Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Growing your own is in!

Molly and calf
There are some things in life that you would prefer to forget, and up until a couple weeks ago, the Illinois Sustainable Living and Wellness Expo was one of those things. Six years ago, I was scheduled to speak in two separate sessions, one on homesteading and one on heritage livestock. The homesteading talk was attended by four people. No one showed up for the heritage livestock talk, and when a volunteer told organizers that no one showed up for my talk, they asked him to sit there and listen. I told him he didn't have to do that, but he insisted. It turned out that he was a college ag student who grew up on a modern farm. With only him in the room, my talk quickly turned into a debate as he was firmly convinced that organic agriculture just didn't work in the real world, and heritage livestock really had nothing to offer real farmers and ranchers.

For days -- no, weeks -- I kept thinking, "I should have said ___ or ___!" It was the first time anyone had ever argued with me about organics and sustainability, and I was not prepared at all. When we told everyone we were moving to the country in 2002 to grow our own food, they all looked at us like we had lost our minds. They really didn't know what to say, so most didn't say much. My father, who had lived on a farm his entire life until I was three years old, looked at me quizzically, paused for a long time, then finally said, "What do you want to do that for?" The goal in his life was to have a real job so he could make enough money to buy all of his food. And so I grew up eating canned ravioli, frozen pizza, and lots of hamburgers and burritos from local fast food places.

Thinking about the past month is like traveling to a new universe -- one where people are concerned about their food and want to grow their own, one where my lifestyle is cool instead of weird. In the past month, I've had five speaking engagements, two newspaper interviews, and a radio interview. Here is one of the newspaper articles, and here's the other one. Another reporter is coming over today to interview me. I spoke at the Illinois Sustainable Living and Wellness Expo on homesteading and backyard chickens two weeks ago, and both sessions were packed with about seventy people. From young couples to retirees, people want to take control of their food. Thirty-one people spent a whole day at a Homesteading Conference a few weeks ago, learning to raise livestock, compost, and preserve the fruits of their labor by canning.

But the good news doesn't stop there. Tractor Supply in Blomington, IL, can't keep up with demand for its livestock feed. For the past month, they keep running out of various feeds, and a friend from Kentucky told me her Tractor Supply down there is having the same problem. I also noticed that every time I went into the store for the past month, their chick brooders have been empty. Yesterday, they were full, and there was an employee giving them food and water. I started talking to her and learned that they can't keep the chicks in stock. Every time they get a shipment, they sell out within a few hours. They have only had chicks in the store overnight once this spring!

I'm really excited about this new consciousness, and not just because Homegrown and Handmade is coming out this fall, which by the way, is now available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I'm excited because there are so many positive aspects to growing your own food -- you get exercise, you eat healthier, and you get outside more. And this leads into tomorrow's post about why we should do our best to avoid Big Ag and Big Biz products as much as possible. Although we're growing most of our own food now, there are still plenty of things on my to-do list, including bee hives and mushrooms. But I love hearing about what other people have started to do or are planning to do, so don't be shy -- share your successes and your plans for the future in the comment section.

Monday, April 25, 2011


 Flower garden at front gate
It's raining . . . again. It's been raining for several days now, and the forecast calls for rain six days of the next seven. I hope they're wrong. After Friday's flood, we did get a little break on Saturday, so we went out to the garden and cleaned it up for planting. We pulled out all of the old corn stalks, tomato plants, and dead weeds. The dead sorghum stalks are still there, but once they're out, we'll be ready to spread the compost and till.

Mike also put together four new raised beds, and he has the lumber to build four more, which will give us a total of twelve raised beds. They're eight-feet by four-feet, and we've discovered that there are many advantages to them. For one thing, you can work in them when it's just rained buckets, because you are standing on grass next to the raised beds. I am thinking of putting gravel between them though, because we are not great about mowing between them in the summer. The four existing raised beds were turned into low tunnels for winter gardening, which is why we have lots of lettuce right now. Five of the new raised beds will be used for perennials -- strawberries, rhubarb, and purple asparagus, which are sitting in the house losing vitality, waiting to be put into soil.

