Saturday, December 26, 2009

Get Comfortable....

because this Christmas letter is long. (Why aren't you surprised at that?)

So go grab yourself a cup of tea, sit back and enjoy...and have a happy New Year!!



As I sit down to write this, there’s a sign for our egg customers on the barn door that reads, “Skunk Attack! Eggs are in the House.”

A week ago, I tried to unhook the snow blade from the back of the tractor but had the support stand in the wrong place. The blade fell forward, got stuck on the tractor hitch and Mark Highland had to rescue me.

A few months ago, our grain-fed steers got loose and wandered over to a farm about a mile away. We’d never met these people before, but proceeded to spend 4 long days there trying to get the cows out of their soybean and corn fields.

Farming is an excellent lesson in humility!

We’ve made progress, that’s for sure, but our successes have occurred only after many spectacular failures, embarrassments or desperate pleas for help. If it weren’t for my inborn Irish stubbornness and my superbly capable husband, I would have thrown in the towel long ago. We have learned a lot in the past few years, though, and we’ve come a long way since that fateful spring when we found ourselves with a farm to run and no idea how to run it.

For instance, we have a solid base of egg customers and a long list of people waiting to buy our grass-fed beef. Selling directly to consumers keeps us from feeling too isolated out here in the sticks, gives us better price control for our products, and can also be pretty hilarious. Recently a woman called to say she was coming for 3 dozen eggs the next day. When I told her I didn’t have any saved and that the hens are only laying a dozen and a half per day, she replied, “Well, I’d like 3 dozen. I’ll be there in the morning.” I wondered if she thought I had a hotline to the barn, “Ladies, ramp it up in there. We’ve got a big order to fill!”

People’s desire to be more closely connected to their food source is real, though. We try to honor that desire by answering questions, welcoming people to the farm, and doing our best to ensure a high quality product. There is no doubt that we’ve benefited immensely from the renewed interest in local foods and we feel very fortunate that these people have decided to support us.
2009 was a good grazing year. The cattle herd was finally big enough to utilize our pasture and moving temporary fences every few days presented a good occasion to walk amongst the cows, check on pasture conditions, and test the strength of the electric charge (ouch!). Calving was challenging, to say the least. Of 17 pregnant cows, we had 10 first-time mothers, 4 of whom ended up needing birthing assistance. Scott Swanson was gracious enough to be “on call” for us, and Laura and Rob even got the opportunity to pull one (with Scott’s help) while we were in Eagle River for our annual Peace Corps reunion. By the 4th calf, though, Marcel and I felt confident enough to try it on our own. We were thrilled when we successfully pulled the calf and he survived.

Like most farms, we had a tough year for crops. High input costs, a cool, wet summer, and a very wet fall made for the perfect storm: lower yields, lower test weights, high moisture counts and a difficult harvest. I think the wet harvest hit the guys the hardest, though--Marcel, Rob and Matt were all disappointed that they didn’t get to load the grain bin this year. The harvest wasn’t the same without the hustle and bustle of moving wagons.

Finally, 2009 brought one more addition to the farm--Mom’s new husband Gordy. We understand why Gordy fell in love with Mom (she is wonderful after all), but we do wonder if he had his head on straight when he agreed to move out to the farm. In the past year he has been roped into more cattle round-ups, fence moves, childcare ventures and boring farm discussions than he probably ever thought possible. And being the Flynn’s that we are, we aren’t prone to pass up the opportunity to put an able-bodied individual to work! So we welcome him to the fold and apologize in advance.

We know there will be more farm adventures in the New Year, surely more mistakes and hopefully more successes as well. We thank you for your love, support, and especially if you’re a local farmer, patience over the past year.

All of us at Irish Grove Farms wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Jackie & Marcel, Laura & Rob, Matt, Marcia & Gordy,
the kids, dogs, cats, horses, goats, chickens, and cows. (Phew!)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Moving

We decided we couldn't take it anymore.



The hassles.....



the trials, the tribulations of maintaining two homes. 



I was tired of cleaning two places,



Marcel was tired of supporting both households......



it was just too much.



So we did it.



We moved.

 

We actually moved.



The chickens.









Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tremors

We are all colored by our personal experiences.  So when your house starts to tremor, what immediately comes to mind? 

If you're a Californian, you may think:  earthquake!!

If you live near a highway, you may think:  semi-truck!!

If you're from an oil-rich nation, you may think:  gas explosion!!

If you're from New York, you may think:  another terrorist attack!!  (God forbid.)

If you live next to a gravel pit, you may think:  ho hum.

But if you live on a farm, you think:  animal escape!!

'Cause we didn't miss a beat last night, at 9:30 PM, as we were watching a heart-wrenching story on Frontline (PBS) about the Iranian elections, when our house started to shake and tremble. 

Instead of grabbing the kids and getting into the doorway, or running to the basement, or grabbing the gas masks, or saying "ho hum", we ran to our windows to witness:

Two horses and two goats running circles around the house, kicking up their heels and having a fine old time.




Once in awhile, I'd just like a dull moment.  Is that so wrong?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Teacher For Once

It's not often that I get to write a post about teaching a farmer skill to someone else.  Most of the time I'm learning.  And screwing up.  And learning from my screw-ups.

But looky here.  I'm teaching my friend Andy how to kill, pluck (or skin, as in this photo--she wanted to keep the feathers) and gut a chicken. 



Processing chickens is a skill that is being lost as we slowly lose our grandparents.  It's also a skill that in suprising-high demand.  Who knew? 

I like passing on a bit of knowledge once in awhile.  It makes me feel like a real farmer for once. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Finally! A Small Farm Advantage

"Rain, rain go away. Come again another day."

It's been THE rainiest growing season I can ever recall. A wet spring made it difficult to plant the crops. A wet summer meant it was difficult to make hay. And a wet fall has the harvest at a complete standstill.

If you recall, I was a fall-weather-whiner last year as well, with rain delaying harvest, corn moisture levels extremely high, etc. etc. I should have saved my breath, because last year was a walk in the park compared to this year. With the weather forecasted to continue in this wet and cold pattern, I don't foresee getting the corn out of the field until December. Which means we might be fighting snowy field conditions.

I have to admit that being a farmer has made me a little cranky. (My family may argue I've always been cranky--don't listen to them.) But my crankiness really comes out when in company with a person that starts to wax rhapsodic about "farmers (said with a negative tone) who are making money! hand over fist! as they farm fencerow to fencerow! with no consideration of the environment! in pursuit of the almighty dollar!" People eat this line up, man. They are all over it. If you want your own popularity to soar sky-high, try that line out. I guarantee you'll have people murmuring in agreement, possibly a small applause, and definitely an increase in groupies. (Hey, everyone needs a few groupies.)

What these people don't realize is that our livelihoods are mostly out of our control. Grain prices soared last year to record levels. So did trucking fees, basis levels (what elevators charge for handling our grain), fertilizer and input costs, diesel prices, drying charges, etc. Don't blame a farmer for trying to squeeze a few hundred extra bushels out of his or her land, is what I'm trying to say here. The survival of their farm depends upon it.

