Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Thoughts on Heirlooms

There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to heirlooms...one being that they are a culinary delight, and should be prized above all others, the other being that they are, as one farmer put it, “yesterday's favorites for a reason”.  While praised for flavor, these varieties are also often criticized for their low productivity and susceptibility to pests & diseases.   Horticulturists have been improving varieties every year, so why not take advantage of the newest, most productive and disease-resistant varieties available?

My completely biased opinion is that heirlooms are amazing.  I love to think about the history, and stories behind each seed- where it came from, the hands that tended it and passed it down for future generations they would never meet.  Many seeds came to America in the pockets of immigrants...for some it was the only thing of real value they brought with them to an unknown land.  How important those seeds must have been- not only as food, but as a taste of a homeland you'd likely never again see.  I got a bell pepper variety this year because the description stated it was one of the varieties Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello.  History you can touch, grow...how cool is that?  To be a part of the chain that keeps these varieties alive for future generations is literally a way of preserving history, and our country's heritage, and something that resonates deeply for me. 

What about the bad rap as underachievers?  First, there are plenty of heirlooms that are so common & productive, they are often not recognized as such- examples would be Provider green beans, Rutgers tomatoes, or Black Seeded Simpson lettuce.  There is also an essential difference between commercial hybrids and heirlooms in terms of how they grow in different climates.  Hybrids are grown to perform well in just about any part of the country.  That's why you'll find the same varieties at the big box stores whether you're in Maine or Florida, even though the growing conditions are radically different.   Heirlooms, however, were generally grown in a specific region and climate.  Therefore, it's really important to find the variety that comes from a place that has weather similar to your garden.  There are over 5,000 varieties of tomatoes alone available to members of Seed Savers Exchange.  Many of these would do really poorly here at my farm, but others will shine.  And by saving the seed from your own plants year after year, you can actually select for the plants that do best in your own garden!

An overlooked crisis in farming today is homogeneity.  Nearly every commercial farm grows  the same vegetable varieties, or raises the same kinds of livestock to get maximum production- be it bell peppers or beef.  The problem with this way of farming is best illustrated by the Irish potato famine.  When everyone plants the same thing, an entire nation's crop can be decimated by a new pest, disease or climate change.  When you plant an assortment of varieties of a given vegetable, you spread out your risk.  Each year, some kinds will do better than others given the weather and other factors.  

When I came to the farm, Dan helped me order seeds because I had no idea how to grow much of anything, much less what kinds were best, and the choices can be overwhelming.  As I've grown into my role as a farmer though, I've taken over the job of selecting our seeds each year, pouring over catalogs for literal hours each winter, and have been continually experimenting with new varieties, many of them heirlooms.  It's a process that takes years.  Some varieties are great, and immediately earn their spot in the garden on a permanent basis.  For ones that don't thrive, I usually give it another shot the following year, since every year is different in terms of weather and such.  I've found that Riesentraube cherry tomatoes are more productive (in outdoor conditions, anyway) than the hybrids I can get, and that they and an heirloom Roma I grew were the most resistant varieties to the late blight.  But it doesn't always work out-  I've loved the idea of having pink Brandywine tomatoes for a while now.  But season after season, I get very few marketable tomatoes.  The Brandywines are large tomatoes, so a plant produces fewer of them.  But they are also prone to insect damage and cracking, which pretty much make them unmarketable, no matter how tasty they are.  However, I sold some seedlings last year and my neighbors raved that they were the best tomatoes ever!  I think this particular one just needs more TLC than I have time to give it, and may be best suited to home gardeners.  That's OK.  Selecting varieties is a trial-and-error process, not every variety (no matter how cool the back story or pretty the fruit) is going to work for every garden.  I accept that there will be disappointments, and things I won't grow again, but for me, the fun is pouring over the seed catalog, finding something new that speaks to me in some way, and engaging in a yearlong experiment. Even the failures can teach me something.   There are also trade-offs to consider.  For instance, hybrid lettuce just grows more quickly & is ready to cut sooner.  But lettuce, as it matures, gets bitter and inedible, and that happens quickly as well.  I find that, even if my heirloom lettuces take a week longer to reach cutting size, they tend to last 2-3 weeks longer before getting bitter, even during hot weather.  So, if I wait (or plant a week earlier), I end up with much more time where I can market and use that variety.  Early or late, which is better?  I don't think there is a right or wrong answer, just personal preference and business practices.  However, lettuce is one crop I've transitioned pretty much exclusively to heirlooms already.

