Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Home Alone...with Babies!

Most people know that spring is the time for babies, especially on the farm.  However, our sows have 2 litters of piglets each year so we do have babies in the fall as well.  I'm happy to report that Charlotte gave birth to 8 piglets on Saturday and all are doing well.  Our other sow, Fern, is due a few weeks from now. This is Char's 5th litter and will be for her sister Fern as well.

Char went into labor early Saturday morning, and Dan gave me updates throughout the morning and early afternoon as I was  waiting on the stand.  We were both very happy she chose that day, because Dan had been planning a hiking and camping trip with his brother and was leaving late Saturday.  Having livestock, especially the varied assortment we have here at the farm, means it's next to impossible to get away for more than a few hours.  I had assured Dan that I would be fine, that I can handle anything that needs done here while he took some time away with his brother.  Everything was going well in the hog house and there were 6 piglets born by the time they left.  I checked on her again at chore time and was excited to count 8.  Pigs are known for taking care of themselves during delivery, they don't need assistance with the regularity that cows or sheep will, so I made sure she had plenty of fresh water and left her in peace.  Yesterday morning I fed her, but she wasn't her usual hungry self, being pretty much exhausted from labor.  By evening, she had eaten a little during the day but didn't greet me during evening chores.  Char also seemed to be breathing a bit heavy.  Now, it reached a high of 89 degrees during the day and was a bit humid, so I was really hoping that she was just hot and still tired.  But a nagging little worry in the back of my head said what if something was wrong and she was still in labor?  After all, she has had 10 or 11 piglets in a litter the past couple of times.  Dan wasn't here to take a look and tell me not to worry, and although I have neighbors that would gladly lend a hand if I needed something, they don't raise pigs.  The closest vet is 20 miles away (one way) and farm calls aren't cheap, so I would hate to make that call unless I knew for sure something was wrong.  And everything has gone fine with the pigs the past 10 litters.   So just to be on the safe side, I called Dan's dad who has seen more baby pigs born than I can imagine.  He said it did indeed sound like she was just hot and tired and gave me some advice about what to feed her for an energy boost and how to keep her cool since she's penned up with the babies away from the mud wallow.  I was so grateful just to hear that I was worrying too much, and that I could go catch some of the Steelers game with my sister without worrying about abandoning a farm animal in need of attention.   This morning Char was up and waiting for breakfast and all 8 piglets were doing well too. She was excited to see some rather large zucchini included in her meal! I was so relieved.

Changes in routines always seem to cause trouble...for some reason just switching who is in charge of feeding which creatures means you'll probably find something on the wrong side of the fence, a broken gate, or something like that.  It's so hard to prepare for every contingency, which is why farmers don't take vacations often.  Even if you can find someone willing to try and tackle the feeding chores, you worry about things like "what if the 800-lb boar hog gets loose?" or "did I tell them how to get Dixie (a 1-ton draft horse) unstuck if she walks through the fence again?"  Many of these animals, like the breeding stock or the horses, are here for years.  Each have their own quirks and personalities and we get to know them much as a pet owner does.  Respecting their temperaments allows us to give them the best care in the most humane way possible, even if it means doing things a little different for one animal vs another, even of the same breed. Like a pet owner, we want them to get the same loving care if we get the chance to go away.  But unlike a pet, these animals are also our livelihood.  If something goes wrong and we lose an entire litter of piglets, that's lost income when we wean them, as we often sell some weanling piglets, or possibly a sausage shortage next spring at our farm stand.  It's even a little intimidating for me, because even though I know my animals and they know me, I'm still new to most of the livestock we raise, having only had contact with these species of animals for the past 3 years or so.  If something seems off or out of the ordinary, I rely heavily on Dan's judgement because he has a lifetime of experience behind it.  And I'm so lucky to have a good relationship with his parents, who are just a phone call away if I need a second opinion in the meantime.  I'm hoping that the rest of the week will be uneventful and filled with tomato picking, salsa making, digging the first onions of the season and cleaning up the barn. While I can, if necessary, screw a gate back together or fix wire fence, I'm really hoping to not need those skills while I'm in charge this week!


