Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Packing Up

On a farm like ours, it is hard to get away because the livestock are always hungry, whether you need a vacation or not.  However, now that the garden is done for the year and the stand has only a few more weeks left, it is easier to plan to get away. 

I am so excited to be leaving for a trip to North Carolina this week.  Dan will be staying here at the farm and watching the stand for me this Saturday, as well as taking care of the animals and birds.  I will be on a working vacation of sorts.  I am headed to Cary, NC for the annual conference of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the preservation of endangered livestock breeds.  I'm hoping to learn a lot and meet folks who are dedicated to small farming and heritage breeds, like us.  And I am beyond excited to actually be one of about a dozen presenters on Saturday! My presentation is titled "Horse Farming 101: How We Farm with Belgians."  I'll be sharing photos of us at work, explaining why we choose to farm with horses, what we see as the advantages to using draft power, and describing some of the tasks and antique machinery we use here.  I will be one of three morning breakout sessions running concurrently, so I have no idea how many conference attendees will choose to hear my story, but I think it is very exciting.  It's certainly the biggest presentation I've ever done...it's for a national audience!  So today, I'm putting the finishing touches on my PowerPoint and running through it.  I'm also doing laundry and packing my bags, because three of my siblings live about an hour away, so I'll spend a few days relaxing and visiting with them before heading back to the farm.  I'll be sure to post photos and details when I return! 

 

For more information about the ALBC, its mission, and the conference schedule, check out  http://www.albc-usa.org !

 
 

My New Family

I have been most blessed to be welcomed, with open arms, into a new family of sorts lately. I shared the story of my pony, Sara, and how much she meant to me, but one blog entry couldn't possibly cover our whole story. Her story actually had a horrible beginning...she was one of over 30 Morgans who were rescued from starvation and death by a wonderful organization called the Equine Rescue League in Leesburg, Virginia. After I adopted Sara, I sent pictures back to show how well she was doing, and got a reply of thanks, and that it might help her son find a forever home too. Although I occasionally received a newsletter from them, and had contacted them a few times in the 20 years Sara and I were together (just to say she was doing well), I never really made personal connections, nor knew anything about what happened to the rest of the herd, including what became of her baby. When Sara passed, I let the ERL know, and gave them the link to the tribute I had posted here. It was forwarded to the ERL's Facebook, and Amanda, who manages that page, had actually adopted two of the Stafford County Morgans, as the group was known. One had passed, but the other is alive and well. Her friend Tara has three as well, and she kindly offered to let me meet the group, as the herd was related many times over, she called them Sara's “cousins”. I asked if anyone knew anything about Sara's son- what happened, if he was still alive, if he had had a good life. I told her if it was possible that I would love to see a picture. Upon further communication, Tara's three horses turned out to be Sara's full brother, her niece, and in an amazing twist of fate, her son Gus. He gives lessons to young girls at her horse sanctuary and looks so much like his mom it brought tears to my eyes. They also pieced together the fact my Sara had not one, but two colts before she came to me. A picture of the younger one, Sammy, has been found, although it seems where he went is at present time unknown. I guess Sara wanted me to find her family, and it's been amazing the way these women have reached out and embraced me despite the fact we've never even spoken on the phone to each other. Our bond is having our lives graced by a very special group of horses. My personal Facebook page is blowing up with pictures of these special Morgans. Amazingly, they are not all that far from Tom & Betty, so I look forward to the day I can visit in person and meet these special horses and humans. I know Sara will always live on in my heart, and I can't wait to share more of her story with them, and hear the stories of Gus, Mia, Justin, Flower, Disco, and all the other Morgans who are my special girl's relatives.
 
 

Irreplaceable (Sara's Story)

When I was 12, I wanted a horse more than anything.  By a twist of fate, a kind 4-H leader gave me the opportunity to ride one, at no cost, for an entire summer.  If I liked her, I could adopt her from a rescue society, or return her and she'd have a better chance of being adopted, having had being ridden more often.  My parents tentatively agreed, but warned me not to get too attached, as we had no room to keep a horse, and no money in the family budget for boarding one.

Her name was Sara.  Coincidentally, my own middle name, but she came to me with that name.  I figured it was just meant to be.  She was not registered, but she had a fancy, though not official pedigree.  Her forefathers were government cavalry horses, Morgans who were renown for their endurance, loyalty to their riders, and hardiness.  The first time I got on her, she threw me on my head.  She was 6 and had been ridden only a few months before I, a complete novice got on her back.  She was bad.  (I later learned she'd already been returned to the humane society once!)  She was stubborn.  She liked trail rides, but hated practicing in the ring.  On practice days, she'd try and run away with me.  I wasn't strong enough to stop her, so I had to turn her in tight circles until she stopped.  But I was stubborn and determined to ride.  She threw me, I'd just get back on.  Sara respected that.  At the end of summer, she threw me and I hurt my hand.  My parents were wavering on keeping her, so I didn't mention the fact that I fractured my hand until I was about 18 or so (really- no medical treatment either).   But I got to keep the pony!

