One of the things we’ve enjoyed about having a steady supply of raw milk is the cream that it yields, cream that we turn into butter. We use about ten gallons a week, which yields six quarts of cream, which we turn into about three pounds of butter.

For awhile Debbie was making the butter using our beloved but very pricey Bosch mixer/blender. She had noticed, though, that towards the end of the process the machine sounded like it was under a lot of strain. Then a friend told her to take care—before getting a hand-cranked churn she had used a blender as well, and burned it up. That advice had us scurrying to learn about churns.

No surprise, I suppose, that in the area of non-commercial butter churns your choices are very limited. Lehman’s is always the benchmark for such things, and they offer just two, one that is hand-cranked and one run by an electric motor. The hand-cranked model they offer is expensive, and the motor-driven model very expensive. Normally we would have been more attracted to the hand-cranked model, for its price and for its higher agrarian quotient, but we were disappointed at the capacity, which was half that of the electric model (one gallon as opposed to two—I suppose it’s not physically feasible to hand-churn two gallons of cream at once). But the electric model was prohibitively expensive.

Looking around on the internet didn’t turn up any real alternatives. But it did turn up the very same electric churn for two-thirds the price that Lehman’s was charging. Still expensive, but justifiable as a gift—and Debbie’s birthday is just around the corner. Now, I was instructed early on in my married life by a good and wise friend to never buy my wife a gift that plugs in. But that must have been in another life, because when I told her about the gift she was thrilled, and when it arrived and she tried it out she was delighted.

Side note: Debbie highly recommends this butter paddle from Lehman’s. The butter does not stick to the wood, the grooves wick away the buttermilk very effectively, and the larger paddle can handle a pretty good sized chunk of butter at once.

Homesteading update

I was surprised and pleased to see that Brother Dave Black had mentioned this weblog in his latest round of shout-outs. And a little embarrassed, because the mention comes in the middle of a stretch where I haven’t been keeping pace with my fellow Christian agrarian bloggers.

Right now we’re in the midst of our annual crunch, all centered around preparing the 2006 Cumberland Books catalog. New books need to be added to the list, and old ones need to be removed. The planned series of Plain Talk recordings need to be completed. Book descriptions need to be written. The website needs to be reorganized and checked for accuracy and consistency. The overall design of the catalog needs to be rethought. These days when I write for the weblog, I’m haunted by the specter of all that work that is waiting for me to get to it.

But then I remind myself that this weblog is a key element of the Cumberland Books operation. Our catalog and website are nothing special unless people find our recommendations trustworthy. Which is why we work to give our customers a full understanding of the context out of which those recommendations flow. Some of it comes in the form of background anecdotes told in the catalog or on the website, but much of it comes in the form of this ongoing chronicle of our family life. Folks can track the ebb and flow of our enthusiasms, read of which things we tried which we didn’t, which were successful and which were not, reflect with us on lessons learned and mysteries yet to be solved. And so it is vital that I allow time for writing these letters to scattered friends and family.

It’s been a good couple of months for making slow but real progress towards our goals. Settling in always takes longer than I expect, but we are now fairly well recovered from the move and ready to take our first steps towards supplying our own needs directly. We weren’t able to get our eight-acre pasture treated with limestone before the rains came, but we did decide on what part of it would be used for a quarter-acre garden, and the past few weeks have been spent figuring out how much of what needs to be planted in order to supply us with a year’s worth of food. This doesn’t mean that we expect to fully succeed at growing and preserving a year’s worth of food the first time around. But we need to start experimenting with growing and preserving food on that scale. There are bound to be unexpected results in both directions; the successes will feed us, and the failures will teach us useful lessons for the next go-round.

Our most recent blessing was to make friends with a nearby farming family. Last fall we arranged to get milk and eggs from another nearby family, an arrangement that was put on hold a few weeks ago as their cow went dry. Then we got the bad news—they had decided to stop keeping milk cows. But at the same time we got the good news—the husband was turning the operation over to his brother. We learned all this when the brother’s wife, came over to introduce herself, and to tell us she had ten gallons of milk we could have right away if we wanted. Now, ten gallons may sound like a lot, but in fact we use about that much in a week, for drinking and for making butter.

Debbie and Chris went with her to fetch the milk, and stayed to visit. Turns out that they are a homeschooling family with seven children, ages 17, 16, 11, 9,.5, 2, and seven months—fairly closely aligned with our own. They all talked about what a shame it was they hadn’t known us a few weeks earlier, when they took a field trip to a local Mennonite farm and spent the day learning how to make cheese. They raise their own chickens, occasionally process chickens for other people, and offered to teach us how to harvest the eight chickens wandering around our yard when we were ready to bring them over. The husband specializes in drywall work, had done some construction on our house, and offered to come show us how to finish with the closets we’ve started.

Meeting these folks has been a real encouragement to us all. Since then the kids have been bustling around making preparations for the spring, while I’ve made trips to the hardware store to fetch materials for rehabilitating the chicken coop, building a chicken tractor, and more. It makes a real difference to (a) know folks who are living the way you want to live, and (b) are willing and ready to help you in your efforts. It’s the same reason that I find the Christian agrarian weblog community to be such a blessing.

