Growing chickens for meat

When I think about my cherished upbringing in the suburbs, I still sometimes do a double take as I’m walking outside each morning to milk a goat and feed 80 chickens and such.  Whose life is this?!  Mine.  Only mine.  And though it brings with it all sorts of interesting challenges, I wouldn’t trade any of it.  Starting with the six amazing children we’ve been blessed with and straight on down to the poor attempt at a garden outside my kitchen window.  I thought perhaps it might be helpful/interesting to get a step by step snapshot of our “let’s grown our own clean, well-treated chickens” endeavor.  So, if it is, read on…otherwise check in later this week for updated baby goat photos or scroll straight to the bottom for photos of our kids butchering their first chicken!

  1. First off, we decided last year that if we ever planned to raise our own food for meat, we’d better taste something comparable to make sure we liked it.  If you’ve eaten grass fed beef alongside feedlot cattle from the grocery store, you can certainly tell the difference and we figured chicken would be similar.  Those frozen disks of ginormous chicken breast are pumped with salt and other stuff and the taste is a long ways from a pastured chicken fed only good things.  I’d guess the nutrition varies a good deal between the two as well.  We purchased three large broilers (code for “raw whole chicken”…its okay, I didn’t know that either) last year from a local farmer.  This darling young couple runs a small farm near us and offers a weekly CSA produce basket as well as various animals for meat (goats, chickens, turkeys, pigs and I think a cow or two).  They weighed about 6 1/2 pounds and cost us about $30 each.  I know, sticker shock, I can get 13 pounds of frozen breasts at Costco for that price!  The meat was incredible, buttery rich and tender and delicious.  The chickens were so large they would feed even our family for two meals which is quite something.  We were sold and looked forward to trying to do this ourselves the coming spring.
  2. There are two paths to choose on raising your own chickens for meat, you buy Cornish Cross type chicks that are commercially bred to produce huge breasts and grow super fast.  They are ready to process (code for “butcher your chicken so you can eat it”) in about 6 weeks.  Its wild, really.  Tiny chick to big chicken ready for your table in a month and a half.  But that breed is behind our American obsession with white meat and cheap (less than healthy) food.  We figured if we were going to all this trouble, we might as well go the heritage breed route and raise the traditional, slower growing, normally proportioned sort of poultry.  We chose Freedom Ranger chicks from a hatchery in Pennsylvania run by an Amish family.  With a name like “Freedom Rangers” they were hard to pass up, and more importantly this was the breed our farmer Micha had grown so we knew they were tasty.
  3. Perhaps step #3 should be “start small”.  But we don’t do small very well and wanted it to be worth the work, so we went big, hoping to grow in 12 weeks or so, enough chicken to last our family many months.  We purchased 54 chicks that arrived March 20 to our local post office.  We also figured we’d lose some, but at this point, just 10 days from processing day, there are 51 of them out there in the yard!
  4. They need to eat!  A ton.  Literally.  Well almost.  We will have purchased about 1000 lbs of feed for them by the time they are ready.  Finding a good price for quality feed was imperative.  There are a few local mills that offer bulk pricing, we first used Scratch and Peck in Bellingham but then when that ran out (so much for my careful calculations!) we bought from Natural Farm and Feed east of the mountains.  Both were bulk orders brought by truck on pallets.  But after comparing the two, we’ll go with Natural Farm and Feed for next year.  Better price and less waste from the feed.  Buying feed that was non-GMO, didn’t contain corn or soy, was important.  Again, why go to the trouble to raise meat yourself only to feed it “junk food”?  That is why we chose a whole grain, non-GMO, soy/corn free feed to grow the birds.  It wasn’t cheap, it was hundreds of dollars spent at one time for only a hope of translating into healthy, wonderful food for our family.
  5. They need a safe, predator-proof place to live.  A friend of a friend sold us two movable chicken tractors that our birds live in.  We move them every day but they still trash the grass worse than you can imagine in their 24 hours on each fresh patch!
    chicken grass
  6. They need massive amounts of water.  Because these birds grow so fast (in comparison to their egg laying counterparts) they eat, drink, poop at a much higher rate.  It’s amazing.  Using 5 gallon buckets with chicken nipples plugged into holes on the bottom is my absolute easiest, cleanest, favorite method of watering chickens.  I made 4 of them this year and couldn’t be more pleased with how they’re working.  The bucket rests upside down in the tractor so I can fill it from the top without opening their pen.  Lovely, because they are aggressive and always HUNGRY!  They love to peck my farm boots or any fingers that are available.
    chicken tractor
  7. Well, that’s all I’ve got so far….we’ve rented the processing equipment for a week from Saturday from our county.   Once we complete this adventure, I’ll post again with any other tidbits from along the way!  For now, here are pics of our kids hand-processing a chicken two days ago (I was in a hurry and clipped his wing while moving the chicken tractor before church!).  They were very eager to help turn this bird into dinner.   We enjoyed chicken gravy and mashed potatoes tonight, courtesy of one happy, healthy bird that lived its whole life in our yard.  Pretty super cool if you ask me…
    kids and chicken
    caleb dunking
    part way there!
    chicken dinner!
    baby dinner

