Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Last Straw

Tradition is very important to our boys. The holidays are filled with traditions for our (turkey, stuffing and all the fixings, Christmas cookies), events (caroling, looking at lights, ring and run), movies (White Christmas, It's a Wonderful Life, The Christmas Box, Christmas Carol) but one of the most important focal points of our holiday season is the Manger in the Straw. This tradition started many years ago after reading a book called "The Last Straw" and has become my children's favorite tradition.

The day after Thanksgiving we place an empty manger on a tray filled with straw. My 12 year old made the manger several years ago to replace the cardboard one that came with the book. We place all of our names in a hat and draw. The name you draw is top secret!! Your goal, for the next week, is to do as many acts of love as possible for that person without getting caught. For each secret act of love that you do, you may place a straw in the manger. The idea is to build a soft and comfortable bed, made from love, for the Christ child who will arrive Christmas Eve. We draw names every week, so each week you are serving someone different.

Because we do not have network T.V., cable or satellite, and we aren't in the stores a lot, my children are not exposed to all the brainwashing that goes on trying to sell them the latest useless toy. But their focus still tended to be on "what will I get" instead of "what can I give". The manger certainly helped to realign their priorities. Bickering seemed to take a back seat to loving kindness - everyone was thinking of the Christ child and how they could serve Him through kindness to others.

It is amazing how this simple tradition changed our focus and the atmosphere in our home. Sometimes a child will find their bed made, their chores done or their laundry folded. I have found dishwashers emptied, or filled, clothes folded, my bed turned down with a cookie left on the pillow, animals cared for and the list goes on. Arguments stop before they really start and everyone seems to be thinking of others first.

Sometimes I can tell that the chore was done by one barely able to complete the task - but the love shines through. Secret acts done for neighbors, church members and others outside our family circle earn fatter straws, or multiple straws. Little hands are constantly testing the manger - is it soft enough for Jesus? On Christmas Eve day the pace for loving acts really picks up....who will place the last straw?

Once the bed has been determined to be suitable for the baby on Christmas Eve, the hunt begins to find him - just like the Wisemen searched for the babe, so do the children. Once found he is lovingly placed in the manger that has been filled with hundreds of straws...each one representing an act of love.

My hope for you this season is that you too find the Christ child who was born crucified for you.

Merry Christmas and God Bless You!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


When last I left you, my children and I were trapped in the house while strange and angry creatures were storming our door. They were small but very loud and apparently very angry that someone had come to live on their farm. I was bigger than they were but they out numbered us eight to one. How was I going to get past them, get my children in the van and then head back to Florida?! Who wants country living? Not if I was going to keep encountering unpleasant creatures on my driveway....let us not even think of the fields, streams, ponds and woods on the farm...not to mention the mountain ridge! Should I sacrifice our small poodle who was more than willing if I would only open the door? Should I open the door? Would they storm in? I began to bang on the door and yell, in fact all the kids began to yell and they took off....literally, into the air...and they all landed in the Catawba tree in the front yard. It looked like a tree from outer space...really weird! We have since learned that these were Guinea Fowl. Now look at the picture below and tell me if this bird doesn't look would you like 40 of these looking in your door and screaming at you? We did learn however, that the Guineas were not out to get us - they are just very vain...they love to look at their reflection and were using our sliding glass doors as mirrors! This is a mother with her baby....don't let this picture fool you....they are TERRIBLE mothers. They might hatch a clutch of 12 eggs...if 2 survive it is a miracle. They run through tall weeds at a break neck pace and loose their babies...the cats, coons, hawks and owls are quick to find them. Have you ever seen an uglier bird? The odd thing is that they are the cutest little keats. They make me think of chipmunks with wings. They are adorable! Then they loose the feathers on their heads and they turn into this!

