Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bringing home the goats...

Our goat ladies needed to come home. We had three by the time we moved, and they were occupying space that Judy needed in her barnyard. The first frost would come in a month, and we had work to do.

We had a good-sized garage, divided into two halves. I thought they could do well in there. But first we had to build a milk stand. We set to work and had it in good shape in about a day. We painted it white, and put it in the garage.

I thought that we could let all the girls out of the barn, then bring them in one by one to be milked.

The thing about buying goats in milk is very similar to the thing about bringing home a new baby. Once you have them, you have them, and you have to learn very quickly. We knew how to wash, milk, and bottle, but we'd never had to do it ourselves in the right sequence in a way the goats understood.

So. The first morning I let them all out of the garage through the side door, then selected Monique and let her back in. I had to get her up on the milk stand. She slid her head between the neckholders and started eating, and I locked her in. And then sat down and milked her all the way out myself. My hands ached, but she looked done. I poured the milk into another bucket - more on this later - and let her out. Then it was Erica's turn.

It went ok, but by the time I was done, Elegant had wandered off.

And if they wandered off during milking, surely they would wander off during the day. We realized that the goats couldn't stay in the garage all day, so it was time to get busy on the fence.

And a barn.

Before we got the fence up and the ladies well-contained, they had discovered they could wander at will while I was milking their sister in the garage. And wander they did. One morning they followed the kids to the school bus, and as I came out of the garage I saw Erica climbing on board with Fritz.

It's hard to know what to do in a situation like that. I called her name, but she wasn't paying attention. I had other goats who would follow me down the driveway if I went after her. Finally the driver closed the door in her face and she came running back.

Oh how green we were. Not environmentally green, just green. How long, I thought, would it be before I had it all straight.


When we started out, we just wanted to grow our own food, for two reasons I think: It was deeply compelling for unknown reasons, and we wanted to save trips to the store. In the beginning, that was a matter of convenience. Later it was a financial necessity.

Long gas lines and high prices were only a couple of years behind us. That may have fed into our desire not waste gas only to end up in grocery stores buying blah manufactured food.

Plus, beginning in 1971, I had studied healthy living at the feet of my life-mentor, Kay Ferguson. She just naturally had a garden, and fed her family out of it every night. I learned about what I was serving my family, and watched her techniques as she prepared veggies, salads, brown rice in her cast iron pot.

Her garden was full of all sorts of veggies. It was beautiful. When she moved to a new house, one of the first projects was getting in the new garden.

She had grown up on a farm herself, and it was just what she did. The big difference between her and the rest of us is that she remembered how to eat, and we had all forgotten. We had taken the easy way out of buying processed cereals, hot dogs, and so on. Today's grocery selection is much worse, but we still had additives and broken foods in 1971 when I met Kay, and she had no tolerance for them.

From her I learned how to make lentil soup and stir-fried veggies, from her garden in season or from our 'organic' food coop that flew it in from California once a week. Her son Bob was just as proficient a cook and could serve up fine meals with little effort to those of us who worked with him at the TM center in Wellesley.

'Organic' was a newish word with somewhat unknown meanings to me.

A good part of what I wanted from a garden was good food. And convenient food. And self-sufficiency meant growing what we ate.

Or in reality it meant eating what we grew, but that's another story.

We had a lot of work ahead of us as we faced the unbroken sod that September. It was still only a dream beginning to become a plan. Not a half year had passed away from the first inklings of undertaking a new lifestyle. And we had taken a very big bite.

In the end, 5 years later when we moved to Tucson, we knew we could live self-sufficiently. And in between, we learned what that really meant, the hard way.

Disaster strikes...

It wasn't a housefire, no one got hurt. Instead, disaster came in a little envelope with a window.

We received our tax bill about a month after we arrived at the farm. We had stretched to buy this precious piece of land and had invested our whole selves in the concept of becoming self-sufficient. We had calculated closely and aside from buying a couple extra goats and hence needing extra feed, we were on track.

But this was 1976. Inflation was out of sight, rising to 10% not long after we moved in, and 12% soon after. It was devastating.

And the City of Natick needed to raise taxes to keep up with costs. Our tax bill doubled.

When we closed on our property in August 1976, the taxes were $2600 a year, a huge amount compared to what we would have paid in most states. In fact, at that time Massachusetts was called, not affectionately, Tax-achusetts.

But then the taxes doubled. We literally were being asked to pay $5200 a year or over $400 a month. The mortgage was only around $700 a month.