This year is even tougher. Grain prices have come down a bit, but we were forced to pay for much of the aforementioned input fees during last year's highs. Add to that our wet year, and we're talking near disaster.

Wet grain means thousands, yes thousands, of dollars in drying charges. Wet grain also means that even if you're able to harvest your crops, the grain elevators won't take them because the moisture counts are too high. What does one do with thousands of bushels of grain and nowhere to go? Wet fields increase the likelihood of soil compaction at harvest, which causes a myriad of problems in future years. And wet weather means low quality hay and fewer cuttings (read lost income).

While we're on the subject of hay, I have to point out one distinct advantage Irish Grove has over other farms: we have livestock. Most people, including us, have given up on their 4th cutting of hay. The alfalfa and grass hay fields sit there, unharvested, taunting us with the lost opportunity and lost income. Except, wait! We have cows. And hay fields with fences.

Cattle prices are too low to make sense for most smaller farms, so cows are usually relegated to large feedlots that can take advantage of bulk pricing discounts, etc. etc. Ignoring the drawbacks that come with large feedlots, the results are that farm fences have been torn down. I don't blame anyone for this: fencing is extremely expensive to maintain, not to mention a royal pain in the arse--they easily become overgrown with weeds and brush. (Anyways, one may be able to fit a few more corn rows where that fence used to sit. Don't hate.)

But we graze our cows and fences have gone back up. So while we may not be able to take that 4th cutting of hay, we can run the cattle through the field and they will eat it green instead! After some heavy frosts, the plants don't have the same nutrient availability as they did during the summer months, but it's nutritionally equivalent to dry hay.

So, the cows harvest the hay on their own and save us time and money spent on harvesting a hay crop. They keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (no tractor driving), fertilize the land by pooping and peeing, which in turns keeps greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (no need to mine for and truck fertilizer in). Oh, and we won't have to feed them as much dry hay this winter, leaving more to sell to our neighbors. Brilliant!

Small farms like ours have few advantages over large farms, so it's nice to finally find one. Maybe it'll help a bit with my crankiness! If so, my family will be thanking the cows on a daily basis.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Found and Lost

We found the cows: four white Charolais steers bedded down in a waterway in the middle of a farmer's beanfield.

The same four white steers that farmer Tom's fieldhand has seen while mowing a waterway. The ones he had called Tom about, the ones Tom had called Stewart about, the ones that Stewart had called Mr. Palmer about, and yes, the ones that had caused the hired hand to be the butt of some good-natured jokes. Those cows.

Turns out the family at that pretty Campbell Road farmstead we had visited 5 hours earlier had known that there were white cattle sightings on their land, but had forgotten about it when they determined Tom's hired hand was a dope.

A lesson for us all: hired hands aren't dopes.

Well, news of finding the lost cattle traveled quickly and by this time we had a small posse of locals rounded up to help us....maybe 10 people or so. We decided to move the cattle back up that long farm lane and divert them into a 5 acre pasture. From there we could get them into a corral, load them up into our trailer, and have them outta there.

The first part of the plan went rather smoothly. It took only 45 minutes or so to get the cattle moving up the lane and into the pasture. Marcel quickly went home to get our trailer, which he backed into position at the end of their corral. We shifted our positions around and had a nice three-point-corral system laid out. Marcel and the other guys would herd the cattle into the corral and Laura would shut the first gate behind them. Then Mary (a neighbor) would push them into a second area of the corral and shut another gate. Monica (Stewart's wife) and I would keep them moving straight up and into the trailer, finishing the show of pure herding talent with a slam of the trailer door.

What a plan! We were so confident of success, even, that we ordered a few pizza's.

The cows, however, had a different plan. They weren't returning to the captive life without a fight and wouldn't go into the corral. After a long and painful hour, we had another stroke of bad luck. One steer broke away from the group and leapt right up and over the pasture fence as if he were an albino deer. *ahem* He ran back down that long lane and returned to the beautiful beanfield with the stream and cottonwood tree. NOoooo!!!

Well, we chased him for a bit but decided to call it a night. We collapsed upon Stewart and Monica's chairs, ate some pizza, drank some beer, and made friends with our neighbors on Campbell Road.

To be continued........

And I promise the next time will be the last. This suffering must end soon.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lost and Found

We were at the intersection of Campbell and Pecatonica roads, in the corner of our neighbors' beanfield, and had lost the trail. The cattle had run into the road, that much we knew, but to where?

We drove down Campbell Road to a beautiful farmstead where some cattle of ours had "visited" before, in the late 1980's. (I remember helping my Dad round them up and watching him mutter and curse under his breath. I also remember that while he seemed mad, he also seemed like he was thoroughly enjoying himself.) We pulled in and asked an older gentleman and what looked to be his daughter if they'd seen 4 white steers come by. The daughter told us that no, they hadn't seen anything but that they'd keep their eyes out for them. We drove away disappointed and returned to our neighbor's beanfield. Again.

At this point, Marcel was very diligently trying to find more cow tracks (oh, how I wish I were talking about ice-cream) while I was quickly losing patience with the slow pace of the cattle-sleuthing. You see, I can sometimes be an impatient person. I can also sometimes downplay my personality faults. But honestly, while Marcel was going all Sherlock Holmes on me, I was in the pick-up truck worrying about cow-car accidents while trying to keep the 3 kids from strangling each other in the back seat.

We decided to split up. That way he could continue dusting for hoof-prints and rubbing his chin thoughtfully, and I could drive around like a madwoman in the pickup truck and trespass on other people's farms. All in all, another win-win situation.

It was at this point that I called my sister Laura. She's always first on my list of who to call when there's trouble on the farm. Ahem.

Could she be oh-so-helpful and get Madelina to her birthday party? 'Cause we're, like, a little busy trying to find our cows that escaped. Laura was the first of many to exclaim "The whole herd?", referring to our herd of 42 grassfed cattle of varying ages, sizes and maturity levels. Thankfully, no. They were still happy as clams (what does that mean?) in their pasture.

As usual, Laura came through for me. Not only did she get Madelina to her party so I only had 2 kids wrestling in the backseat, but she joined the search party afterwards. Marcel was CSI-ing it in the beans, I was trespassing on area farms, and Laura was driving her van around the local roads, stopping in and asking anyone who was outside if they'd seen some cows. We had all inadvertently fallen back on our personal strengths: Marcel was being diligent; I was multi-tasking behind the wheel; Laura was talking.

And the talking saved the day. Saved the day, I tell you. Laura stopped in at a Buffalo farm (yes, you read that right) and the owners told her that no, they hadn't seen the cows, but their neighbors down the road had! Laura called me just as I had pulled into my driveway in defeat. She told me she had a lead: there had been a sighting and I should meet her at such and such farm on Campbell Road. According to the buffalo farmers, these people had seen the cows.

Wait a minute! That is the same farm where I had stopped 4 hours ago and they said they hadn't seen them. What is going on? I drove over anyways, met Laura there, and once again the nice lady told us they hadn't seen anything. At which point our hearts sank. We had been so hopeful, so excited to at least have a small lead. But then, this time, the nice lady said, "Feel free to drive down the lane and check around if you'd like."

