Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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I feel like I've been neglecting my blog, but it's just been so busy here! We've been busy planting, and with the much needed rain we're getting this weekend, I'm sure the potatoes, onions and other seedlings will be sprouting in no time!
I did take some time earlier this week to finally get around to watching the movie Food, Inc. Honestly, I didn't think I'd learn much by watching it since I've got Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and several of Joel Salatin's books on my bookshelf, but I was wrong. It's a great movie for anyone, it's very approachable for folks who don't have a lot of prior knowledge about food safety or agriculture. Parts of it certainly are depressing, from a mother who lost her child to e. coli to the seed-cleaning farmer who was sued out of business by Monsanto- my heart broke watching. However, it was the ending that has really stayed with me- a hard working farmer telling the camera that farmers want to do the right thing, all consumers have to do is ask, and America's farmers will find a way. Watching that part, I felt so empowered.
The Gandhi quote "Be the change you want to see in the world" keeps running through my head. Our animals are raised naturally and humanely, free to enjoy the outdoors, where they can express their pigness, cowness, chickenness...where a row of potatoes may veer to the side a bit because it seems unnecessary and cruel to run the rototiller over the killdeer's nest for the sake of symmetry...where the stream that runs through the pasture is able to be a great habitat for trout and frogs downstream...where the food is safe, honest, and healthy. All these things are so important, and so often overlooked.
When I was studying for my Master's in Social Work, I learned about lots of great people who changed the world for the better- women's rights, civil rights- and the fact that a group of caring people changing the face of our country always struck me as so inspiring. I thought that I would never have an issue in my lifetime that could be so revolutionary as desegregating schools or getting women the right to vote. It seemed like all the good causes were already taken, so to speak. The more I learn about the way our food is mass produced, and the effects it has on the citizens of this country, especially children, the more I come to realize that this is my issue. And it is something I'm fighting, every time we plant an heirloom vegetable seed here, every time we sell a dozen eggs we collect by hand, every time we sell meat that was raised and processed like a living creature rather than a protein-producing machine. I can get up every morning, look in the mirror, and say "I am the change I want to see." It's powerful, and awe-inspiring. You can help be that change too, every time you choose to buy your food from a farmer or a restaurant that gets its food locally. If we all do it often enough, we really will change the world.
Posted by Emily
@ 12:08 PM EDT
For weeks now, the temperatures have been summer-like and the entire landscape has been turning green. So although it may seem strange that we haven't been letting all the critters out to bask in the spring sun, until this week only the sheep were outside full time. This is how we overwintered our farm, and although the fields were starting to turn green, it wasn't quite time. While it may seem like a no-brainer to let the animals out as soon as there is something green out there to eat, if you do that you will run out of pasture quickly. While we love to let the horses, cows and goats roam free and relieve ourselves of the stall cleaning, pasture takes maintenance too.
Our farm is only 50 acres, including woodlands, house, barnyard, hog yard, hayfields, gardens and pastures. That doesn't leave all that much pasture for 4 horses, 4 cows, 15 sheep and a half dozen goats, plus the pastured poultry and pigs. So we need to manage our pasture according to how many animals we have if we want it to last the whole summer long and into the fall. The first step is by not turning everything out as soon as possible. We need to let the plants get a bit of a head start so they have enough energy to keep going. We will also close off parts of the pasture at different times during the growing year, allowing one part to be eaten down while the other part grows lush again. Another benefit is that we have a diverse herd. Goats love the brushy stuff-scrubby trees, multiflora rose and other browse the rest of the animals won't touch. The horses select the plants they like, such as clover or alfalfa first, as do the cows. Sheep eat all the soft grasses down nearly to the roots. Each has its own preferred food, and when you graze all of them together, it grazes the field down in a nearly even manner. If you had only one species grazing a spot at a time, it is easy for them to eat their favorite plants up until they were no longer present in the field. Like any of nature's environments, the pasture thrives on balance.
So how do we know it is time? For starters, when we let the horses and cows out in the evenings, they refuse to come back in! The lawn needs mowed already, and in some ways, the pasture is the same; the more you cut it, the more it grows back. So we let the goats out to play last night too. We've gotten away from the goat breeding business, but have 4 favorite adults and twin kids here still.
What happens if we're wrong? Maybe it is too early, but we'll monitor the pasture growth by walking through the fields. If the grasses are being eaten down too much, we can always restrict the fields that the animals are allowed into, or put then back in the barn for a week or two. It's a fairly forgiving system as long as you keep a close eye on what's going on. The other side of the coin is that if you don't let the animals out until the grass is tall and lush, they go and gorge like a kid with a basket full of Easter candy. While the child will likely suffer no more than a bellyache, for our livestock, the bellyache can result in digestive upsets (colic in horses, bloat on the others) which can actually kill the animal if not treated properly. So the wise farmer strives for a balance between letting the grass get a good start, but not so much that the animals are knee deep in food they haven't seen in months.
It's a busy weekend here, as the first weekend of trout fishing weekend means lots of our seasonal residents are here. If you're one of them, feel free to slow down when you pass the farm. There's lots to see in the fields these days!
Posted by Emily
@ 08:19 PM EDT
Anyone who has come to visit our farm has likely seen some of our more exotic-looking poultry. We raise Polish chickens, with crazy crowns of feathers that look like a wig, Golden Phoenix roosters have tails that can grow to be two feet long, and Cochins whose feet are completely obscured by feathers, making them appear to be wearing slippers. All these birds are kept in a pen visible from our parking lot, and the do get quite a bit of attention. However, they are not the most attention-grabbing birds we keep.
