Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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New Roof

Although most of the major farm projects for the year are over, we're thankful that the weather is holding so we can get one last major project accomplished this year.  The hog house is finally getting a new roof!  While the ground level of the building is made of blocks, the upper story was wooden.  The roof has been leaking for some time now, and the big blue tarp over the roof has long been shredded by the weather.  The whole building was turning into an eyesore as well as a danger, as the leaning wood promised to collapse sometime if we didn't get to it ourselves.  Since the bottom is in good shape, Dan and I had decided this spring the best plan would be to tear down the upper story and replace it with a steel roof, sloping only one way so the water would no longer end up in front of the pigs' door to the outside run.  We're hoping this new layout will help to eliminate the giant mud puddle currently in front of their door. Eliminating the second story is really no loss of space, since pigs don't use staircases and we weren't using the space for storage or anything else.  It should cut down on the mice as well, as they had taken over the top story and were abundant below as well.

The project began yesterday, with Dan and his brother knocking down all of the boards not responsible for holding the roof up.  Then ropes were tied to the support beams.  The other end was fastened to the van.  The second story came down with a big crash, but safely for all involved. They've recycled lots of the usable  lumber to build supports and give the roof a proper angle so that snow and rain will slide off.  As I type, the green sheets of metal roofing are being nailed into place.  Daylight will be running short, but we'll try to get it all on tonight.  The the most time consuming part will start- the cleanup!  We'll save any still-usable boards for future projects, but there will still be lots of rotten wood and shingles and random junk that will need to be picked up and disposed of.  We'll give the inside a thorough cleaning and spread the manure on the fields and then line the pens with fresh bedding.  This was really important to get done before winter, this way the sows won't have to go to a new building before the next litter of piglets are born in early March.  

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Giving Thanks

It's (almost) Thanksgiving, and we have had so much to be thankful for this year.  Both Dan and I and our animals are healthy, which is always the biggest thing to be appreciative of.  Considering the less-than-ideal growing season, our garden did splendidly overall.  We were able to put up enough hay not only to get through the winter, but with enough extra we had no worries about buying another cow. Virtually every jar I canned sealed up, and all the new recipes I tried this year turned out to be delicious.  A majority of both the goats and sheep born this year were girls, so we're building up our herd and flock faster than expected.  And we are especially thankful that so many people remembered our farm and came back as customers after a 3+ year hiatus, and we also met many new friends this year.  I'm thankful for LocalHarvest giving me the space to write this blog, and grateful to all of you who take time out of your busy lives to read it. 

Although you might expect us to be having a feast of homegrown food tomorrow, we are traveling.  Both Dan's parents and my mom live in the middle part of the state, so it can be tricky to plan how to make an 8-hour round trip, have time to enjoy family, and make sure the animals are fed as well.  Unfortunately this year, Dan and I won't be together, but we'll each be spending precious time with our own families, and we can cook a homemade feast another day.  Dan and his brother left today to see not only their parents, but their grandfather as well.  He's getting up in years and is not in the best of health, so every holiday is precious. I will get to do some heavy lifting to burn off all of that turkey, as my mom just bought a house, and since the closing was this week, my siblings and I will pay for dinner by helping her move. Although she told me more than once that she wants us to enjoy our time together, she's also excited about boys with trucks coming!

 It's hard to leave the farm, you always worry that something will happen and whoever you left in charge won't be able to handle it.  Dan tried to make things as easy on me as possible tonight by filling up all the self feeders, bringing the cows in early, and making sure there was plenty of firewood in the house for me to keep warm.  I came home from work, optimistic I would have an easy night, just collecting eggs and feeding a bit of hay to the critters in the barn.  As I walked to the barn in the drizzling rain, I noticed Dixie seemed a bit upset.  This made sense because Dixie is afraid of pigs, and Wilbur and Charlotte were near the pond, which is part of the pasture but NOT part of the hog run! So I've got nearly a ton of loose pork, and I'm not sure where Fern was lurking.  Bribery is always the best option in these situations, so I grabbed a feed scoop, opened the hog house door, and nearly had a heart attack when Fern jumped up on the boards inside, looking me in the eye and waiting for her dinner.  I fed her, opened the inner pen door, and went outside rattling my feed scoop and calling the other two pigs for dinner with the "Woof, woof, piggies!!" they are used to hearing.  Char gladly trotted right behind me and into the pen. Wilbur didn't want to come in the building, he wanted through the fence, and it is now pouring as hard as it's rained all year.  As the water drips down my sleeves and collar, I'm chasing the 750-pound boar around with a feed scoop.  Mildly annoyed, he uproots a part of the fence and heads for the feed inside.  After making sure all doors and gates are latched, I need to figure out why he didn't get shocked by the electric fence during this stunt. I replace the fence post he knocked down as best as I can and head for the fencer up by the house.  It's not clicking, so there is a problem.  Following the extension cord, I find it's not p[lugged in.  So that is an easy fix, and I'll hope all is well when I leave in the morning for my turkey day journey.  Dan will be home by evening chore time, and I'll have a few days to spend with my family. Dan will even be running the stand for me on Saturday so I don't have to hurry back.  I do feel bad that I'll miss our last open weekend for the year, but I know Dan and Matt will be just as capable of running it, so feel free to stop by and stock up for winter!

