Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Love Your Country? Shop Local.

The Fourth of July is here.  Around here, it's the time of year for the local county fair, plus fireworks and parades here and in nearby towns.  When we celebrate America, we seem to start by being more active in our communities- I think that's why when we think “Independence Day”  we associate it with the kind of neighborhood get-togethers where family, friends and neighbors congregate.  The kind of events that center around food, conversation, and games like horseshoes or volleyball.   

There was an editorial article in last week's daily paper commenting about community and buying local. A woman had recently opened, of all things, a bookstore.  The odds of a bookstore succeeding in the age of Kindles and Amazon is shockingly slim.  The only ones that do are the ones that have a group of loyal customers who value personal service above cut-rate prices.  They appreciate the personal service, and understand that paying the full cover price is the difference between having quirky little shops thrive and empty, boarded-up storefronts.   

The same is quite true with your food.  Although the farmer's market hours may not be the most convenient,  the quality and freshness are unbeatable.  The price at the local farm might be a little higher than the Super Mega Mart's, but your money is staying local.  You know it's going straight to the farmer that grew the crops, instead of corporate execs who pay the laborers out in the field slave wages.  And any time you can spend locally, your money stays in the community.  I know here at the farm, we patronize lots of local businesses.   Obviously, the businesses where we get the cheese and coffee, but lots more than that too-local, family-owned (not chain) business: the gas station, grocery store, hardware store, feed mill, restaurants, our Amish neighbor's saw mill.  And keeping money in the community means jobs for our neighbors, who can then choose to buy locally, too. 

Sure, there are plenty of times where we run errands and go to places like Home Depot and Wal-Mart.  Sometimes it's because we can't find what we're looking for locally, and sometimes we just need to watch our budget like everyone else. It's not a crime to do so.  But if all of us made it a point to spend a little more money in our own communities, at business owned by local folks, we can make a difference in the amount of small business that serve our communities.   

So on this July Fourth, it a great time to remember all the things we love about our country, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. But loving our country should be a year-round feeling, and one that truly starts at home.  We wish everyone a safe & happy holiday, and hope your picinic has some local flavor to it...there is so much delicious in season now!
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Lessons I learned from Rocky

On a farm like ours, animals come and go pretty regularly. That's what happens when you raise meat. Now I know tonight is a processing day, and that we'll butcher a dozen or so chickens, but the broilers are eating machines without much personality, not at all like the heritage breeds we raise for eggs. But there are always certain critters that find a way into your heart, and that's what made yesterday a bit sad here. Our Barred Rock rooster, Rocky, passed away. It was sad, but expected. Rocky was five years old, a very senior chicken. His legs were thick and scaly, he had lost most of his comb to frostbite over the winters, and his tail had turned from black and white bars to nearly all white. Over the past week or so, I'd noticed his legs seemed to be hurting him and he wasn't getting around very well, so I've been sort of mentally preparing for the end.

Rocky was the first rooster I ever really got to know. Roosters have a (generally) well-deserved reputation for being nasty creatures. They will jump up and spur you, even drawing blood through a pair of jeans. Your size doesn't intimidate them at all. When I first began coming to the farm with Dan, the layers had been sold off and not replaced, as the farm was on a temporary hiatus, so the coops were silent. When we got married in July of 2007, his parents bought us a few unusual wedding presents, ones that would help us to a fresh start here on the farm. One was a Dorset ram, and another was a starter flock of chickens. Betty & Dan went and picked out a nice assortment of started pullets, around 4 months old. (I would have gone too, but I still worked away back then.) They brought back a few Red Star hybrids, some Buff Orpington hens, a few Ameracaunas who lay the beautiful blue-green eggs, and some Barred Rocks. Of the 22 birds, all were hens except for one rooster. Although Betty has had enough bad experiences that she really does not like roosters, it was decided that one would be good. That rooster eventually became known as Rocky.

In the five years he ruled the layer flock, he never once challenged me, nor did he ever act aggressively towards anyone. I could turn my back on him in the coop while I collected eggs without fear. Now I have had many roosters come into my life after that, and there were plenty that got mean. Rocky taught me that I didn't need to put up with that, and the mean ones never stay long. Even with chickens, you can (and, I would argue, should) breed for temperament as well as production traits. It was a hugely important idea- breeding males shouldn't be crazy and mean. It's one that has largely been lost in modern agriculture. For instance,most dairies do not have a bull, all their cows are bred by artificial insemination. That way, anyone can breed to the most productive bloodlines. It doesn't matter that the bulls are extremely dangerous, as the farmers using the bloodlines never have to deal with the ornery beast. Another downside is that the breed becomes excessively inbred, losing its genetic diversity. In addition, I do think it matters how you treat the animals- if you approach the animal expecting it to hurt you and behave accordingly, I can't help but think that that expectation will affect the animal's behavior. Reassured that the rooster didn't have to be mean, I took the same approach of cautious trust with the other farm males. The ram, the boar, the mini stallion, and even our Dexter bull have all been known to eat treats out of my hand. I don't trust them all the time, because sometimes they do act up. But I've learned that if you get to know your animals, you can read their moods, and it's completely possible to interact with a big boy of whatever species without expecting (and getting!) the worst.

It was a good decision to get a roster with our starter flock, because although hens will produce eggs without a male around, the eggs will not be fertile. In the spring of 2008, we decided to try incubating and hatching our own eggs. Without Rocky, it wouldn't have been an option. I'll never forget the experience of the first time, the worry, hope and anticipation that we would be able to hatch our own little chicks. I didn't even live at the farm yet, but I rushed home from work on the expected day to see the eggs had started cracking from the inside. A few hours later, we would have peeps in the brooder pen under the soft glow of the heat lamp, and we would go to sleep the next few weeks hearing their chirps from the spare bedroom across the hallway. That was years ago (as well as thousands of chicks ago), but thinking about it always makes me smile.

To me, Rocky was a kind of living link to my pre-farm self. He and his hens were a real introduction to agriculture for me. And he was just a cool chicken. He defended his girls to the best of his ability from night time marauders, and greeted us with his crows each morning. The barnyard is a little quieter here without him, but I have kept one of his sons to replace him. In that way, I hope his docile genetics will always be a part of the farm. 

 
 

First Cutting

 A very important thing happened over the weekend...we put up our first cutting of hay! The weather was perfect for enough days for us to cut the entire upper hay field, as well as part of the field by the neighbor's woodline. Dan and the horses cut the hay Wednesday and Thursday, and by Friday it was raked and dried, and we were ready to put the “new” John Deere hay loader to the test. Dan and I were very excited to see how it would work out in the field. I was so excited, I snapped this picture of the first hay coming up onto the wagon.


Considering the hay loader hadn't been used in over 60 years, this was pretty exciting to see. There were a few bugs to work out and bolts to tighten, but that was expected. Overall, it worked wonderfully and, even making the necessary adjustments out in the field, Dan and I were able to put up 4 wagonloads that evening. Since the next day was Saturday, I was busy with customers at the stand, but Dan was able to do a bit more work on the hay loader to get it in perfect working order. To me, it's simply amazing the way he can look at a piece of equipment, and despite having no manual or prior experience with a machine like this, he's able to see what needs to be fixed and make it work. By the time I had closed up for the day, the hayloader was adjusted and the hay had been raked with the side-delivery rake. We put up a couple loads, and then help arrived. Dan's father, Tom, didn't want to miss the hay making fun, so he and Dan went back out into the field and put in a few more loads, bringing the day's total to six. The weather Sunday was great as well. Dan's brother Matt was here to help as well, so there wasn't really room for me on the wagon, leaving me the equally important jobs of photographer and person in charge of lunch. Here's a picture of them hard at work- Tom is driving the team, while Matt & Dan use three-tined hay forks to move the hay forward and pack it in for an even load.