    Baby likes chicken dinner!!!

The view from here

The sky is overcast and gray but all the sounds around me are a dead giveaway.  It is spring.  There are birds singing in every direction.  The rooster crows every five minutes and his teenage counterpart tries to follow along but can’t get the job done just yet.   There is a girl with an electric shaver trimming her goat to perfection for the dairy goat show in two weeks.  There are 5 week old goat kids frolicking with two human kids at their heels.  There is the constant clucking of the proud laying hens and the frantic hustling of the two dozen pullets who can’t yet lay and get a pecking every day to remind them they haven’t yet arrived to a productive adulthood.  Our ten year old son is inside at the stove, he just popped over to me in my chair in the grass to ask “Can I make you an egg?  Please!?”.  How could I say I’d already had toast and wasn’t hungry?  He is mastering the art of frying eggs.  He is proud of the fact he now makes them even better than his mama does (could have something to do with the focus he brings and the constant multi-tasking of this mama!).

kids shaving

Our epic water emergency of last week seems, for just a moment, a distant memory and life is calm and peaceful and instead of make another list for something, I sit and watch.  There are way too many weeds in the driveway.  I ought to pull grass from the base of the fledgling raspberries so they can grow.  The seed potatoes are still sitting in the garage.  Pretty sure they aren’t going to grow me new potatoes in there.    But there are peonies to watch.  The splendor of those blooms of theirs is unparalleled.  They have to be one of most glorious flowers in the Pacific Northwest.  Staring at the peonies wins over the other tasks that practically call my name as I sit in the grass.

peony

I should be calling the flooring people for the repairs that will need to be made inside where the water flowed down the hallway.  But all I can think about is the irony of the fact that though we were without water for a spell (which felt no small thing whilst 6 kids were throwing up), we had the luxury of a friend with a truck and a big heart, who toted 5 gallon buckets of crystal clear spring water from the artisan well that flows 24/7 down the hill from us.  I have no idea how it works or who put the spout there.  But the water is amazing and free for the taking.  In spring time it sometimes pours out over the road, it is such a plentiful source of abundance.  The reality that the bulk of the world has no access to water like that and drinks daily from filthy rivers or mud-puddles seems so gravely wrong to me.  I told Audrey last week, the most common cause for death for children five and under around the world stems from drinking dirty water.  She said, “Wow, I’m glad I just turned six!”.  But it is a painful reality.  One that I can’t ever get far from my mind, especially when I drive past that water.

What are we supposed to do, us born into a life that compared to most of the world, is chock full of abundance?  Take constant inventory I guess, and find ways to give more, love more, bless more.  Hold loosely to things, not in a disrespectful way but it a way that reflects the truth that says people matter more than the stuff.  While its tempting to bemoan the mess that waits inside for me, I’d do best to count myself incredibly blessed to have books that line shelves and boxes full of hand-me-down shoes for my kids and coats in every size (despite the fact that said items are piled in disarray at the moment).  Clothing and a safe home and water and food enough to share, the things that I easily forget to be thankful for.  But take one away for a day or two and I’m quickly reminded how the basics are really all we need. The continual tension is good I suppose, it is right and when it leaves, that’s when I should worry.

For now, I’ll just soak in a few more minutes of enjoying my view from the grass.

