Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Gold & Jewels from the Fields

Although the season of delicious corn on the cob is long past here, field corn season is taking its turn as the main farm job.  We planted quite a few acres of field corn in the spring to feed the animals over the winter.  Unlike sweet corn, field corn isn't picked until the stalk is dead and the kernels are dry and have begun to dent inwards due to moisture loss.  That's why some varieties are called "dent" corn.  We spent last Sunday picking the smallest field, and we were able to complete harvesting it in a short time with the help of Dan's father and brother.  Everyone had a row or two to pick.  The ears were pulled from the stalk, the husk was pulled off, and the ears were thrown into the wagon being pulled by the horses.  The wagon had plywood boards to make the side away from the pickers higher, so that you could hit the board and the ear would bounce off and into the wagon.  It kept many ears from landing in the pasture or field!  Picking corn can be very enjoyable; with a number of people there is bragging about who is picking faster than whom, reminiscing of harvests gone by, helping out whoever has the densest row to pick and general good-natured conversation.  It's a real group effort that not only gets a very important job done, it isn't a bad way to pass a late fall afternoon.  The result is as precious to a farmer as gold for the winter.  Our little 3/4 acre field yielded a bit over 60 bushels, a very respectable total considering it was the field that Bandit, the Angus steer, love to escape to for a meal and parts of the field were damaged during the neighbor's runaway horse accident earlier in the summer. The wagon we used was built by my husband out of an old Toyota truck that was no longer roadworthy.  In its current state, it has a variety of uses around the farm, and was even our transportation from our wedding here at the farm to the reception hall a few miles away!

 The other corn that is still standing out in the field is called Earth Tones Dent and is an ornamental corn (aka "Indian corn").  I grew some last year and saved a few of the nicest ears until spring when we planted the seed from those ears.  Now it's time to harvest, and unlike the field corn, I want the husk left on for decorative purposes.   So each husk is carefully peeled back, one layer at a time, until the ear is revealed.  It's exciting every time to see what color it will be...shades of cranberry red, a rainbow of pastels from pink to orange to blue & purple, a pink & purple ear, one dotted with bright yellow kernels, or a mysterious shade of purplish black with deep green mixed in. The finished pile quickly looks like the garden's jewelry box.  I will sell some for decoration, decorate a bit myself, but what happens to the rest?  We grind our own cornmeal, so I want to see if I can produce a blue or red cornmeal just for fun.  The ears that grew large, straight, beautiful & disease-free will be the chosen few planted for next year's crop.  And the rest, just like the golden field corn, will provide nourishment for the animals over the coming winter months.

 


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Invasion!

I had planned to try making a large batch of egg noodles today, but the farm was invaded yesterday.  Every fall (and spring too) we have a few days to a week of ladybug invasions.  When I went out to get the mail, a trip that takes all of 2 minutes, I had to brush 4 of them off of me before reentering the house.  The sides of the house were covered with thousands of them.  Hundreds also find their way into our house, as they squeeze through the cracks in the wooden siding.  It's next to impossible to seal up a 100+ year old house from something that small.  So any plans for food making that can be put on hold are for the next few days...no one wants to eat food that has had bugs crawling all over it!

Now I knew one of the best ways to rid yourself of the ladybugs was to suck them up in a vacuum, but they let off this stinky odor when you do.  So I googled "ladybug invasion"  to see if there were any other ideas.  I didn't find much help, but I did learn some interesting facts as to why it is such a problem.  Firstly, these aren't the ladybugs of my childhood, which never seemed to come indoors. They are Asian Lady Beetles, imported to this country and then released.  While our native PA ladybugs die before winter, leaving eggs to hatch in the spring, these Asian bugs winter over.  So the hundreds I have in my house right now will find a place in the walls, attic, or somewhere to overwinter out of the cold.  Then I will see the same bugs invade my home again in the spring when they wake up from their hiding places and want to go back outside.