 

Sara and I, early summer 1992.  The first picture I have of me riding her. 

By the end of that summer, we were already incredibly close.  I loved my pony with all my heart, and she loved me so much that she even seemed jealous at times.  If I patted or said hello to one of the other horses in the barn before her, she would pin her ears and turn so her tail was against the stall door, making it extremely obvious that she wasn't “speaking” to me.  But she was quick to forgive...all it took was walking in the stall and giving her neck a hug, or giving her a treat.


We logged literally thousands of miles on trail rides.  Plenty of times with friends, lots of just her and I out in the wilderness, too.  We showed in the 4-H shows, competing at the District level, and placing in classes full of professionally trained horses with fancy pedigrees. It gave me great pride to do well against the riders who spent their summers at one show or another competing.  Mostly, Sara and I spent our time in the woods, but when it was time to shine in the ring, we did well there, too.   While I took riding lessons, no one ever got on her back but I.  I spent so much time on her back, I could tell what she was going to do before she did it- I was that in tune with her. She was in tune with me as well, and smart too...she quickly learned that the games in our fun shows ended with running across the arena and stopping at the gate.  If I had to get off for a game like bobbing apples, I could jump on her, laying with my stomach across the saddle, clinging to her mane, and she'd run back at full speed and stop where she was supposed to, whether I had any control of the reins or not.   I think she understood it was a race, and she wanted to win, too.

She was gentle, too. My younger sisters (one was actually born after I met Sara!) would often come with me to the barn.  While I did chores for other horses, I always knew my sister was safe, because  I would boost  her up on Sara's back and hand her a brush.  Sara would stand calmly and soak up the attention.  I would lock the stall door and go about carrying water and hay.  Never once did Sara let me down.  She always took care of the kids, starting when they were preschool-aged, never startling even if they yelled while they were astride. 


Of course though, as the years went by, I rode less, was too old for 4-H, got busy with high school activities and friends, and eventually went away to college.  My family took care of her, and on my sporadic returns home, I cared for her as well.  We would camp out on the property by her pasture, and I can remember many nights where she'd walk over and stand in the glow of the campfire.  We'd pet her and feed her marshmallows and anything else we had to snack on.  She LOVED people food; pizza and Doritos and cookies.  

 

After college, I returned here to Tionesta to help care for my dying father.  After he passed, I stayed for my sisters and my horse too, because I had to find her a new place to live after his piece of land was sold.  Some kind farm boys, Matt and Dan, helped me get her moved to a new home, moving a chest freezer we used for feed storage and setting up the electric fence for the new pasture.  

You could say Dan and my first date was a trail ride, with me riding Sara, of course.  I felt like moving her to the farm was a huge commitment and step forward in our relationship when the time came.  Dan loved Sara too, and worked with her in harness.  He loved how she had spunk, even in her 20's, and would really dig in to pull her weight.  We bought a sleigh; my dream of a Christmas Eve tradition of romantic sleigh rides lasted exactly one year- the year she took off, kicked the shafts apart, and pulled me through the front boards.  Still bad, after all these years.  But she was good too- Dan would ride Dolly, and I Sara, and we would trail ride.  We took the horses camping out in the woods, carrying food & tents in our saddlebags and falling asleep to the sounds of the forest and our contented steeds.  The last few years, we haven't ridden much, and she lived in semi-retirement, other than helping me to herd sheep, a job she figured out and liked.


