Sportsman’s Guide

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have found a new supplier that we like a lot and have begun telling our friends about: Sportsman’s Guide. They are an online discount seller of outdoor goods, and their primary focus seems to be hunters and fishermen (note their name), but they carry an enormous variety of related products that just about anyone — especially those of us who live in the country — will find useful. And they have some of the best prices we’ve seen.

We’re big believers in buying things in bulk whenever possible. Not just to save money, but also to make sure we always have a supply on hand of things we need. There’s nothing worse than discovering you’re out of something, having to make a special trip to the store, and paying more than you need to.

In particular, I like to buy ammunition in bulk; prices for a 20 or 50 round box at Wal-Mart or the local gun shop can be pretty steep, especially compared to buying by the case. Ammo doesn’t go bad if it’s stored in a dry place, and I know I’ll eventually go through it. And given the unpredictability of supply in certain calibers, I like the peace of mind of knowing I’m immune to production disruptions. I’ve had good experiences buying bulk ammo from various online dealers, but in the last few months I’ve found Sportsman’s Guide tends to have the best prices, most consistent availability, and widest variety of calibers of pretty much anyone else out there. And their Ammo page on the website is easy to navigate.

Sportsman’s Guide has a “Buyers Club” that you’ll be asked to join when you place your first order. This is definitely worth the $30 cost. You not only get discounted prices on pretty much every product, but you’ll get extra savings and free shipping on your first order. Then, as a Club member, you’ll get frequent email offers for “$10 off your next order of $99 or more” or “free shipping on your next order of $99 or more.” Within two orders, my club membership had easily paid for itself. (The free shipping offers, in particular, were a nice opportunity to stock up on bulk ammo. That stuff can get HEAVY.)

The most interesting part of club membership has been the catalogs we get in the mail. We get at least one (and sometimes more) per week. I didn’t pay much attention to these, as I usually just go on their website and order when there’s something I need. I figured they send all these catalogs because so many of their customers are rural and therefore don’t have high speed internet.

But then Mrs. Yeoman Farmer noticed one of these catalogs laying on the dining room table, and began browsing it. She was soon perusing these things every time Yeoman Farm Baby had her pinned for a feeding. And she discovered something: Sportsman’s Guide carries all kinds of cool military and outdoor surplus stuff, that we’ve never seen elsewhere, at great prices. She ordered boots for her and the kids for something like $30 per pair. She got herself a heavy wool cape at a good price. Heavy wool military coats and hats and sweaters. They sometimes don’t have exactly the right size, but kids grow quickly and we just order an extra size up.

Our biggest frustration with boots in particular, from places like Wal-Mart, is how quickly the kids destroy them. And yet we’ve hesitated to buy the kids the really nice Muck Boots, like MYF and I wear around the farm, because they are so expensive. Military surplus boots are looking like they may be a good compromise: Just $30, and built to survive a march across Austria. As I hold these things in my hands and lace them up, I seriously doubt any kid could wear them out even if he wanted to. (I will post an update if Homeschooled Farm Boy or Big Little Brother manage to succeed, however.)

Anyway, this is not to discourage you from supporting local retailers or merchants. MYF and I are big believers in localism — but sometimes local merchants don’t have what we need, or don’t have what we need at a reasonable price. We’ve been very happy with Sportsman’s Guide, and would encourage you to check them out.

One of Those Things You Don’t Really Believe Until You See…

Posting has been slow of late because I’ve been swamped with professional work. But our family did manage to get down to Amish country in northern Indiana over Labor Day weekend, for the big Midwest Tandem Rally. I’ll post more about that event later, but in the meantime had a photo to share.

We’d forgotten a few key items on the trip, so we stopped at a Wal-Mart in Sturgis, Michigan. It’s just across the state line from where all the Amish families live.

That’s when we discovered just how universal Wal-Mart’s customer base is. And the lengths to which Wal-Mart will go to accommodate its customers:

Yes, that’s a hitching post. And, yes, those are about a half dozen Amish buggies. And, no, I wouldn’t have believed it unless I’d seen it.

I realize many people have divided opinions about Wal-Mart and the merits of shopping there versus supporting local Mom and Pop merchants. For the record, we prefer to support small local merchants, too … but sometimes Wal-Mart is the best option.