Ladybugs are great organic helpers.  They love to eat aphids, which can cause serious damage to any plant, so they are very beneficial to have around. The reason that I am dealing with this menace right now is because the Asian Lady Beetle eats aphids more aggressively.  So companies who specialize in biologic controls want to sell you the "best" bug that will naturally take care of the problem.  Problem is, this bug is an alien species.  It has no predators to keep the numbers in check, and it isn't used to our climate, so it uses people homes to stay alive.  While annoying and smelly, these bugs really don't do much environmental damage.  I have to look into my glass before taking a drink and I'll have to clean the dead bugs out of my hanging light fixtures in a few weeks, but those are just minor inconveniences.  It's much scarier when it is a bug (or disease) that is uncontrollably killing parts of the native species in your local environment.  We worry about the Emerald Ash Borer killing the 200 year old tree in our front yard, but there is absolutely nothing we can do to protect it other than letting a local agency hang a purple box in it over the summer to check for the presence of these devastating beetles.  (so far, we've been Emerald-free)  It's just another reminder to me that if I want to introduce a beneficial bug, plant, or other organism onto my farm, I have a responsibility to do my homework and make sure that critter is going to do what I want it to without it also becoming a problem, either for me or for lots of my neighbors.  After all, the true spirit of the word "organic" is to utilize the natural resources to produce crops on your land.  This means without unnatural inputs, like chemical fertilizers.   I would argue that non-native species can drastically alter the local environment at the expense of local, native plants & animals, and that's not any more natural then the chemicals which do the same.

 
 

I know where the goats are!

Since summer is fading and winter is on its way, lots of plant life is heading into its dormant state.  This includes the grasses in the pasture, so at this point in the year, the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence.  Some of the critters are quick to realize this, and it creates a bunch of fencing problems.  I think to make an absolutely goat-proof fence, your farm would look like a prison...10 foot high chain link fence topped with razor wire just might do the trick!  The goats, even the ones weighing nearly 200 lbs, can squeak through a hole 8 inches square in the woven wire.  If they can't find a hole, they can create one if determined enough.  These days, the destination of choice is the topmost hay field.  We don't really care if they eat it at this point; we're not cutting any more hay, and there is quite a bit of quality feed there.  So they are eating for free and not doing any damage.  Unfortunately, this field borders the road running past our house.  There is no fence at the property line at the road's edge.  Now our road is not terribly busy.  It is a small secondary road which doesn't even have lines painted on it. My father-in-law still laments it's not dirt like it was when the Stevenson family purchased the farm. So it amazes me how many times a day someone will stop by the house to inform us that the goats are loose. It's almost always when we're in the middle of something that is hard to stop in the middle of, like grinding sausage. While good fences are said to make good neighbors, I guess bad ones mean meeting more of the neighbors!

The other problem is Dixie, one of our Belgian draft horses.  To give you an idea of how big she is, picture a horse whose back is over 5 feet off of the ground, is about 1750 lbs of muscle, and whose hoof prints are about the size of a dinner plate.  Her trick is to walk up to the fence when she spies a tasty patch on the other side, and use her large hooves to stomp down the woven wire and just walk across.  This works really well for her until it snaps back up with her front feet on one side and her back feet on the other, with the fence now running under her belly.  At this point she will realize she is stuck and calmly stay there until we find her in the course of morning chores.  (She almost always does this at night.) It is an easy fix; Dan will walk up to her, bend down the fence and help her pick up her feet high enough to back into the pasture.  The fence is inspected and tightened, the whole process takes only a minute or two.  The problem is when we don't find her!  One night, after a long day when bed was going to feel really good, a truck pulls in just as soon as we had retired for the night.  A young man came up to the porch to let us know that he was spotlighting for deer and had seen our "Clydesdale all wrapped up in barbed wire".  He probably thought that she was injured and in danger, so he seemed confused when we didn't get too excited about it.  We thanked him, Dan went out and freed Dixie, and I'm sure she was grateful she didn't spend the whole night in the fence.  Another time we had an archery hunter knock on the door before it was even all the way light out to let us know she was in the fence.  I told him we'd take care of it right away, but that she did this all the time and I was sure she wasn't hurt.  The hunter then let me know he had thought about cutting our fence to free her but then thought maybe he should see if anyone was home first.  I thanked him for that because I would have been furious if the fence had been cut; we probably wouldn't have known about it until the horses or cows went through the hole and we found them in the cornfield or wandering up the road.  Plus fence is expensive, not to mention time consuming, to replace! If you want to get on a farmer's bad side, cutting up fence without permission is a great way to start.  Farmers also don't want strangers trying to "rescue" the animals either.  We know our animals and they know and trust us and generally they will cooperate.  A stranger coming up to them when they are stuck in a fence can excite the animal, and no one wants to see the animal or the person hurt if the creature struggles. 