 

When the family tree is tipping

I glanced up while feeding the baby today at the one of only two walls in my home that bear any semblance of “home decorating” and had to smirk.  Somehow in the chaos that has ensued here this past week, the tree painting on the family wall was all askew:

family tree

It seemed fitting.  Saturday evening after what we thought was “a quick stomach bug” had ended, our friends came over to buy some hay.  As Chris stood in the hall with his buddy Mark, he said perfectly calmly, “Hey, you’d better move over, you’re gonna get wet.”  In a quick second, the craziness of what was happening clicked and he jumped into action, grabbing towels, calling for reinforcements, etc.  We eventually had to turn the whole house water off to stop the flooding down the hallway.  Simultaneously, I was outside, in the pasture overseeing goats and milking and such, musing about castration methods with my friend Sam.  Rylee ran up to me and said “I don’t feel good” and promptly lost her dinner just shy of my boots.  As I walked her inside, I heard the calls for help and towels and got wind of the “water emergency”.  Um, yes, turns out the septic pump quitting and the subsequent “backing up” that happens, it indeed quite a crisis.

By the next morning, we realized our floors were buckling and we needed to call insurance, which we’ve never done so that was a whole new thing to figure out.  They sent people out immediately to put up industrial fans to dry the floor and walls and rip out anything damaged.  While I’m rinsing out throw up bowls (without running water), there are all these workers in our house.  And the extra fun fact here?  Though it was a weekend day, my hubby was filling in for our pastor who was on vacation….so he absolutely had to go to church.  He apologetically departed and went to Safeway with a bottle of shampoo and washed his hair in the bathroom there so that he didn’t have to preach with serious bedhead.  Initially, a good part of our downstairs was sequestered off with thick plastic and full of the big fans, but by this afternoon it looked like this:

floors

Imagine fans so loud you can’t hear if someone is throwing up in the next room or calling Mom for help…seriously, they were loud.  We went for a drive a few days ago to get a break and though all seemed okay, before we made it home someone was throwing up in the van.  This went on for a couple days and by today, despite the continual stomach issues people were having (as in:  “Mom, gross, help…Finn was playing on the deck but he just threw up all his chocolate cookies and the dog is eating it” and “Babe, I know you just got to work but I feel like I’m dying, you gotta come home right now”) we had to get out of here.  We went “hiking” for a couple hours on a trail nearby and breathed deep the fresh, quiet air.  It was therapeutic and wonderful even if it ended with me carrying an 8 month old on my back and a 35 pound three year old on the front.

The vintage, cutesy sign I bought for our anniversary was suddenly more than an art piece, it was us. 

together

It was the way we shift into action in the midst of crisis and the way we both try to be gracious even though we feel like we’re about to snap.  How he stayed up hours one night to do dishes and clean counters just so there was one space that didn’t look like this (after the clean up crew came and emptied out a closet into our schoolroom):

office

This is real life.  It’s where the family tree either puts down deeper roots and survives the storm or topples over and gives up.  We might have been blown around a bit this week.  For sure.  There were moments that left me feeling one step from crazy.  But then as I’m weeding the garden and digging out the cat poo that is infiltrating my spinach, Finn says to Audrey, “Guess what? I like ants.  I found an ant and I put it in my pants and its in there.  Right now.  I have an ant in my pull-up!”.  Really, honestly?  I laughed a lot.  I told and retold the stories and made them seem like entertainment because the alternative, the sitting around in a puddle of tears, just doesn’t work so well.

My parents are in blistering heat halfway around the world sharing hope and love and LIFE with people who can’t imagine my fuss over losing a bathroom for a week or three.  They’d be thrilled just to have a toilet.  As I sweat it out in my laundry room next to the fans doing their (loud) work, I think of my mom who can’t stand hot weather, laying that down to go where God called, even if its 118 degrees.  As I swish out yet another throw up bowl, I’m keenly aware that there is an incredible hospital an hour away from here chock full of children who would give anything to just have a bad bug for a week.  They just want to live.  Perspective is everything.  It’s true.

So, for the record, we’re still standing folks.  A bit bruised and weary but the fact remains:

We’re in this together.