As for the animals, the goats are only going outside about every other day. We're doing this balancing act, trying to figure out whether the goats are better off outside with mud and parasites on wet pasture or in the barn eating alfalfa all day and increasing risk of coccidiosis for kids. It feels like a no-win situation, so I just keep piling on more clean straw in the barn for the inside days. Katherine was at least able to get all the goat stalls clean on Saturday. Still, I worry.

Even the pigs are not happy with all the mud in their pen. I keep piling on more straw in their shelter and right outside the shelter so they don't drag too much mud inside. As soon as I put fresh straw in there, they immediately lay down on it.

This is starting to remind me of the spring of 2009. It rained and rained, and just when you thought it was finally going to dry out, it rained again. Farmers couldn't get their heavy equipment into the fields until about a month later than normal, which then meant they were still harvesting at Thanksgiving, which even the oldest among them had never experienced before. The really frustrating thing about the spring of '09 is that when it stopped raining, it stopped for weeks. But the good thing about backyard agriculture is that we don't use heavy equipment. Yeah, mud is nasty, but if we put on a pair of waterproof boots, we can still get a lot done. And if we have a drought, we can water the garden.

So, I just have to learn to relax.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hatching chicks, sustainability, and ingenuity

There is nothing more agonizing than watching a chick hatch. You just want to reach over there and rip open the shell so the little bird can be free. But lots of sources tell you not to do this. Some say that the struggle is vital in building the chick's muscles, and if you "help," the chicks won't survive. But if you watch closely, it's obvious that at some point, the chick exhausts itself to death. I've learned over the years not to watch the process too closely. Most chicks take hours and hours to hatch -- anywhere from four to twelve hours or more.

Part of our drive towards sustainability includes hatching our own meat birds and replacement layers. The chicks hatching now should be mostly New Hampshire reds with a barred rock cross here and there. After all we have about forty NH hens and three roosters. We only have six barred rock hens and one barred rock cross rooster. However, when I look at the nine black chicks and eight red chicks, it makes me think that barred rock rooster has been pretty busy.

If you think the inside of our incubator looks a lot like the inside of a refrigerator, that would be because it is an old refrigerator. We had an under-the-counter refrigerator that kept croaking, so after having it fixed three times, I suggested that Mike turn it into an incubator. After all, it is a big insulated box, right? He's an electrical engineering professor, so he understands thermostats. He put a light and a fan inside the frig to create heat and circulate it, and he made a thermostat that turns the light on and off to keep it between 99.5 and 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

It looks like we have a lot of eggs that are not hatching, but I think that has to do with egg husbandry, rather than electronics. We collected the eggs and then couldn't find our old Styrofoam incubator, so the eggs sat and sat for about a week while Mike repurposed the frig to make a new incubator. I didn't think they would hatch, because if you are holding eggs to put into an incubator, they should be turned regularly, but they were pretty much left to sit in one position the whole time.

Next up -- turkey poults! We've only collected about eight turkey eggs so far, but we'll hopefully find another dozen or so and get them started in the incubator by this weekend. They take 28 days to hatch (compared to 21 for chickens), so I'll give you an update in a month.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pig romance (or lack thereof)

James (left) and Julia (right) saying "hi" to Porter (far left).

After seven years of raising feeder pigs -- and one disastrous attempt at farrowing with Tamworths -- we bought a pair of American Guinea hogs last fall. Both were eight months old, which is when a lot of people breed their pigs for the first time, and although Julia Child was coming into heat, James Beard was oblivious. They've been living together all this time, and we finally saw them mate a couple weeks ago, which would give Julia a July due date. I really hope that isn't right because I was hoping for spring piglets that could be finished on acorns and hickory nuts in the fall. And if they're born in July, they'll only be three months old when the nuts start to fall from the trees. But I keep rubbing Julia's belly, and her teats are definitely not filling with milk yet, so this is one of those situations where I will just have to patiently wait.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Nine years ago

On April 10, 2002, my professor husband and our three children, then 9, 12, and 14, pulled into the driveway of the place we have now called home for nine years. When speaking at conferences, one thing that keeps coming up is that people today don't know how to do all the things we do out here. Well, here's a little secret -- nine years ago, we didn't know any of this stuff either!