All in all, we made 14 wagonloads of hay off the field. That is a very good yield, and we're expecting to make another cutting later this summer. While we were also hoping to make hay off of the other field, we just didn't have time to do it all, and Monday brought rain, ruining the hay. But it was the least nice of all the hay, so it was the last priority. Just mowing the field was good for it though, so perhaps we'll still be able to make the second cutting from it also. Even without that hay, we still have a barn full. This is just one side- and we put hay in both mows. The picture shows Tom forking the last of the hay off into the mow, after the trolley system had done most of the reloading. And having Tom in the picture gives you an idea of how very large the haystacks are!



To a farmer, there are few things as exciting or important as getting the hay in. The amount & quality of the hay determine how many animals we'll be able to support over the winter. On our farm, it's also one of the major keys to the sustainability of our methods...we use the horses to power the machinery to make the hay. We feed the hay back to the horses as they provide the power for our fields. The horses turn the hay into manure, which is used to enrich both hay fields and gardens. In a system like this there is no waste. No exhaust fumes, no need to buy foreign gasoline or expensive and toxic chemical fertilizers. It's why, to me, even though it's always 90+ degrees, doing hard and sweaty and dusty work in the sun, haymaking is a beautiful thing. And nothing smells like summer goodness to me like a barn full of freshly cut hay. If I could find a way to bottle it, I would!  

 
 

Our New Deere

Yesterday, Dan and I spent a good part of the evening on yet another restoration project.  We're now the proud owners of a John Deere that will make making hay a whole lot easier.  While we have been using the dump rake for the last few seasons, and then using pitchforks to load the hay by hand onto the hay wagon, it is a time-consuming way to make hay, not to mention very labor-intensive.  We love the antique methods and are proud to utilize them, but the John Deere will save both labor and time, although it will modernize our process a bit.

But no, we haven't given up our horse-drawn ways in favor of a tractor.  John Deere originally manufactured farm implements for use with teams of horses, not tractors, because the company has been around since before tractors were used out in the fields.  Our John Deere is a single cylinder hay loader.  It attaches to the back of the hay wagon and picks the loose hay up off of the ground and then piles it on to the wagon.  This moves our haymaking technology up to the level of our Old-Order Amish neighbors (although the loaders they use are of a more modern design).

This type of hay loader is both rare and old.  We feel very lucky to have come across it.  Dan was hired to do some foundation work on a barn, and this hay loader was inside.  The barn's owner was willing to part with it, because to him, it was just something taking up space that he had no use for.  By his estimate it had sat, gathering cobwebs and dust, for 60 or more years.  Although there is no date on the machine, between what he told us and the research we've done online, we estimate that it was probably made in the 1920's or shortly thereafter.  However, “John Deere Single Cylinder” is still readable in the paint on the side boards, along with a running deer logo that is a bit different than the one that graces today's big green tractors.  Since it was barn-kept, it is in great shape overall.  But, of course, after sitting that long, some repairs are going to be necessary.  The first order of business was lubrication- all the moving parts need to be greased or oiled to run smoothly, and that hadn't been done since the machine went into storage.  The hay loader works by utilizing thin boards and ropes to form a sort of conveyor belt for the hay to travel up.  A few of the boards were broken, and the rope was mostly baler twine.  We did consider just doing the minimum and replacing only the broken boards, but the ropes were a mess and in the end we decided to replace all of it.  So last night, we unhooked the chain and laid the track out on the ground. Old boards were removed, with new ones put into place.  Then 6 rows of new rope were hand-stapled into place.  The hardest part was threading it back through the guides and pulleys to refasten the chain links, but with some patience that was accomplished as well.  

There is still a bit of work to be done, but it is nearly field-ready.  We are waiting for a forecast with a bit less rain, and then Dan will be out mowing hay.  Once it dries, we'll put our “new” hay loader to the test.  We're very excited about this, not only because of the back-breaking labor that it will eliminate, but also because it's a really neat piece of farming history.  Even we have never seen one like it in use, so we're anxious just to watch it work!

 

 Emily tightening up the bolts that hold the boards in place.

 Dan threading the newly repaired conveyor through the guides & pulleys 

 
 

More Than Rhubarb

It's hard to believe, but by Sunday our opening day of the farm stand season will be behind us.  Now is the time where I get a bit antsy, worrying that I won't have enough things ready to fill the tables.  It's really hard to have fresh produce on May 26, especially when we've had a frost as late as June 2! (and yes, that was only two or three years ago, not ancient history!)  Although I know that we've been doing prep for months, there is only so much we can put in without running a near-certain risk of losing the plants to frost damage.  So it gets to be a little nerve-racking when opening day arrives, because it seems as hard as we try, we never have just the right weather to have a bounty of produce to fill the tables.  Yet it's bad business to have lots of empty space, so I usually spend the last couple weeks fretting about having enough for opening day.

I spent the better part of yesterday setting up the stand.  Dan rented a power washer Monday night, so the heavy scrubbing was done, but there is still a lot involved getting the tables set up, putting up tablecloth and skirting, wiping out fridges and freezers, and figuring out what I had in stock and where it all should go.  While I put the tables back in pretty much the same spots they were before, I quickly realized that, instead of worrying about how to fill all this empty table space, I needed to get creative to find a space for everything we have!

The cheese will no longer be sitting on ice, with just one example of each kind.  Thanks to my mom letting me have my old dorm fridge back, cheese will now be self-serve.  We're hoping to fit a plexiglass door on the front, but it's just not likely to happen before Saturday.  So I squeezed that next to the “free sample” table.  Also on that table is a new feature for the stand...the feather jewelry I created over the winter.  I also have cute wreaths I made from the hop vines last year.  And I have lots more canned goods starting off the year than ever before- 5 kinds of jam, 4 kinds of mustards,  6 different vinegars, dill pickles, hot pepper rings, corn relish, sweet relish, apple butter, Thai dipping sauce, 2 BBQ sauces- one made with peaches and the other with rhubarb.  Non-canned edibles include sun dried tomatoes and a couple kinds of homemade egg noodles, plus honey.  

Today I'm picking up coffee...three regular flavors plus (ground or whole bean) and an assortment of flavored coffees.  I'm really excited about getting a tasting tour of Happy Mug's coffee.  We are very excited to have a local roaster who uses organic, fair trade and farm direct beans!  We're also looking to put our own stone grinder at the stand, so folks who want to grind their own coffees can!

We'll also have meat.  The broilers may be a bit smaller than usual, but we'll have some ready to go.  We'll also have pork chops, ribs, roasts and three or four varieties of our homemade sausage.  Bacon, ham and beef will be in the very next week.  We'll have some chicken eggs, and new for this year, quail eggs as well.

Outside the stand, we've got an assortment of bedding plants.  A wide variety of herbs, plus a few tomatoes, flowers, hop vines and whatever else I started but ran out of room in the garden for.  Come Saturday, I'll bring down some of the baby chicks, turkey poults and quail.  Maybe some baby bunnies too.  There are peacock feathers, and some cat toys made from those feathers too.  I'll also have bouquets of some fresh herbs...I just need to find a place to set them!

I know since it's a farm, I'll get at least one request for fresh sweet corn or ripe tomatoes, even though I do think that folks are getting better about understanding just what seasonal means.  But even if we only have rhubarb and spring onions to pick out of the garden, I think we'll still be off to a great start for our farm stand season!