By this time Marcel had arrived (cow-sighting-news travels fast), everyone hopped into the pick-up and off we drove down the nice lady's farm lane. The lane was long, and it divided a large pasture with trees and some dairy cattle on the left from a very large cornfield on the right. AS we drove on, we got to the bottom of a long hill and into the middle of another soybean field where the lane basically joined up with a long waterway running through the middle. There was a pretty cottonwood tree in the waterway and a gentle creek flowing through.

One forgets how pretty it is here in Irish Grove until you drive down a lane into the center of a farm. You're away from the road and houses and there's a quiet peacefulness that fills your soul. The gentle rolling hills, the contrast between soybeans, corn and pasture, a small herd of cattle dotting the landscape: the pastoral beauty leaves you absolutely speechless.

Laura and I were admiring how pretty it was back there while Marcel jumped out and started poking around. Soon he found an area of long grass that had been flattened by something. And wait, a cow pie! Hail Holy Mary, he found a cow pie! Poop had never been so well received as in that moment.

By this time, we had all jumped out and were poking around. "Yep, looks like they've been here awhile. They bedded down here, and there's a trail leading this way...and over there. And look, there it goes that way..." And then, all of a sudden, there they were. It was 5:00 PM and we had been searching for 8 hours. But we found them: four stupid white Charolais steers bedded down in a waterway in the middle of a farmer's beanfield.

To be continued.....

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rewind

It was Thurday, and Farmer Stewart received a phone call from Farmer Tom. Tom told Stewart that his hired hand was doing some mowing on the Palmer farm--a dairy farm that butts up to the back of Stewart's land--when he saw four white cows bedded down in Stewart's waterway.

This didn't seem too hard to believe, especially since Stewart rented one of his own pastures to Mr. Palmer for some dry Holstein cows and a bull. But Stewart was busy tending to his other farm in another town, and so was unable to run down and see for himself. Instead he called Mr. Palmer up, told him his cattle had gotten out, and to go gather 'em up again.

Now being a farmer--a mighty poor farmer as is now painfully obvious--I know that these calls are the ones you dread the most. "Ah, sh*t!" is usually my own personal response, but I'm sure Mr. Palmer (whom I don't know) is much more civilized than I; he probably just shook his head a little.

I'm also pretty sure it didn't take Mr. Palmer long to get down to the pasture to check out the situation--a cattle escape is something you attend to NOW. But funny thing is, Mr. Palmer's cattle were lazing around nice and happy under a few trees in a pasture corner. He counted them: one, two.......yep, they're all here. And then, get this! Then, as the responsible, non-sucky farmer that he is, he also walked the perimeter of the pasture and checked his fence.

He checked his fence? My, what a novel idea!

And by golly, his fence was fine! Sure it was a little bogged down by weeds in a few places, but that trusty electric fenceline he had put around the inside was working like a charm. Mr. Palmer cows won't be trampling another farmer's crops anytime soon.

So then something happened that was bound to happen. You see, there's this well-kept secret that only those of us foolish enough to call ourselves farmers know about. It's the bread and butter of a farmer's day to day existence. It's better than coming home to a home-cooked meal, better than growing a record-setting corn crop, yes, even better than toodling around in your brand new souped-up gazillion-horsepower tractor.

Farmers just absolutely love to humiliate other farmers when they make a mistake.
And seeing four white "ghost cattle" in a waterway is one of those mistakes that no one makes.

And so the jokes began. Farmer Tom's poor hired hand was teased to no end about seeing "ghost cattle", about not knowing the difference between a deer and a cow, about how there might be one albino deer in the area, but four?? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Yes, I'm sure that poor hired hand was the laughingstalk of the coffeeshop. And I'm also sure he'll quite possibly never report a rogue cow ever, ever again.

The Escape

It was Saturday, and we had plans. Over scrambled eggs, the girls and I had decided I would take Ana (and Armando) shopping that afternoon after dropping Madelina off at a birthday party. It was a good plan, a win-win: I had the whole morning to get some jobs done around the farm, Madelina could hang with her buddies, and Ana could "you know, like maybe go shop around Kohl's or JCPenney's; you know, do girl stuff." (Insert lots of hair fluffing and hand waving, Lord help me.)

Ana was so excited about our plan that she ran upstairs to put on mascara. I don't let her wear makeup on a regular basis but try not to make a big deal of it when she does; my theory is the more we freak out about stuff, the more the kids want to do it. Wrong or right, it's my theory. And anyways, have you ever seen pictures of me in high school? Holy cake-face.

I digress.

It was beautiful outside, so I decided to sweep the sidewalks and garage. Marcel had already finished probably 15 major projects by now--he's a total overachiever like that--and was impressed by my surprising show of Saturday morning ambition. We were chatting as I swept, and he mentioned that the cattle hadn't eaten the grain he had given them the night before. Had I seen them yesterday morning when I fed them?

**Insert note here: We are feeding grain to 4 Charolais steers that are not a part of our grassfed beef herd.**

"Well, no, actually. They weren't in the barnyard when I fed them. You don't think they could've gotten out do you?"

Marcel replied calmly, "Nah. I'll go check on them down in the pasture."

It is at this point that I'd like you to understand how the pasture that connects to our barnyard is at the end of a very long lane. It isn't uncommon for us to go a day or two without seeing the cattle. What is strange, however, is that they hadn't eaten their feed. Ground corn and oats is to a cow what a Snicker bar is to a teenager, if you know what I mean. It might give them pimples or a muffin top, but they're not gonna pass it up.

It took all of 25 seconds for Marcel to see that they were gone and had pushed through the fence down by the sweet corn: the electric fence had obviously not been working. A situation like this makes a farmer like me go "Doh" and slap my forehead. If you have livestock you absolutely must have a working electric fence. You see, cows are an awful lot like rich people's kids. Sure they have their every need and want fulfilled by their over-indulgent parents, but that only fuels their desire to break free from their suffocating life of priveledge to experience freedom, danger, a walk on the wild side, man.

I'd better stop with the lame metaphors before I cause y'all some stomach illness.

We grabbed the kids and set off on a long day of looking for the cows. We started the search by walking our cornfield, stop #1 on the cow's Freedom Tour. We found their trail and our hearts sank when the trail crossed a section of downed fencing into the neighbor's soybean field. Cursing ensued.

We drove over to the farmer's house and asked them if they'd seen 4 white cows. "Nope, but feel free to walk the farm," which we proceeded to do, to no avail. We did find the cow tracks around the whole perimeter, though....the cows had made a complete circle around the field. What the...???? Maybe they had returned to our cornfield??

They hadn't, but we did. We even saddled up a horse to help us cover ground as we, once again, searched for cows in our 60 acre cornfield. We saw no new signs of them, however, so we went back to the neighbor's field and re-followed the tracks. Sure enough, we found a spot where it looks like they ran out into the road. A very busy road. Oh Lord help us, someone could've been killed had they driven into a cow.

Unfortunately this is where the trail went dead. There was no cow poop, no tracks, no nothing to be found in any direction. It was noon, we had been searching for 3 hours, and we had lost the trail.

To be continued.......

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Break Out

We're starting day two, yes DAY TWO, of a first class, bona fide Irish-Grove cattle round up.