So, if you are driving by Pleasant Valley Farm and the goats are in the open field, don't worry, they are ok. You'll just get a better view of them as you pass.  We probably know where they are, so you don't need to stop to tell us unless they have migrated to somewhere dangerous, i.e. there are 15 goats wandering down the road looking for rosebushes or fall decorations to eat!  If you see a horse straddling the fence, by all means let us know, but don't think we don't care about our animals when we don't get too worked up.  It's just Dixie, she's fine and we'll have her back where she needs to be in no time.  And before too long, the snow will be covering everything, so nothing will look greener, even the grass on the other side of the fence!

 
 

White Stuff Already?

We've had a few good frosts and freezes here, so I've accepted that the peppers and basil and such are done for the year.  However, I was not ready to wake up this morning to 2 inches of snow on the ground!  Even with the wet ground, as I write this at 5 PM I can still see snow around the bases of the outbuildings.

The change of weather, especially the cold and wet combo, is hard on the critters too.   We still have 3 cows out in the field, and the smallest is only about 5 months old.  He was looking hunched up, like he was cold, so we decided to bring these cows in out of the weather.  The 2 older cows, Happy & Louie, have been with us since early January, so they spend a good amount of time in the barn earlier this year.  Little Buzz, the baby, hasn't been in the barn before, but was a bottle baby when we bought him, so he had been used to being handled too. Once we got them to come through the gate from the main pasture into the barnyard, Happy took off at a run and went straight into the barn with the two boys right at her heels. We shut the door and then had to put collars on the three of them  Although none of them walked right up to us, we had them tied in their stalls without too much trouble.  In no time at all, they were happily munching hay and enjoying being out of the wind and rain.

Even with the weather turning nasty, there is still a never ending list of things to keep us busy here.  More animals inside always means more stalls to clean!  I spent a bit of time with Ponyboy, our Miniature stud colt, grooming the piles of burrs out of his tail. Dan and I have been painting & reflooring the pantry and are in the process of putting everything back where it should be.  Our house is over 100 years old, and anyone who has lived in such an old place knows the Old House Dwarves...Dusty, Drippy, Mousy, Drafty, Damp and some others I'm sure I have yet to meet!  So winterizing as best as we can afford is always an ongoing project as well.  Also, in my expanding quest to be as food self-sufficient as possible, I ordered a pasta making machine and had a chance to use it yesterday.  I was very pleased with the results and spent time today bagging up the noodles that didn't get used for last night's dinner.  I hope to spend more time with it and even have some for sale in the near future in the farm stand.  Being in the kitchen sure beats being cold and wet outside these days!

Despite the cold, I'll be in the stand as usual on Saturdays until November 28th.  Our pasture raised lamb was processed more quickly than anticipated, so if you are interested, stop by or give us a call as we have very limited quantities this year. 

 
 