It was interesting to find that even the Amish agree.

One Dollar

Nearly twenty years ago, I made a big investment in a one piece of cycling equipment: a Silca floor pump. What’s so big about buying a tire pump? Well, at the time I was a starving undergraduate, whose primary income came from working at McDonald’s on school vacations. And Silca pumps have never been cheap; depending on the model and the retailer, one can easily pay in the neighborhood of $100 these days. I seem to recall getting mine for about $35 or so — a big chunk of change, given my income. But I made the investment because I was getting increasingly serious about cycling, and there were/are no better pumps than Silcas. Just borrowing other people’s Silca pumps a few times convinced me of that.

My Silca outlasted the bike I owned at the time, and traveled back and forth across the country so many times I lost count. It flew with my bike in its case, and rode around in the trunks of cars that long ago went to the junkyard. It sat in sheds and basements and garages and barns in Illinois, Michigan, California, Washington, and Virginia.

And, eventually, it began to wear out. I hardly ever used it, or even rode a bike, between 2000 and 2007; only since then have I slowly begun to get back into the sport. This past year, as I’ve been getting increasingly serious about riding (both my own bike and the tandem with our kids), I found that the Silca pump wasn’t holding a good seal with the tire valve stems. Air leaked like crazy as I pumped, and the pump head would easily disconnect from the stem at even moderate pressure.

My first thought was that I’d gotten a good run from my investment in the Silca pump, and that it was time to buy a new one. One look at current retail prices quickly disabused me of that plan. My next thought was to buy a new brass pump head. A little searching revealed that to be a better course of action, but it still felt odd to be paying $20 to replace a part on a pump that had originally cost me only $35.

I continued searching, and discovered something important: Silca pumps are designed to be entirely rebuildable. And even inside that brass head, the rubber washer can be replaced. I opened up my pump’s head, inspected the washer, and realized that was probably my problem: it was hard and dry and didn’t seem able to provide a good seal. Back to Google, I found any number of online retailers listing that rubber washer for just a few dollars. But, just as quickly, I also discovered the limitations of online retailing: every one of those sites was going to charge at least $7 or $8 to ship that tiny rubber washer. They could’ve put it in a letter-sized envelope and mailed it to me for less than a dollar, but every site was set up with automated UPS or FedEx shipping calculators. Simply on principle, it seemed wrong to buy something and pay three or four times as much for shipping as for the product. But I wondered how else I could get something as seeming-obscure as a Silca rubber washer.

The next afternoon, I made a point of stopping at the local bicycle shop (“local” being relative…the closest bike shop is 15 miles from our house). It’s a fairly well-stocked place, and they’ve done an excellent job getting my bike out of mothballs, but the shop itself doesn’t compare to what you’d find in Seattle or a college town. I didn’t expect them to have the washer, but figured they could special-order it for me. Even if my total cost ended up being similar to buying it online, it was the principle of the thing. Especially in these economic times, I wanted to support a local retailer.

The first clerk I spoke with was significantly younger than I am. As I explained what I was looking for, he got a puzzled expression on his face. I quickly added that they’d probably have to special-order it, and perhaps we could look at some catalogs. He agreed, and led me to a stack of books in the repair area, but still didn’t seem to know quite what I was talking about. As he began opening a parts book, a middle-aged (female) employee happened to go past us. (Fortunately, this woman was the very person I’d originally hoped to speak with; when I’d brought my old Bianchi in for servicing, she’d expressed great appreciation for its vintage Campagnolo components, so I knew she knew about old Italian bike stuff.) Young Clerk turned to her and tried to ask which book he should look in, but he didn’t even know how to describe what he was looking for. “Rubber washer for the head of a Silca pump,” I told her.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I think we may even have those,” and walked briskly to a wall of parts bins in the service area. A moment later, she returned with a small plastic wrapper containing not one but two of these rubber washers, marked 95 cents each. “Perfect!” I exclaimed.

As the female employee hurried off to assist the customer she’d been working with, I turned back to the younger clerk. “Is that all you need?” he asked, still looking slightly bewildered.

“Yep,” I smiled, removing one of the washers and producing a dollar bill from my wallet.

Later that night, I showed Homeschooled Farm Boy how to change the rubber washer. Earlier, he’d had to help me me inflate the bike tires by holding the pump head tightly to the rim — but even then, we’d lost a lot of air to leakage. Now, with the new rubber washer, everything worked perfectly.