Two summers ago, Dan and I bought peafowl. Most people know these beauties as peacocks, but that is really only referring to the males of the species. Our ladies are properly called peahens. The babies, not surprisingly, are called peachicks. We got our birds as chicks, and peafowl are slower to develop than many birds, as they are long lived...they can live to be 50 years old! Our males are developing the first real tail feathers with the characteristic eye spots, and although they will get longer still in years to come (up to 6 feet!) they are beginning to be beautiful. Our hens will lay their first eggs this year, and we hope to hatch them in our incubator. However, peafowl can fly well and we worried about them escaping, so it's taken us some time to get a proper outdoor run set up. We were able to do that this weekend, complete with a roof made of netting, which makes it look like a real aviary pen. It's also located right along the road, which I'm sure will slow traffic going by!
It took our birds a day or so to get used to leaving the safe confines of the barn, but they truly seem to enjoy being outside now. We're thrilled to get them out where we can enjoy them as well, and it's a great time of year to be able to watch them. The males have been strutting, trying to impress the hens. Like turkey, they are able to raise their tails into an impressive fan. They can also vibrate them, which makes an interesting soft rattling noise as they follow the girls about. When all four peacocks start, it's quite a show!
They also make a variety of sounds, especially around dusk and dawn. The one noted in books as sounding like "help" does sound a bit like the word, but is an eerie, haunting cry. I'd be pretty worried if I were outside by myself around dusk and heard it without knowing the creature making it! There is also another cry that sounds...well, the closest I can come to describing it in print is like a bicycle horn!
In other farm goings-on, Dan broke ground for the first time this year with the horses. After discing under some cornstalks, he began plowing the cornfield and garden areas near the road. There are many more days ahead of working Dixie and Dolly to get our fields through spring planting, and it's always exciting to get that process underway!
Posted by Emily
@ 08:13 PM EDT
The summer-like sun is still shining here, making it hard to be inside blogging when there is so much going on outside! We covered the rhubarb with floating row cover, a white, gauzy fabric that lets light through but helps keep the temperatures above freezing during frosty nights. It's like a little greenhouse for the beds, with the added benefit that the free ranging chickens won't be able to scratch the new shoots when they're searching for bugs in the compost. We also broke out the rototiller in a small patch of garden over the weekend and got some cold-hardy seeds into the ground. Peas, lettuce, spinach, chard, beets & radishes will all survive a light frost or snow, as will the onion sets we planted Saturday. We covered that bed with floating row cover as well, so if you're driving by, I didn't lose bed sheets from the line on a windy day, we're just keeping our sprouts warm!I'm looking to having the first green treats from the garden, and hoping for good initial harvests. We're opening the farm stand for the summer on Memorial Day weekend, so it's time to get things in the ground so the tables won't be bare! We did decide that the weather is sure to turn colder yet this month, so we held off on planting my much anticipated strawberries. I suppose the wait will seem worth it later when I have productive plants instead of frost-killed nubs.
We've been hatching and selling our own chicks for a couple of weeks now, and it is going very well. However, we don't hatch the meat birds we raise. Our first batch is expected to arrive this Friday, and so that also puts us on schedule to have fresh, farm-raised chicken for opening day. It takes a lot of planning to time things like that, and it's exciting to move from the winter planning stages into the spring doing stages. Also on the week's agenda is castrating the male piglets and shearing the sheep (this weather has been extremely hot if you're still wearing a wool coat!). We're happy to have some extra help for these tasks, as Dan's father, Tom, is visiting. He knew well in advance that this would be a working vacation here at the farm, but we try to at least feed him well with good home-raised food. Depending on the amount of rain we get, we're also hoping to be breaking ground with the horses this week. We're giving last year's garden and some of the other fields a rest by using cover crops, but they still need to be plowed, as will this year's garden and corn fields.
Among the many things I was able to complete this weekend was the next installment of our farm's monthly e-Newsletter. If you'd like to be added to that list, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Emily
@ 05:44 PM EDT
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It's an unseasonably warm weekend, and a long one away from the office for me. We're excited to be getting some things in the ground at last! Our garlic overwintered well, and the chives are ready to be cut anytime now. Other than the lemon balm and oregano though, there's not much green in the garden right now. Dan has been doing a bit of tilling and I'm excited to start the day tomorrow by doing a bit of planting. We've got onion sets for some early green onions and some carrots, beets, radish and lettuce varieties to start. All of these can handle a light frost, since we're sure to have quite a few more, even though the high today was 82. This should put them on pace to be ready by Memorial Day, when we open the stand. Plus I've really been missing fresh greens, so I'm anxious for a nice spring salad! I also couldn't resist picking up some bare root strawberry plants while I was out, so I think we're going to risk the frost and put them in the ground with a nice layer of mulch hay to keep the frost off for the time being. While I'm not going to be planting enough to plan offer them at the stand, if I have enough extras I'm sure they will end up in some delicious jelly or jam for sale.
Another project underway is getting another greenhouse up and operational. Dan's tilled a few times, and once we get a new layer of plastic over it, we'll be able to plant tomatoes, peppers and a few other plants right in the ground for an earlier first harvest. This is new for me, and I'm pretty excited about it.
We hatched 39 chicks last weekend and are hoping for even more coming out of the incubator this week. I love hatching, but I really get excited when we have hens dedicated enough to do it without my help. The mothering instinct has been bred out of many, many chickens, so they literally won't reproduce without human assistance, which to me is sad. However, my golden phoenix hens hatched 12 of their own last year, so when I saw them pooling their eggs into one nest box this spring, I let them go and didn't take the eggs away. A hen will only sit on the eggs when she thinks there is enough to invest her time in, so I let them build up. This evening, there was a broody phoenix hen covering the eggs. She didn't give up last year, so I'm optimistic we'll be seeing some naturally hatched chicks three weeks from now!
Posted by Emily
@ 07:39 PM EDT