No, this is not the open rangelands of the West. But our 4 Charolais cattle think it is. They've found themselves a nice new home in the midst of a neighbor's bean field. Did I mention the bean field is a mile away and across a very busy road? Or the fact that we didn't know these people before yesterday? Yes, it's a tricky situation. One that has been much alleviated by the complete graciousness of the farm owners. I'll fill you in on the whole sordid story once we get these buggers caught.

We're off. Wish us luck......

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Letter to the Editor

A local foods advocate published an article in the local Rockford Register Star about the health and environmental benefits of pastured meats. Sure enough, a rebuttal of sorts was written as a letter to the editor. Here's what it said:

The article about pasture-fed meat (“Pasture-fed meat packed with benefits,” Go, June 17, 2009) contained several misconceptions.

Livestock raised on pastures is not less stressed or healthier. According to researchers in Canada, Australia and Germany, the opposite is true.

Livestock raised in pastures — also called “free-ranged” — is more prone to diseases and parasites and is exposed to weather extremes, including cold, rain and wind. Such animals are also more vulnerable to wild predators, such as coyotes, and must constantly forage for food and places to rest. As a result, mortality rates are higher.

Feedlots and other confinement systems enable producers to closely monitor the health of animals under their care.

As to the statement that meat from pasture-fed livestock contains higher levels of omega-3 fats: Omega-3 fat is found in soybeans and fish meal — feed ingredients not available to pasture-fed animals but commonly fed to animals raised in feedlots.

Pasture-feeding is not more environment-friendly. Animals on range often foul streams and waterways. On the other hand, feedlot cattle recycle food that consumers do not want to eat.

Ever wonder what happens to all that stale bread at the grocery store? It is fed to animals in feedlots.



As you can see, the guy's logic is a little screwy. Anyways, the local foods advocate asked me to write a rebuttal to his rebuttal, as I am a pasture-based farmer. Here's my letter (hoping the paper doesn't let this go on and on):



As manager of a grass-finished beef operation, I find Mr. ___________'s rebuttal to your article on pasture-fed meats interesting. He is correct that feedlots recycle many unwanted food items. Stale bread may not alarm anyone, but The Wall Street Journal reported that feedlot cattle also recycle “cookies, licorice, cheese curls, frosted wheat cereal, Tater Tots, Kit Kat bars, uncooked French fries, pretzels and chocolate bars.”

Feedlot operators monitor the health of their herd by assuming they are all sick. After reading that feed list, I don’t blame them. As a result, all feedlot cattle receive daily doses of antibiotics to “preserve health”. In contrast, pastured animals are naturally healthy and receive daily doses of sunshine, fresh grass, and the freedom to move about. Antibiotics are rarely needed for a pastured animal (and never used on organic cattle).

Cows shouldn’t eat fish and can produce Omega 3’s on their own by eating grass. Cow waste should drop onto a grassy field where it fertilizes the soil. And yes, cows can die--either of natural causes or unnatural living conditions. I invite the public to visit both a feedlot and a pasture-based farm. Inform yourself and support whichever farm-model you find acceptable.




I know I left a lot out, but had to keep it to 200 words. Anyways, I tend to be a bit long-winded. We've got to think of the poor newspaper-reading public, you know.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Last night as we checked on the cows, number 11 couldn't resist the urge to check out Marcel. This is the story as it unfolded:






But wouldn't the story be funnier if it were shared in reverse?







Sorry, honey. I couldn't resist.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Whippersnappers

Rountine chores on a livestock farm can be a pain in the you-know-where because of the numerous small obstacles you must pass through in order to get to the work at hand. Whether we must check on the animals, move fences or cut hay, we have to pass through a handful of those necessary but pesky fieldgates.

Now opening and closing fieldgates is easy. Easy as spreadin' butter on a hot summer day. But each gate requires us to stop vehicle, exit vehicle, open gate, re-enter vehicle, drive through gate, stop vehicle, exit vehicle, close gate, re-enter vehicle and be on our merry way. Usually we're on that merry way for about 2 minutes at which point we come upon another fieldgate through which we must pass.

This is where the little whippersnappers have started to come in real handy. Now all I do is drive up to the gate, sit back, relax, and let the kids earn their keep.

Please observe the beauty of our new fieldgate routine:


Armando finds it easier to undo the chain from the other side of the gate. Hey, I don't care. I'm kickin' back in the truck, jammin' to some tunes and checkin' for nose hairs in the rearview mirror.


Look at the little whippersnapper, all hard at work. Sometimes the chain gets hooked up on the barbed wire and stops him up a bit, but the little bugger is determined, man. Ain't no barbed wire gonna get in his way.

At this point I've moved on from nose hairs to my eyelashes....didn't they used to grow thicker than this?


Oh, well look at that. He's gotten it! Time to snap out of my rear-view-mirror beauty session and get to work.


Armando not only opens the gate, he opens it with style. Lookin' good, bozo-brain!


And there it is. The signature thumbs-up. Gate's open and I can drive on through. Easy as slicin' chocolate pie on a hot summer day. I tell ya, kids really come in handy on a farm.

Next time I'm bringing along a nail file. Farms can be hell on the hands.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Of Life and Death

The last time I wrote about learning opportunities I was scoffing at a silly mistake I made that could have broken a part on our tractor. In all honesty I was making a joke to deflect my embarrassment at being a dope. A dope that forgot to unplug the tractor before she drove it.

What I've come to realize, however, is that being a dope and breaking a tractor part or two is the least of my worries when it comes to the farm. The farm is about more than that. It's about more than a simple tractor part, and it's definitely about more than my silly vanity and pride.

The farm is about life and death. Life and death. It's as simple and basic as that.

The lessons I need to learn and the opportunities that have arisen to provide me with those very lessons have been numerous and varied this spring, as are the emotions that come with the living and dying on this farm. These circumstances have come at a time when I have been feeling impatient with the farm's progress, with the organic conversion, and with the cows who hadn't calved and who also hadn't been very cooperative in my new grazing systems. "I've been at this three years," I kept muttering. "It shouldn't still be this difficult."

Yet three years didn't prepare me for this:


This is our bull and a pregnant cow lying dead in our pasture. They were struck by lightning during a thunderstorm.


Two good cows gone. All of a sudden my grazing difficulties don't seem all that important. Instead, my impatience was transformed into dismay and concern. Our bull was so gentle and easy-going. How could we replace him? And this mother cow was one of our lead cows, not to mention that she was due to calve any day now. Death on the farm. It happens, but who expects to find this scene after a routine thunderstorm?

The cows were extremely distressed, so we moved them to another pasture so we could remove the carcasses. In fact, I think it was stress that put one heifer into labor. Our very first calf of the season was born that night. Ironically, the bull's first offspring was born the day he died:

We named her Storm. And she is a beautiful, spunky little Murray Grey.

Life and death at the hands of a lightning bolt.

The shock wore off after a few days as I busied myself with smaller farmer duties--you know, the ones I like to do because I can manage them. The ones that rookies can't screw up. (And if we do, we can write funny little stories about them.)

