Pursuing the Dream of a Sustainable Life

Jill Shutts milks a very willing Lily. Photo: Joe Hennager

At 9:00 on a brisk autumn morning in rural Illinois, Jill Schutts and her son, Ely, bundle up and trek from their old farmhouse to the out buildings. While Schutts takes Joe on a tour of the hen house and feeds their small flock of free-range hens, Ely takes me to the barnyard to meet the other livestock. For this family, living sustainably is far more than a platitude; it’s a habit of daily life.

Ely and goats on the Shutts' Illinois acreage. Photo: Julia Wasson

Goats — five of them — take quick strides to the gate, where Ely directs traffic like a cop on a street corner. “Stay back, Lightbulb!” he says to a young buck.

“No, Betsy. You can’t come out,” he tells another.

Together, we slip through the gate and gently nudge the goats away from the opening. But the goats have their own ideas. One in particular seems determined to escape from the barnyard.

“That’s Lily,” Ely tells me.

“Lily? But isn’t this a billy goat?” After all, this one has horns curling back on its head.

“No. She’s a girl,” Ely says emphatically. And then I notice the bulging udder.

Lesson number one for this city dweller: Girl goats can have horns.

Ely lifts a sawed branch and uses it as a club to break a thick layer of ice that has formed over the watering trough. At first, it resists the six-year-old’s pounding. But with a little help from this older friend, the ice cracks and the water appears on the surface.

Lily calmly eats while Shutts milks her. Photo: Joe Hennager

As soon as Schutts approaches the barnyard, Lily, the milking goat, pushes through the milling herd toward the gate. She knows that Schutts is coming for her, and she’s ready to go. Schutts opens the gate, and Lily rushes to the milking station. Schutts has to jog a bit to keep up.

Inside the massive corn crib that also serves as a firewood shed and milking stall, Lily leaps up onto a 15″ high platform and places her head into the stanchion. Schutts secures the top of the stanchion and sets a bucket of grain within Lily’s reach.

Lesson two: The milking stand really is a stand; Lily’s udder is at working height for Schutts’ hands.

The goat is still and quiet while Schutts squirts the milk into a clean pail. After milking on Lily’s left side, Schutts picks up the peg-legged stool and pours the milk into a strainer to be filtered.

I expect the goat to take this as a cue that the milking has ended, but Lily stands firm. Schutts gives her another ration of grain and finishes the job. It’s only when she opens Lily’s stanchion that the goat makes a move toward freedom.

Lesson three: This goat was more than willing to be milked.

After Schutts leads Lily back to the herd, we head to the farmhouse with a pail of steaming, strained milk. Schutts pours the milk into a jar, then rapidly cools it by placing the jar into cold water in the sink.

Lesson four (and I feel a little foolish for not realizing this): Milk comes out of the goat warm.

Goat's milk, cheese molds, and soft goat cheese. Photo: Joe Hennager

Schutts dries the outside of the jar, screws on a lid, then writes the date on top before placing it in the refrigerator. Because she is not a licensed dairy, she can only use the milk in her home.

She’s not much of a milk drinker, but Ely loves it — in cocoa, on cereal, in a glass. And Schutts uses it to make soft cheeses, which she offers her guests. Lesson five: This homemade goat cheese is delicious.

“Why goats?” we ask.

“I have them for the fertilizer, the cheese and milk, and for educational purposes,” Schutts says. She home schools Ely, and the goats are a living textbook in science and math, as well as inspiration for writing.

“I’m not making money off of them, that’s for sure,” she says, laughing. “But I love to look out and watch them in the pasture.”

Switching Roles

Organic fruit from Schutts' acreage. Photo credit: Joe Hennager

After graduating from college, Schutts spent several years on the West Coast, first as a social worker at a senior center in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

Then she was a volunteer and collective member at the Red Vic Movie House, where second-run cult classics and indie films play.

Schutts visited Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol, California, where she saw cheese-making demonstrations. That was when she developed “the notion I would like goats,” she said.

While living in the heart of the city, Schutts renewed an old dream of saving money to buy a farm.

She hired on for a summer job at Pacific Gas and Electric, which led to six years of full-time work — as a “field man, an apprentice fitter, and finally a pipe fitter.”

Then she worked as an estimator in the engineering department for another three years.

In the meantime, her mother died, and Schutts had a stark realization: “When you have dreams, you have to pursue them before it’s too late.”

Back to the Heartland

More evidence of Shutts' hard work: freshly canned organic pears. Photo: Joe Hennager

Schutts moved to Wisconsin, where she worked at an organic garden and goat dairy farm and “fell in love with dairy goats.”

A dedicated student, she then interned at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy where she studied biodynamic agriculture.

She has come full circle, returning to practice biodynamic agriculture on her own acreage, next to the Illinois churchyard where many of her ancestors are buried. Biodynamic agriculture, Schutts explains, treats a farm as a closed system, in which “you have everything you need to reinvigorate the soil growing right on your farm.”

Besides goats and chickens, Schutts raises a variety of vegetables and fruits. With Ely at her side, she sows, tends, and harvests garlic, onions, pears, apples, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, beets, celeriac (celery root), horseradish, rhubarb, asparagus, and rutabagas.

“It’s amazing how many tomatoes go into a quart of sauce,” Schutts says. “When you go to the store to buy organic spaghetti sauce, it seems like a lot of money. But when you think about how many tomatoes and how much work went into it, you realize it’s worth the price.”

In addition to farming, Schutts teaches Ely’s lessons and holds two part-time jobs to cover other expenses. The family also heats with wood, which Ely’s father chops for them.

Jil Schutts snuggles with son, Ely. Photo: Joe Hennager

Jill Schutts snuggles with son, Ely. Photo: Joe Hennager

Schutts is striving to live as sustainably as possible in this electronic world.

“I love my life,” Shutts tells us, snuggling with Ely in a comfy chair. It’s hard for the casual observer to resist the appeal.

But we also note with awe how much hard work goes into the tasty cheese, the beautiful jars of canned pears, and the warmth of the wood stove.

Final lesson: Sustainable living isn’t easy.

“But,” Schutts says, “It’s worth the effort.”

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living