It is my hope, and a long-term goal, to transition more towards heirlooms.  I love the idea of  improving our self-sufficiency by saving our seeds, which in turn reduces our yearly expenses.  Saving more seed than I need could also lead to sales of seed packets in the spring, or even offering hard-to-find heirloom seedlings to our customers.  I also think it's just a natural extension of what we're already doing- preserving the historic buildings here, utilizing antique machinery in the fields...it isn't much of a leap to choose historic varieties of plants & livestock, either. I think it adds to the beauty of what we do here, and I look forward to my heirloom experiments for years to come!
 
 

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.

 

 
 

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!

 

 
 

The Perfect Garden

Right now, this year's garden is perfect. That may seem strange, as it's covered with a few inches of snow, and harnessing up the horses to plow is still months off. But right now I can see it, I've planned it all out, and it's the only time of year where I don't have to deal with the difficulties of actually growing. So, in my mind, the weather has been perfect, no pests or diseases, and all the varieties are doing well. The weeds haven't been a problem, and you can tell by now that I'm totally delusional.

I've gone though all the seeds left over or saved from last season, took stock of our inventory, and figured out what I could avoid buying this year. I get excited about using heirloom varieties and finding ones that work for our microclimate. It is not too much work to spend a few hours in the fall picking dry bean seeds or scooping out the seeds from a squash to save for next year. Each time I do, I help to perpetuate a variety that in some cases is old and in danger of going extinct. In any case, it's like money in the bank, as I've created my own seed for next year. I am trying, year by year, to become better and save more different kinds of vegetable seed. I think if I can become proficient at saving seeds and starting plants in the greenhouse, I should be able to slash the seed bill somewhere around half. Some seeds take too long to save (for example, carrots are biennials, and would require field space for two seasons to produce seed, so it is worth it to us to purchase seed instead) and in some cases, especially with things like sweet corn, we will likely stick to the hybrid varieties, as they are what the public is geared to look for.

I've looked over my records of the last few years, noting which plant varieties performed well, and which I might like to try a new substitute. I've perused the seed catalogs and noted which varieties are no longer available and made acceptable substitutions. It's always a bummer when your favorite kind of something is no longer available. This year it was our favorite zucchini from Johnny's seed, Cashflow. We've picked out a new variety now, and hope it will be similar in taste & performance. At first, planning the seed purchase was almost overwhelming to me, as each variety sounds so amazing. (The catalogs are worded so that it is possible to feel overwhelmingly excited about something as plain as a radish!) I grew up with flowers in the yard, not veggies, so the names were not the old friends to me that they were to Dan. But I've got enough growing seasons under my belt that I am pretty confident about what (and how much!) to order, although Dan and I always sit down together and look it over before I send it in.

But hands down, my favorite part of spring garden planning is trying new things. In the past few years, we have had spectacular successes and also things we won't plant again, even for fun. Swiss chard grew fantastically, and is now one of my favorite greens. Herbs were not a big part of the farm and I've had fun starting with the basics and working my way up to more exotic flavors. Peanuts didn't work so well, and I'm still searching for the perfect melon for our weather, so not every gamble pays off, but if you don't try, you'll never find new, exciting things! So this year my wish list included everything from fingerling potatoes to salsify, a vegetable that supposedly tastes like oysters. I've seen fennel in so many recipes lately (I subscribe to what are probably too many cooking magazines!) that I have to try it. We've even tossed around the idea of branching out of the plant world to try our hand at growing gourmet mushrooms. So, as you can see it's easy to picture the perfect garden right now. The green house, the fields, everything is pictured with perfect optimism. Now I know there will be crop failures and pests and problems, but if you can't have joy in your heart picturing how this season will be the best ever, than you're probably in the wrong line of work.   

 And besides daydreaming about the perfect garden, there are still lots of things keeping us busy.  Our first lamb of the season was born on Sunday. I've been canning things I put away in the freezer until a slower time, so last week I finally defrosted a bucket of cherries and made case upon case of Black Forest Preserves.  (If you're looking for a unique Valentines gift, what could be sweeter than chocolate jam with PA-grown cherries in it for your sweetie?  We also have jewelry, handmade from our birds' feathers, and we ship nationwide!  Click over to our store at www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa to check it out!)  The sun is streaming through the window, and the thermometer is reading nearly 50 degrees, so I guess it's time to get off the computer and get outside! I'll try to post baby pictures in the near future!

 
 

Taking Inventory

The first real winter storm has hit the farm.  It's cold out, the wind is blowing and I can barely see the woods line from where I type, meaning visibility is not good at all.  It's a good day to take on indoor tasks, and after I finished sweeping up the mud on the kitchen floor again, I needed another project for the day.  Strangely enough, seeing all this blowing snow gets me excited to start thinking about the 2012 garden.  I enjoy sitting on the couch or near the woodburner, perusing the seed catalogs with a highlighter and a pen and notebook to begin creating a wish list of plants I'd like to grow, plus lots of price & volume comparisons.  It's a major undertaking, but it's always enjoyable.  