But then my favorite heifer was in labor, number 11, and she was in trouble. She had progressed to the point where the calf's hooves were coming out and then stalled. We let her work for 2 hours wondering if we should pull the calf or let her alone. A cow will suspend her labor if stressed, so if you bother her too soon you'll cause problems. And yet if you let her go too long, both she and her calf could die.

As a rookie, I have no experience in making these calls. And the literature says you just have to have a "feel" for it. Great. That's helpful.

Finally we decided to pull it. We corralled her into the chute and called Farmer Scott from down the road. He's a dairy farmer and is absolutely not a rookie. He showed us how to hook the chains around the calf's second foot joint and then how to pull it down and away from her backbone. He and Marcel strained, and I mean strained, for about 10 minutes. They got the calf out and he lived, but barely. And number 11 was OK. Ahhh, life. Sweet, sweet life.

Disaster was averted and a lesson was learned.

Or so I thought. Because today we lost one. A nice large heifer calf died because we didn't pull her soon enough. We acted quicker than last time, but the placental bag hadn't broken. Farmer Scott came to help once more and told us that if the bag isn't broken in time, the mother can't get enough traction to push the calf out and the calf suffocates.

I had seen the intact bag and thought it had meant there was time. Precious time, ticking away for that poor little heifer calf. "It's hard to say," said Farmer Scott. "Sometimes an intact bag means you should leave the mother alone a little longer. You just have to get a feel for it."

There it is again. That "feel" thing. The way I see it, the "feel for it" is a farmer's way of saying you need to be experienced enough to know. And as easy as it may be to learn to drive a tractor or make good hay, this calving thing is throwing me for a loop. A very precarious loop. After two difficult births, it's hard to say if I'm really getting a "feel" for calving or not. The first time we waited longer and had a live calf. The second time we acted and it wasn't soon enough.

I am, however, getting a "feel" for the ups and downs of farming. The joys and sorrows. The celebrations, the frustrations...the life and death of it. I'm just not sure I have enough experience to know how to deal with it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Bad Week Continues

I went out this morning for my regular chore routine, which involves:

Feeding grain to the Charolais calves
Letting the chickens out to pasture
Checking the horse/goat water tank and filling if necessary (it was)
Walking around and acting important

This amounts to a whole 10 minutes worth of "work", so you can see I've got it pretty tough.

But then I checked the egg refrigerator and noticed that the eggs weren't collected last night. That happens a lot when I work my two evenings at Atwood. It's no big deal--really--it just means that I have to stick my arm under hens that are laying today's eggs in order to collect yesterday's eggs. Understandably, this doesn't make the hens too happy. They squawk at me, fluff their feathers up all big and poofy, and once in awhile a real grumpy one will peck at my hand. Hen pecks don't feel too good, so I've learned to hold their heads in one hand while fetching eggs with the other.

Well, as I walked with my egg basket into the dark corner of the barn where the nests are, I noticed a hen cowering on the floor. Her head was all bloody and she was looking pretty beat up. Oh no. She was injured badly enough that I knew it wasn't just a pecking order injury--she had been attacked by something. And when something gets into our barn it's usually one of three animals: a raccoon, an opossum, or a skunk.

Raccoons kill lots of chickens in one night. We've had raccoon attacks that wiped out 20 birds in one fell swoop. The most frustrating part is that they eat only the chicken's brains and neck. They like the blood, not the meat, and so waste the rest of the carcass.

Opossums will kill only one or two chickens at a time because they will tend to sit and eat the meat. They are also a lot dumber, and don't leave the barn once daytime rolls around. Instead they find a dark corner to hang in, where inevitably they meet their demise at the hands of a few unnamed farmers. Ahem.

Skunks usually go for the eggs first, although they'll take a chicken if it's conveniently in the way. I can usually tell if one's around before I walk into the barn because of their signature perfume, but I have had 2 really close calls with skunks in my barn. I consider myself very lucky, because a skunk can accurately hit a target up to 12' away. Yikes.

Obviously we don't want any predation on our hens, but we'd prefer an opossum or even a skunk over a raccoon anyday. When I found that bloodied hen, however, my heart sank. Her head was bloodied, her body perfectly fine. It must have been a raccoon. Which means there will be other casualties.

I walked slowly around the barn and found 4 more hen carcasses. Four large, healthy, young hens...lost. And another dying.

That's the type of week I've been having. A long, crappy, frustratingly bad week. What next?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Frustration

You know those lovely cows I've been so enamored with? And how I think rotational grazing is the most awesome kick-butt farming system out there?

Well today I can't stand either one. And the only butt that's getting a kicking is mine.

I'm frustrated. F-R-U-S-T-R-A-T-E-D.

You see, we've been working hard to set up our leader/follower grazing system. What is a leader/follower grazing system, you ask? A leader/follower system is where we take a section of our pasture and divide it into small paddocks. The yearling calves that are fattening for market are let into that fresh paddock first. They eat as much yummy goodness as they can until they get moved to a nice fresh paddock the following afternoon. They are the leaders.

The followers are the pregnant mothers and the bull. Once we move the leaders into their new paddock, these ladies (and one guy) get put into the paddock just vacated by the leaders. They clean up what the leaders left behind, which includes some yummy goodness, but also the less yummy stuff like weeds, alfalfa stalks that have been stripped of their delicious leaves, etc.

This systems allows all of the cattle to fulfill their nutritional needs, but the leaders get first choice at the sweetest, highest energy plants in the paddock, which translates into nice meaty grassfed steers by the end of the summer.

Sounds great, right? Harrumph.

First off, it took us two days and many trips to Farm and Fleet to get the system set up. We had the water tank, but the float didn't fit it. We got the float to finally work, and then the connection was leaky. We got a new connection but then needed longer hoses. Hoses in place, we found we needed another polytape reel for the extra paddock divisions. Trying not to lose my patience, I bought or found what was needed and moved forward. You see, Marcel isn't so sure about this grazing stuff, and I didn't want to show any weakness in the system.

Which in hindsight makes me laugh. Or cry.

Here we are, getting the water tank in place. Ah, the confidence I was projecting. I look pretty convincing, don't I?



Next we sorted the calves at our place, loading the grassfed steers into the trailer and leaving behind the four Charolais calves that we're going to grain feed. We haven't been too enamored of these Charolais so far, and Sunday was no different. They are so skittish it makes the whole group nervous. Because of them, the separating took a lot longer than planned.

But we got it done, and hauled the Murray Greys over to Mom's pasture. We let the steers into their 'leader' paddock, where they got to rub noses with their mama's across the electric fenceline.



And all was well. For one day, at least.

'Cause on the very second day of grazing, my lovely children were having so much fun running through the tall, lush pasture grasses.......

that they spooked the leader calves right through the electrified backline that separated them from the mama cows.

Oh the joy!, the ecstasy!, the sheer delight that overcame these calves as they were reunited with their mothers once again. It almost brought a tear to my eye.

Almost, but not quite, as this wonderful, joyful reunion undid two solid days of work on the farm. It undid the previous day's work, plus the long day's work of separating the calves from their mamas that happened a few months ago. On a not-so-nice day, if you recall.

By this time I'm feeling discouraged. How are we supposed to re-separate the calves from the mothers in the middle of the pasture? How are we supposed to keep the bull away from those two young, impressionable heifers that he now has access to?