We hope you'll join us as we open for the season!  Brave the heat and stop by to say hi this Saturday, May 26, from 10 AM- 2PM.  

If you can't make it this weekend, we'll be open all the way through November!
 
 

Being a Teamster

 When you hear the word teamster, what springs to mind?  Unions?  Jimmy Hoffa?  Big 18-wheeler trucks hauling freight down the interstate?  (And yes, I am going somewhere farm-related with this...)

Originally, a teamster was one who drove a team of horses.  Someone who made their living with a set of reins in hand.  Back before tractors and big rigs, there were big horses.  They were used to plow the fields and to pull wagons, loaded with goods, from town to town.  Interestingly enough, the word “teamster” stuck with the freight haulers, but not the farmers when hooves were replaced with steel.  So today, most Americans think of teamsters as truckers, but it is also a word proudly used by the small but dedicated group of people who choose to farm with horses, like Dan and I.  Being a teamster, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, is really a dying art, although it does seem to be making somewhat of a comeback with the increases in both interest in sustainable farming practices, and also the cost of diesel fuel.  Being an old-fashioned teamster AND a woman is rarer yet.  And while I certainly am no expert (I won't even think about working the horses if Dan isn't home, just in case), I do take great joy in helping to do some of the real work of the farm with those lines in my hand.

Two weeks ago, Dan spent a good part of the weekend walking behind the plow.  This weekend, we finished the rest of the soil prep.  So on Saturday, Dan harnessed up the horses and ran the disc and harrow.  Both of these machines break up the large clods turned over by the plow into smaller, more workable pieces.   Next comes the cultipacker.  It's like a big roller with a seat above.  You ride it, and it basically smashes the remaining small clods.  It is my absolute favorite piece of machinery to run.  Probably because it was the first piece I ever drove without Dan being right next to me.  That, and it's hard to mess up.  If you miss a spot, you can go back and catch it on the next pass.  If you go over the same spot twice, it's fine.  But of course, it's a point of pride to try and have those rows straight and even, and doing it efficiently means you spend less time doing it, which is important too, since there is never enough time in the day to get everything done on a farm, especially in spring.  Having grown up riding horses (I met my horse just before my 12th birthday), I'm quite used to a set of reins in my hands.  But there is something different when you're driving a team.  I'm not sure if it is because you're controlling them in a different way- using only voice and pressure from the lines as opposed to the subtle ways all your muscles communicate when astride- or if it's the size thing.  I love Dixie & Dolly, I often feed them, bring them inside the barn, clean their stalls...I'm very comfortable working around them.  But they are big.  Really big.  Their backs are at least as tall as the top of my head when I stand next to them, and at 5'4', I'm not terribly short.  Their feet are literally as big as dinner plates.  We estimate their weight to be somewhere between 1800-2000 pounds.  Each.  There is incredible power in those muscles, and especially as a novice teamster, I'm very aware of that when I take up the reins.  

But through generations of breeding and hours of training, the horses really do seem to understand, even enjoy, their job.  When we got to the end of a row, almost before I changed the pressure on the reins to tell them to turn, Dixie & Dolly were already moving to turn the cultipacker.  When it works, it is amazing...a feeling of two horses, a person, and some otherwise lifeless equipment, all moving as one through the field, with the smell of fresh spring soil everywhere.  It's almost magical.  There really is a sense that we are all taking pride in our work, all three of us.  Heads up, backs straight, we move together across the freshly turned earth, preparing it for another spring of new life, and another season of producing real food.  Using many of the simple, effective, and sustainable methods that American farmers used for generations, when small family farms were the norm, and not the exception.  Except for the neighbors driving by in cars and my purple plastic sunglasses, it could be a scene from 1912 as easily as 2012.   

But of course, as easy as it is to be charmed into that daydream by the creak of leather and the jingle of metal, I snap out of it soon enough, when Dixie tries biting Dolly again on another turn, or when the pair of them want to go too fast across the field.  Make no mistake, for all the idyllic splendor of the scene, it is real work.  But the kind of work that leaves you with both tired muscles and a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.  It makes me proud of what we do, and just as importantly, how we do it.

 

 
 

A Day in the Life of a Farmer

What is it like to be a farmer? Here's an example of a typical spring day. This is an actual journal of a real day, selected at random, in this case Monday, April 30, 2012.

Get up. As Dan checks on the large animals, I get up and check the incubator. Pull 13 chicks & 2 turkeys out and take them to the brooder pen, where food & water await under the heat lamp. When I open the pen, I sadly note a dead turkey poult- it looks like it drowned, as its head is still in the waterer. I never have understood how something 6” tall can drown in 1/2” of water, but it seems turkeys manage. The heritage breeds, like our Bourbons, are much smarter than the broad-breasted ones, but still, you lose one every once in awhile. Nature is not kind to the weak or dumb. Then I do the rest of my AM chores- making sure the rabbits, chicks, chickens & ducklings have food and water. Dan tells me to keep an eye on Finni, our Dexter cow- we let her and the new calf out of the barn yesterday, and although everything seems to have gone well so far, it looks like the calf got under the fence into another part of the pasture. If he can't find his way back, I'll have to take care of it.

Household stuff- take mail out to the box, grab newspaper, check email. While I'm online, I place a bulk order for pectin for my jelly & jam making. This should save money and keep my supply in stock for most, if not all, of the farm stand season, so I'm excited to have found a family-owned bulk supplier of the stuff. Head outside to get the load of jeans out of the washer & hang them up on the line outside (I don't have a dryer). As I'm hanging jeans, I'm relieved to see that the calf and Finni are together on the same side of the fence. He must have scooted back through whatever hole he went through in the first place. Before I take the hose away from the washer and take it back to the greenhouse, I decide to do another load, so I put in some sheets and towels. While that is going, I head downtown (to Tionesta, ~5 miles each way) to grab a few supplies. I get brown sugar and raisins at the grocery store, and more peat pots for the greenhouse at the hardware. While there, I talk to one of the owners- she asks what we've got growing in the greenhouse these days, comments about the snow last week pulling the trellis in the garden down, and asks what it's for- beans? No, peas, I reply, too early for beans yet, although we're both looking forward to the warmer weather coming this week. It's real small-town America- doing business and conversation with your neighbors, literally.

I get home and unload the car, then the washer. After the sheets are hung, I drag the hose up to the greenhouse and water any of the flats that look a bit dry. A few I hold off on- if I repot them this afternoon, it actually helps if they are a bit dry. The rhubarb is growing like crazy, and the groceries I picked up are for my Sweet & Tangy Rhubarb-B-Q sauce, so I pick enough to make up a batch. The stems pull out easily, and I have kitchen shears with me to cut off the leaves before I bring it inside- they are actually poisonous! I put on an apron and consult the recipe, then chop up 16 cups worth of rhubarb. Almost everything I do in the kitchen is by hand or with hand tools, and this is no exception. It's just me, the rhubarb, a cutting board, and a sharp knife. After the rhubarb, I chop an onion and then begin mixing the ingredients in the pot to begin cooking down.