But before I start planning our seed purchases, I need to find out what is still here, meaning an afternoon of sorting through seed packets which have been stored away since planting stopped.  I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the types of seeds I have, both what vegetable and what variety, plus the quantity on hand and when it was purchased or harvested.  I've been trying to do better at saving seed from our own garden plants, which is only possible with older, heirloom plants, not the modern hybrids.   We do use some of the modern varieties for disease resistance or productivity, but we've been steadily incorporating more heirlooms each year.  So in addition to seeing how many small white packets of commercial seed are in the box, I also have an assortment of envelopes and brown bags, each carefully labelled "Chives"  or "Christmas Lima" or "Pink Banana Squash".  It's exciting to see how much of our own seed we can preserve, which in the end results not just in a smaller bill come spring planting, but also should produce plants that are most suited to our particular climate and location.  

Once all the packets have been inspected and inventoried, I'll put the boxes back in their cool, dry space in the pantry.  Then I'll get out the highlighter and notepad and the gorgeous assortment of seed catalogs that have arrived and start dreaming of the possibilities of spring! 

 
 

Planting at Last!

Finally, the warm temperatures and sunny skies are making it feel like spring!  This weekend, we were finally able to get the horses harnessed and get the majority of this year's garden plowed.  We'll still need to do lots more, like discing and harrowing, before it's ready to plant, but it sure is nice to see some freshly tilled soil when I look outside.  We did get a few things in the ground as well, in a space tilled with our BCS rototiller.  Again, we planted beets, green onions, radishes, lots of lettuces, carrots and peas.  It's important to plant things like lettuce and radishes every few weeks in order to be able to harvest routinely as the season wears on.

 We also planted some potatoes.  Our potato order from Seed Saver's Exchange arrived, so we wanted to get them into the ground as soon as possible. We're trying a neat new variety this year called Mountain Rose.  These red-skinned potatoes also have swirls of rose through the flesh.  The description in the catalog said they will be a non-waxy potato, great for chips, fries, mashing or a unique looking potato salad.  We were also anticipating more All-Blue potatoes, which we've grown for the past couple of years.  They're small, with a purple-blue skin and flesh.  Tasty potatoes that are great for baking & frying, and also retain their color when boiled.  I had visions of a really patriotic potato salad if I combined the two varieties!  Unfortunately, despite the fact I placed my order months ago, when it came time to ship, they were out of the All Blues.   I'm still trying to locate another source with hopes of growing them yet this year.  But I was excited that Seed Savers shipped another variety of potato (at no charge) to make up for the ones I wouldn't be getting.  So we're growing Nicola potatoes this year.  They are medium-large, white potatoes.  They are said to have a low glycemic level and are waxy and excellent for boiling & salads.   I've yet to be less than amazed at the rich flavors of the wonderful heirloom plants from Seed Saver's Exchange, so I'm looking forward to trying these as well.

We're also looking at moving at least some of the herb garden.  It's been years since the soil has been tilled and properly limed and fertilized.  The weeds are thick and most of what herbs are there need thinned.  So yesterday, as Dan was plowing, I began transplanting some of my chives, thinning them and moving them to their new home.  This morning, they looked great, it didn't seem to faze them one bit.  I have more to thin and move, so I just may put some in pots and offer them for sale when we open.

It's hard to believe, but we'll be open for the season in just three weeks, on May 28!  There is lots to do before then.  One thing we needed to take care of was getting meat processed- we'll be offering our grass fed beef by the pound and also some lamb kielbasa on opening day, so of course we needed to make arrangements for those animals to go to Hirsch's, our meat processor.  We penned up the animals in the barn last night, which ended up being a very good thing.  Matt was around and able to lend an extra hand sorting out the right animals and moving them. The trailer usually comes in the evenings, but this morning I got a call asking if it would be possible to load them this morning instead.  I said yes, it was just great as far as I was concerned to get it done with earlier in the day.  The only thing was that Dan was working an hour away, so it would just be me  and Tom, the driver.   He is almost always the driver who comes to the farm, and is a pro at loading the animals with a minimum of fuss and stress for all involved.  When he got here, I opened the barn doors, spotted as he backed the trailer, and let him know it was just me on the farm today.  He said it would be no problem, and 15 minutes later, the animals were loaded and the trailer was on its way down the road.  