Most importantly, how do we restart our leader/follower system without discouraging Marcel? I need him to buy in to this system because...well, frankly because he's the backbone of this farm. Without his enthusiasm and belief in this system it'll be an uphill battle for yours truly. One that I will likely lose.

Ok. So we need to re-separate the calves, but at least for now they're happily grazing in a nice, fresh paddock, right? Wrong.

When I went to check on the cattle this morning I found two very stubborn, curseword-inducing calves outside of the temporary electric fencelines. They had somehow escaped the paddock.

You've got to be kidding me!

It's not like they were going anywhere, as the perimeter fence would keep them in the field, but the water was in the paddock. And on a sunny, windy day like today, they'd soon be thirsty.

I called Marcel and grumbled in his ear for awhile. He suggested that I take down the whole system, let all of the cows back into the barnyard, and we'd start all over later tonight. "OK. You're right. That's fine. I'll take it all down."

NOT.

I hung up, grabbed the pick-up truck, picked up Armando from preschool, and proceeded to torture him (and those two darn calves) for over an hour. I even broke the first rule of cattle rusting--never herd cattle alone--but I'd be d*mned if I was gonna take all that work down and accept defeat.

I moved the mothers, calves and bull into a fresh paddock full of yummy goodness so they wouldn't pay mind to the fact that I was lowering the electric fence on one side. I pinned the fence down for a 20-foot opening, and then chased those two stubborn calves around the open field until they finally (finally!) saw the opening and crossed over.

I swear they stopped in front of the opening at least 6 times before they decided to cross into the paddock. And speaking of swearing, I think I gave my 4 year old an education, if you know what I mean.

So there you have it. My frustration runneth over, my rotational grazing system runneth amuk, and my yearling heifers runneth with the bull. And I'd better stop saying runneth, or I'll be talking with a lisp for the re-thst of the day. Laugh.

At least I'd be amused. That's a lot better than frustrated.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Visit Irish Grove Farms!

Irish Grove Farms is participating in the Openfields farm tour on May 24th!

Take advantage of this great opportunity to come and see just exactly what it is we're doing with this lovely farm of ours. We'll tour the pastures and visit the grassfed beef cattle. We may even get a peek at some young calves. You could collect an egg or two, climb up a hay shaft to the second floor of a milking barn, or find out exactly what a round barn looks like on the inside. Kids can feed carrots to the horses and goats; families can bring lawnchairs and a picnic and enjoy our hidden pasture for a bit. Better yet, you could just hang for awhile with the wackiest rookie farmers in the area.

Hope to see you!


For more information and a map of all participating farms, visit the University of Illinois Extension--Winnebago County website:

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Calving Season

Calving season is upon us.

May is the month our calves are scheduled to be born, if the bull did his job right, that is. And how hard is it? All he's gotta do is be a typical bull and work the crowd, so to speak. He doesn't even have to compete for the ladies. He is their only option.

I do believe he did a regular fine job, though, because I saw him all frisky and sly, all coy and cudly; I saw him whispering sweet nothings in the cows' ears and.......umm......maybe I'll just leave it at that. A bull deserves some privacy, doesn't he?

In defense of my creepiness, when the future of your farm depends upon one bull doing his thing correctly....well, I'm trying to say that my spying from the edge of the field had nothing to do with any socio-psychological problems of my own. Really.

Lord help me. This farm stuff can be embarrassing.

Anyways, i.e., how can I get myself out of this awkward situation, what I'm trying to say is that I'm really looking forward to seeing this:


and this:


I love how they play follow the leader like that.

I also love how they strike a pose and act all tough like this guy:


And then, of course, there's this sweet scene:


Oh, dear. Maybe a call to my therapist isn't such a bad idea.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A-Rollin' and A-Crimpin'

We got it!! We got it!! We got the grant!!

Back in November, my friend (and partner in crime) Andrea and I applied for a North Central Region SARE Farmer Rancher Grant. SARE stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and is an organization that supports and promotes sustainable farming and ranching. According to their website, they offer competitive grants and educational opportunities for producers, scientists, educators, institutions, organizations and others exploring sustainable agriculture. The title of our grant application was Roller-crimper Construction and No-till Organic Weed Control Trials.

You see, weed control is an organic farmers #1 problem. Organic farmers can't spray their crops with herbicides, and so have to rely upon heavy tillage for weed control, which can lead to soil erosion and a continued dependence on fossil fuels. Conventional farmers have their no-till, where they don't till the soil at all and just drill next season's crop into the left-over stubble from the previous season. This technique does a great job of controlling soil erosion, but unfortunately depends upon heavy herbicide applications to kill the weeds.

Andrea, however, read one day about a roller-crimper being used for organic no-till agriculture at The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. She told me about it and we ooh-ed and aah-ed over it for days. I may have even drooled a little. You see, I haven't been able to convert to organics as fast as I'd like because we don't have much farm equipment. It costs lots of money (literally hundreds of thousands of dollars) to buy the various plows, cultivators, and planters needed for an organic crop farm. If we could do no-till organic, then we'd only need to buy a roller-crimper and a planter. But the question remains, how well does it work? I mean, sure, it works on Rodale's farm because they've been organic for over 25 years. But would it work in the Midwest, in our climate, on our tired, overworked soils?

Quickly thereafter, we received an email from our friend Margie at Extension about an opportunity to apply for a Farmer Rancher grant through SARE. In typical Andrea and Jackie fashion, we thought about it for maybe 2 minutes and said, "Let's go for it!" Did I mention we had 10 days until the grant application deadline? We put our heads together and worked like mad women literally all day, every day, for every one of those 10 days--writing, editing, budgeting, editing, finding collaborators, editing, etc. etc.--until we finished. The grant was due at 4 PM Nebraska time and I pushed the 'send' button at 2 PM.

The remarkable thing is that neither of us are experienced grant writers. But our enthusiasm built steadily throughout the 10 day process and we knew that when we had sent that application we had done a pretty darn good job.

Even so, I didn't really think we'd get the grant. (I have this thing about second-guessing myself.) So you can imagine my surprise when we arrived from Panama to a message on my answering machine from Margie, "Congratulations. You got the grant!"

To which I eloquently exclaimed, "Holy Sh*t! We got the grant!"

Anyways, here's a picture of a roller-crimper in action:







To utilize a roller crimper, you plant a fall-seeded cover crop on your land. By the time you're ready to plant your field to a cash crop the following spring, be it corn, vegetables or what have you, the cover crop is mature. You mount the roller-crimper onto the front of your tractor which will, as the name suggests, roll and crimp the cover crop, killing it and creating a weed-suppressing mat. At the same time, you pull a weighted planter behind the tractor that will cut a path in the thick mat and plant your seeds. Only one pass through your field to roll, crimp and plant, which saves time and diesel fuel. Brilliant!