Make some more coffee- that reminds me, I've got to talk to Dan about putting in a coffee order...we've got a new business partner, Happy Mug Coffee in Tidioute, and we need to get our order in so the coffee can be roasted, packaged & picked up before the opening day at the stand, which is less than a month away now! Stir the sauce, and then find a catalog for Welp's hatchery. I need to call and order the next batch of broiler meat chicks. All goes well, and I should have poultry in the mail next week. The canner begins to boil, so I add the pint jars I'll be using to sterilize them. Stir the sauce again so it doesn't scorch, them go out to get the mail. As I walk to the mailbox, I notice a turkey walking around the barnyard. The turkey hens have a funny walk just after laying an egg, and I see this, so I make a mental note to check the turkey nest in the bottom of the barn later, and if it is empty, to look around for a new one. As I get the mail, I see a white shape in the woods and hear a familiar yowling. It's Whitey the barn cat, whom I haven't seen for almost a week. Although my least favorite of the kitties (because of the constant yowling), I'm glad to see him. Cats are a favorite food of coyotes, and we've had plenty of kitties disappear without a trace, which always makes me sad. But, on the other hand, that means I can let the kittens hang around here. I have 3 kittens right now, I hear them on and off throughout the day as Little Girl thought that the best place to give birth would be in a cubbyhole under the clean towels in my bathroom. They're about 10 days old now, so before too long I'll relocate them somewhere more suitable once they get mobile. Mostly junk mail, but excited to see my renewal of National Geographic has come, and bundled with the newest issue is the back one (last month's) I missed! I had no idea they would send it when I renewed, but thank you, Amazon, I guess. This makes me excited, as we save them and keep them in our library upstairs (we have hundreds, literally) and now I won't have a missing one.

Stir the rhubarb again and clean up the kitchen, doing dishes. (nope, don't have a dishwasher either. On days when I'm canning a lot, I may do 4-5 sinkfuls by hand.) Eventually, the sauce is thick enough to be ladled into the hot jars and put in the canner for processing. Now I can relax a tad and have lunch. As I'm heating up some leftovers, I see the calf by himself, so I walk out into the pasture to see where his mother is. Turns out, she was just hidden from my sight by some trees, and looks at me as if to say “What are you worrying for? I have this under control!” But as I'm walking back, I feel a few sprinkles, so I take the laundry in. Luckily, most is dry already. I decide to eat first, then fold & put away. I eat quickly (I don't even take enough time to finish reading the paper), then fold the laundry. Next is taking the hot jars out of the canner to cool and seal. As I'm doing the second round of dishes, Dan stops in; he'd come to get a chainsaw & trailer for the next job of the day and dropped off the zip ties I'd asked him for.

After he leaves, I head to the barn, zip ties in hand. The net roof of the peafowl pen is sagging, and it is catching the males' tails as they show off. By bunching up the net at the edges, I can tighten it with the zip ties. I've been meaning to get to this forever, so I figured now was as good a time as any. The peafowl are the wildest of the creatures we raise- they go out of the barn if I come into their pen to feed, unlike everything else around here which pretty much runs up to anyone holding a feed scoop. But they are magnificently beautiful birds. I really don't spend as much time just looking at them, admiring them, as I maybe should. It's easy to take things for granted when you see them every day, even things of great beauty. I really try not to do that. After I finish up with the net, I see the water pan is empty, so I grab a bucket and head to the hydrant.

Another task down, and I need to decide whether to clean the chicken coop or transplant seedlings in the greenhouse. I love greenhouse work, but cleaning bird pens is pretty much my absolute least favorite farm activity. I decided to clean the coop, mainly so I could not dread it tomorrow. Manure happens on a farm. I'll clean stalls all day without complaint. Manure powers our farm- it's how the pastures stay so green, and how we can grow amazing amounts of garden produce without chemical fertilizers. I have a deep appreciation for the stuff and its place in the circle of life. It's just poultry manure I find so unpleasant. I don't think that's unreasonable though, as it is either thick, heavy, and with an overpowering, gagging reek of ammonia, or dry and like a fine powder that becomes airborne when shoveled, coating your hair, skin, the inside of your nose. When I clean the pens, it's about a 50/50 mix of both types. I'd cleaned the peafowl & turkey pens yesterday, so if I just suck it up I'll be all done, I tell myself. The other downside to cleaning these pens is that it's pretty much impossible to get the horse-drawn manure spreader close enough. The best way, unfortunately, is for me to shovel it into a plastic bushel basket with handles, then carry the basket to the spreader and dump it in. Between the two pens yesterday, I carried 15 basketfuls, each weighing about 50 lbs, maybe more. Today's job will be a little bit bigger yet.

I dig in and got to work. By basket #12 I need a short rest and something to drink, so I go up to the house. The calf is up and about, but again, Finni is just out of sight. I begin to suspect the calf is stuck, sort of- he's in a small patch of pasture bordered by fence on one side & the creek on the other. It's where he's been all day. The creek there is small- just about 3” deep by 6” wide in most spots right now. But, I guess, scary enough when you're only 8 days old. I walk out with the idea to either shoo him or pick him up and set him down on the other side. He first runs up to me, then turns and starts running up the fence line toward mama. If he stops at the creek, I figure I'll just scoop him up (well, as much as you can scoop up anything weighing 80 lbs) and set him on the other side. Finni looks up and sees the scene playing out. Her maternal instinct must have kicked in, as she starts running in our direction. This is not funny or cute; this is about 1,000 lbs of mama cow, complete with a set of horns which are plenty big and pointy enough to impale a human. I wasn't close enough to see the look in her eye, but I wasn't taking any chance that she just wanted a cookie. I run for the patch of scrubby trees, the closest thing I could get to. She stops about 20 yards away from me, hollers at her kid, eyes me, and moseys back. Although she didn't come any further than the calf, I figured the only critter in potential danger was me, so I leave the calf to figure out the solution on his own and go back to the coop, where it is still stinky, but safe. Basket #19 is the last, whoo hoo! I walk down to the barn and get some pelletized lime to sprinkle on the floorboards, which helps to absorb the ammonia smell. I go upstairs to the hay mow to fill my basket one last time, this time with sweet, clean hay for bedding. I spy something white streak out of the barn as I startle it by opening the door. It's either Whitey again, or else Itty Bit, my prized mouser. I return to the coop and spread the lime & bedding, then grab the waterer. While the feed can wait another hour or two until I do PM chores, it's never good to leave the waterer empty. I put the waterer back, full, and open the coop doors. The chickens pop in from their outdoor runs, both for a drink and for the fun of scratching around in the new bedding.

By now, it's 3 PM. I'm sweaty and feel rather disgusting. All I want is a shower, but I look up at the thermometer for the greenhouse and see that it is 105 degrees, meaning I should really go open the other door for more ventilation. That done, it's shower time! Yay! Once I get out, I spy the lone cupcake left on the kitchen table from last week (I made some for a friend's birthday). I figure 19 bushels of manure x 50 lbs or more each = about half a ton of manure moved by hand today. That's certainly enough calories burned to earn a cupcake!

I hear Dan & Matt pull in; their workday is over. Dan is super excited because he's got a log splitting machine in tow behind the van. They got it at work, and it looks to be old and homemade.  It makes the models for sale in front of places like Tractor Supply look small in comparison.  The engine has a crank start, and looks a lot like the Wisconsin engine Dan rebuilt a few winters back. We could sure use a splitter since we heat the farmhouse with wood, and although the engine didn't fire right away, it seems as though it's moved to the top of Dan's project list.

I go inside and return a call to the man who runs Whispering Brook Cheese Haus in Chambersburg. We've been playing phone tag for a few days, so it's good to hear him answer. I finalize our order for raw milk cheese so we'll have it on hand opening day for the stand. We'll go pick it up in about 2 weeks, which works well...if we plan it right, we'll be able to take both our moms out for a meal for Mother's Day. Dan and I also discuss what we think will work for our new partnership with a local coffee roaster, Happy Mug Coffee of Tidioute. Dan and I are on the same page about what we think our first order should look like, but we both have questions, so I'll email the coffee guy tonight or tomorrow and go from there.