I've gotten used to the idea of loading animals onto the trailer for processing into meat, and I don't get too choked up about it anymore.  A frequently asked question I get is how I can eat something that I raised (and usually named, as well!) The answer is that I know we raised them in a humane way, with all the luxuries of pasture, sun, and wholesome diet that most animals raised for meat don't get.  The animals wouldn't even be born if they didn't have a purpose, so giving them a good existence before they are killed quickly and humanely is nothing to get too upset about.  In fact, just the opposite- not only do the animals live in a way fitting to their nature, but it gives people in our area an option to support something besides the factory farms with their food dollars if they choose to eat meat.  And it tastes so much better!  So, over time, loading has become more of a semi-routine farm chore and less of an emotional roller coaster.  Even though it was unexpected, it did feel good to know I could take care of this chore myself, without Dan.  It wasn't a big deal, everything went well, and the driver seemed comfortable working with just me there in the barn, which to me was a big compliment.  I've noticed that many farm and livestock folks aren't big on giving each other praise.  Often the biggest is that they are happy to work with you, and when they do, you trust each other enough to get the job done safely and quickly, like we did today.

 
 

Planning the 2011 Garden

One of the hardest things for me to get used to on the farm is how far you need to plan ahead to be successful. In college, while studying for my Master's degree, I got to be a horrible procrastinator; I can remember getting up at 5 AM to write a paper due at 9 AM, one that I'd had weeks to work on. Not just once, but often. As long as it got me an A, it didn't really matter. Now, what I do (or don't do) today can have consequences not just tomorrow, but 6 months or an entire year down the road! Although I do try to stay on top of things, one of my resolutions this year is to make sure I keep better records, it's the only way to know what works and what doesn't.

One of my major tasks so far this year has been to plan our seed orders, which will set the stage for what we grow and sell all year. Not just what we sell in May, but right up through November, and it will decide what I'll be eating this time next year, as we're big on using storage vegetables or things I've canned or frozen to feed ourselves through the winter. Truthfully, I probably would have gotten started on this even before Christmas, but my favorite catalog, from Seed Saver's Exchange, didn't get here until late last week. The conventional thinking is that farmers just do what they do, guided by old time wisdom or maybe this year's farmer's almanac. More than once, I've been asked why I'm farming when I have so much schooling, the insinuation being that I'm wasting my intelligence by doing something any hick could do.  In reality, it takes a lot of planning, record keeping, and the like to be successful.  Be it plants or animals, you have to know what does well on your particular farm to be able to make a living out of it. Growing is more than throwing some seeds in the ground and waiting to harvest. I do have very good records of the seeds we've ordered, variety, amount and all, from our past growing seasons, but the truth is, I make it a huge project not only because it's important, but because it's fun. I ogle seed catalogs the way some girls pour over jewelry ads.

While I do stick to many varieties that we've had success with, and start out our plan with those, each year I add new ones. Some will not work out, but others will make it into our garden for years to come, and the only way to find out is to take a chance on something new. I love the idea of helping to resurrect heirloom varieties instead of planting the newest hybrids, and that's one of the reasons I love Seed Saver's Exchange. Not only can I help to make the farm more self sufficient and sustainable by saving seeds from a plant we want to grow again the following year, but these heirlooms have a history. One I took a chance on a few seasons ago was a lettuce called Grandpa Admire's. It surpassed anything either I or Dan had grown here before. Not only is it lovely to look at, being green tinged with red, but it also has great flavor and goes a long time without getting bitter, a real plus for summer gardening. Also, it's a variety that has been planted and saved and replanted since the Civil War. Not only delicious, but a real piece of American history right on your plate!

Then there are others that are less than successful. For two years, I've longed to taste a melon called Delice de la Table, a very rare French heirloom. The rarity, the beautiful picture of the fruit, and the description made me give it a try after it failed to produce a single melon the first year. It was a tough growing season, though, so I gave it another try. Last season was very favorable, but again I got nothing. Not a single melon from multiple planted seeds. Part of me hates to give up, but it's wasted money and, perhaps even more valuable, wasted garden real estate. But I do think a nice French cantaloupe would be wonderful to offer for sale...luckily for me there are more options! My master list currently has two options- one that says it is the easiest to grow and prolific, but prone to cracking open when ripe; the other is said to be the “most divine and flavorful melon in the world.” I've yet to decide which one (or both?!?) will grace our garden this season. These are the kind of difficult decisions I love to have.