Bad Eggs

I'm sure everyone has heard about the big egg recall by now.  Even though I have plenty of my own fresh eggs to eat, I still keep up on food related news.  We sold out of eggs quickly last week and I've already had preorders for this week as well.  It's a shame that it takes thousands of people getting sick to get some people to think about how their food is grown or where it comes from.

Most adults realize that advertising lies to us at times to get us to buy a certain product.  Here at the farm, we gladly accept clean used egg cartons (along with canning jars and plastic bags)  both to keep our costs down and to be eco-friendly.  Because of this, I frequently see how commercial egg producers try and paint a picture of themselves as small friendly farms rather than the monstrous factories that they really are.  Locally, the affected brand is Hillandale Farms and I see those cartons all the time, much more frequently than the organic free range advertising ones.   It is noted on the front that they are distributed by farms in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Iowa and when you open the carton there is a large printed American flag along with the words "Thank you for purchasing Hillandale Farms eggs! Just 12 (or 18) eggs to you, but a reputation to us!"  

While that practically screams that they care about you personally,  the AP article in our local paper painted a very different reputation than implied on the package.  550,000,000 eggs recalled.  1,300 people officially ill, with probably many more affected who didn't seek medical treatment.  I've seen estimates that guess for every one case confirmed, as many as 30 others get food poisoning. in this case, that would up the number of sickened people to as many as 36,000.   As if that wasn't bad enough, DeCoster Egg Farms, the other farm involved in the recall, was also fined in 1994 for environmental violations concerning hog waste, being designated a "habitual violator" in 2000.  In 1997, the affiliate farm in Maine was described as being "as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop" by the nation's labor secretary. In 2002, the farm reached a $1.5 million settlement with an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by Mexican women who were sexually harassed, retaliated against, and even raped on the job. The farms have been the subject of multiple raids by immigration, with 51 illegal workers arrested in 2007.  And as recently as June of this year, the farm paid $25,000 in penalties and $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over videotaped instances of animal cruelty.  While the paper didn't go into details on the latter, I found a web article by Maine Public Broadcasting stating the tapes showed "birds crammed into cages with inadequate food and water; birds left untreated for injuries and illnesses and live birds swung by the neck and thrown in the trash."

Surveys consistently show that Americans support small family farms and don't want food that comes from the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO's (aka "factory farms").  I highly doubt there are many customers looking to support any company that mistreats animals, disregards environmental regulations, hires illegal immigrants, rapes them, and exposes employees to highly dangerous conditions.  Yet they are still in business.  Why?  It says to me that our food system is broken.  That people want to care, but don't know how to start changing their food buying habits.  The government doesn't make it easy to find out about these things, thanks in large part to the lobbies of various big agriculture players. These lobbyists are also buying off Congressmen and -women to prevent the passing of harsh laws that would protect consumers and put places like this out of business, all in the name of protecting the American way of free trade and capitalism. For consumers, it's far more convenient to just pick up whatever brand they are carrying at Wal-Mart than take personal responsibility for those workers and birds we'll never meet face to face.  I'm as guilty as anyone else; before I met my husband I didn't grow my own food and thought very little about who did.  It only hits home when people you know and love can get sick or even die from something as routine as eating breakfast!  

The only way, in my opinion, to fight this is to stay small.  If you, as a consumer, find a farm you can support, tell a friend or two.  Write the farm a good review here on LocalHarvest or other similar sites so others will know what these farms are all about.  Be bold and ask questions about where your food comes from, not only to the farmers at the markets, but to the manager at your favorite local eatery.  Businesses aim to give the customers what they want, and if enough of us ask for local and sustainable, we can make a difference.  And for those of you who visit our farm and other small farms like it, you are the difference that allows us to stay in business doing what we love, treating the animals, humans, and environment that we share with love and respect.


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?!?


Surprise Publication

I truly enjoy blogging here, and I get excited when people mention that they read my blog.  Knowing I have "fans" motivates me to post something when I otherwise wouldn't bother.  I am still thrilled to see my name on the LH homepage list of most popular blogs.  That being said, seeing your own words on the printed page is a bit different.  