I’m hoping I get another twenty years of service from this pump. And maybe Homeschooled Farm Boy will someday show his own son how to rebuild it for just one dollar.

Small Town Gas

Here’s something you don’t see much outside of small towns like Piper City (population ~800):


That’s right — a gas station without pay-at-the-pump. And, what’s more, you don’t have to pay before you pump! When we moved here after several years of life in Los Angeles, it was astounding to discover that there were still places in America where they trusted you to pump first and pay second.

The gas station/convenience store in our town (the Loda Quick Stop) had similar pumps when we arrived in 2001. They’ve since upgraded to pay-at-the-pump, but if you want to pay cash you can still pump first and then come inside to pay. I also pay inside whenever I’m going to buy something in the shop, like dog food. I can pump the gas, go inside and get the dog food, and pay for everything in one transaction. The owner, George, knows and greets nearly every customer by name — and, locally, the store is usually referred to as “George’s” rather than as “the Quick Stop.” (“I need to run over to George’s and get a case of beer.”)

On 9/11, George’s was the site of a very important early lesson in rural community life. We’d been in the area less than two months, and we were still being initiated into the local culture. As we drove by George’s that evening, we saw a long line of cars queued up to get gasoline (remember how frightened we all were about oil disruptions?); there were easily two or three dozen vehicles, and the line snaked around the corner. I did a double-take, thinking I’d been transported back to the 1970s. Anyway, it’s sad to admit, but right then I got caught up in the fear — and decided to get in line so I could top off my gas tank.

George had pretty much his entire staff out at the gas pumps (remember, this was before pay-at-the-pump). After each customer filled up, the staffer would write the amount on a piece of paper, give that paper to the customer, and then tell him/her to pull ahead, park, and go inside to pay. They’d then reset the pump and pull the next customer in. If someone had wanted to sneak off without paying, it would’ve been easy to have done so in that chaos — but I don’t think anyone did. And George knew no one would.

That in itself was an eye-opening lesson, after living in Los Angeles. But what stuck with me even more was my conversation with George’s young employee who was tending my gas pump. As we waited for the tank to fill, I commented that with all this demand for gasoline I was surprised they hadn’t raised the prices. She gave me a look of astonishment and said, “We would never do that. We’re just going to pump until we run out.”

I thought about that a lot over the next few days and weeks, as reports of outrageous price-gouging rolled in from other places around the country. We would never do that. Not here. That’s when I knew, without a doubt, that this place was different from pretty much every other place I’d lived before. And my only regret was that we hadn’t been able to come sooner.

Coco Puff’s Revenge

Yesterday morning, with considerable satisfaction, I took Coco Puff the Psychotic Ram off to the slaughterhouse. Actually, “satisfaction” isn’t quite the right word. “Relief” is more like it. It’s always a little poignant when we drag the sheep out of the back of the Bronco or the station wagon, and move them into the holding pen at Forrest Meats. Even when the animal is an obvious “cull,” or has caused danger or damage to our farm, I can’t help feeling a little sad.

Not so much for the lambs, when we take them in at the end of each year, because we never have them long enough to consider them long term residents of the farm. The rams are different. As much as I despised Coco Puff for the damage he wreaked on the fences and pasture shelters, and as many times as Coco Puff’s sire, Buddy, injured and tried to kill me, they were still “part of the gang” in the pasture. A flock is an organic unity that goes beyond the sum of its parts. Seeing one member of that flock isolated and standing alone in the holding pen at Forrest Meats never fails to bring on an odd mix of emotions. Add to that the dreary, cold, rainy weather yesterday…and that only made the emotional mix more strange.

But that’s all part of farm life, and I turned the Bronco for home. Later that day, the call came from Forrest Meats: Coco Puff dressed out to 62 pounds, and how would I like him prepared? I asked them to grind up everything they could, and to make soup bones out of everything else. Easy enough, they replied. I really like this place: they’re a small operation in a small town, part of a dying breed of local custom slaughter operations. The building isn’t much to look at, but they give wonderful service. I just wish there was something closer: Forrest is 34 miles from us. In years gone by, there were slaughterhouses closer to our town — but with consolodation, they’ve been closing down everywhere. It’s like everything else in rural America these days, it seems.