Our entire goat herd in 2002. Star (left), my first milk goat,
is still with us at age 12.
Nine years ago, I bought goats because I liked goat cheese. I had no idea that you could make a multitude of cheeses with goat milk beyond the simple chevre that many generically call "goat cheese." I didn't know how simple or difficult it was to make any kind of cheese, but I knew that people had been doing it for thousands of years, so I figured I could learn to do it, too.

Nine years ago, our gardening success amounted to a few tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and lettuce in our suburban Chicago backyard. But I saw no reason why we couldn't grow most of our vegetables.

Nine years ago, the only homegrown fruit I'd ever eaten were cherries from our Nanking cherry bushes, although we had certainly planted a variety of fruit trees and brambles in our suburban backyard. They all died, but I wanted to try again.

Nine years ago, our livestock consisted of two cats and a poodle. But I figured that goats, cattle, and chickens couldn't be that much harder. Right?

One of our first buff Orpington hens at 3 months.
Nine years ago, I wanted my poultry to be completely free to go wherever they wanted, which meant no fences. I didn't know that chickens love fresh tomatoes and geese love baby lettuce. I ultimately decided that maybe a fence around the garden was not a bad thing.

Nine years ago, we thought the old fence around the east pasture was "good enough" to keep Katherine's horse at home. Then we learned -- again and again -- that if the words "good enough" ever pass our lips, it's not really good enough to do the job. Fences and gates have to be excellent -- period -- or you'll find yourself retrieving animals from all over the countryside.

Nine years ago, I'd never seen a goat give birth or a chicken hatch from an egg. I'd never made cheese or soap. I'd never sheared a sheep or spun yarn from wool. I'd never plucked a chicken.

Katherine, age 10, assisting at our first goat birth in 2003.
Nine years ago, my children didn't know real responsibility. None of us had a real reason to get out of bed in the morning. No one really depended upon us for their lives and well-being. We didn't even depend upon ourselves for much of anything. (Corporate America took care of our needs.)

But nine years ago, we also didn't realize that pain and joy are two inseparable sides of the same coin. Life is not perfect. It never has been, even though advertisers would have us believe that we can have everything we want, just the way we want it. After all, "you deserve a break today!" (and tomorrow and the next day and . . . )

In the last nine years, we've learned that the most joyful goat births are those that were the most difficult, but somehow we managed to get through them with live babies. We've learned that we sleep best after a long, hard day of work outside. We've learned to appreciate eating seasonally. We've learned that joy isn't one big destination like Disney World. Joy is all around us, every day. It's in the bouncing of a baby goat, the taste of a stalk of asparagus eaten in the garden, the chirping of a chick trying to hatch itself, the heavenly feel of wool from a sheep that you know personally, the smell of a stew hen cooking on the stove all day.

Nine years ago, I knew I had a lot to learn. I expected to eat healthier, get more exercise, and have fun. But I had no idea how much richer our lives would be after we moved to Antiquity Oaks.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rotten, lousy day

To be completely honest, today did start out great. I had a two-hour visit with a reporter from a newspaper who is doing a story on homesteading. It is always fun to walk around the farm, introduce the animals to people, and talk about what I do here. It was a great visit, and I'm looking forward to seeing the story. But then the day went downhill.

I got another email from a potential goat buyer who was being a pain. She called yesterday interested in a buck. I had already responded to her email, sending her a picture and linking to the buck's parents on the website. She asked, "What's your best price on him?" I said I'd have to look on the website, because they're all listed on there. It's $400. She asked if I'd come down, and I said I've never come down on a price. She said she didn't want to pay more then $300-350, which really shocked me because she had also expressed interest in a $600 buck. (Did she think this was half-price day?) I pointed out that the $400 buck's dam has both a one-day and a 305-day milk star and classified "very good," with a score of 88.3, which is less than two points away from excellent. Well, she just raises goats for pets. They don't milk or show.