A month before she passed, she was the picture of health- glossy coat, graceful movement, just a touch of grey. In the last couple weeks, she had started to lose a little weight.  I made a mental note to get someone out to look at her teeth.  Then she just didn't seem herself.  Standing alone, not moving around a whole lot.  The weather had turned suddenly from hot, humid days to cooler, rainy ones, so I chalked it up to arthritis acting up.  Then, Sunday morning, she was off by herself, away from the barn and very stiff when she moved.  I checked on her, and she wouldn't eat a cookie for the first time in her life.  By the time I got in touch with a vet, she was laying down in her stall.  When the vet arrived, she was colicky (also for the first time in her life) and in obvious pain.  The vet gave her a painkiller.  Her eyes brightened and my fighter of a girl tried to get on her feet again.  She didn't quite make it.  At first I thought she was struggling to get up again, her hooves clattering on the stall floor, but it was a seizure.  I knew these were going to be her last moments with me.  I dropped to the floor, my arms around her neck, soothing her with voice and touch.  The vet lost the heartbeat, and told us so, but I could still feel her faint pulse in her neck.  I held on as she took two last, ragged breaths. The vet offered her condolences and left the barn.  Dan was in the doorway, and at that moment Sara's pulse came to a halt. I think she knew I was there, and that she needed me to be there for her.  Maybe she'd come to a darkened path, and needed me to guide her like I had so many times on the trails.  To let her know it was all right to leave and take the road that we can't see down until our own time comes.  And through it all, she held on until the barn was still, and just us.  As incredibly painful as it was to have her die in my arms, it is also an incredible comfort.  I was there for her, we took her pain away, and she wasn't alone.

I walked the pasture until I found a spot that seemed right to lay her to rest.  You can see the house and barn, but it's back far enough to have the peaceful and solemn feeling that so many old cemeteries do. Dan and I dug the hole by hand.  As we were digging, my back was to the house and most of the farm.  “Look at the sun coming down,” he said to me.  I turned, and there were holes in the clouds, and broad rays of sunshine sparkled down as though heaven itself were looking out over our farm.  Maybe it was.

Sara was a huge part of my life.  That horse knows every secret thought I've had in the past 20 years.  Many were the times I stood with my arms around her neck, pouring out my heart about first crushes, the bumps along the way to growing up, and all the things that were too painful or embarrassing to tell your high school best friend or your mother. I feel like I literally grew up upon her back.  I sobbed in her mane when my high school sweetheart went overseas and when my father died.  My husband asked me to marry him while I was sitting on her back.  I think she knew that was a special moment too, because she stood perfectly still instead of pawing and walking off as she normally did.  I have wedding pictures that include her.  Part of my heart has always remained 12 years old, convinced that ponies are magical creatures who love unconditionally and live forever.  

The first may be true, but unfortunately, the second part isn't.  I would say that she was a once-in-a-lifetime animal, but I don't think she was.  I think she was a once-in-many-lifetimes animal.  We shared a bond deeper than I can explain.  There will always be horses in my life, I hope, but there will never be another Sara.  Sweet, gentle, spunky, mischievous, charismatic, loyal, healthy, strong and completely irreplacable.  She was a magnificent creature with a personality bigger than her physical presence.  She charmed nearly everyone, even folks who were usually afraid of horses.  I was blessed with a little over 20 years with her. She lived a good long life, just 5 days shy of her 27th birthday.  It's still hard to believe she won't be there when I flick the barn lights on.  But perhaps a part of her spirit is still here with me, racing gracefully across the fields, just for the sheer glory of it.

 Sara and I chasing sheep, taken last year.  The last picture of me riding her.


Goodbye, Dear Friend.  Our trail together was a long one.  Whatever life brings me, you will not be forgotten, and when my time comes, I have faith that you'll be waiting on the other side to greet me.


 
 

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 

 
 

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.

 

 
 

Late Season Hay

We've had such lovely Indian summer weather lately! It's a refreshing change from the rain we've had for too long this fall. It has truly been an extreme growing season- either far too much rain, or not nearly enough. We were so excited to have the earliest-ever hay made this year- we had it dry and in the barn on June 1. The second cutting was looking great as of late August, but with rain in the forecast and falling every day or every other day, we had to wait. We needed 4 or 5 days of clear weather for the ground to dry, then cut and rake the hay, then load it up and get it into the barn. That clear weather finally arrived on Wednesday, and Dan cut the entire hay field. That is a massive undertaking for us and the horses, as we usually cut the field in 2-3 sections. This time, however, we didn't foresee any other possible time to get it in, plus delaying the cutting had allowed weeds to take over in places. We thought it best to cut the whole field, and even if we didn't use what was cut, it would at least mow the weeds away so part of the field wouldn't start out with a weed problem next year.

After cutting hay, we were fortunate that Dan and his brother spotted a rotary hay rake for sale nearby. They were able to bring it home Thursday. While by no means new, it's new to us and in much better condition than the one we would have been using. After greasing up the moving parts, Dan put it to good use on Friday and it worked great. Yesterday, the hay had finally dried and Dan and I were able to bring 3 large wagon loads into the barn, the equivalent of about half of the hay field. Although I love watching my Steeler football games, it was too pretty of a day to be inside and too important a job to skip out on. (I did have the game on the solar powered radio and my Hines Ward sparkly jersey on while driving the hay wagon and walking down the hay loads. I sometimes wonder if I'm the only person in the country that combines things like that- Steeler football and making hay with turn of the century methods & equipment.)