Suddenly we were in a dire situation. JSL's salary at MIT of about $32,000 could barely cover the original monthly payments. He had been teaching there for 8 years, had consulted for NASA and aerospace companies, and we were still in trouble.

This was the beginning of 5 years of serious financial challenges. The rest of the story of our time on the farm, and the real reason this whole saga has relevance today, is because we had a big deficit to face, and tried lots of things, and somehow survived. And look back on it all with fondness.


Farms need cats. And kids need kittens.

Cats keep mice and rats from eating the goat feed. And birds from getting into the barn.

Plus they're cute. Plus our friend had a litter she wanted to get rid of.

So we got kittens. I don't remember how many we came home with. But after that day we always had plenty of cats.

The first kittens our cats had were born in our coat closet, up on a bureau we'd put in there to hold mittens and hats. Kiki did a great job cleaning up her babies, and then after a while she brought them down to the kitchen floor and took care of them down there.

Dusty was very interested in those kittens! And we were a little concerned what a big beagle, still not much more than a puppy, would do to them.

But Kiki had grown up with Dusty, and she trusted him. While we watched all coiled up and ready to save the kittens, Dusty lay down with them. They cuddled him and tried to find where he kept his milk, and Kiki took a break. From then on, Dusty was the second mom, licking them, keeping them warm, obviously enjoying them.

All of us spent hours watching Dusty and the kittens. Another lesson learned in our cozy kitchen on our farm.

Moving to the farm...

Moving day finally came. It was right after Labor Day Weekend 1976. When we got back from being away for the weekend, school would start. The children would go to their new school from our old house and come home to the farm. We rehearsed how that would happen several times.

Meanwhile, while they were at school, we would load up the last of our belongings and drive the truck HOME! By the time they got to their new house, we would have everything pretty much unloaded.

The children (VJ 10, Margo 8, Fritz 6) had in the previous year lived 4 months in Wellesley, nearly 6 months in Switzerland, and nearly 3 more months in Wellesley. In Wellesley they had lived almost across the street from the school; in South Natick they had to go on the bus about 5 miles. In Wellesley their best friends had moved away soon after we returned from Switzerland; in South Natick they didn't know anyone.

Moving is never easy. But they were excited by the promise of having a garden and animals, and they had already met the goats and had taken home their puppies. Life was full of promise!

The house itself was not particularly of interest to us at first. It was large, with high ceilings and generous rooms. The kitchen was designed for people who actually cooked, which I loved to do! And it had enough room for a large table. The living and dining rooms were not often used. A family room shut off from the kitchen by walls and a door was uninsulated, as we learned that winter. A bedroom plus its own bath completed the downstairs. Opposite the big front door and the hall connecting it to the rest of the house was a door to the beloved backyard and all the potential we could envision for it.

Upstairs were three bedrooms, plus an unfinished area over the family room and part of the kitchen.

It was spacious. Not necessarily well-designed in that it didn't use the space efficiently, but it was big!

So in we moved. We spent our time together mostly in the kitchen, and outdoors of course. Things were in pretty good shape. It was a lot to take care of, but that didn't seem it would be a problem... We hadn't bought the property for the house, anyway, though today it is considered to be a beautiful home on a prime piece of real estate. But a lot happened in between.

Why not puppies...more lessons learned

If we're going to have animals, I thought, it makes sense to have a dog. You know, to take care of things. We were heading out of town for a short vacation after we had the contract signed for the farm, and somehow I had read an ad in the paper about beagle puppies for sale. And it so happened that their home was not too far from the path we would be taking for our vacation.

So we decided to stop by. And I had also decided that this would be an ideal late birthday present for our oldest son, VJ, who had turned 10 while we were still in Switzerland. We were shown the litter, 4 wonderful young beagles about 7 weeks old. We asked that if we decided to take one, could we pick it up a couple of weeks later when we returned home. Certainly!

Three of the beagles were beagle-colored, and one was larger and yellowish. VJ picked out a beagle-looking one. Hmm, I thought, I really like the yellow one.


So I asked the nice lady whether if we bought two, we might get a break on the price, and could she hold them both for us. She said CERTAINLY!

So we ended up with two dogs. We got them, naturally, just before we moved. VJ named his Charlie, and we named the other Dusty because of his color.

They were still tiny when they got to the farm. They stayed in the house except when the kids were out playing, but it was hard to keep them from tearing into everything. So when I had to do an errand a few weeks after we moved, I left them outside. The house was quite far from the road, hundreds of feet. But they found their way to the street, and Charlie was hit by a car and killed.