PM chore time comes next. Check the incubator again, a few more chicks & another poult. Time to carry feed for the rabbits and chickens, each in a 50 lb bag that must be moved from the stand. My arms scream in protest at the thought, but Dan takes pity on me and carries them for me tonight. Rabbits fed & watered, ditto for the quail, ducks, chickens, peafowl and turkeys. As I feed the rabbits, I notice Finni & the calf are with the rest of the cows, by the pond. He's made the creek crossing, so that's one less thing to worry about. Eggs are collected now too. I don't have as many chicken eggs as normal, but that is OK. I figured shutting them out of the coop for a couple hours this afternoon would have that effect. Next I go across the street, to the woods to check turkey nests. My heart sinks as I see the feathers. We've already lost two hens to nighttime predators this year. I try to be diligent about counting heads in the evenings, and this one wasn't sitting on the nest the last I checked yesterday, but there weren't tail feathers everywhere the last time, either. Back I go, to see if by some chance she escaped. I'm only counting 5 hens...one is missing. But the hen perched on the fence by the gate has about 5 tail feathers left. Bingo! We have a broody hen...and she's alive. I walk up and grab her by the ankle. I carry her off to the backyard and put her in a chicken tractor, one we usually use for meat birds. It was empty, so now it will be a sort of turkey jail. I'll keep her there a few days to a week, until she stops sitting across the road. I feed her and walk away. She clucks unhappily, but she's alive. As I walk away, I see another turkey hen, returning from a nest just beyond the blacksmith shop, so all turkeys are now present & accounted for.

Next, dinner time for us. I'm making a favorite recipe of Dan's, pork chops with caramelized onions. I sear the chops (home-raised, of course) in a cast-iron skillet, and caramelize an onion in another. Then I put the chops in an ovenproof dish and top with a bit of butter, some sage (homegrown) and the onion, then put in the oven for about 45 minutes. Then I slice a few potatoes into wedges and toss with butter, Parmesan cheese and some seasonings. I place those on a baking sheet, and into the oven they go as well. As it cooks, I do dishes. Again.

After we eat dinner together, more business. It's time to sit down with the mushroom spawn catalog and figure out an order. We're very interested in adding edible mushrooms, like shiitake and oyster, to our market lineup. This will be a new process, but it seems low-maintenance, with the possibility of fruitings over several years after the initial investment. Dan has some fresh logs that will be suitable, so we're eager to get this project underway. We talk about what to feature for the May newsletter, which I need to finish and send out in the next day or so. I mention ordering strawberry plants as well, and Dan shows me a part he took off the log splitter motor which will need taken out for repairs tomorrow. By now, it's about 9 PM. Time for bed.

While this day had more completed projects than most, it's really not unusual for us to do so much in a day. Doing as many different things as we do, you have to work hard, but also smart, or you'll never get it all done. And it's always necessary to pay attention to the critters, the plants, and what is going on. It becomes second nature to be alert, as it is often far easier to prevent a problem than to fix it, whether it is an invasion of cucumber beetles in the garden or an issue with the animals. In plenty of cases, like the broody turkey, you can't fix it after the fact. One she becomes something's dinner, there is no undoing. And yes, I do cook from scratch pretty much every night. While it is so easy to say, “I don't have time,” I'm pretty sure I'm just as busy as you. In fact, I know I'm busier than when I worked away from the farm. If I can do it, you can too, it just comes down to a matter of importance- is it more important to be quick & easy, or healthy and sustainable? It's a question everyone has to answer for themselves. Anyways, I hoped you enjoyed a detailed look into what really goes into being a farmer.  It's so much more than just being outstanding in your field.

 
 

The Biggest Compliment

  In the past, I've had inquiries about turning my farm into a Bed & Breakfast- one of those kinds where you can stay, live a day on a real farm, "help" with the chores and meet the animals. I totally understand why this is becoming popular- most folks don't have a family member who farms, unlike previous generations, and to pack up the kids for a weekend of living the simple life sounds ideal. However, I'm really a private person, and the idea of having strangers paying to sleep in a bedroom upstairs, expecting to have me cook them breakfast and eat in my kitchen sounds like my worst nightmare.

However, there is one couple that is always welcome to take their vacation time and spend it here at the farm working around the vegetables & livestock. That would be my husband's parents, Tom and Betty. They came to visit us for the better part of last week, and were an amazing amount of help. Although they have moved on and are comfortable no longer being tied to the farm, there are still lots of things they miss, so it is fun for them to come and be a part of spring (or any time of the year, really) on the farm. The weather was warm & beautiful, and Tom had a great time harnessing the horses and getting the fields ready with the disc, harrow, and cultipacker. (The cultipacker is my absolute favorite piece of equipment to run, so I was a little jealous about that...but he was having so much fun I couldn't bring myself to ask for a turn! Besides, there is plenty more space in the garden to prep, so I'll have my own turn at it later this spring.) Betty followed, running the rototiller. With their help, the section of field was ready to plant in no time. Dan was away at work, but I knew where all our seed supplies are, so Tom, Betty & I planted many of our spring crops. We planted 4 varieties of potatoes, beets, 2 kinds of peas, 4 kinds of onion, radishes, plus a slew of greens; red and green lettuce, arugula, chard, spinach, bok choi and mustard greens. It was great to get our hands in the dirt and see the first wave of spring planting done. In fact, even though Dan was home relatively early in the afternoon, by that time we were relaxing with some cold drinks on the porch, while Tom & Betty shared stories of farming, and of the history of this farm with me.

I love to listen to them...I always learn so much. I love knowing more about the history of this place (I really want to make time to write down all they know about it someday), both of things that they experienced here, and history they learned by talking to folks who had previously lived here, some of whom have passed away now. Of course, I married their son, and they love to share cute stories of his childhood with me also. But they also share so much knowledge with me, so I try always to pay attention & soak up what they say. They have been farming for longer than I've been alive, and worked these very fields for over 20 years before I walked them, so they have so much knowledge that is a help to me. For instance, they complimented us on getting rid of much of the quack grass (a troublesome weed) in the garden, and then went into how the weed that you see are a reflection of what your soil needs...quack is more prominent when soils need lime. So if you see it, you can be nearly certain that your soil could use limed, even without taking a soil test. To me, that is amazing.

Another major task tackled last week was getting the sheep sheared. Tom spent many years shearing, and even was hired to do other farmer's flocks, so he's simply quicker and better at it than Dan. And since shearing isn't one of Dan's favorite tasks anyways, he was grateful for the help. So one evening, the men went to the barn while Betty and I decided to stay in the warm house. While Dan was helping Tom to hold unruly sheep not wanting to be clipped, we had a great time talking. I have stepped into her role as main selector of seed varieties and the starter of greenhouse seedlings. It is neat to have someone as a mentor who understands the joys & stresses of being a woman farmer. Someone who understands how greenhouse seedlings of tomatoes, peppers and such can feel strangely like children and the excitement of watching them grow. By the time the men were done, we had spread seed catalogs across the table. She wanted to check to see if seed for the tastiest melon ever grown on the farm was still available (it is...and is high on next year's list already). I was showing her a great lettuce I love to grow which we find does not get bitter in warmer weather, so it may be a good fit for her garden which is further south now.

