ve been trying to make lemonade. With this constant puddle of water, I don’t have to take water to the chickens and ducks! At all!

Or so I’ve told myself for the last couple of weeks. Now, my wife has reminded me of two things: (1) kids have a remarkable way of falling into puddles of water, and two feet is plenty big enough for drowning; and (2) standing water is a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes. She wants my lemonade puddle gone. Yesterday.

Looks like the Yeoman Farmer will be getting his shovel out again this weekend…