Not every new plant is an heirloom experiment, though. Will anyone in our area buy okra? Hmm, probably not, we're too far north. What about baby corn, like you use in Chinese stir-fries? It's on the list for me to consider, along with a couple exotic sweet corns- one bright red, the other steely blue. I'll also consider things my customers asked for last year that we didn't offer. Orange Hubbard squash? Yellow beets? So many choices. Also, our all-time favorite sweet corn, Seneca Dancer, has been discontinued, so I'll ponder its replacement carefully, since that is such an important crop for a farm stand. In addition to names, descriptions and histories, there are also other considerations- to order seed or wait to buy started plants, days to harvest, tolerance to heat, cold, plant diseases. And that's before I even get into comparing prices. While some places offer things very cheaply, if you're not familiar with that company, you're also taking a chance on the quality of the seed they ship. It's not a bargain if only half the seeds germinate as compared to the slightly more expensive version from a company with quality seed that you usually deal with. So it's a job worth spending a good bit of time over, and in the dead of winter, there is something uplifting about staring at the pictures of ripe red tomatoes, golden ears of corn, and colorful peppers that make spring seem that much closer.  

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Goodbye, Garden 2010

Yesterday was another glorious fall day and a great day to be outside.  I'm so blessed to be home on the farm full time where I can take advantage of such days and not be confined to an office for 8 hours!  

The day started out cold, with a low temperature of 28 overnight resulting in a freeze here,  That means even row cover wouldn't save the frost-sensitive plants, so my basil and peppers are truly gone until next year, except for ones I've dried, canned or frozen.  We've also finished digging onions and potatoes.  While I hope to have beets again and the Swiss chard is still growing strong, the last major vegetable to harvest is our winter squash.  If you've been to the stand recently, you've seen baskets overflowing with them, but the vines are dead and it was time to bring in the rest for storage as they were as ripe as they will get out there.  Although the Kabocha and buttercups didn't do quite as well as they had in the past, we had a bumper crop of butternuts and great success with a new variety called sweet dumpling.  It's like an acorn with a lighter, milder flavor and a beautiful white & green mottled exterior.  There were still so many out there, I got the garden tractor and a trailer to cart them back to the stand.  Although I can drive this little tractor, it's a joke between Dan and I that I can't touch a lawn tractor without breaking it; I get it stuck in a ditch, a bolt for the steering comes loose and I shut it off and abandon it mid-field, a belt breaks, or I jackknife the trailer hopelessly trying to turn.  He's always on the lookout for where I've left the tractor around the farm after some such disaster for him to repair when he gets home.  Amazingly, it was a tractor problem-free day.  The squash looked so pretty, I just had to take a picture of it partway through collecting: you can see various gourds, acorns, buttercups, butternuts, sweet dumplings, spaghetti, and hubbard squash!

 

Hundreds of pounds of squash later, I was done.  After we cut some more sunflower heads and some more corn shocks, all that will remain to do will be to pull up the plastic and fabric mulches that helped to keep the weeds at bay over the growing season.

 Every year, there are successes and failures, that's why it's so important to us to have a diverse planting of vegetables.  This year, the successes far outweighed the crops that under-performed.  We keep careful track of which varieties work well for us, so each year we can learn more and take that knowledge into the next growing season.  Although it's always a bit bittersweet to see the seasons change and the plants die or go dormant in preparation for winter snow, I know when the snow really starts to pile up I'll be able to warm myself by the cozy woodstove in the living room, perusing the seed catalogs, eyeing up new varieties and old favorites, and planning for the 2011 garden.

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Fall Decoration Time

Beautiful fall weather here after much rain.  We're happy to have 9 more piglets here at the farm, as Fern finally had her fall litter yesterday.  The mud has kept me from the garden lately, but now it's been so much fun to see all the gourds that have matured.  We didn't plant them from seed, but bought some assorted gourd starters from a local greenhouse, so I loved seeing what came of the beautiful yellow and white blooms that appeared on the vines earlier this growing season.  Warty little gourds, smooth colorful ones the shape of pumpkins, and big birdhouse gourds in various colors. We grew pumpkins too.  Our winter squash did very well this year, and there are bushels of acorn, spaghetti, sweet dumpling, and butternut squash at the stand, along with some Hubbard and Giant Pink Bananas as well.  Although there is lees produce filling up the table since we've been hit by our first frost, the floor and benches are overflowing with our fall harvest!

Although I've been fighting a bit of a fall cold, it was so nice to be outside Friday gathering corn stalks to gather into decorative shocks.  Although the strawberry popcorn I planted didn't pan out as I hoped, I'll try again next year and this year be thankful for the deep red stalks I harvested.  Although we do so much by hand and by horse, there is something gratifying about putting together these decorative bundles.  I harvest them simply; with a machete in hand, I chop the base while I hold the stalk, trying to keep the tassel upright.  I carry them down to the shed and tie what seems to be the right number together with bailer twine.  Halloween is a favorite holiday of mine for very personal reasons, so I love decorating for fall.  I love being able to offer these fun treats for my customers as well.