It was truly a great visit. Tom and Betty were excited to see what we've been doing with their beloved farm, from turning a spare bedroom into a library and getting all the books out of the attic, to building the greenhouses. Also, we do things now that they never tackled, so they like to see that too. Hatching chicks with the incubator was not a part of the farm for them, but they enjoyed checking out the chicks, turkey poults and baby quail.  About the only thing they weren't crazy about was the bull, but having known farmers who have been killed by bulls, I understand their concern. (I like to think I'm alert & careful around all the animals.  Even a ram sheep can be deadly. But that also doesn't stop me from feeding any of them cookies.) 

But the best part for me was that they allow Dan and I to make the farm decisions, and even treat me like I know what I'm doing. I don't always feel like I know what I'm doing yet! As we were planting, Betty finished a row and asked “Hey Boss Lady! What next?” Who, me? The newbie as Boss Lady? Or when Tom found me in the greenhouse and asked if the peas had all been planted...I said no, then started to tell him how I just wanted to check the greenhouse seedlings so they didn't get too dried out, and that I'd be right back to finish my peas. I probably sounded like a kid making excuses for why her chores weren't done yet. Tom said “Oh no, I wasn't questioning you're judgment, Em. You're doing the right thing. Betty just likes to plant peas and will finish up the row while you're busy here.” Or that Betty wanted to buy some herb seedlings to take home with her. Betty, who has started literally thousands of seedlings at once, wanted a few of my plants because she thought they would look better than the ones she had started by the time she got home. I guess it's like a stamp of approval from experienced farmers whose opinion really matters to me. Being in business for yourself is always hard, and farming is even trickier as there is so much beyond your control. To have someone who has been down this road and succeeded, it's an amazing feeling to hear them say that you look like you're on the right path. And I treasure that, because I'd like to be right here, doing this, for many years to come.

 

Planting potatoes while Tom uses the rototiller to plow another row.  For once, I'm actually in the picture, as Betty was kind enough to use the camera for me!  Also pictured is one of our free-range chickens, a Delaware rooster, inspecting my work.

 

 
 

Crazy Busy

Today, the sprouts and I are staying inside. It's snowing or sleeting or something out there, which just seems cruel after the 70 and 80 degree weather of a few weeks ago. But truthfully, it IS still early April, and after all, the barn coat is a much more seasonal piece of clothing than the tank top this time of year in our part of the world. But today is one of those cloudy, grey days where the small greenhouse, our sprout house, just won't warm up much. Right now, at noon, it's only in the lower 60's, since it is barely 40 outside with no direct sun.

For about two weeks now, I've been carefully bringing the trays of sprouts inside each evening, so they don't suffer cold damage, and then lugging them back outside for a day of warmth & light. At first, it was a 5-minute chore, as I had 4 trays and only needed to make 2 trip outside to the sprout house. But those trays were seed starting trays, with 96 one-inch spaces for plants. Since then, the tomatoes, cukes, flowers and more have been transplanted into 3” peat pots, and I already have over a dozen trays to move each time. I have some more things to start as spring goes along, and more things in need of transplanting very soon. A plant will pretty much stop getting bigger if it doesn't have any more space for its roots- it's called being “rootbound”. After transplanting, I'm always amazed at how much a plant will grow in the next few days. You can literally notice a difference from morning to night!

While inside, I have some flats under fluorescent lighting up to help to make up for the lost daylight, not that they are missing out on much today. I have the rest near windows, soaking up the ambient light. I'm hesitant to have many more flats, as I'm quickly nearing the end of the available space to set them inside the house! But soon a few will be empties. Last Saturday, the construction on the main greenhouse was completed! Although the ends have been up, and Dan and I put up the 20' wide plastic for the roof the weekend before, we still needed to enclose the sides. We used more plastic, fastened to boards at the bottom for the sides. This way, during the heat of the summer, the sides can be rolled up and tied, providing for even more ventilation than the windows and doors at the ends could provide. We're very excited to have the greenhouse rennovations completed right on schedule. We've already planted onions, chard, lettuce and beets in the ground in the greenhouse, and we're looking forward to getting our greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants in the ground within the next 2 weeks. Although we know there will be some nights we'll have to heat the greenhouse, it's the only way to really get those crops to mature earlier. If all goes according to plan, we're optimistic that we'll be offering cucumbers as soon as we open this year.

It is spring, so of course we're crazy busy. Besides the greenhouse activity, Dan has already started plowing for the year, so it won't be too long before I'm working some of the machinery as well, which I really enjoy. Chick season is here and in full swing. Right now, we have baby chicks for sale. This year we will have Barred Rocks, and Easter Eggers, plus a few Delawares and Golden Phoenix chicks. Monday should bring our first turkey poults of the season. We're getting lots of inquiries about our Bourbon Red poults, and I do have a few folks who have already reserved poults. The quail have finally started to lay, and with only 18 days of incubation necessary (compared to 21 for a chicken or 24 for goose, duck, peacock or turkey) we'll have bumblebee-sized little quail in the brooder next week. The geese have been sitting on nests for a couple of weeks now, so I think we'll see goslings soon, too.

All our lambs are thriving on the good spring grass, and it's a joy to watch them run and play out in our fields. I'm also watching our Dexter cow Finni like a hawk right now. She is due any day now, and we're again looking forward to having a calf in our midst. We bought Finni to be our family milk cow, and we're once again anxious to have our own farm-fresh milk in the fridge. I'm looking forward to dabbling a bit in making some other dairy products, like butter, cheese and sour cream as well.  ...And speaking of cheese, as opening day approaches, we'll once again make the journey to Whispering Brook Cheese Haus so we can offer their raw milk cheese at he stand.  We've missed all the delicious flavors, too!

We don't have enough room in the incubator for all the eggs we're getting, so I've also been busy trying to use them up making a variety of handmade egg noodles here at the farm kitchen. Dan absolutely loves them, and I'm looking forward to listing on our Etsy store (www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa/) and having them available when we reopen at the end of next month. It won't be long now!

Be sure to check out our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Farm/121591150986 ...our album “Greenhouse” shows the whole building process!

 
 

Meet Yardie

Pop Quiz! Do you know what the #1 irrigated crop in the U.S. Is? It's something most of us see every day, is grown in virtually every neighborhood nationwide, and nothing eats it.

The answer is grass. More specifically, lawns. More of our nation's water supply is diverted to make the yard look pretty than to grow any other crop. Add to that the pollution from lawnmowers & riding lawnmowers, the amount of synthetic herbicides and fertilizers used, and the fact that so many of those grass clippings go not to the compost pile but to the landfill, and you'll realize that lawns aren't the “greenest” feature to many homes.

Here on the farm, we hate wasted space, and it's always seemed like the yard is pretty much that, but we do keep it mowed so it looks nice for business. We've come up with some creative ways to reduce our mowing responsibilities, though. When we debated on where to house the turkeys, we enclosed part of the front yard as their run. It was the part with the pine tree roots I hit with the mowing blade most frequently, so that was another added bonus! Little did we know that the turkeys would roost in the tree and free-range all over the place, but they do. They also do an admirable job of keeping the grass down near their run in their quest for bugs, slugs and such.

We also employ some natural lawnmowers in the back and side yards. We use bottomless pens, called tractors, to house rabbits, quail and our meat chickens. These allow the critters to dine on fresh grass and the bugs in it, and provide a fresh, clean living space when the pen is moved daily. Although we still mow these areas to maintain a uniform look (instead of looking like a patchwork quilt!), at least the grass is being used to provide nutrition to our animals, and cut down on our feed bill! Spring has arrived early this year, and with it the chore of mowing. Or, at least it seemed so until last weekend. Dan is really good at thinking outside the box, and has solved more than one problem with a single, organic solution!

