Down on the farm: Perusing the Encyclopedia of Country Living

#450 in a series of true experiences in real estate
January 2004, Hills Newspapers

A few weeks before Christmas I came across a description of a book that I thought would make a good gift for our friends, Ann and Shaun, and so I ordered one for them: “The Encyclopedia of Country Living,” by Carla Emery.

Ann and Shaun are living in a trailer on land they own in Northern California, about to proceed with building a house. Shaun grew up moving about the country with his large family, often camping, and he is quite experienced and expert in the ways of self-sufficiency. But it seemed to me that even so, he and Ann would enjoy the book, possibly even learn something from it.

As it turned out, Ann was so enthusiastic that she loaned the book to me to read. All I had to do was to start in on the first page, and I was hooked. I ran right through it, from front to back, carried it with me wherever I went, until I was done.

Well, I didn’t read every single word. It’s a huge book – 884 pages – but I gobbled up much of it, and learned a wealth of fascinating things in the process. The subject matter is vast; everything from giving birth by yourself, and caring for your dead, to raising and eating animals, vegetables – even minerals – is in this volume.

And, the best part, is that it is well written, in a warm and kindly manner by an author I came to know, enjoy and love.

My favorites were the animal sections: poultry and mammals, wild animals, too. Beginning with responsibility to animals raised for food, the author covers, very thoroughly, choosing animals, the psychology of different ones, economics of keeping them, doctoring, and how to kill, dress, store and eat them.

Did you know that cows can get “hardware sickness”? Cows will munch grass or hay and, along with the good stuff, consume nails, pieces of fencing and other small metal materials left in the food. They get sick. Guess what you do? You feed them a small magnet which attracts the loose metal and prevents it from doing harm to the cow. The magnet and metal remain in the cow’s stomach and, pretty often, according to Carla, all is well.

The book’s poultry section alone is 86 pages long and includes extensive information on chickens, ducks and geese, turkeys, guineas, pigeons and doves, and many game birds. I read about breeds, buying, brooding and foods, how much space and what type are needed for each.

I learned how chickens socialize, how to make a broody chicken quit sitting, and found out that chickens often live to 14 years old. Also, how a chicken gizzard works and why chickens are fed cod liver oil in winter (they need vitamin D).

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want turkeys (they’re not very smart) but ducks and geese are certainly attractive. “Of all poultry, ducks are the gentlest,” says Carla. And, she goes on, “Geese are healthy, long-lived and intelligent.” Plus, they are good watchdogs; they honk loudly whenever a strange person or animal approaches.

One thing to be careful about with baby ducks: they can drown. “Even after they can swim, young birds can tire easily and drown, so be sure they can get out of water containers and ponds by providing a ramp or gently sloped banks.”

And don’t put newspaper down in pens for ducks or other poultry because newspapers become a slippery surface which can cause birds to become “spraddle-legged and crippled.”

Goats and sheep interest me, too, and cows seem really nice. Carla tells a story about a milk cow named Nelly who, during her first milking, became so enamored of the author that she followed Carla back to the house and walked around it for 2 hours, mooing longingly. After that, as soon as Nelly sees Carla, she starts coming, following Carla to wherever she decides to stop.

“You can keep about 5 goats to 1 milk cow, as far as the expense of feeding goes,” Carla writes. Elsewhere she points out that both sheep and goats want companionship. But their friends don’t need to be other goats or sheep, Carla says. “A cow or children can serve the purpose. Chickens won’t do though because a chicken just doesn’t have it – except to another bird.”

Goats, besides being able to jump unbelievably high (6 foot fences), have prehensile tongues and lips, I was delighted to find out, and they can unlock most standard gate latches. The goats watch as a gate is unlocked and, very quickly, they learn how to do it themselves.

Carla Emery wrote and added to this book, now in its ninth updated version, over a period of 32 years. During these years she had a husband, 7 children, and countless animals. She chose and bought land (and has written excellent pointers on how to do these), cultivated and planted with vegetables, fruits and grains. She caught runaway animals and raised orphaned ones, and tells us how to do it all.

Subjects with detailed information in this book include: Harvesting wood, storing and burning it. Grains, the kinds, where suitable, how to plant, harvest and use. Drying, freezing, salting and larding foods, including numerous ways to preserve eggs. Tanning skins. Recipes of all sorts.

The book reminds me of the old Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1964, for back-to-landers. But it is so much more. Some of the more expectable subjects covered in the Whole Earth Catalog are here (candle and soap making, quilting, preserving, wood stoves, as examples). But Carla Emery also tells us about life, how to live it well and appreciatively.

I don’t plan to move to the country so it is unlikely that I will be raising animals or planting crops. But I am certainly enriched by Carla’s writings, and I have ordered my own copy of her book. I want to be able to read again little tidbits such as this one: “In freezing weather, dip clothespins in salt water to keep them from freezing to the clothes on the line.” I love that.

The book can be mail ordered for $22 plus $4 shipping from or by calling 520-845-2288.

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