From our farm to your family, we wish you safe travels, plentiful tables, and quality time with the ones you love.  Happy Thanksgiving! 

 

 

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The Great Quail Escape

We have had the pleasure of raising bobwhite quail for over a year now.  They are tiny little birds with big voices and toy-sized eggs which hatch into bumblebee-sized chicks.  They are kept in one of our portable "tractors," a fully enclosed pen which is moveable to put them on fresh grass as needed.  At least, it was fully enclosed.  As I am walking toward the house after a day at work, I hear more noise than usual coming from the forsythia bush in our yard. I'm used to a sparrow or two, but instead I find about 20 quail (which would be all of them!) in the leaves around the base.  I go inside, greet my husband, and tell him about the birds in the bush.  "that's not good..." he replies.  Upon inspection, it seemed one of the doors to their pen had come loose, and they had all escaped.  For chickens, bunnies, or the occasional other small escapee, we have a good sized net on a long pole.  While this usually works pretty well, quail can fly. Really fly, not just a few feet like a chicken or tame duck.  While we enjoy the bobwhites, we had talked about getting Cortunix quail in the spring if we want to market dressed quail or quail eggs.  So we had already decided the bobwhites were pleasant, but not economically profitable to raise.  Although not very common around our house, they are also a native species for our area.  And at best we'd only be able to net a few before the rest realized the power in thier small wings and flew out of reach.  So the decision was to let them be free, but leave the door open to the pen for them to come back if they need food or shelter.  The kitties were becoming very interested in the new yard birds, so we deliberately startled them, trying to spook them into the cornfield where they would be relativley safe. Of course, some went in to the cornfield, some across the road and into the woods, and stragglers ended up on the roof of the produce stand, the chickens' run, and my kitchen windowsill!  Until dark, we could heaar them calling to each other, regrouping their small covey.  And no quail appeared on the porch as cat food, so we are hoping they have retained enough of their wild instincts to fear predators and stay safe.  Although when I see them in the yard or the field, I'll be throwing a scoop of feed their way.  Because once they tasted freedom and space to put thier wings to the test, they don't seem too likely to take me up on my offer of the open cage door.

 

Female quail on my kitchen windowsill- she's hiding from the cats!

 
 

Why Save Seeds?

Just like the stores seem to pull out the Christmas stuff earlier each year, the seed companies seem to be in a race to get the catalogs for the coming growing season out far earlier than necessary.  We haven’t even finished picking corn, and already I’ve received two! In case I misplace then during the holiday season, I’m sure duplicates will come my way in January or February.  While I love looking through them on a cold winter evening, with temperatures still rising to near 60 every day this week, I’m still outside, finishing up this year’s garden!  Dan put the rhubarb to bed for the year…our secret to a bountiful crop that produces clear into fall is blanketing it each winter with a thick layer of horse manure, which is never in short supply here.  It keeps the crowns of the plant safe from winter’s bitter cold, and as the manure breaks down gradually over the coming months, it not only provides a bit of warmth, but also valuable fertilizer. We’re also closer every day to having all of the corn in the corncrib.  Once that happens we’ll take some to a mill to have our own feed mixed, and some will be fed to the animals still on the cob.  And I’m picking the last of this year’s beans.  They are no longer green anywhere, but have produced hard dry beans inside the edible part.  These can be soaked and used in any bean dish, but can also be used to plant next year’s crop, as long as you have not planted a hybrid variety.  (While hybrid seeds will sprout, the fruit of the plants has no guarantees…it most likely won’t taste anything like what you enjoyed the year before.)

