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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Full Cycle wins Best Inspirational Fiction

I recently got some wonderful news: Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group has named my novel, Full Cycle, its winner of the Inspirational Fiction category in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. (The Novels page of this blog has much more information about the book, which tells the story of a young boy who challenges himself and his father to tackle the 200-mile Seattle to Portland one-day ride.)

The Next Generation Indie Book Awards is the largest not-for-profit book awards program for independent publishers and self-published authors. The awards are judged by leaders of the indie book publishing industry, including many coming from long careers with major publishing houses, to identify books that deserve to reach a wide audience. Catherine Goulet, Co-Chair of the 2017 awards explained, “Our program has become known as the Sundance of the book publishing world.”

The award ceremony was this week in New York City, and I was very pleased to be able to attend. I flew out early Wednesday morning, and spent much of the day seeing the City and meeting with clients (I hope to say more about the trip itself in another post). The ceremony was that evening at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few hours with other writers and literary professionals, talking about our books and the writing process, and sharing stories.

The highlight of the evening was receiving the award itself in person …

Winner Screen

and being able to meet the judges, who are professional literary agents.

With judges

As honored (and, quite honestly, also somewhat stunned) as I am to have won this award, what pleases me most is the additional exposure and credibility this will get for the novel. It’s a wonderful story, and one that I’d like to see read and enjoyed by a wider audience.

Whether you buy your own copy, or check it out from the Seattle or King County Library systems, I don’t care. Just read it. Enjoy it. And be inspired!

Passages

Spring is always a time of new beginnings on the farm, and that’s certainly been true this year. In early March, before Spring even officially got here, we had over a dozen goat kids born. It’d actually been a long drought; the kids were way overdue. We woke up the morning of March 6th, still with zero kids. By the evening of March 7th, we had SEVEN. Two sets of twins, and our first-ever set of triplets. Over the course of the next week, the rest of our goats delivered. They ended on the evening of March 13th, with another set of triplets. Here they were, trying to warm up in my office, the morning of March 14th:

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One of the males was very strong and went right back out to his mother. The female unfortunately had been born in very poor shape, and she didn’t make it past the first day. The other male was in-between; he was in poor shape, but just strong enough to pull himself to his feet, stand, and take a few steps at a time. He stayed in my office for several days, hanging out with the dogs. I actually grew adept at bottle-feeding him at my desk, while checking email. (The Yeoman Farm Children were bottle-feeding a couple of others, out in the barn.)

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To say we had our hands full was an understatement. We certainly didn’t need a dozen goat kids; what we really wanted was the milk, and a few females to keep as replacement milkers. One of our goats in particular, Button, was getting really old (she was our last surviving goat to have made the move from Illinois nine years ago), and had been looking especially worn out after this most recent kidding.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer got in contact with the woman who serves as the goat coordinator for our county’s 4-H program, to see if they had any interest in our males. (The Yeoman Farm Children themselves haven’t participated in 4-H; we think it’s a fine organization, but we’ve simply had too many other things going on.) The goat coordinator was delighted and relieved to hear from us. As it turns out, they’d been unable to get kids this year from the large goat producer who usually supplies them. With the weird weather last fall, it seems everyone’s goats had gone into heat late. That meant kids were late this year. She had a long list of 4-H children who were wanting goat kids to raise; MYF’s call had come just in time.

All our goat kids are mixed dairy breeds, which is fine for our purposes, but it means the males don’t get especially large – and they’re not especially valuable as breeders. So, we let seven of the males go for ten bucks each. We gave away the frail one for free. And we even threw in what was left of the milk replacer that we’d bought.

All told, financially, we barely broke even (the 22# bag of milk replacer alone cost over $50) — but that wasn’t our goal. We wanted those bucklings gone, and we wanted to help out some local children. Above all, we wanted the milk. And are we ever getting milk: at least six quarts at each milking. That’s twelve or thirteen quarts a day. (Yes, that’s more than three gallons.)

Our eldest daughter, who’s taking a year off after graduating a year early from high school, has basically turned the kitchen into a cheese factory. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been assisting, especially with the hard cheeses; her press has been running more or less non-stop.

As if that weren’t enough, March decided to truly go out as a lamb: on the very last day of the month, we had our very first ones of the year born. FletcherBelle delivered a healthy set of twins (a male and a female), and has been doing an excellent job raising them.