Praise for a friend

The church we now attend is small and unpretentious. Children stay in the service, and families are on the large side, so even with six or seven families there are forty to fifty people at the average service. None of the families are affluent; many of them live a life that is influenced by the strong Amish and Mennonite presence in the area. They’ve all been very welcoming, but never imposing. The church is essentially program-free, although I’m not sure if that is due to convictions or just to a shortage of people that could participate.

The pattern of the service is Anglican, taken from the Book of Common Prayer. The preaching is solid and biblical, and refreshingly free of personal anecdotes. The music is a mixture of contemporary praise songs and the sort of folk hymns that became so popular in Roman Catholic churches in the 1960s. Singing is usually accompanied by an acoustic guitar.

The song leader is Jerome Lang, who is just a few years older than I am. Jerome is wiry and grizzled, in the best way. Jerome has operated an organic farm in the area for more than twenty years, but he arrived there after a long and varied journey. He was raised initially on a farm in Nebraska, then as a teen moved with his family to Seattle. After high school he tried to make a go of it as a local folk singer, but that proved too hard a row to hoe, so he and his wife moved to the wilds of east Washington state and joined a homesteading community there. His first child was born in a tent, in the wintertime, in a place that was only accessible on horseback. A long series of adventures, only a few of which I’ve heard so far, eventually led him to establish a farm just south of Liberty, Kentucky.

Jerome took a liking to us right away, and I’m not entirely certain why. Part of it, I’m sure, is that Chris and I play music professionally. Early on he invited himself over to our house for an evening of music, then came back another time with his banjo-playing friend Bill. Jerome plays for various local events, and has invited us to be there for some of them—the church Christmas pageant, a presentation at another local church, an informal performance at a nearby retreat center. He likes it that we are able to pick up songs quickly and so fill out the sound without extensive practice. Jerome has written a number of his own songs, some of them delightful, all of them informed by his agrarian way of life.

Whatever it was that drew Jerome to us, he has been a special blessing to us so far, and I’m sure that will only increase in the future. We don’t come at our own farming project with much more than a willingness to learn and the humility to ask people to teach us. Jerome knows an awful lot of what we need to learn, and has been quite willing to take the time to teach us. Part of the reason, I’m sure, is that organic farming is a fringe activity, looked at askance even by many of the plain people who farm for a living in this area, and so he is eager for the chance to share what he’s learned with someone who will appreciate the value of it.

A few weeks ago Jerome offered to take me and Chris on a guided tour of the immediate area. He drove over around 9am and we climbed into his ancient Nissan pickup. He told us it was his favorite vehicle because of the great gas mileage, and I was impressed to see that the odometer was closing in on 300.000 miles. I was also impressed to see that it was the only gauge in the dashboard that still worked. He took us to meet a nearby mechanic that he thought was reliable, showed us where one of our fellow parishioners lived, drove through Liberty pointing out the town dump and the building supplies store, pointed out a great bargain shoe store that had unfortunately just closed, drove us past the quarry that he said had the only limestone in the area worth putting on your land, and then stopped in to see another parishioner at her stained glass workshop, where we spent a half hour or so visiting and admiring her work.

The next part of the journey was a slow and detailed tour of the area just around Jerome’s farm, which is thickly settled by Mennonites. We drove by Zimmerman’s Farmstead Cheeses (the one place Chris and I had already been), stopped in at Nolt’s Bulk Foods to marvel at their extremely low prices, drove up the hill to the Mennonite church building, circled the grounds of the Gallilean Children’s Home, and stopped in at Lavern’s Surplus Foods, where you could get things like sixty Lenders Bagels for $3, twenty-four cans of pinto beans for $5, thick woolen boot socks for $1.25 a pair, twenty-four cans of Starbucks Double Shot Espressos for $5, and so on.

We also stopped in to see some Mennonite friends of Jerome’s. One was a young blind man who buys and shells black walnuts; we visited briefly with him and his wife and new baby. Another was a fellow who is known as the guy to go to when you need your starter or alternator worked on, and also sells a wide range of irrigation equipment. He wasn’t home, but his son came out to meet us and chat as Jerome searched for a few pieces he needed to buy. A third was good friend of Jerome’s, a fellow organic farmer for whom he will often sell produce at various upscale outlets in Lexington. It was wash day, and over the noise of the gasoline-powered washer Jerome arranged to pick up carrots and cabbages the next day to take into town.

That made for a long trip, so we headed back to our house in mid-afternoon, where there were still enough soup beans and cornbread from lunch to feed the three of us. It was cold and starting to snow, but as we told Jerome about our garden plans he insisted on grabbing a shovel and helping us survey the property for the best place to put the garden. He also recommended that we have lime put on the land, an unusually high amount (15 tons to the acre). I don’t know much about farming yet, but I do know to trust a knowledgeable friend, so I told him I’d get it done as soon as possible.