So although I haven’t even opened the catalogs, I’m busy planning my garden next year and saving seed.  I have my colored corn, giant sunflowers, squash, pumpkins, and several types of beans.  I also did some herbs earlier before the seeds dropped and supplied next year’s sprouts themselves!  You might wonder, if a bunch of mail-order catalogs featuring every plant under the sun are coming right to my door, why would I spend my time letting plants go to seed, picking the seeds and preparing them to keep through the winter?  Farmers are always short on time, but saving seed is worth the time in my opinion.  I’m helping to preserve the biodiversity of agriculture by not relying on the newest super-seed Monsanto or some other heartless corporation is pushing, and saving money to boot. Also, if you save the best seeds from the best plants in your garden for a few years, you will end up with a plant that is most ideally suited to the climate conditions of your particular farm.  You can also help save a piece of history.  Grandpa Admire’s lettuce, which we bought seeds from Seed Savers Exchange to plant this year, has been saved and replanted since the Civil War.  While it didn’t keep at all once picked, and therefore would never be an option at the supermarket, it was a beautiful combination of red and green leaves, had a fabulous taste, and never got bitter, even on those hot summer days.  It would be a shame to let this piece of American food heritage go by the wayside just because it doesn't appear in the big catalogs or on the racks of seed packets at Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

 

The biggest drawback to the heirloom vegetables which you can save seeds from is that they may not have the high disease resistance that hybrids are known for.  The only crop that we really had trouble with this year was tomatoes, the late blight hit hard and earlier than usual in our area this year.  Whole crops were lost whether you sprayed chemicals or not, and no matter what varieties were planted.  We were fortunate to get some tomatoes, and neither Dan nor I saw any real difference in the disease resistance of the various varieties, as none of the plants survived and all the tomatoes were spotted or rotten after a time.  I may have been overly optomistic, but the heritage Riesentraube cherry tomatoes seemed to have had more useable ones than any other plant.  It may have been the sheer number produced by these prolific plants though, as a small percent of each tomato variety were salvagable, but 20 cherries may have been comprable to 1 beefsteak.  I'm not sure they won if you looked at percentages.  While I was disappointed I really wasn’t able to save seeds from them this year, we both agreed that we’re not giving up on heirloom tomatoes.  So when the snow starts flying and I get into real garden planning mode, I’ll be ordering them again.  Hopefully, it is the last time I pay for tomato seeds, at least until I find another variety that sounds too good not to try!

 
 

She's Here!

I’m happy to say Finniat has arrived safely and is adjusting well to her new home.  She arrived safely Wednesday morning.  We had moved some things around so that the trailer could be backed right up to the barn door.  We weren’t sure how well she would lead, and no one ever wants to get into a tug of war in the muddy barnyard with an overexcited cow.  The phone rang, and Mark, who was driving the trailer down for us, let us know everything was going fine and he’d be there in half an hour.  He was able to find our farm without any problems and back the trailer into the space between the silo and the milk house.  I can’t back the lawn tractor with a small cart on it, so that is always impressive to me!  Because she’s not very tall, there was no sign that there was a little cow in the trailer until the doors were opened, and there was Finniat, looking very calm for all the excitement of getting on a trailer and moving to a new place without any of her herd mates.  Mark untied her and led her off the trailer and right into the barn with no more difficulty than taking a large dog for a walk.  It was great!  We had the chance to ask him any other questions about Dexters that had popped up since we’d been at their farm, mostly about rebreeding her in the summer.  I was totally amazed when he mentioned the possibility of loaning out a bull, as trailering our cow and her calf or expecting someone else to milk her just didn’t seem like the route we wanted to take. We had though about taking the cow to the bull, but working it the other way around hadn’t crossed our minds! So if anyone is interested in Dexter cattle and is looking for a reputable breeder, especially one who would take the time to answer any questions from those new to the breed, I would heartily recommend Mark & Edlyn Muir at Muirstead farm in Union City, Pa.  It has been a real treat dealing with them.