Another fall staple here at he farm is lamb.  We've sold out of most of the cuts from earlier this year, so it's time to send a few more for processing.  It was a great day to saddle up Sara and bring the flock down to the barn.  She seemed to remember how this went last time, and surprisingly so did the sheep.  It was a short ride because it went so flawlessly. 

 
 

Saving Summer

Although Labor Day weekend is supposed to be summer's last big celebration,  this weekend sure seemed like an introduction to fall instead with rain, cooler temperatures and the first leaves coming down.  We're really glad it didn't stop folks from coming out to see us on Saturday though, as we had a wonderful day at the stand, seeing lots of old friends and making some new ones.   

Although I hate to let any produce go to waste, it seems even more critical now as certain plants are reaching the end of their season.   At one point, I felt inundated by cucumber, and while I pickled what I could, I didn't feel terrible about feeding some to the pigs as well.  Now each is like a final green gem from the garden, and I'll miss their cool crunch for many months once they are done. Cukes are actually my personal favorite garden veggie, I like them more than the ever-popular corn and tomatoes, but once they are gone I fall back on my pickles.  I won't buy a tastless, slimy one coated in wax from the store.  Although it's a long wait between the end of  the season in September to the first new ones in June, there are also so many tasty foods we grow or that I preserve here, it doesn't ever feel like deprivation.  It's more like a decadent overabundance when the season is here.

I really hate to waste tomatoes, they seem especially precious after the blight destroyed almost the entire crop last year.  This year we're selling them by the literal bushel and I'm still looking for ways to preserve the rest.  If you've visited us, you've likely seem the hot and mild varieties of salsa and our sun dried tomatoes for sale.  I have also run quite a few through my food mill and frozen the results.  Late in the year or early next, I'll defrost the squished tomatoes and spend a day making chili and spaghetti sauces for myself.  I'll enjoy the all-day process of boiling it down when it's warming the house from winter's cold.   But for now, I still have tomatoes, so I'm always looking for something different, and something that doesn't contain hours of processing...a summer recipe!  Last week, I found one for Bruschetta-in-a-Jar.  Chop the tomatoes, pack in hot jars, and fill with a boiling mixture of wine, vinegar and Italian spices.  Easy and delicious, but not one you could really get a taste of before processing.  One of the labels was rather lumpy-looking, so I told Dan Saturday morning he could have it.  He asked what exactly it was supposed to be.  I replied that he should imagine spreading it over warm garlic bread, possibly sprinkled with cheese.  He popped the jar open and sampled it with a tortilla chip I had set out for salsa samples.  I warned him as I had made it just days before, it may not have had time to fully incorporate the flavors.  He argued that it couldn't possibly get much better and when he offered me a taste of the finished project, I had to agree.  I'll be making lots more of it this week!  Along with another effort to let no tomato go to waste, I'll have lots of other projects as well.  The hot peppers will either be made into hot pepper rings or a batch of salsa.  I'll be making dilly beans and pickled beets.  Also, the dehydrator will be running full of herbs, tomatoes or anything else that seems like a good candidate.  And who knows, I may find another wonderful recipe during the course of the week like the Bruschetta.  While it can be overwhelming to try to put up all the food the garden produces, it's a wonderful challenge and one that's filled with nearly limitless possibilities of flavors and colors! 

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Garden Bounty

Saturday was tour day, so last week I spent much time finishing cleanup, laminating signs, and sorting the poultry into separate pens (which they did not stay in!).  Unfortunately, between the high heat & humidity and the fact that most of the stops were in southwest PA, it didn't really attract many new folks.  But I am glad we gave it a try, it was a good learning experience for me.  But I always say either my house or my barn is clean, and since last week was devoted to rarely-completed chores such as washing the windows in the chicken coops,  Sunday was a day to get the house back into shape. 