Making hay is the most important thing we do each year, even more important than spring planting. Hay is the staple that gets our livestock through the winter. It's what keeps our cattle growing and healthy through the winter, it feeds the sheep and goats and provides food & bedding for the pigs, and fuels our horses all winter & early spring, so they in turn can provide the pulling power to clean the barn or plow the fields. So seeing the mow fill up with hay is always a beautiful sight! It's always exciting to get hay into the barn without it getting rained upon. Dan finished up the final load alone on Sunday, and let me go off to do another important job, making dinner. Haymaking is hungry work!

By the time he came in, I already had a tasty potato salad (with our heirloom Mountain Rose potatoes and bacon) done, as well as a no-bake cheesecake type dessert I make with homemade blueberry butter and caramel. For the main course, I had T-bones from our grass-fed beef. Dan also talked me into making it surf-and-turf by cooking up some shrimp to go with it. Seafood is one thing we don't raise, but we do grow and process so much of our own stuff I don't feel bad about treating ourselves to some good seafood every so often, and this seemed like a perfect excuse! So as the shrimp were defrosting, I quickly headed outside to my secret chantrelle patch to see if I could scare up some late season mushrooms. Sadly, any I found were too old to be much good to eat, so I turned around and headed back to the house. On the way out of the woods, I spotted another kind of mushroom. It turned out to be an oyster mushroom, also very prized for eating. So I made shrimp with wild mushrooms, sauteed with a bit of garlic and my own champagne vinegar, making a wonderful sauce. I even had some curly parsley on the counter to dress up the plate, it really looked like a meal from some sort of 5-star restaurant. It's been crazy busy around here lately, so much of my cooking has been quick stuff, it was good to make a really nice meal. And I do get really excited when I can make something great by using a lot of what I've made here. Anymore I can just throw things together and it turns out great, I really don't follow a lot of recipes, unless I'm canning, and then consistency is very important.

Today, Dan and I along with Matt, got another 2 loads in the barn. Some of the hay is weedy, so Dan is out raking it to the edge of the field where it can smother some of the weeds along the fencerow. It doesn't really have enough edible stuff in places to make it worth the work of bringing it in. Then he'll rake the rest of the field once more, collecting all the bits that escaped the fork into one big row. We'll put that up, and that will be the end of the 2011 hay season. Ironically enough, although the first cutting was the earliest-ever, this will be the latest into the fall that we've ever successfully put up hay!

 
 

Old Horse, New Tricks

Yesterday was a busy day here.  We needed to move around some of the livestock as the trailer from our processor, Hirsch's Meats, was coming to pick up a cow, a couple of pigs, and the first of our spring lambs.  Dan and I had already moved the pigs from their tractor to a pen in the barn, but it was my job to get the sheep and Louie, the cow into the barn.  Louie wasn't hard as he eagerly followed the sound of a scoop full of feed into the barn. Emotionally it was harder than anything else though.  Louie has been here since early January of 2009, when he was just a weanling calf.  He was a character and I'll really miss seeing him, but that is the nature of raising beef.  I try to content myself with knowing I gave him a good and happy life while he was here, and that it was the complete opposite of the lives led by most cows destined for beef who must endure feedlot conditions.

Physically, rounding up the sheep was the most difficult part of the process.  Our sheep have been roaming 20+ acres of pasture all summer.  Being completely self-sufficient makes them much less tame than during the winter when they look to us for food.  They are also usually up in the far reaches of the pasture, so I don't have the daily interaction of feeding them treats.  I figured if I could just get the whole flock into the little paddock by the barn, Dan and I could pick out which lambs we would send.  So I walk off to find my sheep, armed with a small white bucket filled with feed and cookies.  This wasn't part of the usual routine, so the sheep started to run away.  Except Rosa.  She is one of the oldest ewes in the flock and is so tame she is somewhat of a pest at times.  But I was grateful she accepted my offer of snacks and as we began to walk towards the barn, the other sheep began to follow. I got Rosa and one of her twin lambs into the paddock, but the rest of the flock just wouldn't follow.  The more I tried to herd them through the gates, the more agitated they became until all of them ran back into the pasture, including Rosa.  I figured I would let them calm down and try again a bit later.  Later even Rosa ran and wanted no part of my cookies.  I needed to move them, I needed to do it in the next couple of hours, and at that time I was really wishing for a well-trained Border Collie or something that could help me.