We subscribe to a number of farm-related organizations, and most send out monthly, bimonthly or quarterly publications.  One such organization is the Purebred Dexter Cattle Association, which sends a quarterly publication out to its members.  We joined over the winter after purchasing our Dexter cow Fiannait, whom I posted about when she arrived last November.  I was pleased to see our names in the spring issue on the list of new members, but the summer edition I received in the mail this week was even more exciting!  Mark and Edlyn, who own Muirsted Farm and have been a wonderful couple to introduce us to these awesome little cows, had read my excited posts about visiting their farm and Finni's arrival.  They had commented on my posts and complimented me on my description of the breed, which I though was pretty neat since I am still such a newcomer to Dexters.  I was unaware that they had submitted them to the PDCA Journal, and I was absolutely stunned to page through my copy over lunch and see my name in bold print on page 27. It turns out my posts Waiting for Wednesday and She's Here had been published as an article!  So thanks to Mark and Edlyn, and thanks to everyone else who reads.  

 Other Dexter-related farm news- we are doubling our herd of Dexter brood cows to two!  We were given the opportunity to borrow Lil, a proven champion Dexter cow, to milk over the summer.  We were also given the option to provide her with a new home, and we're so excited to be able to bring her into the Pleasant Valley family.  She and Finni are both expected to have calves in late spring or early summer of 2011.  Finni was bred by a wonderful Dexter bull named Finnbar, who has been with us for a good portion of the summer.  However, we have to return him and that will be happening before too long.  Although I was more than a bit nervous about hosting a bull, he has been nothing but sweet and gentle and I'll miss seeing him in the pasture outside my kitchen window.  We were very fortunate to be able to host him for a few months and I can't wait to see what a newborn Dexter looks like next year!


Diversity Lesson

Diversity is a word we often hear, frequently it is in relation to race, gender, religion or politics.  That word takes on a whole new meaning here at the farm.  We are a diverse farm in many ways.  We don't rely on a single crop for our income, nor do we raise just one kind of animal.  Our garden is constantly in rotation depending on the season.  Early spring brings peas, rhubarb and lettuce, mid summer has peppers, corn and tomatoes and in late fall  we'll be harvesting pumpkins, winter squash, onions and potatoes. Planting a wide variety of crops (many more than on the short list above!) not only gives us an income throughout a much greater part of the year, it is also a safety net for when weather or pests hit a crop.  For instance, last year, we got virtually no tomatoes due to late blight that arrived fairly early in the season.  While we weren't able to make much of a profit on them, it was fine because we had other things to offer.  I also preserve what I can and am able to offer lots of pickled vegetables or jellies, and I'm having a lot of fun experimenting with making my own vinegar and mustards.  It all helps to make a well-rounded assortment of home-produced goods for our customers!  Another benefit to many varieties of plants is that we nearly always have something blooming, which is great for attracting beneficial insects, especially pollinators.  A colony of wild honeybees is much more likely to take up residence near a field with a variety of plants that blooms from May through October than a monocrop field of acres of potatoes or soybean which is only in bloom for a few weeks out of the whole year.  The bees, butterflies and other insects benefit from us, and we in turn reap the benefits of natural pollination without any input in time or money.  It's a natural cycle that works beautifully. 

Having a variety of animals also contributes to the diversity of our products: we sell pork, beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, eggs to eat and in the spring we can offer fertile hatching eggs, baby geese, ducks and chicks as well.   Right now I have peachicks (baby peacocks) for sale as well as another batch of baby rabbits that will be ready to go in another month or so.   Not only is a variety of animals good for our market, it's good for our fields.  Cows have favorite plants in the pasture, as do horses, but they are not the same ones.  Sheep eat plants down close to the ground while the goats prefer the taller brush and thorns.  When a variety of pasture plants are eaten, none get overgrazed and it reduces the need, as well as the expense, of reseeding the pasture. Still, the pastures are important parts of the farm and do require periodic maintenance.  I had noticed a corner of the pasture near the house had grown up in thistle.  Now goats will eat this, but too much can overtake the pasture so I had every intention of going out and cutting them down to encourage the grass to grow.  But, as so often happens on a farm, you get busy with other tasks and before I knew it the thistles were tall and blooming.  As I went to feed my rabbits one evening, a spot of yellow caught my eye among the purple.  My mother is an avid birdwatcher and I knew from years of seeing her feed them that this little drop of sunshine was a goldfinch, and that their preferred food is thistle seed.  As I looked, three of them were carefully pulling the fluff from the flowers and eating the seeds.  Nature loves diversity and everything, even plants we humans don't fully appreciate on "our" land, have a place and a purpose.  Although I will cut the thistle down, it's nice to know when it reappears somewhere else (and it will!) that even something thorny and unpleasant to the touch can still bring such beauty and grace close by. 