 

 Yardie, relaxing in the spring sunshine

Our demand for meat has risen drastically in the past year, and so we needed to expand our beef herd. We've also kept a Dexter bull for our breeding program. The problem is that we have a very nice Hereford heifer we will use for beef later on this year, but she can't be turned out with the herd because she is of breeding age. While the pasture has multiple sections, it is in need of some repairs to effectively segregate the cows. Keeping her in the barn on these beautiful, summer-like days, feeding hay, seemed like a waste. The solution? Yard Cow, aka Yardie. Yep, turn her loose on the lawn! Well, not really loose, for now she is tied to a soft cotton rope attached to a stake in the ground. We put her out in the morning and take her back to the barn at night. It has worked exceptionally well so far! Yes, the downside is that there are cow pies in the yard, but truthfully, it really doesn't bother us. At least they are easy to spot, not like the doggie land mines that don't catch your attention until they are all over your shoe! We hope to get a portable electric fence set up for her soon, but for now, I just keep an eye on her to make sure she hasn't wrapped the rope around the stake or anything. I'm also amazed, it's been nearly a week and no one has called or stopped and knocked on the door to tell me there is a loose cow in the yard. (We have folks stop all the time to inform us of our goats' whereabouts when they are in the unfenced hay field.)   We're happy to have such a mild-mannered cow, who really seems to love her new job as the head of lawn management here at Pleasant Valley Farm.

 Yardie, hard at work in the back yard!

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Little Farm in the Big City

Last weekend was the long-anticipated Farm to Table Conference in Pittsburgh.  I had a great time presenting and meeting lots of great people interested in local foods last year, and I'd been looking forward to doing it again this year.  Also exciting was that my mom was able to attend and see me speak, and my sister Laurel graciously covered the farm's table in the exhibit hall while my presentation, titled "Treasures from our Grandparents' Gardens: Heirloom Seeds" was going on.  I was amazed that I had as many attendees at 11:30 on Friday morning for my speech as I did last year on a Saturday afternoon!  

Speaking so early meant that lots of folks who saw me  had a chance to stop by and say hello or ask follow up questions when they stopped by the farm's table in the exhibit hall.  I was flattered by the number of them who said that they really enjoyed it, and glad that so many of them were able to take away something useful from what I had to say.

 

 Pleasant Valley Farm's table at Farm to Table Pittsburgh, 2012

The conference was much busier this year than last in my opinion.  It was great, I believe that I literally talked to hundreds, if not over a thousand different people, all interested in local foods.  Many of them were even familiar with Tionesta, and I hope to see some of them this summer.  We had lots of positive feedback about the different tastes of the farm we brought to sample- Carrot Cake Jam, Black Forest Preserves, Hot Peach BBQ Sauce, Fiesta Salsa, and Ginger-Garlic Mustard.   We sold out of Ginger-Garlic Mustard, Peach BBQ, and our Blueberry-Basil vinegar, much to the disappointment of some who tried a sample and wanted to pick up a jar on the way out!  All in all, we made some great contacts and hopefully reached a lot of people, and helped to get the word out that there is more to eating locally than just raw veggies! 

 

We were also very flattered to be in the Farm to Table preview article in Pittsburgh's Tribune-Review! Emily was quoted extensively, and the print version featured photos from the farm, a shot of heirloom lettuce growing in last year's garden, and another of Emily working our team of horses (Dixie & Dolly even got their names in the caption!).   To read the article for yourself, check out: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/email/s_787449.html?_s_icmp=enews

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The Wild Side

As I went out to start my morning round of chores on Friday, I heard an unfamiliar noise coming from the direction of the pond in the pasture. It sounded most similar to the call of our Coturnix quail, but a quick glance in the direction of the quail pen assured me that the door was still closed and I could see a good number of them hopping about in the grass. After taking water and food to the various pens of poultry and rabbits, I took a short walk to the pond to investigate. As I came close, I could see hundreds of black eyes starting back at me, floating on the surface of the water. Frogs. Not the itty little spring peepers, whose call is so loud it seems impossible for the frog's body size, but not big ol' bullfrogs, with their deep throaty calls, either. These were the mid-sized, shiny green frogs that the part of my brain which must have been paying attention in high school biology wants to call leopard frogs. The kind that leap to the water as you approach the bank of many small streams or ponds around here. The noise I was hearing was apparently the mating call of hundreds of these frogs, which had taken advantage of the summer-like weather to gather in our pond to lay eggs. I stood on the bank for a minute, admiring the sheer number of these little guys (and gals!), and watching the ripples dance across the pond from the places where some had gone under the surface of the water as I had approached. The little ripples expanded in ever-widening circles, reflecting the overcast sky like a living mirror. But, as always, spring days bring lots of things on the to-do list, so I didn't stay long.

As I closed the gate behind me, I heard the unmistakable honking cry of Canada geese. As I watched, a pair descended and came to a splashing landing in the pond. The frogs shut up ever so briefly. We are usually graced with a pair or a small flock of these birds on spring days. The pond seems to be a rest area on the northward migration, at least for some small groups. Often, a pair will stick around for a few days to a week or so. I always hope they'll build a nest, either by the edge of the pond, or a short distance further up in the pasture field where there is shelter provided by a few small trees and some brush. But, each year they move on. While we have barnyard geese, (Toulouses) who will hatch their own goslings and swim about the pond, I still like to think that maybe this year, their wild cousins will settle down here for the spring. They have such a grace and beauty to them, and I love looking out my kitchen window and seeing them outside.

Lunchtime came, and as I was inside fixing myself a sandwich, the turkeys began to gobble incessantly. They are loud this time of year, but this went on without pause for 10 minutes or so, which was unusual. Some of it seemed to sound like it was coming from across the road, but when I looked outside, I could see both gobblers near the turkey house, where they belonged. I have learned that sounds will bounce around here, off of buildings and the surrounding landscapes since we are in a valley. Often, something sounds like it is coming from the opposite direction than it actually is. So, I ate and then went back outside. I saw our Royal Palm hen on the road, obviously coming from the other side back to the farm. I went to see what she had been up to, as some of her sisters had used the brush pile across the street as a nestbox last year, and I wanted to discourage any notion of using it again this year. As I crossed the road, I saw something shiny and blue on the footpath ahead of me. It was the two yearling peacocks, who live a free-range existence with the turkey flock. So I started down the path to try and round up my birds, who were staring down the path, looking deeper into the forest. Then I saw a bronze shadow flitting between the trees, headed away from us. It was a wild turkey. A male, another gobbler, and as best as I could judge, bigger than our own Gobbles, and with a longer beard. (A turkey's beard is a hairy thing that hangs from the chest of the males. Longer = older bird.) It must have been he who got my domesticate birds so vocal...and why it sounded as though something was calling from across the road, because he was! It was like magic to watch him run down the path and out of sight. Although we live surrounded by the forest, we don't often see its wild inhabitants. They come by at night, leaving us to find footprints or signs of last night's dinner in the fields.

I try and look for the signs of life all around, and for that I was rewarded one more time that day. As I began my evening chores, something orange caught my eye. A small orange & black butterfly floated past our woodshed. While not unusual to see on a summer's day at the farm, it is still the middle of March.   

I've always been proud of how, on our farm, we work as much with nature as we can. Of course, farming is always linked to nature with cycles of seasons, weather, creatures being born and dying. But there is something to be said about working with the larger ecosystem to the greatest degree possible. This does not mean that we will happily allow the local predators a free pass to dining on our poultry, nor do we want to see groundhogs building ever-larger holes in the hayfield. (These holes can break a horse's leg if stepped in. Since we make hay with the horses, this is a concern.)