 

So Finniat is here, and we decided it would be best if she spent the first day or two in the barn.  That way she could get used to us and her new home before turning her loose in the field with the other animals. It really is better if your newly bought cow comes back after you open the barn door that first time! Our beef cows, Happy, Louie & Little Buzz, must have smelled her, as they came in to the lower part of the barn and were mooing back and forth to Finniat.  She greeted them as well.  So we hope to get her out this afternoon and take advantage of the beautiful, sunny, warmer-than-normal weather we’ve been having.  In the meantime, we’ve been down to the barn, checking on her, like new parents.  What is there to check on?  We make sure she isn’t tangled up in her tie rope, hasn’t spilled her water bucket, and hasn’t slipped her halter off and gotten loose and made a mess of the barn, but mostly just that she’s still bright-eyed and has a healthy appetite.  I think she loves seeing me come into the barn, as I’m a sucker and I feel bad she’s all alone inside, so I take time to pet her and talk to her a bit, and then give her another armful of hay and offer her an animal cookie.  She’s still not sure about the cookie thing yet, but I’m sure she’ll come around once she tastes one. The hay is definitely to her liking though, so I think we’re off to a good start!

 
 

Sweet!

As the year goes on, I'm finding more and more of our home-canned goodies are selling, but I've had a few comments that too much of it is hot for some tastes.  I like a good spicy sauce, but I realize not everyone appreciates it and some people have bigger a sweet tooth.  So I went back to my big book of canning recipes to see what inspired me.  I found a great recipe to use up carrots that hadn't sold over the weekend...a carrot cake jam!  Spreadable carrot cake was just too intriguing to past up, so I collected all the necessary ingredients and went to work.  I must confess, I was fearful of a flaming disaster when, after the 20 minutes of boiling was up, I still had a pot of fruits and veggies without much visible liquid.  I expected it to look more syrupy, and thought there was no way in the world that the large amount of sugar I had would ever dissolve without adding water or something my recipe didn't call for. But there was nothing to do but grab the big bowl full of sugar, dump it in and stir. To my surprise and delight, it stirred right in and the result makes a plain piece of toast into dessert!  

Since we're all but done with butchering, I feel like I have more time to create in the kitchen.  Even though I'm not home all day now, it gets dark out so early that canning a batch of something seems like a great way to pass a chilly evening.  Also, with the garden being done I feel like I have more freedom to choose what I'm doing.  Although I try my best to let no tomato, hot pepper, green bean, etc, go to waste, the only home grown veggies I have left to can are tomatoes I've already run through the food mill and frozen.  So there is no hurry to get to them before they go bad.  We try to be as self sufficient as possible, but sometimes it's ok to buy some of the ingredients, so I'm looking for tasty treats now instead of a way to use up all these hot peppers or whatever I was overrun with at the time during the growing season.  Next up, I have my eye on a Black Forest preserve...cocoa and cherries and sugar! Yum!  It should go well with the ice cream maker that arrived via FedEx today that we're excited to try out. Or maybe I'll do gingered pears, or a recipe for spiced pumpkin that sounds like a holiday treat.  I'm going to try to set aside time for canning tomorrow, as I have the day to spend at home, but Finniat is coming in the morning and I'm not sure how much of my day will be wrapped up in that!  

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Waiting for Wednesday...

Farmers are generally patient people.  There is a lot of waiting from the time a seed is planted until you can eat the results, and depending on the animal, it can be a very long time waiting for the arrival of a baby!  But sometimes even patient farmers get excited about an upcoming event...that's why we can't wait until Wednesday, when our newest member of the farm family will arrive.  Her name is Finniat and she is a Dexter cow.  We purchaced her yesterday and we are beyond anxious for her arrival.  We would have brought her home with us, but we don't have a stock trailer and so had to make arrangements for delivery.  I am grateful I have Veteran's Day off from my day job, or I would be sorely tempted to stay home and use up vacation time!