I didn't know that, though. I came home to see one quaking, shaking yellow puppy, no Charlie, and also our youngest child, Fritz, who should have gotten off the bus just before I arrived, missing.

A policeman soon arrived. He looked downcast. I was in a panic. Something had happened. But was it to the puppy or to the child?

He didn't realize my problem, so he started out saying there had been an accident. He spoke slowly. I was frantic.

Then from the corner of my eye, I saw my son walk around the corner of the house. He had gotten off the bus at the corner of the next street, not at our driveway, and had walked home by way of another little boy's house.

My relief was of course tainted by the sadness of losing Charlie, and knowing that I could have prevented the accident. We took up the shaking, upset Dusty, dug the first of many graves in our backyard, and buried VJ's puppy.

Life entails death. It was the beginning of our tough lessons.

More goats: Elegant and Erica

So as I was saying, Judy had several goats. I didn't know it yet, but goats sort of accumulate. Goat people know other goat people, and they fall in love with their goats. And then of course mamma goats are having baby goats every spring. So Judy had quite a few, and to balance things out at home, which was pretty close to civilization in suburban Massachusetts, she was selling some. Such as Monique.

And Elegant. Elegant was a tiny goat of a rich brown color. She was a Nubian, and she had been neglected before she got to Judy's, so that when we met her she was probably half the size she should have been. We fell in love. Judy sold her to us for just $60.

Erica was another goat of Judy's and we eventually (two months later or so) bought her.

But it was Elegant we truly slurped over. She was responsive to every touch and learned her name quickly. We wanted to take her home!

Except that home still meant Wellesley. We hadn't moved to the farm yet.

But hey, we had a basement! And a door that was only a step or two down to it from outside. And a grassy backyard that even needed mowing! Why not take her home?

WARNING: This was not a good plan!

First, goats don't do well on grass. It's too succulent for them. Their guts are great with browse such as the bark and twigs of trees, or dry leaves, or hay. But not grass. So we couldn't let her graze.

Second, goats are a real curiosity to dogs. Apparently dogs can smell them for a huge distance, because dogs we didn't even know came to see the new thing in the neighborhood. So we couldn't let Elegant out of the basement.

Third, goats have no respect for boundaries even small children respect, such as piles of laundry, which are easily walked over by goats, or drywall, which they eat, for that matter. We couldn't let Elegant stay in our basement.

Soooo, for the last few days before our move to the farm, we had to take Elegant back to Judy's. She was very understanding. They both were.

The move was coming up. But when we got to the farm, we still had a few barriers before we were able to house the goats.

Learning how to milk, and the repercussions

Obviously if an academic sort of person from suburbia is going to buy a milking goat, she should learn how to milk.

I went back to Judy's for that purpose. She invited me to come at milking time and watch, and take a hand at milking Monique. (See earlier post explaining about Monique.)

So I went at twilight on a July evening with one or more of our three children, whoever was interested at the time. And we watched Judy milk.

What you do is: Wash the udder, dry the udder, squeeze the teats.

Yes, that's what real goat people call them, and we're not going to get squeamish here over a technical term. They rhyme with meats.

Here's how it's done:

1. Wash the goat's udder all over with a very dilute solution of Basic H in warm water.
2. Dry the udder with a paper towel or dish towel or clean rag (aka old dish towel).
3. Close off the top of the teat, right next to the bag, between the base of the forefinger and the thumb, one hand per teat. (Tricky: this is a two-handed operation. Or as goat people say, "If God had intended people to milk cows, he would have given them 4 hands." Two is just right for goats, who have two teats.)
4. Squirt a tiny amount of milk into the wash bucket, onto the dirt floor, or into the waiting cat's mouth. This is to get rid of the milk that has accumulated at the end of the teat where bacteria might grow in it.
5. Place the clean milk pail on the milking bench (more about this in another post) and begin to milk by squeezing the teat from top to bottom. The easiest way is to add successive fingers. (It helps to watch.). Continue in a rhythmic fashion, about one squeeze per every 2 seconds or so. You can alternate hands or do them together. The milk will begin to flow as it 'lets down'.
6. When the milk flow subsides, massage the bag gently and squeeze again, repeating until the milk stops squirting out. Then strip the teats to get the last of the milk from them. They will look empty.
7. Wash the bag and teats again.

That is how it is done. Not the first time, necessarily, though. I got a squirt or two the first night. But I just loved it! I went back many times...

The trouble with visiting Judy's is that she had more than Monique. She had several goats. One was named Elegant. She was tiny - someone had neglected her and Judy had come to the rescue. Guess what happened next?

Buying the farm

This story is filled with little miracles.