Here is an up close picture....really ugly. And the noise they make...sounds like a really old, squeaky hinge on a really old door in a really old house swinging non-stop in the wind. They say you can tell the difference between a hen and a cock by the sound....nope....they all sound the same to me....LOUD! And it is one of those sounds that just gets on your nerves after a few minutes. Guineas come in a variety of colors. They are good watch birds - they will scream at anything they don't recognize on your farm...but the best news of all is that they eat bugs. Think ticks! When we moved here the kids couldn't go outside for 10 minutes without picking up ticks. Sometimes we would pick 10 or more off of each child. We found them crawling up the walls in our house where they dropped off of clothes on the way to the showers. Once we learned about Guineas eating ticks, we picked up 4 Guineas of our own (our neighbor's Guineas weren't so neighborly once they found out we had moved in to stay!). We named then Fred, Ethel, Ricky and Lucy. They stayed for several months and then joined our neighbor's flock. Lesson learned: never buy full grown birds - always buy keats.

So, we bought 10 keats from a friend who raised them. We kept them in a chicken tractor until the "book" said it was safe to let them out (and we thought they were big enough to fend off our cats). We lost half of our little flock that first night to possums - at least we think it was possums since our German Shepherd brought us a dead possum that same morning The other Guineas survived, stayed around and hatched their first clutch last spring. I think out of 18 babies, 4 survived. Lesson learned: don't let the momma's raise the babies if you want to increase your flock.

The tick population almost disappeared. The boys really have to be in a far field now to come home with a tick. This year we found the babies the day they hatched. There were 18 of them. We caught 15. Of those, 12 survived, a much better survival rate than with Mom, she lost the 3 we left with her. But Mom sat on a fence and called for them for DAYS! There goes that squeaky hinge. They hatched another clutch in late summer. We left them with Mom - there were over 20 babies. At last count, eight had survived - a miracle! Though they are terrible parents, they are actually very smart in other ways. They are almost impossible to catch. If you try one method and aren't successful, you will never be able to use that method again successfully with the same bird. They remember....forever...

If they see you near their nest, in fact if they even THINK you were near their nest, they will move it. Over and over. You most likely won't find it again so be sure they don't see you the first time.

Their eggs are delicious, sort of tear dropped shape, lightly speckled and the shell is extremely hard. The first time I cracked one I didn't notice the shape. I hit the egg against the bowl and nothing happened. I tried again, and again....I made a mental note to talk to my husband about the fact that we either had one strange egg layer or we needed to reduce their intake of oyster shell...then it rang a bell somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind. I had read about this years ago. I began looking through the egg basket and found some strangely shaped eggs...sure enough...guinea eggs!

The Guineas and I get along fine now, although my seven year old got to close to some babies that were with Momma Guinea this year and was soundly disciplined by her....lesson learned!

Thank you to where I found these pictures.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Hang on!

I haven't abandoned you but we are having some computer problems and I can't post pictures - will get the story and pics up as soon as this glitch is passed!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Our first few days on the farm...

I wanted to share a bit about our first farm experiences. We moved from a very large, busy, noisy city in Florida to Tennessee almost 7 years ago. We moved in early January so this time of year I tend to think back to our beginnings here.

We rented a large truck and moved ourselves. At that time our boys ages were 16, 8, 5 and a babe in arms not yet walking. The house had been empty and neglected for about 4 years. We rented a hotel room until we could get the house cleaned and the beds set up. Essentially, we unloaded everything we could as quickly as we could and my husband and oldest boy went back for the rest of the stuff. This was our first mistake! A man should never leave a city woman with 3 small children on a farm without explaining some basic farm facts!

I found myself alone (no other adult) in a small hotel room with 3 kids and a dog. Our days went something like this: Get everyone up, nurse the baby, bundle up (a new experience for us Floridians!) and head to the house. Get to the house, nurse the baby, get the 8 year old to watch the baby and the 5 year old and then I commenced to cleaning. Nurse the baby, bundle up, go get lunch, come back , nurse the baby, everyone down on a sheet for a nap, start cleaning again. Everyone up, nurse the baby, give him back to the 8 year old and try to clean some more. Bundle back up, leave the house, get dinner, nurse the baby and everyone into bed. Needless to say the progress in cleaning was very slow and by nightfall I was exhausted. In our ignorance at the time, we lived off of fast food - now we never touch it. I recommend reading Fast Food Nation to find out why - it WILL change your have been warned!