Our Christmas present from Jerome was a copy of “An Agricultural Testament” by Sir Albert Howard, the fellow who practically invented organic farming back in the early part of the 20th century. I haven’t read it yet, partly because Chris grabbed it and began to devour it. After some thought, we gave Jerome a copy of John Taylor Gatto’s “An Underground History of American Education”, since education is an interest of his and his countercultural background has made him very open to alternative views of history.

Chris’s main school assignment for the past couple of weeks has been to make an initial plan for this year’s garden, figuring out how much of each kind of food we need to feed ourselves. Once that is done, Jerome has offered to come over and review it in detail. That will be helpful not only because he knows what to grow and not to grow, but also because he is realistic about what can and can’t be managed, particularly by novice farmers; I’m sure he will help us scale down our plans to a level that we can hope to handle.

Random notes

I plan on once again writing substantial posts for this weblog. Soon. But not today.

I don’t know how large my readership is, but it is diverse. After I wrote that I had placed roughly a ton of bricks on the floor behind our wood stove, an architect wrote and suggested that I send him a description of the wall and some photographs of the floor from underneath, so that he could do a few calculations. I complied—eagerly!—and it turns out that things are probably OK. It’s good to have knowledgeable friends.

On one of the music discussion groups I subscribe to there was a discussion of strings for the upright bass. Strings aren’t something that most bass players like to think about, because they are very expensive, twenty to forty times as much as guitar strings. But I also have a clear memory of the sinking feeling I got when I watched John Herrmann, who was playing bass for the Reeltime Travelers at Merlefest, somehow manage to break a string just as the set was beginning. Like most bass players, he didn’t have any extra strings with him. Unlike most bass players, he knew the instrument well enough to finish the set with only three strings.

Like most bass players, I’m not in John Herrmann’s league, and so I was reminded that carrying an extra set of strings would be a good idea. But that was eighteen months ago, and although I thought about it from time to time I couldn’t bring myself to spend $150 to fix the problem. Until the recent discussion, which recommended a particular brand that was said to have a very good sound and feel, approximating the gut strings that were common in days of yore. I was intrigued enough to order a pair; Chris restrung the bass for me last night, and we spent about an hour playing.

The sound really is better. I think the strings are louder, which means I don’t have to pluck nearly as hard to get a good tone from them. More important, the notes sound much clearer when the strings are stopped (i.e. when I’m pressing the string to the fingerboard to get a note). The low notes are very clear, compared to the vague thump I used to get with the old strings. Some of the stopped notes actually “growl” (I don’t know how else to describe this, it is a pleasant sort of buzzing sound, commonly heard in jazz playing). And some notes that were problematic with the old strings now sound good. And keep in mind, people often commented on how good the old strings sounded. Those strings will stay in the bass case as a backup.

We’ve seen unusual winter weather the last few days, very warm and sunny. On Monday the temperature rose to over 70 degrees, and then in late afternoon a monstrous storm moved in. We lost power a few minutes into it. There were torrential rains for more than an hour. And as we watched the clouds moving through we could see tornado funnels forming and beginning to drop down, so we headed for the basement. The rain and wind eventually ended, but power wasn’t restored until about 10pm. Later we heard that much of the area didn’t get power back until the next morning.

Tuesday I was in town, chatting with a fellow who lives near us. He asked me if I had seen the tornado damage. I hadn’t, because when coming into town I had turned right instead of left onto the main highway. Coming home I drove past the turn to our house, and not a hundred yards down the road I saw on one side a tobacco barn whose roof had been mostly torn off, and on the other side an Amish house which had been partially destroyed, massive amounts of debris covering the pastures and hills. I wasn’t surprised to see quite a few buggies and cars parked by the house—I assumed the community was already pitching in to put things back together.

The house that was destroyed is only three miles down the hollow from here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the funnel we saw was the one that destroyed it. We’re thankful to God for sparing us, and we’re also grateful that he placed those folks in a community that knows how to respond to such a disaster.

Yesterday I decided it was long past time to get Kentucky plates and a driver’s license, so I took one of the vehicles into Columbia, the county seat. We live at the very edge of Adair County, Columbia is at the opposite edge, and the town of Russell Springs is closer to us, so we don’t get to Columbia much. And outside of county government functions, there’s not much reason for us to go. One advantage of a sleepy rural town is that there usually aren’t lines, and so even at the relaxed pace that is common here it doesn’t take too long to transact your business. I had plates and a new license in less than thirty minutes.

One notable thing was that the folks behind the counter seemed to know just about everyone but me. One pleasant thing was that the fellow making my driver’s license took time to chat with me. The usual icebreaker is “Whereabouts do you live?”, and it turned out that he lives just a couple of miles from here. He’s the one who told me about the tornado damage.

Ridgewood Boys daily podcast

The Ridgewood Boys Daily Podcast is going public. Every weekday we plan to post a new fifteen-minute program of songs and patter. You can access the programs individually through the podcast weblog, or you can subscribe by coping this link into any podcast-catching application such as iTunes:


Feedback is greatly appreciated.