Death & Life-Altering Mittens (An Interview)

Deborah Niemann is the force behind Antiquity Oaks farm in rural Illinois. She is the author of three books: Homegrown and Handmade: A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living (2011), Ecothrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life, (2012), and Raising Goats Naturally: The Complete Guide to Milk, Meat, and More (2013). She also teaches Raising Goats Sustainably and Pastured Poultry online for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

After attending her “Goats 101” workshop, I sat down with Deborah over a cup of chai (sweetened with maple syrup from her farm) to learn about her journey toward self-sufficiency and the often harsh realities of running an ethical farm.

You and your husband were vegetarian before moving to the farm, right?

Yeah. We had been vegetarians for 14 years. We tried being vegans once but that only lasted a few months. It was really hard to eat out when we were vegan, because that was in the 90’s.

And this was in the suburbs?

Chicago, yeah.

What was your decision based on then to be vegetarian?

In the late 80’s was when I started learning about nutrition, I picked up a copy of Vegetarian Times in a health food store one day in January of 1989 and there was an article in it about factory chicken farming, and I was horrified. I was like, “I don’t want to be a part of this. this is terrible.” I thought that all chickens lived like they did on my grandparents’ farm that I visited when I was a little girl. I thought they were out there running around and being happy and laying their eggs in a nest. I had no idea that they were kept in battery cages and being debeaked. So we made a decision then to quit eating meat. And when we first moved out here (to the farm) we had no intention of eating meat, we just had the chickens for eggs. the reason we got our own roosters is that we wanted to have our own replacement layers, because we wanted to be sustainable. I didn’t want to keep buying chicks from a hatchery every year. All the books said you only need 1 rooster for every 12 or 15 hens. So I read that and I thought “well, the reason you don’t need that many roosters is that they are basically free loaders. They’re not giving you eggs, but they’re beautiful, and I think beauty is important so we’re not going to butcher the roosters”. And so after 2 years we had 40 hens and 24 roosters (laughter).

A population explosion.

Yeah. And the hens were literally being run ragged. They looked terrible. None of them had feathers on their backs. You would see a rooster attack a hen and there would be another waiting to jump on. So the hens were just in terrible shape. And then the roosters started fighting over the hens. It doesn’t matter how much space you have. If 2 roosters want the same hen, they’re going to get in a fight over her.

So really it was a matter of needing to do something about the violence in the flock?

Yeah. One day I walked through the barn and I saw this rooster – his name was Emerald because of the glistening green feathers (he was a Silver-Laced Wyandotte). He was standing in the barn like he was in a trance, just staring straight ahead. A little later I come back and he’s still standing there. I said “rough night, Emerald? haha.” (laughter). I came back later and he was still standing there, and then I knew something was wrong. I walked closer and it’s like he didn’t know I was there. I looked at the other side of him and his eye had been poked out, his head was covered in blood. He had no eyeball left. So I think he was completely blind, even though the other eye looked normal. So I came inside and told Mike that he needed to kill him and take him out of his misery.  And Mike asked if I could do anything for him. I said, “he’s blind. A hawk or a predator can take him out just like that.” He was the king of the barnyard! Living in a cage for the rest of his life, blind, is no life. Mike didn’t know how to kill a rooster. I said “well, my grandparents would just chop off the head with an axe. And you have an axe.” so after a half hour conversation, Mike goes out to sharpen his axe and Emerald died, waiting.

So I’m looking at mike and I said “you know, that’s good organic meat. Every reason that we don’t eat meat doesn’t exist with him. He’s never had drugs, he’s had a good life out here. He’s been really happy up until the last 30 minutes.”. So I started looking at books on how to butcher a chicken. It took us almost 2 hours to do it the first time. And a week later it happened again. By the time Mike got his axe the rooster was dead again!

What are the odds?

I know! And the next week it happened again! And that time we actually got our stuff together before the chicken died, and so it was the first time he had to cut the head off of a live rooster. So then you have the head off and the body flapping and stuff. And then we had the big discussion. Because it was really a pain! Every time we had to drop what we were doing and deal with it…

And everything has to happen in the right sequence.

Yeah. And it was becoming clear that the chickens were seeking some kind of equilibrium. They were unhappy with the ratio here, and they’re going to keep going until they’re happy.

It’s their own kind of population control.

Exactly. And is it humane to let them continue killing each other? I think it’s more humane to chop their heads off, rather than letting them peck each others’ eyes out. That’s’ awful.

So then you’re doing the kindest thing that you know how to do.

Right.

Growing up in TX, were you helping with the butchering on your grandparents’ farm?