On walking and waking together

I was just a month past my teens and freshly turned twenty, sixteen long years ago.  He’d won my heart years before, when I wasn’t even old enough to drive a car.  Against all odds, we were still an inseparable pair and despite the long distance of college, he asked me to share the rest of life with him.  I asked him first if he’d asked my dad (he had!) and then I said yes.  A few weeks later we went on a walk with a friend and her camera and she snapped this photo:

The beginning of the journey

A year of planning and dreaming and anticipating what life together would look like.  Quiet walks and plenty of time to talk.  Coffee dates whenever we pleased and the occasional jump into the lake on a sun-setting summer night.  Both with two years of university remaining, we studied hard, worked hard and served hard on staff part time at church.  Money in short supply but not lacking in the burning-with-love-for-each-other- department.  Oh the waiting, it felt like we would never make it to that altar!

It was easy.  The saying yes.  The beginning of the journey.  That uncharacteristically warm summer May afternoon with 427 people sitting watching.  Its the staying in yes that isn’t the easy part.  No one tells you that.  Years without babies with hearts full of ministry life then the years with babies, one after another.  The quaint little college apartment with organized everything gave way to a cute and crowded condo by the lake which gave way to the darling rambler where we would welcome our fifth baby blessing on our bedroom floor on a cold February evening.

There were scars by then.  The kind you see, that tell of a body swollen beyond capacity time and again.  And the kind you don’t see, the ones that tell of losses and disappointments that rend the heart all sorts of broken.  There were all the months I spent sure that no other married ones who loved Jesus this much could possibly find life this hard.  Whatever of “happily ever after”?

Just when it seemed the heart was plum full and how could I possibly learn to love more, deeper, softer….there was always more.  Room for more.  Growing, changing, forgiving, learning, CHOOSING.  It was always that that was hardest for me.  That it wasn’t always going to feel lovely and beautiful.  It was going to be a falling apart mess sometimes and I would always have to choose.  Choose to be steadfast.  Choose to forgive.  Choose to stay present.  Choose to love extravagantly.  All in the midst of a culture that says marriage isn’t forever and I should do what makes me feel good, despite the cost.

I booked a babysitter days ago, chose the nicest restaurant in our country town for us to share dinner and anticipated what two hours off alone together would be like.  Life is full and loud and some face time is such a rare gift.  Just five hours before our to-be anniversary dinner I heard these infamous words “I think I’m going to throw up mom!”  And I dropped everything, ran to the kitchen and ushered her to the bathroom.  I cancelled the sitter and texted the sad news of our dashed dinner plans.  An hour later as Finn joked about “choking up” as he calls it, and playing with the bowls I had put out, he turned sheet white and lost his lunch all over the kitchen floor.  The hubby texted back and offered to pick up dinner and I mopped up nastiness one batch after another.

He brought take out and we sat on the back deck so we could eat sans vomit-smell.  Liberty kept us company and we mused about our state of affairs while eating out of a box with plastic forks.

We exchanged gifts, which was hysterical because we both shopped at Costco for each other, obviously because the boxes were identical.  We agreed on many accounts but especially this…the sharing of the journey, in all its imperfection and mess, the walking together instead of alone, the waking up in the same bed with the same person day after day after day…it is profoundly precious.  It is not overrated.  It is nothing less than amazing in all its “ordinary-ness”.

As I took bites of food on the deck in between rounds of running in to empty full puke-bowls, I could only smile.  This is it.  This is real life.  This is our life.  An unexpected end to our fifteenth wedding anniversary to be sure.  But then most of our life together has been unexpected and beyond what I’d dreamed of.  I could not ask for a better someone to share it all with.  Our walks may be slower and louder these days, but they are rich and brimming with love and laughter and all sorts of sweetness we are crazy thankful for.

walking together_2

 

Signs of (good) times…

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While I put the baby down for a nap, Audrey grabbed her work and her little brother and headed for the sun…where I found her explaining the “code” from her Explode the Code workbook.

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The view from my pillow every morning…gads of clean, folded, piled laundry

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The after-playtime-outside bathtub residue

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My breakfast-in-bed Mother’s day treat!

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When’s the last time you played so hard you had grass and mud in your undies? 🙂

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Someone’s been eating my onion tops…

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My inner nerd enjoying an afternoon of book organizing and labeling….LOVE!