As July turns toward August, the garden is really producing an amazing amount of food.  My goal today and for the next few days is to get some serious weeding done.  Today I'll be picking off zukes & cikes to make pickles, relish, and to try and prevent having only ones the size of baseball bats on Saturday.  We planted a pretty good assortment of hot and bell peppers and I cannot believe the production of our "inferno" banana peppers!  Not only are they very hot, they are just loaded with beautiful peppers, so I've made some extra-hot pepper rings along with some really great flavored hot pepper jelly.  As soon as I have some extra tomatoes, I'll definitely be using them to flavor my hot pepper salsa as well.  I love the challenge of seeing what is producing in the garden or leftover after we close on Saturday, and then trying to find an amazing recipe to can.  If it passes a private taste test here at the house, I'll put it out for sale.  So far I've had very few that didn't make it to the stand, and most of them were due to the fact that they were delicious, but too time-consuming to make a regular part of my canning menu.  Dan usually hopes something doesn't seal properly or that I have only half a jar so that it can go into our fridge instead!  I'm also grateful to Betty, my mother-in-law, for being gracious enough to share some recipes for farm stand favorites she made in years past, like her pickled beets. So I'm off to weed, stake tomatoes, and generally inspect what's going on out there...I know there is a lot that's been happening while I was busy cleaning the chicken pens!

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Heat Wave Continues

The heat wave is still here.  It's 9:15 in the morning and it's already 85 degrees with 66% humidity, so I'm planning to be inside as much as I can today.  Although it's not supposed to get as high as the 98 degree weather we had earlier this week, the humidity is apparently going to make it feel even hotter.  It's weather like this that makes winter seem like a good time!

Hay making is still ongoing. I will be forever grateful to my husband and my brother-in-law for taking over that hard work.  I just don't handle the heat too well, so I get the equally important job of rounding up ice cold drinks and making food for a good meal afterward.  The large field that we've been working on is so thick and beautiful it will nearly take care of our hay needs for the year.  There is another main field to cut, but it has gotten rather weedy over the past few years and we may just make the nicest hay from it and mulch the rest.  Or the second cutting from this field later in the summer should be more than enough to fill our barn.  Either way, we look to have plenty of hay for all the animals we overwinter.  This year the number of horses will be the same, the sheep and pigs roughly the same number as well, with probably an additional cow or two than we overwintered last year but significantly less goats.  So, we have a pretty good idea of what we will need, and although a full season of winter seems so far away right now, this is when the planning and work happens that enables us to get through it. 

The garden is growing fantastically! I swear, if you look closely, you can see plants like corn, melons and sunflowers grow throughout the day.  They love the heat! I've already been out there this morning.  Although some things could use some irrigation, we only use underground drip line during the day.  The sprinklers will be moved around later in the day so as to lose as little water as possible to evaporation before the plants have a chance to make use of it.  But this morning, my main task was to thin the cucumbers and zucchini.  Both are best if picked small to medium sized, so we need to thin them out every few days to avoid the baseball-bat sized ones on market day!  

My favorite fresh vegetable is the cucumber.  I love the crisp, fresh taste.  The soggy, waxy ones you find in the store can't hold a candle to the goodness from a local garden.  So I was thrilled to finally see lots poking out from under the leaves last night when I went out to round up whatever I could find for a nice dinner salad.  This morning, I returned to the house with half a bushel, so one of my projects for today will be making pickles. It's just in time too, because we had just opened the last jar from the pantry, and who doesn't go through more pickles during summer grilling season? Not only will I be restocking my pantry, but I'll be having some for sale at the stand too!  We'll also have fresh cucumber for sale beginning this week, so you can make all your favorite dishes!  I have a recipe for a great summer pasta salad using them.  If you get out newsletter, you already have the recipe to try out, but if not you can get it here: http://pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com/newsletter.html   

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Open for the Season

We survived our grand opening yesterday, and I'm happy to say it was a success!  Thanks go out to all who stopped to see us, your support of local, organic food allows us to spend our time doing what we love- farming!

I admit, I have been pretty stressed about opening.  We did open for a partial season last year, but opening August 1 means lots more veggies are in season.  However, the table was NOT bare looking even though it is only May!  I've been busy with my jams, mustards and flavored vinegars, we have a nice assortment of raw milk cheese, and in addition to early crops like spring onions and rhubarb,  I also have some hardy herbs that are already needing to be cut.   We also had lots of pork and our first chicken of the year.  While we did sell out of one or two things, overall we had enough to keep the table filled all day.  My other fear was that no one would come, but we had a wonderful turnout.  So now that the opening is over, I'll be much less anxious about the coming weeks.  

The garden is looking greener every day.  Last week we put in 10 flats of transplants, so the plastic I put down is now filled and then some!  It's hard to believe, but our last killing frost was actually in June last year, so as much as we wanted to plant earlier, we also hated to take the chance of losing all our seedlings one chilly night.  Here in northwest PA, the general wisdom is that it is safe to garden after Memorial Day, so here's hoping that it will be great gardening weather from here on out.  We're planning on putting in some of our least frost tolerant seeds later today as well as planting beans and lettuce again so we can continue harvesting them throughout the season.  The peas are blooming, so they will be ripening quickly, and I know we'll be overrun with zucchini before long.  We've got more rhubarb than I can even describe right now, so I'm going to try and come up with something fun to can this week, so who knows what will be new for sale by next Saturday!