No. Both of my parents had grown up on a farm, and when I was 3 years old they moved to town. But they still had friends that were farmers, so they would buy a pig or a cow from people they knew. And I remember my father telling us that we were having steaks for dinner, and how he actually went out to the farm, shot the calf, hung it up in our garage and butchered it – which as a teenager was horrifying to me. I would ask my mom “why can’t we just buy our meat from the store like everyone else”. And she would say “because you don’t know how it was grown”.

So they were conscious of food ethics then?

Yeah, but I wish they would have explained that to me. I would say “what difference does it make how it’s grown?” And now I look back on the history of food in this country and see that the 70’s was when factory farming was starting. Well it started with chickens 80 years before that, but the 70’s was when they were moving the cattle and pigs into feed lots and into buildings.

Restrictions falling away, profits going up.

Yeah. So now when I look back on it I wish my parents were still alive so I could talk to them about it.

So they passed away before they could see your transition to coming out here?

Yeah.

Was that a determining factor to wanting your kids to grow up on a farm?

Having children was a huge part of coming out here. I wanted them to understand where their food comes from. I wanted them to have a meaningful life. I just felt like everything in the city was contrived, and there wasn’t anything real in our lives. (My husband and I) had done so much to improve our diets from the first time I got pregnant, and the more I thought about it, it’s like I had been walking around in a fog my whole life and all the sudden when I got pregnant I started becoming aware of all of these things that I never cared about before.

Like an awakening.

Yeah. And I knew that a lot of health problems were not just caused by bad diet but also by not getting enough exercise. And I wanted to get enough exercise. I didn’t want to just be sitting in front of a computer. I tried everything. I joined the YMCA. I joined a fancy expensive health club because I thought if I made more of a financial commitment then I’d stick with it. I thought “this is stupid. I shouldn’t be spending money on this”. I tried just walking around the neighborhood, but then winter hit and so I got a treadmill for the basement. That got boring so I got a bicycle. I had all this stuff and I never stuck to anything. It was so stupid. I would get in my car and drive to this air conditioned building and get on a treadmill and walk to nowhere, or get on a bike and bike to nowhere. Totally contrived.

When I was a reporter in the 90’s in St. Charles (IL), spinning was becoming a thing. I was writing an article on spinning and I went into this health club and there was this big video screen in front of the spin bikes. And on the screen was a road going up a mountain. And I was like, oh my god. A Sunday morning for me at that time – I wouldn’t even leave my bedroom until 11 o’clock in the morning. Mike would go downstairs and make coffee, bring the newspaper up. We’re sitting there drinking coffee and eating bagels until 11 and I just thought “I want a real life. I want it to be genuine. I want my kids to have real responsibilities, not just Feed the Cat.”

I know what you mean. Even on our little farm, I always stress to my students that this work isn’t happening in the abstract, that things need to happen because the livelihood of the living system depends on it. Did you notice a change in your children in that respect, once you moved to the farm?

Absolutely. Because everything has a purpose. It wasn’t just “you need to clean your room”. It was a matter of “you have to feed the animals. If you don’t feed them, they will starve. You have to milk the goats”. And we have never in this house bought any kind of meat. 100% of the meat on this table has been grown here. We’re not going to have meat on the table if we don’t grow it ourselves. We’re not going to have eggs on the table if we don’t grow them ourselves. It took us a long time to learn how to make all the cheeses and stuff, but even in the early years we taught them that we milk the goats so that we can have cheese. Consequently, we don’t have eggs in the middle of winter. People can’t believe that we don’t buy eggs in the winter. Well, it’s only 2 or 3 months out of the year! We don’t eat eggs for breakfast in the winter so we can save a couple dozen for Christmas baking. And then when they start laying again around March we’re excited again. And the thing about living out here is that I keep learning and learning and learning…

Even though the kids have grown and moved out, it’s not like the learning stops.

Right. And 2 years ago I got really sick. One thing after another after another, over a 6 month period. And I found out that I have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis which is an autoimmune disease. And pretty much most of the food that we don’t grow here, I can’t eat now. Like I can’t eat wheat.

You mean coincidentally it worked out that way?

No, I think it’s because… Like, I used to be really skeptical about wheat. I said, people have been eating wheat for thousands of years. Why would there suddenly so much trouble with it?

The gluten thing.

Yeah. Well, we haven’t been eating Wonder Bread for thousands of years.

Processed, refined flour.

Yeah. Let’s take bread. If you went back to the 1800s and gave someone a modern slice of bread, even a so-called “natural” or “organic” bread, they would be like “what’s this? It tastes weird, it’s got a weird texture.” 150 years ago, they were eating bread after they ground up the wheat the day before, added water to it and let it sit there overnight to naturally ferment, and then they turned it into bread. Commercial yeast was only invented a little over a hundred years ago. Before that, everything was sourdough.