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Dissecting a crayfish…wrapping up our year immersed in the study of all God’s amazing swimming creatures

 

Rainy day homeschool

They tell me to sit down.  While I’ve been on an important phone call they’ve been rummaging through dress ups and their own imagination and come up with an elaborate game.  They take me on a journey with the map in the living room, across the ocean in a steam ship, by train over land…all the while Caleb points to each spot on the wall map telling me where they are traveling.

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After the “travels” they disperse around the house.  I watch and listen and smile.

Caleb:  “I’m pounding nails in (holding an imaginary hammer and pencils for ‘nails’), is this a good place?  Watch out for my nails Audrey.”

Audrey:  “Yes, it’s good.”

Mom:  “What are you doing?”

Caleb:  “Building Audrey’s orphanage, I’m almost done.”

Mom:  “What’s the name of the orphanage?”

Audrey (ever so matter-of-factly):  “A Chunk of Love Orphanage.”

Mom (deep breath and huge grin – could I love them any more?):  “That’s awesome.  I love it.”

Somehow, don’t ask me how, Caleb tells me that he’s Ronald Reagan before he was President of the United States and he is building Audrey (who tells me she’s dressed up to be Clara Barton because she didn’t like the name Gladys Alward) an orphanage in Hong Kong. I bite my tongue and try not to laugh, looking at the outfit Caleb has chosen, brown Carthartt coveralls and leather gloves and brown leather boots.

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Kyler is a rock climber.  He’s scaling Mt St Helens (our living room recliner chair) before it blew up.

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Rylee makes me guess who she is…her bright fuschia sari is a dead giveaway though and I get it right on my first guess, Amy Carmichael.

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And this little one is content to watch it all unfold…

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No, she’s not embarrassed that she is still in her pajamas at 3:00 in the afternoon 🙂

The best day

Last month after an especially arduous dentist appointment with six children (um, ok, when is that NOT arduous?) we found ourselves at the McD’s drive through for fudge sundaes on our way home…I know ironic right?  And the perky girl who gave us our 5 ice cream treats said as I left, “Have the best day ever!” with a smile.  I was taken aback, it wasn’t at all what I’d expected to hear.  But it stuck with me.  And as I drove home from our long morning of dental fun, I was struck by the stark reality that my mundane, errand-filled morning could indeed be the best day ever.

Any day can be the best day.  It is largely up to attitude and perspective and only slightly up to actual circumstance.   When we woke up last Wednesday there was nothing on the calendar.   It was just another day. It was bright and glorious outside and we all got to work on chores so we could start school work.  A quick trip out to the barn made it clear that Rylee’s beloved Blanchette was very near to delivering her first set of kids.  Book work got set aside and we set about an altogether different kind of learning.  My favorite kind.  The kind where we get all wrapped up in something amazing.  And this amazing has to be the best kind.  The kids planted themselves in the barn with walkie-talkies to keep me apprised of the situation while I did dishes and took care of the baby and came back and forth every chance I could.  Once Liberty was asleep, I sat with them in absolute wonder:

Blanchette's birth

I watched them hold their breath as the large-bellied mama heaved around her pen making soft noises as she labored.  Even ever-busy Finn was quiet.  Watching new life emerge has to be one of the most sacred, precious things there is.  It is nothing less than amazing.

baby Samson

We marveled that she knew just what to do, made sweet mama sounds that we’d never heard from her before…I whispered through tears that they would always, always remember this day, this moment and knew that so would I.  Our ordinary everyday turned into miracle-watching in a one quick instant.

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They slowly made observations about the tiny hooves and the color of the fur and how slimy they were and how quick their mama cleaned them and how incredible it was they could stand in two minutes and look for food almost immediately….and suddenly a years’ worth of science seemed to pale in comparison to the beauty we were privy to in the barn on a sweltering April day.

Sometimes, a day gets to the best ever simply because we know that our today is one of a kind and it’s a gift all in itself.  But every now and then a day is the best ever because we get to do or see something that astounds and amazes us and leaves us with a memory that we’ll tuck away forever.  I found myself crazy thankful for the umpteenth time that our kids are home learning with me, that we got to share this day together.