FletcherBelle Lambs 2017

We had another set of twins born two days ago; in fact, they arrived while I was out in the barn taking care of early-morning chores. The female was very strong, and immediately thriving. The male was barely alive, and looked like he hadn’t fully developed in utero (his eyes, in particular, were badly deformed). I wrapped that one in a towel, took him to my office, and made him comfortable in a box near the furnace. I also held him in my lap from time to time. We knew he wasn’t going to make it, but got some satisfaction from knowing his few hours with us weren’t spent abandoned on the floor of the barn.

It hasn’t all been joy and rebirth. Life is a cycle, and we’ve had some sad reminders of it lately (much sadder than the loss of a couple of newborns). A week ago Sunday (March 26th), we lost our very oldest animal, a sheep named Conundrum. She was nearly thirteen years old, and the last couple of winters had been difficult for her. She hadn’t produced a lamb in a while. In recent weeks, she was getting more unsteady on her feet. We really should’ve butchered her last fall, but none of us had the heart to do it — she’d just been with us so long, and was such a fixture in the flock.

Conundrum had the distinction of being our first lamb born to a ewe that’d been born on our property. She arrived on a Saturday morning: April 17, 2004. I was in California, on a business trip, when I got the call from Mrs Yeoman Farmer. I remember being so happy, and so proud, I wanted to pass out cigars to my clients at our meeting. I can’t find any pictures of her as a lamb, but this was her as a yearling:

conundrum - yearling

And this was her in the Spring of 2014, at the age of ten, with the last two lambs she produced (she had a premature stillbirth the next year, and did not lamb last year).

conundrum 2014-2

She’d been especially unsteady on Saturday, despite the extra attention we’d been giving her. I checked on the flock late Saturday, before going to bed, and she’d seemed alright. Then, when I came out the next morning, I found that she’d left us sometime overnight. Hauling her body out of the barn was terribly sad, but I was grateful she hadn’t lingered in pain. And I did give thanks for all that she’d provided us over her nearly thirteen years.

We closed out that week by losing Button, our oldest goat. As I mentioned above, she’d been tired – and having twins had taken a lot out of her. She was still nursing her female, and we weren’t taking any additional milk from her; our idea was to keep this female as Button’s replacement, and build her as strong as we could by letting her take as much milk as she wanted. Button had seemed to be holding her own, despite being tired, but sometime in the early hours of Saturday … she wasn’t able to keep going.

I found her when I came to do chores that morning, and quickly moved her body from the barn. Our eldest daughter was very fond of Button, and I knew she wouldn’t want to find her like this. She’d want to remember her the way she was, like in this photo from nearly seven years ago (note the lopsided horns – Button was always getting herself stuck in fences, so we trimmed the right horn back to make it easier to free her):

Button-Kid 6.27.10

Disposing of the bodies of dead animals on the farm is always a challenge. Digging graves for mature sheep and goats is tough without a backhoe, so we prefer to give them a “Viking Sendoff” (minus the boat). Early last week, one of the Yeoman Farm Children and I built a large pile of logs and tree branches, and placed Conundrum atop it to incinerate her remains. This past Saturday, we did the same for Button.

It’s a bit sad: we’re down to exactly two animals, both of them sheep, which made the move with us from Illinois at the end of 2007. Soon there will be none. But that’s all part of the cycle of life on a farm, I suppose.

And it’s certainly something to contemplate as we bottle-feed Button’s beautiful little orphaned doe kid, and think ahead to when she’ll be producing kids — and milk — of her own.

Backyard History

What are the three most historic places you’ve ever visited?

A friend recently posted this question to Facebook; dozens of people commented, listing a wide variety of places. The three that immediately came to my mind were the Colosseum (Rome), Ford’s Theatre (Washington, DC), and Dealey Plaza (Dallas).

Still, limiting my answer to these three places seemed so inadequate. I mean, how, exactly, can “most historic” be defined? The Colosseum seemed an obvious choice, for the sheer number of events which occurred there – including the martyrdom of so many early Christians, which would prove to be the seedbed of the Church’s growth. But is it really “more” historic than St. Peter’s, across town? Think of everything that’s happened there.

Back home in the USA, I gravitated toward the two Presidential assassination sites, because of the dramatic impact each one had on the course of our nation’s history. Each marked a major interruption. But, again, is Ford’s Theatre “more” historic than the White House, just a few blocks away? Or the US Capitol building?