This routine went on for days while we waited for Daddy to come back! Imagine my delight one afternoon when the 5 year old called me (my head was inside kitchen cabinets cleaning!) to come see the furry animal on our driveway wall. I was excited! Our first contact with nature! I came running to the sliding glass door that looks out towards our driveway...there it sat....on the was HUGE...but what was it? It took me a moment to grasp the fact that I was looking at a very big, real life RAT!!!! ACCCKKKK! We have RATS!!!! I bet this thing weighed 20 lbs! I smacked the door and this thing took off for the barn! I was ready to burn the barn to the ground with all of its evil inhabitants!!! This was NOT what I had could I let the boys go outside with giant rats waiting to carry them off? Would God have sent us here? Did we hear incorrectly? City life was looking pretty good!

Well, that was the end of cleaning for that day. We bundled back up and I decided to find a town somewhere and get some real food while I debated moving back to the city. We found we were about 18 miles from the nearest town so we headed out. I called my husband to tell him about the unwelcome inhabitants of the barn. He laughed...he actually laughed....this was hard for me to understand since there was NOTHING funny about giant rats. He explained that this was normal (NORMAL???) and that a few barn cats would take care of the problem. Cats? This rat was twice as big as any cat I had ever seen....besides...I am allergic to cats! And where was I to find cats? Is there a cat store? I had never even thought of shopping for cats but I was ready to purchase an army of them.

After a good nights sleep (who am I kidding? with 3 boys and a contraband dog in a hotel room with cement beds?), I felt prepared to go back to the house...on the way the 5 year old asks if rats live in the house too...HORRORS...that thought had never crossed my mind! Arriving at the house, I locked the boys in the van and grabbed a downed tree limb - I searched the house - every nook of it looking for rats - it appeared safe so the boys were allowed to come back in....I diligently prayed that if there were rats they would not appear until my husband returned the next day.

We were in the middle of our routine when we heard the WEIRDEST noise - we all dropped what we were doing and looked at each other trying to figure it sounded like anguished screaming of some exotic animal. Our little poodle was going nuts, barking, running and trying to get out the door. The noise was getting closer and louder. It was a noise I had never heard before, and I spent years as a kid watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom (yes! I know I just dated myself!).

I gathered all the boys and put them behind me (where did I put that tree limb?). I peeked out the window....I was shocked....I didn't know what they were....but they were ugly!!!! And apparently very angry.....(I was, at this point, packing our bags and moving back to Florida in my mind - what was God thinking sending us into this horrible place? How could my husband leave us here with no weapon to defend ourselves?). How could I get everyone safely to the van?

Tomorrow I will post pictures of these strange animals that were surrounding us and screaming at the top of their lungs...

Friday, December 9, 2005

Hens and Roosters

The second animal we acquired after we moved to the farm were chickens (right after bees!). I don't think I had ever been close to a chicken before. I had heard awful tales from my Mom about how mean they were and how they pecked people...none of which applies to our birds...well, there was that one rooster. I was fascinated with them. I still am. I love the gentle clucking sounds they make while foraging, while talking to their young and just generally when they are contented! And I love the eggs!

We name our favorite chickens. Millie is my favorite chicken. She looks like a Dalmation dog. I have no idea what she is...she may have been a freebie from the hatchery or she may have been hatched by some of our banty hens. She is covered with perfectly round, black spots. She is conversing here with one of our Buff Orpingtons. We like Buffs. They are gentle, they haven't had the nesting instinct bred out of them (yes they do that!) and they make good mothers. This point is especially important since we have 8 cats!