Then she sends me an email asking if I'd meet her in Springfield, which is a two-hour drive for me. I said yes, then she sends another email asking if I'd take $375 for him. As I was responding to that email -- reiterating that his price is $400 -- she sends another one wanting to know how much white he has on the other side of his body. (That's the picture I emailed on the right.) She had told me on the phone that color was very important to her, but seriously -- how much white does he have on the other side of his body? By then, I was so annoyed I just went to bed -- not to mention the fact that I honestly had no idea how much white he had on the other side of his body. I did briefly chuckle to myself as I imagined measuring the white on him -- but that sounds more like a job for my engineer-husband.

This afternoon, I received another email from her saying that they are interested in him, but they want to know how much white he has on the other side of his body. Were they seriously going to decide whether or not they wanted him based upon how much white he had? How much white were they looking for? So, I responded honestly -- said I didn't know because I didn't pay that much attention to color. It doesn't put milk in the bucket, and there are no points for color on the scorecard. And I honestly hoped I would never hear from her again.

Then it started to rain. And I was home alone. It's bad enough to have to do chores alone, but rain makes it depressing. So, I headed outside at 5:30, knowing that it would take at least a couple hours, and sundown is around 7-something now. When I went into one stall to give the goats grain, I saw a kid hanging by its neck from a hay feeder. I gasped, "oh, no!" as I ran over there and lifted it out. It was limp. I kept saying, "oh, no!" over and over again as I sat down holding it in my arms. It was still warm, and I briefly thought that maybe it was still alive, just unconscious. I tried to find a heart beat, but there was none. The other goats came up to me, sniffed it, and walked away. I sat there for a long time, thinking that I needed to finish chores outside before the sun went down, but I didn't want to let go of the kid. The other goats kept coming up to me and sniffing the dead kid, and then I remembered a conversation that I had with someone recently where she said she left a dead kid with its mother until it seemed the mother had accepted its death. Somehow it did seem easier to leave the kid in there with her mother and brothers while I finished chores. After I laid her down in the straw and walked away, her brothers laid down next to her just as they had always done.

As I continued working on chores, I knew I would have to milk Viola at some point. She's one of my la manchas -- a big goat, which means she has a lot of milk, and it takes at least twice as long to milk her as it takes to milk a Nigerian. And although her kids are only six weeks old, she's decided she is tired of being a mom, and she keeps jumping fences -- as many as necessary -- to get away from her kids. Yes, this means she has already taught her kids to jump fences also. She just keeps going until they can't follow.

At some point in the middle of all the chores, I felt that annoying pain in my neck that sneaks up on me every now and then. I knew that within a few minutes, I would not be able to turn my head because my neck would be frozen. I've had arthritis in my neck for four years, and I was also diagnosed with two herniated disks a couple years ago, but there are not any good options for dealing with either problem, so I just live with the pain. The day-to-day pain is bad enough, but the pain when my neck goes into a spasm is really horrible. After four years, however, my sub-conscious has at least learned to keep my head completely straight and not even attempt to turn in any direction, because if I do turn my head, it feels like I've just been stabbed in the neck, and the pain shoots into my head.

I don't normally do much of anything when this happens -- I prefer to lay down so that I'm perfectly still -- but no one was home, so I had to finish chores and milk Viola. I decided that the cows would just have to spend the night in the pasture, because they still haven't learned the routine of going into their stall at night, and it usually takes one person leading with alfalfa cubes and one person pushing their back ends to get them into the right stall in the barn. (They don't learn nearly as fast as goats!) So, I figured I'd be asking for trouble if I attempted to get them in the barn by myself when my body is not firing on all cylinders.

I prayed that Viola would be a good girl on the milk stand. Katherine told me she's been naughty lately, trying to kick over the bucket. I find it interesting how some goats respond differently to different people. Thankfully, Viola was as good as ever for me.