Black (Angus) Monday

We said goodbye to our two black Angus beef cows last night.  Because of government regulations, the only animal we can legally process start to finish and sell here are the chickens.  All other meat animals get picked up and transported to Hirsch's Meats, the local slaughter facility.  Mondays are the days when pickups occur, so we had a very busy day.  First, we had to get the cows into the barn.  Although they have been with us since July 2008, they have been out to pasture since about May with no real human contact except running up to the fence when we threw corn stalks over for them to eat.  Luckily for us, they remembered the sound of feed rattling around in a feed scoop and followed us into the barnyard and then the barn without too much trouble.  They even remembered where their stalls were and let us put collars on them so they could be tied up for the afternoon.  Next we had to catch the two lambs, so the easiest thing to do was lure all the sheep into the barn.  My older ewes came on the run at the sound of the feed scoop with the rest of the flock following right along.  Unfortunately about half of the goats snuck in too.  Just as we were shutting the barn door to sort out the male lambs, a black lamb jumped through Dan's arms and out into the barnyard,  Of course, that was one we needed!  Luckily he ran into the lower part of the barn and was caught.  Upon looking at the younger of the two ram lambs, he had done better than expected on a grass-only diet and was even bigger than the first, despite being a couple months younger.  So he was sorted out into the holding pen, and the rest of the sheep & goats were shooed out of the barn.  Lastly were some pigs out in the movable pig tractor.  It was too muddy & far to move it down to the barn, so we put a crate on the trailer behind the pickup and loaded the pigs onto the trailer, then backed the trailer into the barn.  Using portable gates to make a kind of runway, we simply opened the crate and the pigs backed out and followed the path we had to the pen.  So far, so good!

Later in the evening, well after dark, the trailer arrived.  We had spoken to the driver before he got here, so he knew where to back in.  I don't know how he gets that big stock trailer backed around, but I guess he's had plenty of years of practice.  The pigs were the first to be loaded.  To avoid a pig trying to squeak under the trailer to freedom, we wedged bales of hay in the opening.  It gave them a step to get up into the trailer, too.  We set up the gates again, opened the door of the pen, and all went according to plan.  I've watched enough pigs get loaded by now it doesn't bother me to see them go, especially when there is a new batch of cute little babies running about.  The lambs were next, and we kept all the females this year, so there are still 4 for me to try and tame down this winter.  They each weighed less than a big sack of feed, so Dan was able to just pick them up and carry them to the trailer and put them where they needed to be.  Last to load were the cows.  When we bought them they weighed about 200 lb each, so they could be pulled or pushed to load onto our little trailer without too much problem.  They gained 700-800 pounds with us, putting their weights around 900-1000 pounds, so that wasn't an option.  Dan tried to lead Bandit, the steer, who walked right along until it was time to step up into the trailer.  He then refused to budge, and no amount of pushing, pulling or tail-twisting could convince him otherwise.  Monica was missing her buddy and really trying to get loose, so we untied her and she ran right for the trailer.  She started to go in, but her hoof got caught in the twine holding the hay bale together and she pulled back.  By this time Bandit was loose too, and with a bit of yelling, arm waving, pleading and poking, they did load.  We've had these cows for over a year, and I'll really miss seeing them.  I was even getting a little sad when I walked into the barn to help load the trailer.  I was glad they were a bit uncooperative, because they really weren't that bad (no one, human or bovine, was hurt), but my mind was more focused on the task at hand than on where the  trailer was headed.  We do still have 3 more cows here, and the best part is that when we get the beef back, not only will we have some money to put into various projects around the farm, we'll be able to buy more cows!  Although it's so hard to watch an animal you've raised go to be killed, every animal on a farm has a purpose and not all of them are glamorous.  I wasn't going to name or pet or feed snacks to the cows when we bought them, knowing that they were going to have to die, but Dan reminded me that just because you aren't going to keep an animal for the whole of its natural lifespan, that doesn't mean it won't appreciate love and cookies.  So that's how I look at it too.  They had a good life while they were here, and now I get to fill the empty spot in the barn with adorable little cows who will get more love and cookies.

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Loner Goat

We all know animals can't talk, so part of being a responsible owner is to pay attention to your animal's behavior, whether it is a pet cat or a 2,000 lb cow.  A change in behavior usually means something, and is often the first best chance to catch an illness before it becomes too late.  Even given the wide variety of critters that call Pleasant Valley home, I know each one and most even have a name they will answer to.  