All kinds of other places came to mind: Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, Arlington Cemetery, Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church in Boston, and so on. In the early 1980s, I visited the USS Missouri (when she was mothballed at Bremerton) and stood on the spot where the treaty ending World War II was signed. Historic? Of course, though I’d argue that the “Mighty Mo” made a bigger impact on history through her role in battle than for providing a location to sign a treaty.

As you search your own thoughts, and try to come up with your own list, keep something else in mind: the most profound impacts on history can be set in motion by events that now seem mundane — and in places that are now largely forgotten.

One of those places is lurking in our own backyard, and I had the pleasure of visiting it this week for the first time. Just a few miles from where we live, there is an 88-acre patch of woods called Meridian-Baseline State Park. I’d wager that most people in Michigan (including most people who live near us) have never heard of it. The entrance is not well marked, and I drove past it dozens of times before I even realized it was there. From the small sign along Meridian Road, you wouldn’t guess it included much more than a dirt parking lot and some nature trails.

And yet, on a spot that’s about a half-mile hike from the parking lot, something happened about two hundred years ago which has had an arguably bigger impact on our everyday lives than events which have occurred anywhere else in the state. Deep in those woods are the two bronze markers from which the entire rest of the state was surveyed and platted. Without that survey, we wouldn’t have reliable property boundaries today. Moreover, the roads could not have been properly laid out and aligned. I doubt many of us have stopped to think about how chaotic everyday life would be without the surveying work that was done to establish these lines.

Meridan - Baseline North Initial Point Marker

Why does the park have two markers? Why not a single “zero” point? The state does have only one north-south meridian, but somehow the east-west baseline got screwed up. Instead of a single baseline, we are the only state which has two baseline points along the meridian. The one farther north is the baseline for all points east, and the one approximately 935 feet south is the baseline for all points west. If you look closely at a map, you’ll notice that the Jackson – Ingham County boundary doesn’t exactly align. The 935-foot baseline discrepancy is the reason. (Many of the rural roads around here also take a sharp series of turns right at the meridian; I suspect this is due to the same issue.)

The kids and I had a fantastic time visiting the park this week. The trails are in good shape, and it’s a very pleasant walk through the woods. We got to experience an important (if unsung) historical site — and the “misaligned baseline” provided an excellent teaching opportunity about the importance of paying attention to even the smallest details, and executing one’s work with care. What may seem like a small mistake or oversight can end up having permanent repercussions.

meridian-baseline-park

What hidden historical places are lurking in your own neighborhood?

Mr. Raccoon’s Rocky Return

As usual, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer turned out to be right. In a recent post, I told the story of the odd-looking juvenile raccoon that turned up in our pasture on Sunday afternoon. Given how pathetic it seemed, and how completely non-threatening, I just didn’t have the heart to shoot it. MYF suggested, however, that it could be sick or have something else seriously wrong with it — precisely because it was sitting so lethargically in our pasture, and not running away from me. We agreed that if the animal turned up again, I should not hesitate to dispatch it.

Well, Mr. Raccoon did turn up again. And he did have something seriously wrong. Thursday morning, I found him in the pasture, much closer to the barn than on Sunday. However, I didn’t need to dispatch him. He was already dead.

As I found a paper bag in which to dispose of the body, I was kicking myself for not pulling the trigger on Sunday and putting him out of his misery sooner. Oh well. Live and learn.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering why this disoriented raccoon turned up on our property at all, looking like he had no place to go. Why wasn’t he in a den?

Then I started thinking about what had been going on around us. For the last couple of weeks, County work crews had cut down dozens of trees along our road. Some of these trees were on the small side, but others were enormous (our son counted upwards of 80 rings on one stump across the street from us).

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All this work is being done in preparation for a major re-paving project this coming summer; in the meantime, it’s been like living in the middle of a logging operation. At least we’re getting a year or so’s worth of firewood out of it.

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The County Road Commission crews used a forklift to pile all this wood in our pasture.

Anyway, back to Mr. Raccoon. With all the old trees that have been coming down, I wonder how many raccoon dens came down with them? I’m actually kind of surprised I haven’t seen more disoriented coons wandering around. It’s entirely possible this little guy got displaced from his den, and didn’t know where else to go. Given that he was so young, he may not have been familiar with other options.

It’s also possible that he was injured in some way when his tree came crashing to the ground. It wouldn’t surprise me if raccoons suffer traumatic brain injury in the same way humans do. And this raccoon certainly did look “dazed and confused.”

I suppose we’ll never know for sure exactly what happened to him. But at least we do know that an obviously-sick animal’s suffering is now over.