I went back to the barn, where the horses were.  In addition to the work horses, Dan and I also have a miniature named Ponyboy (bought as a pet soon after our wedding)  and I have a Morgan mare named Sara.  Sara has been a part of my life for many years now.  She was 6 when I adopted her from a humane society and she is celebrating her 25th birthday tomorrow.  (Yes, that's correct-25 people years!)  Although 25 is retirement age for most horses, Sara hasn't slowed down much at all.  We've only started to train her to work in harness the past few years. She's descended from government-bred calvary horses, some of whom lived well into their 40's and I hope I am that lucky with her.  Giving her new tasks to do or new trails to ride truly seems to keep her young.  So I threw a saddle on my pony, tied a lasso to the horn and headed outside.  I left the barn door open because at this point I didn't care if I caught the sheep in the barn or the paddock.

Now I am no cowboy and Sara is no roping horse.  I didn't really think I would rope a sheep, the lasso was more to wave in the air to scare them in the direction I wanted them to go.  I tied it to the horn because it was raining and I didn't want to have to stop and get off if I dropped it!  Sara hasn't been ridden much at all this year, and like most horses she'd rather not go off by herself leaving her herdmates in the barn.  Plus I'd never herded anything on horseback so she had no idea what we were doing riding around in the rain in the pasture.  I tried to get her to trot, but she wanted to buck every time I got her out of her foot-dragging walk.  Once I got around behind the sheep, we were pointed back towards the barn and she was much happier to get up.  Things were going really well and I was quite proud of our work.  The sheep were thinking about going into the barn, and I figured this would be easy until Ponyboy, who had gotten himself loose, came blasting out of the barn, whinnying and chasing the sheep back into the pasture with glee.  I was so mad!!  I rode into the barn, shut the door and tied Ponyboy up very short. Now the sheep are back out in the pasture (for the 3rd time of the day) and are pretty spooked by all this action.  Sara, by this point, seemed to have grasped the work at hand and was eager to move quickly for me.  We got behind the flock again and pushed them into the barnyard.  They were even down by the gate to the paddock, but this was the tricky part.  Not only were the sheep scattered between a few pieces of machinery, the gates are located near the corner of our workshop building.  As the sheep headed back towards the hog house, Sara and I raced around the backside of the building to cut them off.  They turned, but I couldn't let them get up past the barn either, so back around the shop we would go at nearly full speed.  This happened multiple times.  At this point Sara was really seeming to have fun; she would get impatient when we had to stand for more than a minute or two.  It's like we were playing a game and she had just figured out the rules.  (If this sounds like too much credit to give to a horse's brain power, all I have to say is that you've never met Sara!)  At what seemed like long last, Rosa moved through the gate into the paddock.  She may have remembered the feed I had dumped on the grass earlier as sheep-bait when I was still working on foot.  One by one, then two by two, the rest of the flock followed.  Sara and I ran up to shut the gate and finish the job.  By now, both of us were soaked from the past hour's intermittent rain showers, so we went into the barn where I unsaddled her and gave her a few cookies as a thanks for her cooperation.

 

 Who says you can't teach an old horse new tricks?!?

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Hot Weather Means Making Hay

July is here, bringing hot weather and a number of rain-free days in a row.  That means it's hay making time!  For us. it's as much a normal part of July 4th weekends as picnics and fireworks. We've been fortunate to have a stretch of dry weather, so we have been able to spread the work out over several days.  At this point, we've filled one side of the barn up and are working on filling the other mow.  Although the weather is 90 + degrees today, we're going to try and push to get the rest of the field in.  Even though there is only a slight chance of rain, the longer the hay lies in the field, the more it gets bleached by the sun.  So we're in for a long hot day, but hay making is one of the most crucial farm activities for us.  The amount and quality of the hay we put in determines how many animals we are able to support over the winter months.  Doing it ourselves is not only a significant cost saver over buying hay, we also know what quality we're feeding and that the hay is organically grown.  We are also able to complete the entire process with our horses, using no tractors or motorized equipment.  We use the horses to cut hay, rake it, and pull the wagon across the fields to pick it up. Instead of running a baler, we put it away loose.   Dan uses a pitchfork to load it while I walk back and forth packing it down for a nicely balanced load.  Both jobs are physically demanding.  Unloading is the easy part, as we have a hay claw on a trolley that lifts large amounts of hay, that carries it along a track and drops it in the mow.  If you'd like to see more, we have pictures and descriptions on our website at http://pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com/hay-making.html.  This picture shows our mares, Dolly & Dixie, with a nearly full wagon load of loose hay.