At the Specialties Growers Conference in January, they had a baker from Chicago who buys wheat from local Illinois farmers and says “I can take a cup of King Arthur organic flour and add water to it and let it sit overnight and nothing happens to it. It’s dead. I can take a cup of flour from a local farmer that I ground up, I add water to it, tomorrow morning it’s bubbling. It’s alive. And we can digest that. We can’t digest this processed stuff. And especially once you start removing the bran and that type of thing. If you haven’t read Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, I recommend it. You really learn about the history of bread and how we’ve ruined it in the last century. It’s awful.

Speaking of authors, I noticed that you’re fond of quoting (Henry David) Thoreau. What is it about his writing that resonates with you?

I was in school as an English major. I read Thoreau more than most people. Walden just keeps coming up again and again in classes when you’re getting an English degree. It’s on your reading list for all of your overview of American Literature classes, and if you take an 1800’s Literature class it’s there again. I read it once when I was on a National Student Exchange in Nebraska…

You got the deal to go to Nebraska? Lucky you! (laughter).

I know. I wanted to go there because it was obscure. Everyone was like “why don’t you go to Hawaii or Florida?” Because, I looked at the list and thought where is the place that I would never have any other reason to go? Nebraska! (laughter) It was really a life changing semester for me because while I was there I had a boyfriend who was diabetic, and he really had to pay attention to all of his food choices. And I thought “well that’s because he’s sick”. But he was also really into nature and stuff, and he was taking a geology class and got me to go with him. The geology class was doing a camping trip to Colorado, so I went along. I went because of him, but I learned so much on that trip about the natural world. And I happened to be reading Thoreau at the same time. And on that trip there was a woman who, at the time I thought was so old. (laughter)

How old was she?

I have a picture from that trip – it’s on my blog, I wrote about it a few years ago – I look at the picture and I don’t think she was over 40 (laughter). But I was 20 so…

image

It’s all relative.

Yeah. And she was knitting a pair of mittens out of wool that she had spun herself that came from a sheep. I was like “oh my god, that’s so cool!” I was amazed that you can spin wool from an actual sheep and make mittens from it.

It was like a revelation.

Yeah! I knew how to knit, I’d been knitting since I was 8, but I’d always get the cheap acrylic yarn from whatever cheap store it was back then, and I would see expensive stuff and think “why would anyone spend $5 for a skein when you can get one for 99 cents? It opened my eyes in so many ways to see that, and to get in touch with that world. There were just a lot of people who came into my life at different times. And so I wrote my paper on Thoreau and I remember my professor just loved it, because I was talking about living deliberately.

Because you were invested in it, as opposed to just doing a research project.

Yeah. And I was actually seeing it. And realizing that the rest of the modern world was just… not real. I often use the quote “”I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…” Thoreau wouldn’t care if you have a Gucci handbag. It’s meaningless. Whereas this woman is making her own mittens out of wool that she spun. Once I moved out here, that quote became very real.

It makes me think of the whole “back to the land” movement of the mid to late 60’s, but when you were reading Thoreau it probably wasn’t the cool thing to do.

Yeah in the 80’s and early 90’s it was like consumerism, cubed.

So now there’s this new “back to the land” movement, and I’m continually struck by how many people seem to have a real desire to return to a more self-reliant lifestyle, but maybe they aren’t quite ready to accept the potential brutality.

For sure. I see it in my UMass students. In fact I just posted a forum discussion on the question “How do you feel about killing a chicken that is sick or injured? And if you’re not going to kill them, what will you do with them?”. I gave them a couple of weeks to think about it. Because I see it on the internet all the time, people taking a sick bird to the vet and being charged $75 just to walk in the door, holding a chicken that cost $5. And then after any drugs are administered you can’t eat the eggs for a while. So, you have to think about this.

Even though we were killing roosters, we had a very hard time to start killing hens, initially, because they were giving us eggs. They’re working for us!

And they’re not as aggressive, sometimes even sweet.

Right. But there was a point when we were only getting three dozen eggs a week even though we had 30 hens. So I did the math and realized that each hen was only laying 1 or 2 times a week. After all the feed, that means a dozen eggs is costing us $10.

So it was an expensive proposition.

Yeah, those were really expensive eggs!

When I attended your workshop recently, you sat in front of us and started telling stories about how you learned making a series of mistakes. When you got to the part about disbudding (a procedure wherein the buds of a goat’s horns are seared with a hot iron to prevent them from growing), I felt like it was shockingly brutal. You could have merely explained it to us, but instead we watched a video of it. There’s something about actually seeing it and hearing it. It’s a visceral thing. And for the group that was here, it seemed to raise the question: where is that line where you are required to really hurt an animal, a kid, a baby, for personal safety, or protection against liability? But I’m guessing that goat farmers in Africa and Central America and all over the developing world, don’t typically bother to remove horns. So I guess my question is, how do you strike that balance?