We proposed three demonstration plots at three separate farms. At Irish Grove Farms, I will compare weed pressure in my no-till organic corn plot (using the crimper and cover crops) to the weed pressure in my non-GMO no-till conventional corn fields that will get sprayed with an herbicide for weed control. Andrea, at Hazard Free Farms, will compare weed pressure between her no-till organic melons and her organic melons that rely on heavy tillage/hand weeding. Another farmer, Kathryn, will compare her organic no-till sunflower field with a field where she interseeds a companion crop into her sunflowers for weed control. All 3 of us will also do cost comparisons, keep weather journals, the whole 9 yards. We will also hold field days where people can come out to see what we're doing.

Three different farms. Three different crops. All using the roller crimper. Pretty exciting.

Our hope is that the roller crimper will be an effective weed suppression tool for organic fields. But we realize that our one-year trials will face some major obstacles (weeds). Especially since our land has only been recently taken out of chemical-intensive agriculture. It takes years to rebuild the soil. As Midwestern Bio-Ag's founder Gary Zimmer says, "You've gotta earn the right." Meaning you have to do the long, hard work of rebuilding the soil before you can expect great yield results from organic no-till.

Honestly, we haven't earned the right to expect great yields from our organic no-till plots. But we know for a fact that we can still learn a great deal about weed control in organic agriculture. We want to test how well the roller crimper works, and how much time it will buy us in weed control. Even if the cover crop mat is effective through June, that is long enough to reduce herbicide use by 50% in conventional fields. Which to me is huge.

Anyways, I'm super excited and a lot nervous about this opportunity. I'll be sure to keep you posted as we get started.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Why So Expensive?

Many people have asked me why grass-finished beef is so expensive. They don't understand how a cow, eating grass, could be more expensive than one that eats grains. I mean, it's just grass, right? Everyone can grow (and does grow) grass, so therefore grass-finished beef should be cheaper.

Me being me, I do a rather bad job of explaining the costs involved in raising grass-fed beef, mostly because it's pretty darn difficult to recite a cost-benefit analysis in anything less than a 10-minute, one-sided and extremely boring "talk-at-you-not-with-you" conversation. Snore.

It is at this point that my friend and marketing consultant, Angela, would wag her finger at me and tell me to not focus on production costs because people buy with their emotions, not their knowledge.

Well, I see her point. But it also makes me seem a little shifty and a lot shiesty when I answer the "I don't understand why it's so expensive" question with an "Ours cows are happy. Our land is happy. The environment is happy. We farmers are happy. That 12 oz. steak will cost you $25, thank you."

For the record, Angela did not advise me to say that. I came up with that hair-brained answer on my own.

But in all seriousness, I believe that people who truly want to know the "why" should get an honest answer, so I'm gonna try and list some of the costs involved in raising grass-finished beef. This list is surely not complete and only corresponds to the costs incurred in Irish Grove. Costs will be different for different farms.

SPACE
Grass-fed beef cannot be confined to a small barnyard. They need pasture, and lots of it. The general rule of thumb is 1 acre of pasture per cow-calf pair (mama and babe) per year. Got 40 cows with calves? You'll need 40 acres of pasture, which means 40 acres of land that won't be planted to a cash crop.

INFRASTRUCTURE
Animals require two things that cash crops don't: fences and water. The investment we've made, so far, in fencing and water systems has cost us about $15,000. And that's after receiving an EQIP grant from the government. The beef cattle have to pay for this. And it shows up in your meat costs.

PASTURE QUALITY
Quality beef requires high-quality pasture. Which means expensive seeds and fertilizer, specialized farm equipment, and lots of skill to properly manage the land. We also buy more-expensive organic seeds and organic-approved fertilizers to improve the health of our land. Imagine a good $10,000 to get a 40-acre field started. Then add $2000/year for fertilizers and reseed costs, if necessary. (Winter happens.)

CATTLE
You can't use just any old cow in a grass-fed beef operation. The cows must be medium-framed and finish well on grass, meaning they'll reach market weight by 20-22 months and marble well . This limits our sources of eligible calves, which makes it more practical to raise our own. Unfortunately, raising our own is more expensive because we not only have to feed the calf, but we have to maintain the mother and a bull as well.

WINTER
Winter is the most expensive time of year to have cattle. We must have plenty of high-quality hay on hand during the winter because we can't supplement our cows' diets with grain. This means more land in hayground or it means we purchase hay from a local grower at market prices plus transport costs.


I'm sure there are a myriad of other things I've forgotten here, and by this time tomorrow I'll be kicking myself about another inefficient conversation, but you get the point. Grassfed beef is expensive to raise.

So why do it?

HAPPY COWS
Cows raised on pasture are healthier, requiring less medication and veterinary calls. Cows are ruminants and are designed to eat grass only. Feeding cows grain is like feeding your children a diet of fruit snacks and Snicker bars. Sure, they'll grow and they'll certainly fatten up. But is it good for them?

HAPPY LAND
We live in the Prairie State. Our natural landscape is prairie, otherwise known as grasslands. Grasslands are the natural habitat for large ruminants. Grass-fed beef is farming that mimicks nature--it improves and restores the land to its natural state, which in turn restores habitat for many threatened prairie animal and bird species.

HAPPY ENVIRONMENT
While grassfed beef operations seem quite inefficient at first glance, in fact our land is sequestering carbon (grasses sequester more carbon dioxide than trees) and saving gallons and gallons of fossil fuels. Our cows harvest their own food, for goodness sakes, which translates to fewer tractors planting, spraying, harvesting, hauling and grinding feed. The cows even spread their own manure!

HAPPY FARMERS
While our happiness may seem like our own responsibility, I would argue that it behooves all of us to have happy farmers who make a healthy living off of their farms as our neighbors. Happy farmers are more likely to preserve green space, care for their land and welcome you onto their farm in the spirit of transparency and community. They will show you what they produce, how they produce it, and then you can decide for yourself if that's a product you would buy. Try visiting a CAFO and see what reaction you'll get. (One that likely results in an escort service, if you know what I mean.) Most importantly in this day and age of sprawl, loss of open space, and a degradation of our rural culture and farming knowledge base, happy farmers are more likely to live on, work on and pass their farm on and into the hands of the next generation, not into the hands of that developer.



Hmmn. It looks like my happy cow sentence might not be that ridiculous afterall. I'll have to ask Angela what she thinks about it. In the meantime, do the costs of grass-fed beef still seem ridiculous? Hope not, 'cause I didn't even touch on the health benefits for eating grassfed meats.

Thankfully, some else has done that homework. For information regarding the health benefits of eating grass-fed versus grain-fed, check out Jo Robinson's website: www.eatwild.com

And if that's not enough for you, well then I give up already.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Vacation

Your seriously inexperienced, underpaid and over-appreciated rookie Irish Grove farmers have returned from their much needed vacation. Not to say that we don't love it here in Irish Grove, we do. But the last 3 years have been exasperatingly full of non-stop change. Change of the life-altering type.

Dad died. Marcel and I had a momentary brain fart and took over the farm. I developed stress-related Rosacea. (So in addition to grief and stress I got to look like a frickin' bumpy red tomato face.) Grandma Ruthie died. We bought out Aunt Nancy and Uncle Jim's share of the farm for a pretty penny. I use the word 'we' here in a most general fashion, if you know what I mean. Marcel and I bought the house and 5 acres from the newly established Irish Grove Acres, LLC (namely, Mom, Laura Matt and I). We also established the farm's business entity, called Irish Grove Farms, Inc. We paid our attorney and accountant some serious cash. And then we decided to go organic, much to the chagrin of our most beloved local farmers.