  

Although this stretch of dry weather means we need to irrigate the garden and the creek is running low, it did give us the rare opportunity to take a day off yesterday and enjoy a rare summer holiday.  Since we were confident that the mowed hay wouldn't be rained on, we had time to relax and have a cookout here.  July 4th is all about freedom and independence, and without our farmers, this country wouldn't be self sufficient.  So it made me smile as we sat down to our meal, to see how much of it we'd produced ourselves.  The steaks were grass fed beef from a cow who was standing in our pasture just a week or two ago.  The potato salad made great use of new potatoes dug from the garden just hours before, and was flavored with homemade mustard and dill from the herb garden.  I made deviled eggs as well with eggs I'd hand collected from my chickens.  A truly enjoyable meal, and I feel so fortunate that eating fresh from the garden isn't an isolated experience.  I'm frequently able to make an entire meal using just what we make or grow ourselves.

We hope you & your family had a safe and enjoyable holiday weekend too!

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How We Roll

I'm commonly asked how we control weeds if we don't use pesticides.  The rototiller and hand weeding between plants are the main tasks once the plants are up.  For other veggies, like peppers & tomatoes, we put down a thin layer of black plastic, called mulch, and then make small holes to put the transplants in.  The black plastic absorbs the sun's warmth, heating the soil surrounding the roots up more quickly, but since light doesn't pass through, weeds don't grow underneath it.  The past two season Dan and I have put it down by hand, stretching it tight and straight before heaping dirt along all sides so it won't blow away in the wind.  This year we wanted longer rows, and frankly, putting it down can be a real pain, especially if even a tiny bit of wind kicks up.

Shortly before the farm went on hiatus, Dan and his family purchased a piece of horse drawn equipment called a plastic mulch layer.  It holds a large roll of plastic as well as a roll of drip tape, which goes underneath to provide irrigation.  There is a seat and a foot pedal which can be used to turn the wheels in case the horses step aside, since it's pretty important to keep the row of plastic as straight as possible. There are also two discs in the back to cover the sides of the plastic as you go along so it won't blow away. It had only been used a year or two, and besides the cobwebs from being stored in the barn, is practically new.


 The trickiest part was remembering how to thread everything through the rollers, but once that was finished  the job went very quickly.  I've been wanting to learn to operate more of the equipment this year, so I got to drive.  Once Dan covered the end of the plastic with some garden soil for a little tension, we put it in gear and away we went!  Overall, it was fairly straight...good enough that we didn't have to pull it up and do it over!  Although I'm getting much better at driving the team, this was absolutely my first time steering with my feet and hands at the same time, and it took a bit to get used to the feeling!  The plastic and drip line were cut, we turned around, centered the freshly tilled row, and Dan again covered the end.  Getting the hang of it a bit more, it was much straighter this time.  I was excited to learn about a new piece of our equipment, and was wishing just a bit that we needed to put down more than two rows.  I know it's pretty unusual for a non-Amish family to farm with horses, even more so for young farmers.  Also, few teamsters (originally the word referred to those working horses, not driving trucks) are women, so I'm both excited and proud to be one of those few.


The view from the driver's seat is pretty neat, don't you think? 

 
 

Not the Tradition I Had in Mind...

Every family has holiday traditions, whether it is the food we eat, the people we share the day with, or other special things that become part of our annual celebrations.   One thing I have wanted to make a tradition here at the farm is taking a Christmas Eve sleigh ride with my husband, Dan.  We got the sleigh ready, I brushed Sara, my little Morgan mare, put on her fancy harness, and I even added a few pieces of Christmas garland for a festive touch.  We started out into the snow-covered hay field, and it was magical.  She trotted away with a pace which felt like we could keep all day.  The sun gleamed off of the holly-like tinsel, and the single bell I adorned her hames with jingled merrily. It was a picture worthy of a Christmas card. At least for the first round.  