Yesterday was cold, wet and miserable when we began to butcher chickens.  The indoor/outdoor thermometer is having some issues...I was pretty chilled, but the display of -11 seemed a bit much.  It was drizzling and in the lower 40's though.  As I was helping prep before the actual butchering got started, I noticed our big male goat, LLP Warlord's Dream, wasn't with the other goats but was laying by the fence, in the corner behind my flowerbed and next to our smokehouse.  This rain and wet weather is hard on goat's feet, and they do get sore sometimes, so my first thought was to make sure his feet were examined and medicated if necessary.  Later, it had cleared up a bit and he was out grazing by the pond.  Towards the end of the afternoon, it was raining as I started evening chores.  I noticed he was again laying right up against the smokehouse, all by himself.  This wasn't making any sense, as the rest of the goats were all down in the run-in portion of the barn.  Goats hate to be wet and act like they're melting if it starts to rain- the entire herd will come to the barn at a run.  Then I realized what had been wrong the whole time...he was stuck out in the pasture away from the barn and his herd! Goats are masters of escape and will find a place to squeeze through most fences if there is something they want on the other side.  However, Warlord is really laid back and is frequently the only one on the correct side of the fence.  So he must have followed the herd through a hole from one pasture to the next, but couldn't find his way back (goats seem incapable of ever going back the same way they went through).  And to keep the cows were we want them, the gate to the barnyard was closed.  Therefore, the driest place for him to hide from the rain was the overhang of the smokehouse roof.  Unfortunately, the few inches of overhang was no where near big enough to keep a 350 lb goat anywhere near dry!  Now that the behavior made sense, it was a simple fix to make him happy.  I walked out into the pasture calling him.  I call him Buddy because his registered name is too long and silly to be calling across the pasture.  He looked at me for a bit and then walked over to see what the silly human was doing out in the rain. I kept calling for him and looking over my shoulder every few feet, and he started to follow, although he wasn't happy to be getting wet.  As I got near the gate to the barnyard, it was like a light bulb went off...you could see he realized what I was trying to get him to do.  By the time I had the gate unlatched, he was waiting right beside me.  As I opened it, he happily trotted off to join his herd in the dry warm barn.  I was happy too, as I didn't have a sick goat on my hands after all, just an unhappily wet one, which is much easier to fix!

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The Pig-o-Tiller

We've worked hard to get an electric fence up around the smallest part of the barnyard so our little piglets can get some fresh air and sunshine.  Many of our customers who stopped by last Saturday enjoyed seeing them run around;  they're very playful at this age! Besides providing an outdoor space for the sows & piglets, we also had another reason to get them out in this particular space.  This part of the barnyard isn't grazed very heavily, so weeds have started to choke out the plants that the livestock find tastier and more nutritious.  A pasture without maintenance will become simply a place for the animals to exercise, but not much of a source of food if the plants that are best for that species are overgrazed or taken over by weeds.  So it's time to re-seed this patch of pasture.  We plan on using just a general hay mix- grasses, clover, legumes and other plants that appeal to pretty much all of our critters.  However, with the weeds thoroughly covering the ground, we have to prep the soil to give the seeds the best possible chance to grow and thrive.  While we do have a very high quality rototiller which we use in the garden every spring for that purpose,  that wasn't the route we wanted to take.  Round bales of hay were fed in this spot for years, and every spring I pull up yards and yards of orange baler twine.  It would quickly wrap around the tines of the tiller and cause major problems.  Besides, we try to use it as little as possible,  both to keep it in great shape for years to come and because we try not to use too much mechanized equipment.  This particular area is also too small and rocky to use the horses to plow it up.  Enter the pig-o-tillers!  Hogs have a natural instinct to root- they use their extremely strong snouts to dig into the dirt and then lift up.  This way they discover all sorts of piggie delicacies like grubs and roots. In the process, they expose the bare dirt and uproot whatever is growing on the surface. Two sows and 18 piglets can do a lot of work or damage, depending on your point of view. They can cause a huge mess if you don't want the ground completely uprooted, but  this is just what we're looking for to plant! So the pigs get exercise and some extra food at no cost to us, and they get to entertain themselves by doing what pigs naturally want to do.  And we get the pasture reseeded with just minimal time and work on our part.  It's what we like to think of as a win-win situation!
 
 

Thoughts on Eating Seasonally

As I finished setting up the store this weekend, I really noticed how the look of it has changed from the beginning of the season.  Gone are the piles of zucchini  and summer squash. Taking their place are a colorful selection of winter squash and pumpkins.  Tomatoes are nowhere to be found, except in the homemade jars of salsa for sale.  Sweet corn has been replaced by corn shocks and ornamental corn.  Heads of lettuce have given way to heads of cabbage.  Even the sunflowers we placed on the table for decoration have ceased to bloom, and are now being sold, full of seed, as all-natural bird feeders.