Sometimes I just enjoy sitting under the Katawba tree in the spring and watching the hens in their sociable groups clucking away while scratching and pecking. They must be discussing something important...then someone makes a snide remark and she is chased out of the circle....she will walk around grumbling a bit and then return to the group with a much humbler attitude! I wonder if God created chickens not just to supply some of our needs for food, but to remind us of ourselves and how we tend to walk too much in pride!

We have brown egg layers, white egg layers and blue/green egg layers. Some of our customers only want white eggs, some want brown eggs, and some don't care. We have one customer that refuses to take a blue/green egg! Her reason...."it just looks too much like a bird egg!" Excuse me?! My youngest boy loves the blue/green eggs. This probably has something to do with his current delight in some of the Dr. Seuss books.....remember Green Eggs and Ham? He has begged me to make green ham....just can't force myself to add a food dye (chemical!) to good ham!

Then there are roosters! Our first rooster was a Rhode Island Red. He was one MEAN rooster with attitude. The day he went after my youngest, who was 2 at the time, became the day that he was turned into chicken soup. Thankfully Elijah had his back to him so that his spurs only damaged his coat. Chicken soup is delicious! We have never had another mean rooster. Maybe the story is passed down in our flock of birds so that every one behaves themselves! Auracana roosters are very gentle and the kids can easily pick them up to pet them.

We have a rooster right now who is beautiful. We aren't sure where he came from. We do incubate our own eggs from time to time and assume we hatched him. I take great pleasure in watching him strut about. I am not sure why he brings me joy....the beauty of God's creation? The glory of his colors? He looks like the ideal farm rooster. His body is covered in bright gold feathers and his tail is composed of a thick plume of green/black shimmering feathers. Thankfully he does not know how beautiful he least not yet. He is young and rather timid but he brings me pleasure as he struts around outside my kitchen window....who knew doing dishes would become enjoyable! The boys have named him Dapper Dan.

We have learned there is much benefit to being stewards of God's creation. We knew there would be benefits in the way of food, we never dreamed how it would touch us spiritually and practically. My boys have learned to be hard workers, to be responsible and to take great joy and satisfaction in tending the animals. It is a sobering thought to know that their lives depend on you doing your job correctly and on time. I thank God for giving my children the ability to experience life here on our farm and to learn the many lessons His creation gives us each day.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

It all started last night.....

It was such a simple alarm bells went off, no red flags went flying. Last night my husband mentioned to the boys that because one of them left a portion of the electric fence off, Lizzie got out and was in the other field with her calf.

Nora Mae and Lizzie are the cows in milk right now. Now, Nora Mae is THE perfect cow!! I wish I had 10 like her. She doesn't spook easily, she is gentle, she leads easily, never kicks the milk bucket...if she even gets close to the bucket all you have to do is lay a gentle finger across her leg and she takes a step back. I LOVE NORA!

Lizzie is a young cow (I keep telling everyone it will get better as she matures...). It doesn't appear that anyone spent anytime with her before we got her. She calved this year for the first time. She NEVER comes - you always have to go get her, drive her into a corner and then you can lead her into the milking parlor. She is antsy on the stand, kicks the bucket frequently, and spooks easily. Please, one of you dairy farmers...tell me it will get better...or tell me how to make it better!

This morning, between spelling and science, I asked the boys if it had been very difficult to get Lizzie from the bigger pasture. I was informed that they tried and couldn't do it....she hadn't been milked and it was 2 hours past milking time! My mind screams MASTITIS!! So, we all bundled up and decided to try a team (me and the 15, 12 and 7 year olds) effort.

Do you know how quickly you can go from admiring your cow, being thankful for your cow and even caring for your cow to wondering how much meat she would produce if I just went and got the rifle? It took about 7 1/2 minutes for me today!