She began to pick up a bit too much speed, and as I slowed her down, the strap around her backside tightened.  She hates this feeling, and before I could blink an eye, she began a kicking fit.  Pieces of harness and sleigh shafts began to break apart, and soon there was nothing connecting pony to sleigh besides my grip on the reins.  This caused me to fly from the sleigh, with none of the grace of Santa's reindeer, breaking the front board before I hit the snow-covered ground, face down.  Still Sara kept going.  I was now being drug on my belly behind her flying hooves, which suddenly seemed much closer than when I was safely aboard the sleigh.  My shoulders were now functioning as snow plows, and I couldn't see much beside those hooves. There was nothing to do at this point besides let go.  She continued racing across the field as I picked myself up and assured Dan that I wasn't hurt.  Sara turned around at the far fence and came galloping back toward us, but was in no mood to slow down and be caught, so I didn't try anything foolish like jumping in front of her.  She broke a gate and was into the barnyard.  By the time I made it down there, a switch had flipped, and she calmly trotted over to me so I could take her inside.  We stood there for a minute, catching our breath, and Dan arrived to help me unharness her.  She was ok; missing a bit of hair on her leg, but no blood.  Nothing would swell, and when we let all the horses out for an evening drink at chore time, she was prancing away from Dixie, just like any other night.  I have a fair number of bruises on my legs and knees and my hands have a bit of rope burn, but the skin will grow back, so no major harm to me either besides some major stiffness that will fade in a day or two.  The harness and sleigh are both broken, but both can be fixed.  We live near an Amish community, so we'll take the harness over to the Amish harness shop, where they will fix it like new.  I want to get a new set of lines and replace the nylon ones that burned my hands as well.  Dan is confidant that with a trip to Home Depot and a new coat of paint, the front of the sleigh will be fine too.  We had been meaning to replace that board anyway. Even the digital camera in my front hoodie pocket escaped intact! I remarked that at 24 years old, Sara should be too old for such episodes, but I'm very fortunate that she is still healthy enough to be bad.  I'm also happy that I did not get the sleigh bells I had been wanting for Christmas this year!

There was one major casualty in the whole fiasco.  My pockets had been filled with animal cookies to give to the critters as treats.  Snow + cookies = soggy mess.  However, my goats love cookies, soggy or not, so they cleaned them all up. Jerry was happy to take all the broken bits of legs and elephant trunks from the palm of my hand, and the whole herd was very pleased with their Christmas treats.

Now Dan and I are anxiously waiting for the Christmas ham, glazed with my mulled blackberry vinegar, to come out of the oven.  We'll have a feast of sides, like homegrown squash and frozen corn from the summer.  We hope your holiday is a merry one as well, completely free of sleigh wrecks and other fiascos, and full of love, good food, and happiness.

 Merry Christmas! 

 
 

The Value of Stillness

Don't you just hate when you type a great entry and then the computer crashes? I guess I'll try again and save this time!

It's been one of the busiest weeks in memory.  Moday was for running errands in town (20 miles one way) while Dan mowed hay.  Tuesday brought a day of canning.  Today we had to pick up feed, meat from the butcher shop, and come home and begin the process of sausage making as well as package ham & bacon. Tomorrow we will butcher chickens.  Friday we will be stuffing and packaging sausage and beginning prep for Saturday's stand.  We have a big, thick field of second cutting hay to put up as well.  To top it all off, we've been helping a friend move too, so it's no wonder I'm feeling a bit tired!

Also I've been trying to take more pictures, especially of the horses working and the different equipment we use.  Eventually I want to put it online, but the pictures are the first step.   It is a beautiful late summer day here, with temps in the lower 70's, no humidity and not a cloud in the beautiful blue sky.  I went out into the field with Dan and took a few pictures of the side delivery hay rake in use.  It dates from the turn of the century but still works great.  We pull it with a forecart so there was an extra seat for me to ride along.  It was so nice to take time and just be still while Dan drove.  It gave me time to truly appriciate the biodiversity we foster on the farm by not using chemicals or planting large monoculture crops.  As I relaxed, it was easy to take in the late summer wildflowers; jewelweed, Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod, Chinese lanterns, and many more I recognize but cannot name.  The fencerow between hayfield and pasture was stunning in the golds and purples of this time of year.  Artists know those two colors are opposites and emphasize each other, but I'm sure it was nature who taught us that.  The sound of hoofbeats, harness leather and metal machienery was soothing to me, but also allowed the creatures who share our field to get out of our path.  Goldfinches looked for bugs, replacing the red winged blackbirds which were so plentiful during the first cutting.  Butterflies took flight before the horses' hooves to alight on the freshly turned hay behind us.  A vole scurried away.  Not long after I saw a small snake slithering, possibly looking for dinner in the shape of that vole!  Crickets, believed by some to be omens of good luck, were plentiful, as were the lime green grasshoppers as long as my palm.  If you were looking at all, they were hard to miss!  The most surprising (to me) inhabitants of our field were the praying mantis.  I saw both green and brown ones, but I don't know enough about these benificial insects to know if that means two seperate species, a life stage, sex difference or just a color variant.  I do know that people pay money to release them into gardens to keep down bugs considered pests, so their abundance is a great thing for us and our crops.  While it's easy to appreciate the majesty of a bale eagle over the farm or a big whitetail buck in the hayfield in the early morning fog, these little guys I watched today are easy to overlook.  That's why I think, especially in today's world of high-speed everything, it's easy to forget the value of stillness.  