But the stream that runs through our pasture, that supplies our livestock with water, supports a breeding population of native trout downstream, a fish that is very sensitive to pollution and water quality. Dan and I have planted a crooked row in the garden so as not to disturb the nest of a killdeer. She and her babies do us a valuable service, as  they dine on insects that would otherwise dine on our crops.  Avoiding a small nest in the garden costs us nothing, but we are rewarded many times over by her insect hunting services. I think about how chemical fertilizers and pesticides would silence the frogs' song coming from the pond, how so many bird populations suffered the effects of DDT over the years, how so few people will ever know the excitement of unexpectedly seeing a wild turkey crossing their path. I know how lucky I am to have these wild encounters on a daily basis, and I try not to ignore them, nor take them for granted. It reinforces my commitment to farming the way we do, caring for the soil and water in a responsible way.  It reminds me that I do this not just for me, or my family, or my customers' families.  It's for them too- the bees and the bears, the whitetails and the warblers, the turkeys and the trout.  And also for the ash tree, the lady's slipper flower, even the skunk cabbage.  It's good for all of us.  And really, isn't that the kind of place you wanted your food to be coming from anyways? 



 
 

What IS That Sound??


This time of year, a strange sound comes from my large kitchen pantry.  A beep...beep...beep...beep sound.  One that always seems to make friends and family look around as if there is either something on fire or about to blow up.  But for me, it's one of the wonderful sounds of spring.  So what machine is lurking in the pantry, making ominous beeping noises?  It's the incubator!  

A few years ago, Dan & I invested in a large cabinet incubator.  It has three trays, each capable of holding 66 chicken, turkey, peafowl or duck eggs.  (Quail eggs, being much smaller, mean we can use smaller trays which hold many more.) We generally set one tray each week.  This works really well, as chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch, so we can have a continuous supply of adorable chicks all spring.  It is fully automated, with a digital thermostat for keeping a steady 100 degree temperature, a five gallon bucket that feeds into the machine's tray for steady humidity, and an automatic turner. This turner is necessary so that chicks do not develop lopsided and sickly.  A real mother hen shifts on her nest, turning the eggs during incubation, and this fills that function and saves me from turning them by hand multiple times each day.  The incubator beeps each time the trays turn, which happens every couple of hours.  After a day or two, it becomes a background noise to me, just like the roosters crowing, one that means everything is going just fine. (But a noise that sounds suspiciously like a fire alarm or bomb to visitors!)  

I'm excited to have chicks again.  As always, we'll be saving some of the laying breeds (our Barred Rocks and Delawares) and keeping some hen chicks to replenish our own laying flock.  Others we offer for sale to those looking to start their own flocks.  We're looking forward to adding turkey and, hopefully, quail eggs to the mix in the next few weeks, and peafowl eggs later in the spring, probably May sometime.  But most of all, I look forward to the day when I can pull out the hatching tray and pull out the first few downy chicks to move to the brooder pen.  Because even though I've pulled literally thousands of chicks out of the incubator so far, it's still exciting every time.  Seeing new life never gets old.

 
 

Baby Time Returns

It's a gloomy, soggy way to end February today.  I'm kind of surprised there are not ducks swimming in the backyard today, as there is enough standing water there (and I've seen them do it before!).  But grey days like this always seem a bit cheerier when there are babies about, and we've gotten the spring baby season underway!

 

Nutmeg was the first mama of the year, and she had this healthy ram lamb.  Her twin sister, Rosa had the most recent lamb, this one a girl.

 

 For some reason, even though they are twin sisters, and both black themselves, Nutmeg virtually always has white lambs, and Rosa's are almost always colorful.  Never all black, quite a few have had white on their head like this girl.  She even had a speckled brown and white lamb one year!  Baby lambs are just about the most adorable  things you'll ever see.  Once they get steady on their feet, they jump and twirl around their mamas in the lambing pens.  (We keep them inside for the first week or two to watch both mama and baby for any health issues, and to keep the lambs out of the cold or wet weather.)

And it's not just the sheep who are multiplying around here, we also have baby rabbits!  Murphette had a litter yesterday.  They are snug and warm in the nest she made from hay and her own fur.  I knew the big day had come when I saw the fluff moving ever so slightly inside her pen.  It's not quite picture time for the bunnies yet...they are born with their eyes closed and are nearly bald, so we'll wait a week or two for their photo shoot! 

We're also beginning to save chicken eggs to set in the incubator this week.  We'll set the eggs at the end of the week, and three weeks later we anticipate chicks! Our Bourbon Red tom turkeys are gobbling and strutting pretty much continuously now, and the hens are starting to pay attention, so turkey breeding season is upon us as well.  I expect to begin getting eggs from the turkeys in 2 weeks or so, and the poults will hatch four weeks later.  The geese are squawking and fighting now as well, but we'll let them make their own nests and hatch the goslings.  Experience has taught us that it is very hard to hatch the goose eggs in the incubator successfully because of the high humidity requirements, so we'll just let nature take its course.

We've got the sprout house completed, and back up fluorescent lighting in the house for the seedlings  in case of cold or gloomy weather.  We've already got flats of tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, eggplant, and a wide variety of herbs planted, and I will be starting more flats of other veggies next week.  We also started dismantling the large greenhouse frames yesterday.  I am so excited to set up our new one!  The old greenhouses were a bit of an eyesore, so I'm happy to get them down at last and recycle the frames into a new 65' growing space for earlier tomatoes, peppers and such.  Between babies and seedlings, it is really starting to feel like spring is here!

 
 

The Sprout House

 

A big projet has been crossed off of our spring to-do list.  The greenhouse we use for starting seeds was really showing its age.  The plastic was in tatters, the inside was filled with skeletons of last year's overgrown weeds, and with all the rain we've seen, you had to walk through a real muddy mess to get to the door.   

 

 

This is what it looked like. Not a friendly space to work or grow.  So, we cleaned up the inside, removed the workbenches, and stripped it down to the wooden frame, which was in great shape due to being built with treated lumber.

 

Halfway there! (As you can see by the snow, this was not a one-day project!)

Once down to the frame, Dan and I moved it about the length of the building and placed it closer to the processing pavilion (in rear of photo). This area is just slightly higher, and therefore drier.  Once the frame was level and in place, we put a floor of underlayment fabric down.  This should shade the weeds and prevent them from taking over every summer!  Then we put new plastic over the frame, inside and out, then replaced the worktables.  This time, we put them slightly lower so they are easier for me to work with.

 

 

I love the new sprout house! It's so much more inviting now. Dan boxed in a corner to use as a raised bed, and after the cold snap over the weekend, we are hoping to direct seed some frost tolerant veggies like radish, lettuce, chard and spinach.  I've also got flats of seed trays here in the house.  I've already started tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant for our big greenhouse.  This is another project we hope to complete soon.  We'll be taking down the metal frames out in the garden, using the ones in the best shape, and making a 65' greenhouse.  We'll plant these vegetables right in the soil, but we'll be able to do it much earlier and so will be able to offer our customers these veggies earlier and for a longer time during our market season.  I've also started a few flats of herbs, including basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley, catnip and echinecea (purple coneflower) so far.  I hope to have a nice variety of potted herbs for sale when we reopen this year, a new venture for me!  The trays are here in the warm kitchen until the seeds germinate, then we'll be taking them out to the sprouthouse for lots of sun and an early start on the season.  It's good to be growing again!

 

 
 
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