We got home from Switzerland in early June 1976. By then I was just sizzling with having our own self-sufficient farm. From watching a garden planted in Switzerland to having our own homestead was an evolution I experienced in huge leaps.

I was ready!

But would there be land available? I would be satisfied with enough garden space to grow our own food - so I thought in the beginning. And maybe just a few little animals (like a cow? I didn't now about goats yet.)

I hit the ground running. I started looking for land in the paper, and called a real estate agent. We looked at houses with enough lawn to have a garden, but each time it seemed like too much house and too little land, or it was too suburban to be a complete self-sufficient operation.

But by late June I had found an amazing property that was just a little out of our price range, if we stretched and stretched. We knew we couldn't afford the whole thing, which was 14 acres.

Fourteen acres! What bliss! Or even part of it! This was in the town of South Natick, just beyond Wellesley, where we were then living.

But we couldn't afford all of it, so we made an offer on 5 acres. It was refused. We did our numbers again and offered a bit more. But the seller, a man who had been born on the property in the old house and then built a new fancy house nearby, wouldn't budge. He had to have his $95,000 or he wouldn't sell.

(Remember that these were 1976 dollars!)

So we were stuck. Then I thought, what if we add some more land to the deal, and some more money, so we offered to buy 9 acres for $95,000 and he said yes.

We had it! 9 acres! Our wonderful homestead! We could move in by the end of August.

It had a house, a huge lawn, a garage with a greenhouse on the second story, and woods. And what we really cared about: plenty of room for gardens and of course room for a barn...

Buying a goat: Monique becomes mine

So where does a person go to buy a goat?

I had no idea. Out little farm in suburban Boston was not located in what I thought of as 'goat country'. (See the post on buying that little farm for more details...)

So I looked in the Classifieds and found a goat for sale!

I called the number and talked to a friendly lady named Judy. She became my walking goat encyclopedia and saw me through...well, no need to go into that yet.

I made an appointment to go see the goat she had for sale. This would be my first face-to-face with a goat since one at the petting zoo when I was a kid - er, little girl - ate my Weekly Reader out of my pocket. (Do they still have Weekly Reader in schools?)

So I met Monique. Goats have names, I found out. And personalities, as will emerge later in this saga.

Monique was an older goat, about 6 (out of the expected lifespan for dairy goats of about 10-12 years, with some luck). She was steady. She eyed me while chewing her cud (yep, they do). She stood about hip high. She was brownish and goaty: head, ears, mid-section, udder, tail... What did I know? She was a goat!

Judy told me about her. She was a grade - not purebred. She made lots of milk (!!! I said to myself). She'd had mild mastitis (ugly udder-destroying disease), wasn't beautiful (she wasn't?), but was an easy milker. All answers to questions I didn't know to ask.

So I bought her. She cost $150. I had no idea if that was good or not. I just trusted Judy.

I couldn't take her home yet, because we hadn't moved to the farm. I promised to pick her up as soon as we had something to do with her. (I COULDN'T WAIT!)

Why goats, part 1: they're not cows

Why goats?

We started out thinking we should get a cow, obviously for milk. We drink a lot of milk, so the thinking was, the cow could mow the lawn and make us the milk we were paying for at the store.

But a little reading suggested that a cow might be too big. And also that we would need two cows because one would be dry - NO MILK - for at least two months before she had her next calf. And she'd have a calf each year, and so would her sister, the second cow. And two cows produce an awful lot of milk! And what do we do with the calves. EAT THEM?

The same readings suggested goats. The point was, they are smaller (if they step on your foot, you don't have to go to the hospital), having more than one to get through the dry spell is not as challenging, they eat less. Of course they still have babies - kids - every year. (Maybe we could sell the kids? I mean, the baby goat kids?) And the children could handle them.

Right there I was won over. What was the point of having a homestead if the children couldn't do a good share of the work?

The more I read about goats, the more I liked the idea.

I had no idea where to buy them, but that is a different story.

The beginning...

I sat in my hotel room in Switzerland and watched a woman from a nearby home plant her garden. First she had a load of topsoil delivered, then she smoothed it meticulously, then she measured it out in blocks with her meterstick, then she changed my life.

I was there a month and by the time I left, she had planted her sets and the garden was growing. I wanted to do the same.

Half a year later, we were eating our first crops, a few greens and beans.

But first we had to buy some land...

This was only a beginning. We had so much to learn, and so many adventures ahead. It was tough, and it was satisfying. And it turned out it was our financial salvation. But we didn't know what was coming, back then in early 1976.