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Runaway!

On Tuesday, our neighbobr stopped by to ask if he could used our recently cut hayfield to work his new team of Haflingers, a small draft horse breed.  We had no problem with that, and shortly thereafter we saw them in the field.  The ponies seemed to be working well pulling a small two wheeled cart, and after watching for a minute or two, Dan and I went back to our evening chores.  I was harvesting salad greens in the garden about an hour later when I heard our neighbor commanding his horses to "whoa" loudly and repeatedly.  He was standing beside the wagon, and soon the horses got so upset that they took off running at full speed, luckily leaving him behind in the field.   They started running toward the road, and the wagon began to bounce high in the air behind them, and I could hear the sound of equipment breaking from a long way off.  The field ends and there is a 4 ft drop to the road, so the ponies swerved and started heading toward our barn.  When they came to the large wooden pasture gate they tore through our cornfield and back up into the field where they started.  At this point I ran to get Dan and we took the truck up to that part of the field to see how we could help.  Our neighbor is older and our first concern was that he wasn't hurt.  At first we though the ponies had run back to their barn, but as we rounded the bend in the road, we saw them at the far side of the field, against the fence where they had gotten stuck.  We parked the truck and began walking to avoid scaring the ponies, and let our neighbor walk up to them.  Then Dan helped to unhook them and drove them back to the barn while our neighbor caught his breath.  One of the ponies has a cut on his back leg but they were otherwise unhurt.  After returning the ponies, we took the truck around the fields and collected the pieces of the wagon and surveyed the damage to the corn field.  Luckily, they made only one pass through and stayed to the perimeter, as the corn in thoer path was destroyed.  We were also thankful that they didn't run through any of the fences.  We returned the wagon pieces and tried to piece together what happened.  The ponies were 3 and 4 years old andhad only been hitched to a wagon twice before.  They could have gotten spooked by something no one else noticed, maybe they were just fed up after an hour of work, or possibly something on the cart broke before they ran away.  All I know is that it really makes you aware of how dangerous a large animal can be and that even with a trusted team like our Belgians, one must always be aware of what is going on at all tiles to avoid being seriously hurt. 

Hope, our Boer/Saanen cross female, had twins last night, bringing our total to 11kid goats born this month!  We have had some torrential rain this week, and although Dan found them safe and sound in the barn last nigh as he was shutting in chickens, I haven't seen the babies yet.  The rain looks to be letting up so I am headed out there now.  The other babies are doing wonderfully, I truly think there is nothing cuter in the world than to see them playing and running about in the barnyard! 

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Cultipacking and other farm adventures

I did my first fieldwork with the horses by myself!  Dan was finishing planting the hay field when I got home from work last week.  As he was sick of spending so much time up there, I got to drive the cultipacker.  It's like a big roller that presses the seeds into the ground just enough so they can sprout.  Dixie and Dolly, our Belgians, have gotten used to the rhythms of field work again this spring and were wonderful to work with. They are a mother (Dixie) and daughter (Dolly) team and both were born, raised and trained at the farm.  It's an amazing feeling to be out there working with them.  I look forward to doing more, possibly with my horse, this weekend.  It's supposed to be near 80 degrees and sunny.

Our seedlings are doing so well we'll be transplanting to larger pots this weekend.  We'll use peat pots and put them out under floating row cover when they start to outgrow these new pots.  We've done a little planting outside- spring onions, a few potatoes and Dan transplanted garlic so he could plow the garden last week.  I started to move the hay off of some of my herbs as well- the hay was starting to sprout!  This is my first year overwintering them and I am simply amazed at how well they've done.  I have so much green oregano I could make a great pasta sauce if my tomatoes were more than 2" seedlings!  The chives look great, I may have to try them on a baked potato if we grill out this weekend.  My sage seems to be coming back, as does the thyme and the lemon basil is huge!  It must not be directly related to real basil as that died at the first nip of frost last fall.

The rhubarb is well on its way up and will be ready for harvesting soon.  We have 2 great patches that produce the nicest you'll find anywhere.  I don't bake, so I have lots for sale if anyone out there is interested!!

Butchering went very well, other than running out of pepper for some of the sausage.  We let the sausage marinate in the spices for a day or two before grinding anyway, so I was able to fix it.  But I'm so happy to have a freezer full of pork again! We do have a a limited amount of extra sausage, chops and roasts for sale if anyone is interested.  Mmmm...pork chops on a charcoal grill...

 
 
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