Even though I grew up away from farming, I still lived in the country enough to have an awareness of seasonal eating.  Sweet corn from the store was never good, it was best bought from the back of a pickup, especially if that pickup happened to be at the ice cream stand just a block away!  As children, my brothers, sisters and I knew when to roam the woods looking for blackberries and blueberries.  It was, to us, just something everyone knew was true...those store bought blackberries in January were no match for the good stuff that left your hands stained after a day of picking in the summer sunshine!

 When you stop and think, it is an amazing thing that any fruit or vegetable you want can be found, year round, at any local grocery store.  Do you really need to have tomatoes available all year?  It seems many Americans would answer "yes!" without pausing to think about where the vegetables and fruit are coming from, how they are transported across the globe just so we have the option of having them any given week of the year.  It's a luxury we don't even think about.  The longer I am on the farm, the more my eating habits turn with the seasons...while summer is for chicken salad on a bed of fresh greens with tomatoes and cucumber, fall leans more toward a baked squash with sausage and onion stuffing.  While this has been a process, it's one I wasn't really aware I was making.  Sometimes it's kind of a jolt to realize that not everyone is so aware, and that happened a few times today.  An older gentleman asked me where my sweet corn was.  I explained that October is too late in the year for that vegetable to grow here, and the look on his face said that he couldn't understand what farm stand wouldn't offer corn on demand like any self-respecting grocery store.  Another woman commented that it must be fall since there wasn't much on the table.  Both walked out empty handed.  I though about her comment, then tried to see my table the same way...but the potatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage,squash, etc got in my way.  All I could see was a bountiful harvest.  To be sure, there were items that were missing from the grocery store's standards, but to me those vegetables taste all the sweeter when they are fresh and in season, even if that means missing them for months out of the year.  After all, there's always something else in season to make a delicious meal from! 

 

 
 

Loading Up the Truck with Squash

We've been anticipating a frost for a few days now, but so far we've been spared. Yesterday Dan & I decided to bring in any winter squash that seemed ripe enough to be pulled from the vine. While squash will handle a light frost just fine, a hard one will cause them to begin rotting. So as it was a dry and sunny (but chilly!) day, we drove the faithful farm truck out to be loaded up with garden goodness.  

We grew several varieties of pumpkin and have some biggies, but nothing big enough to turn into a house for Wilbur as we had joked about during planting season.  We have some nice looking pumpkins but also quite a few lopsided ones...not sure exactly why, but given the much less than ideal growing season we had here, sometimes you just have to be thankful for what grows, no matter the shape.  One of the more unusual winter squash we grew this year is the kabocha...while there are green varieties of this squash, ours turn a nearly scarlet orange when ripe.  I've had more than a few questions about our "little pumpkins".   While not really a pumpkin at all, they would make fabulous fall decorations, and the larger ones might even be carve-able!  However, they are great to eat too, sweet and rich flavored. Our kabocha plants did wonderfully, I even had to follow the vines deep into the planting of ornamental corn to collect all of the beautiful orange globes.  We also picked more than a few giant pink banana squash (my new favorite) and the smaller acorn, butternut and buttercups just in case.  The bed of the truck looked like a postcard from fall! 

Squash is something my family didn't really eat when I was growing up, so I've been looking for good recipes that I can use all winter long.   I've been saving my favorites and printing them out for you to pick up when you stop by the stand on Saturdays...a recipe of the week, if you will.  I love to try cooking new things, so I intend to keep it up next year as well.  If you don't live close enough to stop by, I also post them online on the farm's website -www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com.   Also for all the coupon clippers out there, I posted a coupon for a discount on delicious winter squash there as well!  It's already down to 49 degrees and the clouds are clearing off as the sun goes down, so I think we're finally in for a frost for sure.  So it's time to go cover the last of the pepper plants to try and save them just a bit longer, then a good night to enjoy the heat of the woodstove!

 
 
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