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My ten year old boy

Dear Caleb,

You are ten.  You are complex and bright and curious and sensitive.  Your sense of awe at all created things never wanes.  You smell, listen and watch absolutely everything around you.  Your awareness sometimes may feel less than a blessing and seem just too much.  But as you grow, I have no doubt it will be one of your greatest assets and part of the unique and wonderful you.

You have stretched me, shaped me, grown me in ways that have exceeded what I thought I could bear.  You have shown me things about me and about life and about love that I’d have never otherwise known.  I know you love to be alone and would love to live in a tree but that for now, you live in a large family in a house.  I hope you find in the many years to come, that your place in this family is critically important.  You bring a heart, a mind, a voice to this community of sisters, brothers and your dad and I, that we are blessed to know.

Your love for reading runs to the core of you.  You literally can’t stop reading.  I want to be frustrated when you are right near me but have your face in a book and you can’t hear me.  But I honestly think you don’t.  You are immersed in the written word.  You are captivated by grand stories and great adventure.  What I hope you come to know better this year and in the next many years, is that your own story is grand and the God of the universe has a great adventure for you.  He designed you, understands you and that truth has given me such a grounded sense of peace when I haven’t been able to understand.

You work hard when I can peel you away from books.  You faithfully care for chickens and always help me with my farm chores with a happy heart.  You thrive when you carry with you a sense of purpose.   My love for you is a fierce one son.  You must know that.  Though I may not always ‘get it’, I always love you, more than you could possibly imagine.

Always,

Mama

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Birthday boy with day old baby Daisy

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TEN years old and so handsome!

The beauty of work

Hard work.  We were made for it.  Though a quick look at our overweight, sedentary culture may say otherwise, I’d beg to differ.  Our bodies function best when they have to do things, not sit around on couches all day.  I’ll try to stay off my video-game soapbox but really, we were created to do hard stuff.  From an early age, it has amazed me how much our kids delight in being challenged to do meaningful work.

Of course some are more bent to work than others.  And for sure at certain stages of our life, its been more difficult to actually come up with projects for all of them.  It would be so much easier in the short term to put a movie on!  Believe me, I’ve been in the “put a movie on” stage, there is always grace for the seasons that a mama just can’t function enough to do much more than that.  However, long term if I want to see diligence and a strong work ethic in my children, there isn’t much better way to grow that than to expect  hard work from them.

And even for me, if I want to keep chinking away (even at a snail’s pace!) at the I’ve-had-six-children baby weight, I have to force myself to work!  Not just dishes and teaching grammar and changing diapers and driving to co-op but things that make me sweat and breathe hard.  It feels good to go to bed a little bit sore.  Even just a brisk walk to the stop sign pushes the limits on my tired legs.

Phineas loves to work.  He spent the morning trying to behave at his sisters’ play and then we came home to find one of our does had delivered triplets in the pasture while we were away.  He “helped” get the babies safely into the barn and then we all watched them in wonder.  Then he got a big stick and whacked weeds in the forest for a couple of hours with his brothers.  Come dinner time, he was desperate for a snack, so I made him a big plate and set him at the table.  He ate every bite quickly and then it was quiet in the dining nook.  This is how we found him when we came to check:

sleeping farmer finn

It’s the essence of Finn in every way.  Plum worn out wearing his farm suit and covered with dirt.

Liberty works hard too.  Besides being insanely cute and completely delightful, she falls asleep on a whim with her snuggly big brother while the fam gets ready to go to church…

kyler and sleeping sis

And having dairy goats is work too, for sure, this girl has done the bulk of the care for these animals and we are continually impressed with her willingness to work hard:

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rylee with delight
baby goats day 2

I’m pretty sure it’s hard to be that cute….don’t you think?!  Their names are Cedar, Daisy and Lily.  Two doelings and a buckling.  The doe Rylee is milking isn’t their mama, she is another goat that we got this week from a friend.  Rylee is determined to get her back to producing milk despite the fact that her babies weaned 2 weeks ago….if anyone can do it, Rylee can!

I killed all the gorgeous cucumber starts I had worked so hard to grow in the kitchen “greenhouse”.  Put them out just a couple days too early and they froze into oblivion in one cold night.  Part of hard work is certainly failing, sometimes a lot!  But every failure is a chance to learn and try again.  Easy to type that.  Not easy to do it!