I tired luring her with a bucket of grain - always better to lure than to chase. Lizzie looked at me like I had lost my mind. Those big brown eyes got squinty, she shook her head and backed off.
Now, we are standing in the middle of a 3 acre pasture, along with 2 horses, 4 calves and 3 Jersey cows. EVERYONE is interested in my bucket of grain except Lizzie - Nora has suddenly become my closest friend (she only loves me for my grain!). So, I am trying to fend everyone off, lure Lizzie and make sure my 7 year old isn't trampled (Elijah...get in the greenhouse!!). OK, forget the grain idea...

We start trying to drive Lizzie to a corner where we can pull back a section of temporary electric fencing and let her into the right field. Do you know how fast a Jersey with attitude can run? I was quite surprised myself - of course when she started running...everyone started running - in all directions - except for Nora who continued to graze and watch us all calmly. Did I mention 45 minutes have passed? Did I mention it is 27 degrees outside - with a breeze? Did I mention that now everyone is in the wrong pasture except for 2 calves?

The 2 calves commenced to bawling because they were seperated from everyone else but thankfully they were still in the correct pasture. Well, I thought... at least Lizzie is in the right place...I decided we could then reverse the process and begin removing animals that needed to go back into the first pasture. Hah! How naive I still am after 7 years on the farm. Are there farmer secrets that I am not privy too in reference to moving animals? Is there some book or magazine that tells how to do this easily? Is there a conspiracy afoot?

First we move Gracie (another Jersey) out pretty easily - she then stood right at the fence line threatening to come through to get back where all the action was. Then Josiah was able to drive Dusty (a small, very fast, horse the kids love to ride) through the opening - after which he began to run like a crazed animal all over the other high, thundering speeds, while calling to Angel, our Morgan Mare, that Jeremy was attempting to lead through the opening by her mane...where IS that bucket of grain? Ok, a few nibbles of grain and she is back in the right field.

3 down, 3 to go....did I mention that we have been outside now for an hour and a half? And the breeze has picked up. We start to work on the calves, everything is going smoothly, the boys are driving them toward the opening when Princess bolts. Princess is Lizzie's daughter - she is a beautiful Jersey. Her father was an award winning, pure black Jersey bull. Let's just say that she got her father's good looks and her mother's personality! She makes a bee line for the temporary electric fence, which is off because I am holding the end to make an opening. She goes through it, gets it tangled in her feet and snaps too step-in posts off at the ground. Now the whole fence is down! "Quick" I yell..."get it standing up so it at least looks like a barrier"! I just knew that all the animals would go through it and we would be starting all over of that rifle started dancing through my head again. Lizzie starts heading after her calf but Jeremy manages to turn her the other way with a great deal of hopping, swinging of the arms and making strange HooHaw a word?

Quickly I send the 7 year old to find 2 more posts while holding up the fence and trying to make it look intact. All of the animals are suspicious now....they keep getting closer to the fence...more strange movements and noises from Jeremy and Josiah keep them back. Elijah gets back with the posts and we get them in the ground. Josiah quickly runs to the lower barn to turn the electricity back on. I think at that point I was secretly hoping they would try must have been that sliding step into the cow pie that brought out the vengence in me...

Did I mention that through all of this Nora just grazed contentedly and watched us? I LOVE Nora! Now we needed to lure Lizzie up to the barn to be milked....where is that grain bucket? I pick it up and head towards the barn. Nora has again become my best buddy....Lizzie is curious but not willing to trust me, but she will follow Nora. So Nora and I hobble up to the barn together and Lizzie follows. Then she walked right to where she was supposed to go and stood there calmly while the boys hooked a lead to her to take her around to the dairy parlor....I can't tell you why that irritated me to no end but it did! Two HOURS of running around in the cold and NOW she decided to be milked? I told the boys not to bother to save it but to give it to the cats, it would be faster. After all, I was supposed to have 8 loaves of bread in the oven by now and they were 2 hours behind in school work.

Turns out she must have been letting the calves nurse on her - she didn't give a cup of milk....she would have been fine left out there all need to have worried about mastitis....

Oh, those other 2 calves we didn't get moved? I think tonight I will mention that to my husband....
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