Temporary Truce

For years, I’ve considered our family to be in a more or less perpetual state of war with the local raccoon population. They’ve found ways to kill so many of our chickens, ducks, and turkeys … if I see a raccoon on the property, I tend to shoot first and ask questions never.

Until this past Sunday.

The weather here in Michigan has been unseasonably warm for mid-February, so my eldest daughter and I were able to get out for a wonderful 45-mile bike ride. We returned around 5pm or so, with about an hour of daylight to spare.

Before putting our bikes away, we gazed out over the property. Several of our ducks were still out in the pasture, splashing around in a flooded drainage ditch, having the time of their lives.

Then both of us spotted something just beyond the ditch: a smallish, dark-colored animal moving around. At first, I thought it might be one of our barn cats; she frequently goes out to the pasture to hunt field mice. “It’s not walking like a cat,” my daughter observed. I agreed. It was too far away to tell for sure, but it also seemed a bit too big to be a cat.

I decided this was worth checking on — especially since the animal could be stalking the ducks. They were so happily splashing in the drainage ditch, they seemed oblivious to all else. We hastily put our bikes away, I exchanged my cycling cleats for Muck boots, and then I grabbed the shotgun and a few shells of 00-Buck. Still wearing a cycling jersey and Lycra shorts, I then trotted out to the pasture. Our 14-year-old son, realizing something involving guns and wild animals was afoot, immediately stopped shooting baskets and trotted after me.

The noise we made with the gate evidently alerted the ducks that something was up, and they immediately abandoned the drainage ditch. As the flock waddled back toward the barn, I was relieved that at least none would fall victim to predators today. But I still needed to see if this intruder was in fact a predator — and take appropriate action if so.

As my son and I drew closer, it became clear that the animal was not a cat. It was too big, not carrying itself like a cat, and didn’t have a coat like any of our cats’ coats. Surprisingly, it was so intent on digging in the mud, it didn’t even notice us approaching. We drew to within 25 feet or so, and I chambered a round in the shotgun. At last, the animal looked up and I could see its face. Even more surprisingly, it just stared at us and did not run away.

I still couldn’t tell exactly what it was. It looked sort of like a raccoon, but not completely. The coat, and its coloring, didn’t seem quite right. The eye rings were evident, but not well defined. Its tail was tucked under it, so I couldn’t check it for rings.

Maybe I could convince myself it was a raccoon, but I wasn’t really sure. It didn’t look as clearly coon-like as the others we’d encountered (or even seen as road kill). If it’d stood and begun walking, I could’ve gotten a good look at its feet — and at its gait. That would’ve given me a much better signal. But the thing wasn’t moving. It just sat there, staring at us. Being in the middle of the pasture, I didn’t even have the option to pick up a rock to throw at it.

I drew a bead on the animal, but ultimately could not bring myself to squeeze the trigger. The way it looked at me, with its completely non-threatening demeanor, I just couldn’t kill it — especially since I wasn’t absolutely sure it was a raccoon.

But if it wasn’t a raccoon, what was it? My son and I went back to the house. I changed clothes, unloaded the shotgun and put it away, and jumped on the internet to search for “Michigan wildlife.” A long list came up, with pictures, but nothing really matched my memory of the thing. I looked at pictures of raccoons. I could see a resemblance, but also differences.

I returned to the pasture, this time with a camera — and my usual concealed carry pistol, in a holster. Much to my surprise, the animal was still in the same spot. I drew even closer than before, but it still didn’t run away. I took a few pictures. This is the best one:

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Now, you might look at this and say, “Oh, that’s a raccoon!” Mrs. Yeoman Farmer did, when I showed it to her that evening. But trust me: when I was there, looking at the thing in person, under the fast-approaching twilight, it was ambiguous enough to raise questions. MYF and I decided it’s probably due to it being a yearling, emerging from its first winter with its first winter coat. Besides, I never got to see it walk around.

Standing there in the pasture, looking at how small, nonthreatening, and pathetic the thing was, along with some nagging doubts about exactly what kind of animal it was … I decided I just couldn’t shoot it. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, or because we haven’t had a coon attack in a while. Regardless, I simply couldn’t bring myself to put a bullet in this animal.

When Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I discussed it later that evening, she had an additional thought: given this little raccoon’s behavior (lethargic, just sitting there in the open for so long, not running away), it’s quite possible the thing is sick. We decided that if it were to show up again, it would be a good idea to dispatch it. I commented that if it were still out in the pasture now, in the dark, after all these hours, it definitely had something wrong. I grabbed the rail-mounted tactical light for my pistol and went out in the pasture to take a look. But by then, there was no sign of the raccoon. I shined the light all over the field, and even into the trees. No beady little eyes reflected anything back.

I wondered where the raccoon had gone, where it was now, and if it were healthy or not. Having been face to face with the little guy, and having looked into its eyes, I realized I didn’t really wish it any ill. As I walked slowly back to the farmhouse, under the stars and the moonlight, I even hoped it gets to enjoy a long and happy life — far, far away from our farm.

Free Feed

One fun part about having livestock is discovering the various ways you can put to use the various produce that others might simply discard. Goats, chickens, and even sheep are not terribly picky about what they eat. (I’d add that pigs in particular will eat virtually anything, but we have no personal experience raising them.) Especially in the dead of winter, the animals seem to appreciate getting an unexpected bit of variety in their diet. We’ve found a few ways to do this without much — if any — additional cost.

For example, this morning we stopped at Walmart to take advantage of 50% off wrapping paper and Christmas decorations. We discovered an even better deal, however: their leftover, fresh-cut trees were … absolutely free! Most people would scratch their heads and wonder what they could do with an extra tree now that Christmas is past. (Heck, I’m sure a lot of people are already taking their Christmas trees down today.) We didn’t have to wonder for an instant. The three oldest Yeoman Farm Children were with me, and our first thought was: the goats will love feasting on those pine trees. Every year, when the Christmas season is over, we dispose of our tree by tossing it into the goat pen; the animals go right at it, and before long nothing is left but the trunk and larger branches.

Fortunately, we’d taken our full-size van this morning. (It’s an extended Ford E-350, with the rear bench seat removed to give a huge cargo area.) Christmas would be coming early for the goat herd.

The store manager opened up the gate to the tree cage, we backed up the van, and then we loaded as many trees as we could fit. The manager was happy to see them go (he said they’d otherwise have to find a place to dispose of them), we were happy to get some feed for the goats (saving some hay in the process), and I’m sure the goats will be happy for some variety in their monotonous winter diet. A true win-win-win.

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Over the years, we’ve become alert to this kind of deal. Another example that almost always becomes available: surplus pumpkins immediately after Halloween. There’s a big producer about five miles up the road from us, and virtually every year they have a lot of pumpkins go unsold. It’s mostly the blemished and odd-shaped ones, but that doesn’t matter to us. They pile the things up in huge bins by the road, and charge $10 per bin. One bin basically fills the back of a pickup truck. Or, if you don’t have a pickup truck handy, it’ll basically fill the interior of a Dodge Caravan.

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The picture above is from a few years ago; I was so busy with election prep this year, I wasn’t able to get over there for surplus pumpkins. But when we can get them, we stockpile them in the upstairs part of the barn, along with the hay. Over the course of November and mid-December (until it gets so cold that the pumpkins freeze solid), we toss them to the sheep and goats a few at a time. (The Yeoman Farm Children actually have a blast smashing the pumpkins open for the animals.) As a bonus, the pumpkin seeds are a natural anti-wormer for the livestock. And the chickens clean up any scraps the sheep and goats miss.

If you keep your eyes open and learn what to look for, smaller-scale opportunities for free feed abound. For example, my oldest son and I are members of our parish’s Knights of Columbus council, and our whole family volunteers at the fish fry events held every Friday in Lent. As the evening progresses, there’s a fair amount of food waste generated in the kitchen that would otherwise have to be thrown out. Pieces of fish get dropped accidentally, potatoes and green beans get cold and can’t be served, and there’s always a lot of extra breading that doesn’t get used up. My brother Knights collect toss all of these scraps in a large box for me, and then I take that box home. It saves them some space in the dumpster, but above all it’s a nice treat for our chickens — and saves some perfectly good stuff from being wasted. We mix it in with their grain ration, a coffee can or so per day, and “recycle” those scraps into eggs.

And that’s really what all these exercises in frugality are about. The actual dollar savings to us are fairly minimal. The most meaningful, and satisfying, benefit is knowing that you’ve made good use of something that would otherwise have been wasted.

We may have to go back to town later today, to run another errand. I just hope Walmart still has some trees left. Just in case, I think I’ll take the old minivan that’s had all five rear passenger seats removed. We use it mostly for hauling animals and grain (and pumpkins!), but today it will hopefully be hauling Christmas trees.