Every once in a while someone will say to me, “this doesn’t sound like fun at all”, in general. Like, why does anybody have goats? I generally say at the beginning of a talk, “I’m going to talk about everything here. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And if you start to think in your head “why would I want to do this?”, you have to also learn that there are so many great reasons to have goats. There were times when I didn’t want to keep goats anymore, when one died after kidding.

That was the story on your blog about when you were taking the goat Coco to the emergency room?

Coco, yeah. The one that died of a ruptured uterus after they pulled the kid at the University of Illinois. But I knew that if I quit raising goats, that I wouldn’t be eating dairy products any more.

You knew too much (laughter).

Yeah and I really didn’t want to give up dairy! The thing is, death is part of life. And most of us don’t know that, and we are completely protected from it, and we never see it. How many creatures do most people see die in our country, ever?

Or people for that matter.

Yeah! I was there when my mother-in-law died. But most people today, if they were there with 1 or 2 other people when someone dies, that’s a lot. With most people you just hear “they died”. It happened in a hospital, and there’s usually hardly anyone there. And people have said that to me: “I don’t know how you deal with all the death”. But it really makes you very philosophical. Because how would you know what good is if you don’t see evil? And how do you know what happiness is if you don’t see sadness? And I think this is one of the reasons that I have no real desire to watch TV. And people go to see movies that are terrifying because that’s what they’re looking for.

A kind of thrill seeking.

Yes. They’re looking for something that humans have experienced our entire existence. When you see someone die in a movie, your subconscious does not know that it’s fake.

Sort of like a subconscious suspension of disbelief?

Yeah. I think that’s one reason why people watch so much TV. They’re looking for a way to feel all of these emotions that you don’t get in everyday life.

I noticed that you have several blog entries about death. I feel like if people aren’t raising their own food, they can avoid thinking about death on a regular basis. But according to you, “life is a goat waddling around when she’s pregnant and screaming through labor contractions to bring forth kids that will tell her body to make milk to feed them. And life always ends in death“ The end. (laughter). That’s how you were feeling that day.

And it’s true. Someone told me that they were at a conference and the speaker said “how many of you can’t stand the sight of a dead animal?” And a bunch of people raised their hands. And he said “then don’t get any live ones, because they are all going to die”.

It’s like Louis CK’s joke where he said (paraphrasing) “why would you get someone a puppy as a gift? Here, I’m giving you something that will, in your lifetime, die. Why would you do that?”

I never thought about death before I moved here, ever. For the most part in modern society we think that if we’re sick we go to the doctor and they fix it and you’re fine. But if you have a farm, you can’t do that with every single animal that gets sick.

Do you slaughter your own goats?

There was one year that we ended up with 29 bucks, and by fall I had only sold 20, so we still had 9, which is a lot of bucks. So we decided to butcher them, since we couldn’t do anything else. So Mike started with the biggest one. And it was really good but it took 3 or 4 hours. And that’s kind of a lot of time when you need to do it every weekend. And so that was the only one we ever butchered! And then winter came, and the next year we had a drought and all the grass died, and we started dropping the prices for baby wethers (castrated males), but still nobody wanted them. So during the drought it was a real triage situation. I couldn’t even get hay to feed the animals that are producing something. So I called Chenoa (a meat locker) and told them what was happening with the drought and that we needed to reduce our herd size , and they took a few dollars off each one to kill them. Some of the meat ended up on our table, and the rest went to people in Chicago.

I was going to ask if you have goat meat on your table.

It depends. One year we forgot to disbud a buck. He slipped through the cracks. I’m out there one day and I see these little horns. People will try to remove the horns late in the game. You can find youtube videos where people do it…

I don’t think I need to see those videos.

I know. I am not going to do that to a buck. It would be awful. He’s going to have a very nice life here for a few months and then we’re just going to butcher him. And that’s what we did.

And the alternative, if you don’t do it, is that buck is going to end up fighting with other goats that don’t have horns, and then you’ve got other problems.

And he was going to be wethered (castrated). Nobody wants a pet goat with horns.

See, I actually had to ask myself that question. When I was a kid, our goats had horns. I never knew that goats didn’t have horns. And it never occurred to me, even as a little kid, that it was a danger. But I feel like now, maybe we’re in a more litigious climate?

It’s challenging to find a balance. My kids (who were homeschooled) once wrote a play called Peace News, which was about that idea of: where do you draw the line? What is violence, really? It was really cool to see that. There were some people from our church who asked them to perform it. (We go to a Unitarian Universalist church). And they loved it. And anyway didn’t the buddha discover that life is all about suffering?

That’s the first noble truth.

We think we’ve eliminated most suffering in our modern society because we rarely see it. Well, if you want a life without suffering, go to McDonald’s and get some chicken nuggets, but don’t start a farm.

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