Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats greet Deborah Niemann (right) and Jane Davis at Antiquity Oaks, a self-sufficient homestead east of Cornell, Ill. Niemann and her husband, Mike Boehle, began operating the 32-acre farm in 2002. Davis is a farm apprentice.
Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats greet Deborah Niemann (right) and Jane Davis at Antiquity Oaks, a self-sufficient homestead east of Cornell, Ill. Niemann and her husband, Mike Boehle, began operating the 32-acre farm in 2002. Davis is a farm apprentice.

CORNELL, Ill. — During Deborah Niemann’s formative years in a rural Texas community, she longed for the city life, making frequent drips to Houston after receiving her driver’s license.

“I did not like the small town, and I wanted to be doing some exciting things in the city,” said Niemann, whose parents were farmers and moved to town when she was 3.

“Not only did I not grow up on a farm, but during my whole life, I heard really negative things about farm life. Pretty much everybody’s goal was to get away from the farm as quickly as possible.”

The life path she seemed destined to traverse eventually would meet a life-changing crossroad.

She and her husband, Mike Boehle, now an electronics engineering technology instructor at Joliet Junior College when he’s not working on the farm and also a “city slicker,” were expecting their first child.

“I had grown up eating a lot of processed foods, canned ravioli, frozen pizza and that kind of stuff and I was sick all the time,” she said.

During her pregnancy, Niemann began reading books about childbirth and pregnancy, “and that was the first time that I’d ever heard anybody say anything about the connection between your diet and your health,” she said.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool. If my children eat better, they might not be sick all of the time.’ I started reading labels and cooking more from scratch. My husband started baking bread.”

Boehle was serving in the U.S. Navy at the time, and they began eating organic food and cooking more from scratch as they moved from one Navy base to another.

Over a nine-year period, they talked about moving to a rural area and growing their own food, and that dream finally reached fruition in 2002, when they purchased 32 acres in rural Cornell and began Antiquity Oakes, an old-fashioned, self-sufficient homestead.

There they raise Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats, Shetland sheep, American guinea pigs, Irish Dexter cattle, chickens and turkeys for meat, eggs and dairy products, while an organic garden and orchard provides fruit and vegetables.

They also make their own soap and utilize maple syrup and honey produced on the farm. Some of the meat produced on the farm and wool is sold via the farm’s website.

“A lot of people look at this and say, ‘This is hard.’ I looked at all of it and thought. ‘People have been doing this since the beginning of time, and it can’t be that hard,’” Niemann said. “The truth of the matter is it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s not as hard as most people think it is, but it’s certainly not as easy as I thought it was going to be.”

Once making the move from city to farm, Niemann said she jumped in headfirst.

“I look back on it now and think my ignorance was probably a good thing because if I had realized how challenging it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” she said.

“Because we’ve had a lot of challenges over the years, people have said, ‘A lot of people would have given up a long time ago and moved back to the suburbs and just shopped at Whole Foods.’ But the fact is the longer we’re out here and the more we do it, the more I realize how important it is.”

Prior to moving to the farm, her “livestock” experience consisted of two cats and one dog, a poodle.

A major challenge they encountered was the shortage of veterinarians for large animals “and that we were going to have to do most of the vet care ourselves,” Niemann said.

She works closely with the University of Illinois’ veterinary department.

The sheep are 100-percent grass-fed, and the pigs, goats and chickens are fed some grain purchased offsite. They use rotational grazing for optimal pasture utilization and are at times able to stockpile some forage for the off-season.

“Pasture management is an important part of our parasite control program too,” Niemann said. “We don’t want to use drugs. I certainly will if an animal is sick. But I feel like whenever an animal is sick and I have to resort to drugs, then something wasn’t quite right and something has to be tweaked.

“We have to look at what we can do differently to avoid that in the future, and pasture management is a big part of that. By rotating the pastures, we’re able to almost completely eliminate the use of de-wormers in our animals.

“The goats are the only animals we’ve had to de-worm in years. The pigs have never had a de-wormer. The sheep haven’t had one, other than like a 10-year-old ewe that just lambed. The sheep haven’t had a de-wormer in like six years.”

Another form of “management” is the llamas that serve as guardians.

“We lost nine of our 10 lambs to coyotes one year. That was when I got the llama. Normally they’re with the sheep and goats in the pasture,” Niemann said. “Since we’ve gotten the llamas, we’ve only lost one sheep. They intimidate the coyotes and can also stomp them and bite them.”

Each animal is raised for a specific purpose. Shetland sheep are used primarily for wool and sold directly to consumers through the website.

“We sell raw fleece, roving for hand-spinners and yarn for those who knit or crochet. On my to-do list is to sell more finished garments. We’ve done a little bit of that but not very much,” Niemann said.

“One of the really nice things about Shetland sheep is they grow wool in about a dozen different colors. They can also be spotted.”

They try to keep no more than 20 sheep on the farm and sell the males for meat.

The American guinea hogs are excellent foragers that love grass, hay and about anything else put in front of them. They get along very well with other livestock.

The hogs also enjoy the whey left over from the cheese the family makes for itself.

“The guinea hog pork is considered gourmet pork. A lot of chefs love it. A lot of people sell them to restaurants,” Niemann said.

Along with dairy products produced on the farm for the family, goat milk soap is sold commercially using all organic oils to mix with the milk. Antiquity Oaks also raises Heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving.

Niemann first recommends research and to start small for those wanting to begin their own self-sustainable farm.

“I’m not the kind of person that gets easily discouraged,” she said. “I have a goat forum that has almost 1,200 members in it. So I know that not everybody is quite as stubborn as I am, and some people are more likely to get discouraged.

“If you start too big, it can get overwhelming. We had our three children at home when we started, and they were helping a lot.

“Four years ago, my youngest started at Joliet Junior College, and when I was the only one home, all of a sudden it was like, ‘This is a lot of work.’

“Then it was two and one-half to three hours in the morning and afternoon just to do the regular chores. That doesn’t even include making soap and things like that.”

Niemann shares her experiences and lessons-learned through public speaking events around the country, teaches an online class for the University of Massachusetts on raising goats sustainably and hosts an apprentice program on the farm.

Jane Davis of Baltimore currently is doing her apprenticeship through December after graduating from high school this year.

Niemann has written three books. Her newest book, Raising Goats Naturally, will be released this fall.

Her first book, Homegrown and Handmade, was published two years ago and gives an overview of what is done at Antiquity Oakes. Last year, she published Ecothrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life.

“I wrote it because so many people think making greener choices is going to be complicated, expensive, you’re going to be using things that are inferior,” Niemann said.

“While those things can be true, they don’t have to be. There are plenty of things you can do that are greener that will actually save you money and are better and tastier.”