We hope you have a safe and happy Memorial Day weekend, and we hope you'll be able to visit us on Saturdays! 

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Busy Season Starts

The summer-like sun is still shining here, making it hard to be inside blogging when there is so much going on outside!  We covered the rhubarb with floating row cover, a white, gauzy fabric that lets light through but helps keep the temperatures above freezing during frosty nights.  It's like a little greenhouse for the beds, with the added benefit that the free ranging chickens won't be able to scratch the new shoots when they're searching for bugs in the compost.  We also broke out the rototiller in a small patch of garden over the weekend and got some cold-hardy seeds into the ground.  Peas, lettuce, spinach, chard, beets & radishes will all survive a light frost or snow, as will the onion sets we planted Saturday.  We covered that bed with floating row cover as well, so if you're driving by, I didn't lose bed sheets from the line on a windy day, we're just keeping our sprouts warm!I'm looking  to having the first green treats from the garden, and hoping for good initial harvests.  We're opening the farm stand for the summer on Memorial Day weekend, so it's time to get things in the ground so the tables won't be bare!  We did decide that the weather is sure to turn colder yet this month, so we held off on planting my much anticipated strawberries.  I suppose the wait will seem worth it later when I have productive plants instead of frost-killed nubs.

We've been hatching and selling our own chicks for a couple of weeks now, and it is going very well.  However, we don't hatch the meat birds we raise.  Our first batch is expected to arrive this Friday, and so that also puts us on schedule to have fresh, farm-raised chicken for opening day.  It takes a lot of planning to time things like that, and it's exciting to move from the winter planning stages into the spring doing stages.  Also on the week's agenda is castrating the male piglets and shearing the sheep (this weather has been extremely hot if you're still wearing a wool coat!).  We're happy to have some extra help for these tasks, as Dan's father, Tom, is visiting.  He knew well in advance that this would be a working vacation here at the farm, but we try to at least feed him well with good home-raised food.  Depending on the amount of rain we get, we're also hoping to be breaking ground with the horses this week.  We're giving last year's garden and some of the other fields a rest by using cover crops, but they still need to be plowed, as will this year's garden and corn fields.

Among the many things I was able to complete this weekend was the next installment of our farm's monthly e-Newsletter.  If you'd like to be added to that list, feel free to email us at pleasantvalleyfarmpa@yahoo.com. 

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Starting the Garden

It's an unseasonably warm weekend, and a long one away from the office for me.  We're excited to be getting some things in the ground at last! Our garlic overwintered well, and the chives are ready to be cut anytime now.  Other than the lemon balm and oregano though, there's not much green in the garden right now.  Dan has been doing a bit of tilling and I'm excited to start the day tomorrow by doing a bit of planting.  We've got onion sets for some early green onions and some carrots, beets, radish and lettuce varieties to start.  All of these can handle a light frost, since we're sure to have quite a few more, even though the high today was 82.  This should put them on pace to be ready by Memorial Day, when we open the stand. Plus I've really been missing fresh greens, so I'm anxious for a nice spring salad!  I also couldn't resist picking up some bare root strawberry plants while I was out, so I think we're going to risk the frost and put them in the ground with a nice layer of mulch hay to keep the frost off for the time being.  While I'm not going to be planting enough to plan offer them at the stand, if I have enough extras I'm sure they will end up in some delicious jelly or jam for sale. 

Another project underway is getting another greenhouse up and operational.  Dan's tilled a few times, and once we get a new layer of plastic over it, we'll be able to plant tomatoes, peppers and a few other plants right in the ground for an earlier first harvest.  This is new for me, and I'm pretty excited about it. 

We hatched 39 chicks last weekend and are hoping for even more coming out of the incubator this week.  I love hatching, but I really get excited when we have hens dedicated enough to do it without my help.  The mothering instinct has been bred out of many, many chickens, so they literally won't reproduce without human assistance, which to me is sad. However, my golden phoenix hens hatched 12 of their own last year, so when I saw them pooling their eggs into one nest box this spring, I let them go and didn't take the eggs away.  A hen will only sit on the eggs when she thinks there is enough to invest her time in, so I let them build up.  This evening, there was a broody phoenix hen covering the eggs.  She didn't give up last year, so I'm optimistic we'll be seeing some naturally hatched chicks three weeks from now!

 
 
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