So, what is a Dexter cow and why do we want one?  Although Dan grew up milking Jersey cows, we aren't really interested in becoming dairy farmers.  However, we are interested in having milk for personal use and to make our own cheese, butter, yogurt and other yummy dairy products. We did research on the wide variety of breeds available to find one that we felt would fit our needs best, and we fell in love with the idea of getting a Dexter cow.  They are the smallest non-miniature breed of cow and are celebrated as a tri-purpose animal, having qualities for beef, dairy and also as oxen for draft animal power.  A cow will be between 36-42" in height at the shoulder when she is full grown, making for a small, manageable animal.  They have the highest output of milk per pound of feed consumed, and are docile and easily trained.  They originated in Ireland as a family, backyard cow for milk with the ability to process unwanted offspring (usually males) as beef or to train them as oxen to work the field.  Dexters are becoming more popular in America as a homesteading cow, and luckily for us we found breeders of these amazing little cows within a reasonable driving distance of our farm.   We had a lovely time talking with the couple that owns the farm and really learned a lot.  They had several cows for sale and we got to meet the whole herd.  Dan was most interested in the practical concerns of buying a bred cow that would be producing milk in as short a time as possible.  All the cows were bred for the spring, so that didn't make the choice any easier.  I had an idea that I wanted a black one (the most common, but not only, color) and one that had horns, just because I like the look and think it lends an old-time appearance to the animals.  When I contacted these folks by email ,they stated that they had bred cows for sale, but that all but one was polled (naturally hornless) or dehorned, except one.  While standing in the middle of the paddock, discussing bloodlines and general information about the girls, one cow came up to me a couple of times, sniffing my outstretched hand as though she were curious and wanted to greet me, on her own terms. The other cows tolerated our presence, but didn't go out of their way to investigate us. This friendly little cow was among the ones for sale, and was the one that had horns!  So of course, there was no question in my mind she would be the one we should buy.  Although Dan looked over the other cows closely, the horned one was named Finniat and will be coming to live with us. She will be having her first baby this coming spring and will be our hand-milked family cow.  So now I feel like a small child that knows Christmas is coming really soon, but isn't quite here yet...it can be so hard to be patient sometimes!

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Our First Beef

While we knew it was time to send our first farm-raised beef cows for processing, Dan and I did a lot of thinking about how we were going to process them.  The butchering facility is more than happy to cut, wrap and freeze the meat for you, but of course they need to charge for their time and effort.  While we have gotten quite efficient at processing a pig or two or three ourselves in a day, a whole beef is a LOT bigger! So we debated both the economics and what we thought we would be able to handle, plus logistical matters like refrigeration.  In the end, we decided that we would have Hirsch's cut up the beef we would be selling to the public and do the other, which was going to our personal freezer and to Dan's parents, ourselves.  The first half, which was for Dan's parents, we had the help of Dan's father, Tom, who is a professional meat cutter as well as Dan's brother, who has been helping us out a lot these days.  With the help of a book devoted to processing meat at home and his years of experience, we got it done and Tom was able to take it home when he returned to Chambersburg.  We decided that we would do our own, just the two of us, and since we aren't picky, any mistakes could be wrapped up as-is or ground into burger.  

Half of a cow, even cut into 2 pieces, is a big thing to haul in a 4 door car like mine, but somehow we got it situated and home.  Thank goodness for old bedsheets to keep the seats clean!  While not all the steaks were picture perfect, we were really proud of how it all turned out.  Dan and I got everything cut and wrapped that first night, and cut the meat we wanted to grind for burger cut up and bagged into the fridge.  Beef needs to be run through the grinder twice, unlike sausage, so we let it sit in the fridge overnight to break the work up over two days.  80 pounds of meat takes some time to grind twice and package, and we were hungry for dinner after all the cutting and wrapping the first night.   What to cook?  Steak, of course!  I had heard that some consider pasture raised meat tough since the animals move around much more during the course of their lives, and there is a lower amount of fat marbled through the meat, which some think detracts from the flavor.  I cooked our first steak simply, in a pan on the stove with just a bit of cracked pepper and Worcestershire sauce.  It was by far the most tender and flavorful steak I have ever eaten, and was really something to feel proud about producing ourselves! Not only was it delicious, we could also feel good about the conditions the animals were raised under...I really believe you can taste that the animal was raised in a natural, low stress way, without chemicals and with respect for the animal's needs. After packaging the burger the second night, we were able to relax and reflect on a big job well done.  I would never believed myself capable of doing anything like this even a few short years ago, but it really is amazing what you can accomplish with an open mind and the ability to be ok with a less than perfect outcome if necessary.  A few mangled steaks will still taste great and gave us a wonderful amount of practice and the confidence to do it again ourselves.

The majority of butchering is done, we've gotten a good start on the field corn harvest, and most things are winding down for the winter.  While my mind has been turning to all sorts of things I consider winter projects, my time as a full time farmer has also come to a close as I was called back to my away-from-the-farm job beginning today.   I'm happy for the individuals that rely on our non-profit agency who are able to better themselves by reaching educational goals with our help, but I sure hated to hear the alarm clock and leave my beautiful farm on a sunny late fall morning.  My time here was a great beginning to what the farm can be for my husband and myself, and I'm sure I will be finding ways to make it a success and spend as much time as I can here.  How that will shape up for next summer, I don't really know yet, but if nothing else, my layoff time showed me the possibilities of being here! 

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