A storm came blowing in at about 4pm, with lightning and very strong wind gusts. As the kids and I watched from the window of my office building, the entire pasture shelter that Coco Puff had bashed the supports out of just plumb picked up, smashed, and blew over the northwest quadrant of the pasture. I muttered something under my breath about Coco Puff’s revenge.

Once the winds died down, I went out to inspect the damage. It was a total loss: both the sides and roof were blown away and smashed. This left the flock with no remaining shelter from this nasty weather. And I couldn’t bring them all into the barn. The one remaining shelter still had its roof, but no sides (thanks to Coco Puff). Fortunately, I’d managed to salvage those sides and stack them in a safe place, so in the spring I could repair them.

Guess what my project is for today? This morning, I got all the old manure and bedding shoveled out from the shelter area. The power drill is charging. A little later, my son and I will go out and see if we can get those sides refastened…and the flock a place to escape from the frigid wind. All I can say is: good thing no lambs were born last night.

Retail

Before we moved here, I had mixed feelings and expectations about what the retail scene would be like. In my past experience shopping in some small towns, I came to believe the Norman Rockwell-esque image of the mom and pop retail establishment can be overly romanticized. I’ve been to plenty of them which are small and offer a poor selection of overpriced merchandise. And, no, many of them do not treat their employees like they are members of the family.

But we are truly fortunate to have a number of small retail establishments in the area which make us proud to “shop locally.” Some examples: the NAPA auto parts store, with the manager who jokes about my foreign cars breaking down, but who always supplies excellent advice and exactly the part I need; the feed store in Gibson City, which custom mixes locally-grown grains— and is willing to stay open longer if I’m running late and call ahead; the pharmacy, run by the same family for decades; and the True Value hardware store (run by the son-in-law of the pharmacist, as it turns out).

I could get prescriptions filled for less money at Sam’s Club. I could get cheaper (industrialized pellets) chicken feed at Farm & Fleet. I could save a little on auto parts at Wal Mart. Hardware costs less at Home Depot. And sometimes we shop at all those places, because there is a time and a place for them. But all of those places are miles away, and not part of our own community, and for the most part do not offer anywhere near the level of personalized service that our local retailers do.

This is on my mind because I had a number of things to get at True Value this morning. They’ve recently moved to a large, new building, and have a selection that rivals any store within 30 miles—but the place has the same personalized spirit that they’ve always had. The manager recognized me when I came it, smiled and said hello. When I had trouble finding something, a casheir took me right to it. In the past, when I’ve had questions about which item was most appropriate for my project, someone on their staff has always been quick to answer those questions.

You hear a lot about Wal-Mart driving mom and pop retailers out of business. Maybe that happens sometimes…but maybe some of those retailers needed some competition. Here in Paxton, though there’s a Wal-Mart down the road in Rantoul, businesses like the True Value are growing and flourishing. They’ve figured out how to offer something the big retailers can’t, and that we in the community truly appreciate. The merchandise I bought this morning cost a little more than it would have at Wal-Mart, but the whole package of what our True Value provides is well worth that money.

What season is this, anyway?

I’m not a big fan of Wal-Mart, and prefer to shop at small retailers closer to home. Someday, I’ll post more on that.

For now, suffice it to say that we do some shopping at Wal-Mart. I was at the big Super Wal-Mart in Champaign last night, looking for a variety of items. As I searched for distilled white vinegar, I had to traverse the grocery section. And there I discovered…an entire long aisle dedicated to EASTER CANDY. Yes, you read that right. Easter Candy.

I realize that there isn’t a lot of money to be made in Lenten Retail. I wasn’t expecting an aisle of fresh fish and tomato soup or anything. But give me a break! This was the day after Ash Wednesday. Easter is still over six weeks away. Are they really expecting us to stock up on chocolate bunnies and jelly beans and keep them on the pantry shelf for six weeks?

And it’s not just Wal-Mart. The Meijer across the street was already putting the Easter candy up on Monday of this week, before Lent had even begun. I thought it was a clearence rack with leftover Valentines candy. But closer inspection revealed full priced chocolate bunnies. Sheesh.

Maybe I just don’t understand retail, but it seems that something is seriously out of whack with the way this system is set up.