Now I've got a question. Don't they say that ignorance is bliss?

'Cause somehow in my case, ignorance has been a stressful, Rosacea-inducin', sleep-preventin', head-scratchin', mind-boglin', marriage-testin', steep uphill-battle.

Of course I should add that I decided to go back to work part-time just 3 months after Dad passed, my kids have stubbornly refused to stop growing up and involving themselves in normal kid stuff, and Mom decided to go and get married, of all things. That's right, she's planning on merging a whole new family into this craziness!

To the Dirkson family, I have only one thing to say. "Run For The Hills While You Still Can!" There. Don't say we didn't warn you.

So when you heard the "Calgone Take Me Away" screams echoing through the neighborhood, I really meant it. And luckily someone did take me away. (Although it wasn't Calgone....Marcel wouldn't have approved.)

Someone named Marcel took me away to Panama for a whole 2.3 weeks. And it was lovely. Divine. Peaceful and serene.

We spent 2 weeks surrounded by Panamanian family and friends whom we love and who love us right back. 2 weeks of 90 degree sunshine bliss. 2 weeks of not knowing anything about world economics, Korean test missiles, or mass shootings. 2 weeks of Spanish speaking. 2 weeks of playtime heaven for the kids, who literally ran wild with their cousins from sun-up to sun-down. 2 weeks of home-picked oranges, grapefruits, coconuts, and other local fruits found on their farm.

2 weeks away from the stresses of Irish Grove. Just what the doctor ordered.

"Irish Grove, I love ya. But sometimes too much togetherness can lead to problems. Hope you don't take it personally."

Happy to be back and at it once more. Your favorite rookie farmer,
Jackie

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Country Girl Goes to the City

We leave for Panama tomorrow morning.

And it was exactly one week ago today that I had a rare moment of clarity. An awful, stressful, panic-inducing moment of clarity.

It was about 10:30 PM and I had gone to bed. I was lying there thinking about everything I needed to do to prepare for our trip. And, coincidentally, feeling rather self-congratulatory at how organized I (thought I) was.

As I was falling asleep, however, a disturbing thought crossed my mind. A horrible, dread-inducing, heart-sinking-ly terrible thought: Passports.

I knew, knew in that very instant, that Madelina's passport was expired. I jumped out of bed, to check, and sure enough, I was right.

I have been suffering mild anxiety attacks ever since.

I can't breathe. Can't. Breathe.

What to do? Well, thank heavens Chicago has a passport office. (The next closest is located in Washington D.C. Or Houston, TX. Or Denver, CO.) And we found a telephone number to call to make an appointment for passport emergencies. Luckily we could get in right away, so we dropped all other plans and headed to the Windy City the next day.

Madelina was happy, because she got to skip school and make a trip with her parents to the Big City. And the Big City to a country bumpkin like Madelina is pretty darn exciting. She was all "Wow, look at that!" "Whoa, mama, look at that!"

So I gave her my camera and let her take pictures of whatever she wanted.

Here's Country Bumpkin in her natural habitat, after climbing down the rope from the hay loft:


Here's Country Bumpkin on her way to the Big City:


Here's what she found exciting about the Big City.

A pretty church.


Airplanes flying over the highway. This was a BIG highlight.


The El train.


And graffiti.


But then.

Then!

Then she saw something wondrous.

Something incredible.

Something unimaginable.

She saw the Oscar Mayer Wiener-mobile.


With an Irish theme, no less.


And then, well, then this Irish Grove Country Bumpkin felt right at home.


And I dare ask, who doesn't wish they were an Oscar Mayer Wiener?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sorting Cattle

In Irish Grove, the time has come to separate our young Murray Grey calves from their mommas.

Unfortunately for the calves, this is pretty darn awful. They've got a good life...I mean, who doesn't like a little milk with their hay? Add in a mother's watchful eye, some playful nudges here and there.....well, there's no better feeling in the world than Mom.

But the mother cows are pregnant, you see. And if you've ever been pregnant and nursing a babe at the same time, you'll know that it isn't much fun. And then you've got a certain bull with a certain, um....drive to, um......well, you know....checking out those poor little heifers, all innocent and cute and much too young to be initiated into such wordly matters.

Yes, it was time to move the babes onto the next phase of life.

Of course, we picked the most lovely of all late winter/early spring days. It was so lovely, in fact, that more than a few Irish Grove farmhands tried to get out of the job.

But being the whip-crackin', ass-whoopin' farmer that I am, I was having none of it. I mean what kind of farmer reschedules a work day because of a little rain?

Marcel and I are all geared up and ready to get working


and yet Marcel's still stalling on account of the rain, the wimp.


When you separate the cattle herd, all of a sudden space becomes an issue. All the animals need access to a water tank and shelter. We've got two barns and two groups of cattle. No problem, right?

Wrong.


'Cause we need shelter and water for the horses and goats, as well. And if you've read this blog for awhile, you'll know that Lucero and cows don't mix.

So we spent a few hours moving the horses and goats to the chicken pasture. First we had to get the animals to move, and then we had to move the gear. Or bale cages, to be more specific.

You see, horse bale-cages and cow bale-cages are different.


The tractor has ahold of a horse hay-ring. You can see that the sides are open at the top. In the background is a hay-ring for the cows (on its side). There's a top bar on that one with diagonal supports. The cows have to stick their heads through the holes to eat while the horses get to raise their heads high and chomp in fashion.

Life is stacked against the cows at most every turn like that.

Anyways, Marcel brought one cow cage down from Mom's place for the calves, changed the horse cage over into the chicken pasture, and then filled them both with hay. In the meantime, I was very handily opening and shutting the gates for him. Yeah, it's a no-brainer, but also an immense help and time-saver for the tractor driver.


After everything was in place, I walked the lane down the hill and back up to Mom's, opening all the gates through which we'd soon be running the calves. Did I mention it was raining?




It's pretty much not a good thing when your pasture has been converted into a mini river.

Anyways, to make an already long story a little bit shorter, we got the calves shut in the round barn and sorted out rather nicely. I gave my mom the camera to take some action shots, but then we had to ask her to hide around the corner because her presence in the doorway was keeping the calves from wanting to run out. Sorry Mom.

So unfortunately I have no pictures of me manning the exit gate, swinging it open to let a calf out when it came round the bend and quickly shut again to keep the momma's in. This was pretty hard, seeing as both my boots and the gate were sticking, in that suction-type way, in the ankle-deep "mud".

No photos of Gordy, our most recent Irish Grove addition (and Mom's new beau), as he dodged the bull and bravely shoo-ed the calves through the barn

No photos of Marcel, cattle-handler extraordinaire, as he weaved in and out through the mass of cows, calves and bull--31 of them to be exact, skillfully separating the mothers from the babes and telling me when to open the gate, and when to quickly shut it.

Just this photo of us in ankle-deep in "mud" after we had the calves first separated,

and this one, after we had successfully driven them through the pasture, up the lane and into the barnyard at our house:



A job well done.