When I walked in the house, it was 8:33. I had a glass of carrot juice and some crackers with Mike's cheddar. Then I made myself a cup of willow bark tea for the pain in my neck. It also did a good job of warming me up. When I checked email, there was a long, scathing response from the woman who wanted a cheap, flashy buck, criticizing me for refusing to tell her something as simple as what color he was. Any bit of guilt that I had about not budging on the price disappeared when she said that she was buying a pygmy goat from New York for $550. And it's not like they have goats for their family's milk supply. It finally clicked that money must not be much of an issue if they have fifteen pet goats.

Tomorrow will dawn bright and early for me because Katherine is at a journalism conference, so I have to do most of the goat chores, including milking. We'll have to bury Anne's doeling, which was one of the kids I was planning to keep. Then, I'm going to see the chiropractor and massage therapist. Hopefully they can do something with my neck so that I can at least turn my head again.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spring chicks!

Over the winter I visited several chicken keepers in Chicago while doing research for Homegrown and Handmade. One woman had bantams, which got me thinking. We were erroneously shipped bantams by a hatchery nine years ago when we first moved out here, and they were adorable, spunky little things. In some ways, they were the most sustainable animals on the farm because they just kept reproducing without any human attention for years. Bantams have a reputation for being outstanding mothers. This also means they don't lay a lot, because they get broody so often and want to set. Being small also means they don't make a great chicken dinner -- we're talking about a pound each after plucking and cleaning.

But bantams are beautiful! When my daughters showed chickens in 4-H, someone always showed some Sebright bantams, which look like works of art. It didn't matter how many times I saw them, I was always impressed with their beautiful plumage. So, a few months ago, I decided to order some Sebrights for myself, and today they arrived! Although I had thought about it a few times in the last few months, I had done nothing to get ready. Then when the phone rang at 6:39 this morning, I yelled, "Chicks!" as I pushed my husband towards the ringing phone, which is on his side of the bed. (Yes, we were asleep at 6:39 a.m.)

We're not exactly novices though, so I jumped up and dressed and headed to the post office to pick up my package while Mike gathered everything for a homemade brooder. As luck would have it, we just bought a new microwave, and the box is the perfect size for a brooder.

I ordered ten of each color because I couldn't decide between the silver and gold. The hatchery shipped 23, although one little golden chick didn't survive the trip, so I have ten gold and twelve silver. For now, the chicks are living in the basement, so I can keep an eye on them to make sure they are getting a good start. We'll move them to the barn this weekend.

So, what am I going to do with them? Of course, we'll eat the eggs, but mostly they're going to be my pet chickens, except for the extra roosters, which will become dinner. I'll keep the prettiest and nicest roosters for making more chicks next spring. They'll also be yard ornaments for the front yard. We finally fenced the laying hens away from the front yard because they keep destroying everything I plant, but I've been worried about bugs. We don't have any trouble with mosquitoes and fleas, and I'm pretty sure it's because we have all these chickens who love to eat bugs.

Monday, April 4, 2011

First lamb of the year

It is unfortunate that sheep and goats are often lumped into the category of small ruminants, which leads some people to think that they are almost the same animal, except that one has wool. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sheep are far more aloof than goats. And while even a shy goat enjoys human company while in labor, sheep want to be left alone. So, it is never really a "surprise" when we find new lambs in the pasture. Ewes are also very quiet when lambing -- often not making a sound through the whole process.

I was speaking at a homesteading conference on Saturday, and when I arrived home, Mike met me with the news that we had our first lamb of 2011. He wasn't sure if it was Cheyenne or Naira (both are spotted), and he didn't know if it was a ewe or a ram lamb. The sun was almost completely gone, so it was too late to venture into the pasture to see the newest addition to the farm. Mike had taken pictures with his cell phone, however, so I was able to at least get a preview. Katherine and I immediately recognized Cheyenne as the mother in the photos, but it was anyone's guess about the lamb's gender.

Sunday we went out to the pasture, and the little lamb, still quite shy, let us know that she was a ewe when she squatted to pee.

I'm not entirely sure when we'll see more lambs, because Jonathan kept removing the ram from the ewes' pasture last fall. He felt sorry for the young ram, because the ewes kept beating him up.


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