The Lack

Saturday at the stand, we had beets, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow zucchini, pattypan and crookneck squash, bell peppers, jalapeños, sweet banana & inferno banana peppers, Swiss chard, heirloom lettuce, red & white new potatoes and plum tomatoes.  We had fresh herbs- basil, Thai basil, mint, chamomile, chives and cilantro plus 4 kinds of herb seeds for growing at home, dried oregano, chamomile, and coriander.  I have personally canned and offered for sale my secret-recipe pickles in two sizes, extra hot pepper rings, 2 kinds of whole grain mustards (honey & ginger garlic), 3 flavored and one home fermented vinegar (blueberry basil, dried herb, mulled blackberry and champagne) and seven kinds of jelly (mint, hot pepper, black forest, carrot cake, cranberry-peach conserve, gingered pear and oriental rhubarb) and a sweet & hot dipping sauce.  We had free range eggs, pastured pork (bacon, ham, 4 varieties of homemade sausage, roasts, chops, ribs, ham steak & ham hock), whole farm-raised and -processed chickens, and our grass fed beef (ground beef, stew meat, sirloins, T-bones, round steaks, rib steaks, chuck roasts, R.B. roast, rolled rump roast, tip roast).  We also had (but do not make ourselves) six different flavors of raw milk cheese (cheddar, smoked cheddar, jalepeno, dill & bacon, horseradish and goat's milk) from a family-run farm & cheese house in Chambersburg, PA.  As I set up, things looked full and prosperous to me.  I feel that it is an amazing variety for a 50-acre farm worked by hand and by horse, with just 2 employees (Dan and myself- no hired help!) making sure everything gets done.


Imagine my frustrations then, when about 1/4 of our visitors asked variations on the question "Don't you have much of anything today?" Our sweet corn will be ready this coming weekend, as will lots more tomatoes, including the big beefsteaks.  For a quarter of my customers this past weekend, apparently that is all that is worth going to a local farm for.  Some folks were just disappointed that they had to alter the weekend's menu. For others,  "We'll have it next week"  was greeted by "but I want it this week!"  It sounded like a preschooler's tantrum, minus the foot-stomping, and was immediately followed by demands for directions to another farm that might be more cooperative. It was also a slower day, and that made it easy to feel a bit discouraged.  While I realize that as farmers, part of our responsibility to our customers is to help them understand what local and seasonal really mean, not everyone is going to be interested in that lesson, especially if it means they can't have exactly what they want whenever they want it.

 It reminded me of a speech I heard a while back at a forum on dealing with folks in poverty...the speaker addressed "the lack."  Her use of it was basically if someone is poor, they are often seen as lacking anything to contribute, but if you truly look at the person they often have non-monetary things in their favor- creativity, compassion, a good work ethic, etc.  God-given gifts that as humans we often fail to see.  I saw my farm that way this weekend; some of my folks couldn't see the bounty for the lack of corn.  I understand the seasons here and know we did everything in our power to get the corn and tomatoes to ripen (organically!!!) as soon as possible.  But I also know what an amazing meal I had last night using things that were on the table over the weekend- a ham with a glaze made from mulled blackberry vinegar, with sautéed julienned zucchini smothered in cheese and fresh herbs.  Certainly we didn't fell any lack at the table last night, other than a lack of restraint when it came to second helpings!  My beautiful plum tomatoes, which were soundly rejected as being "too meaty" by a customer looking for tomatoes, perfumed my living room as I turned them into sun dried tomatoes in my dehydrator.  So this weekend, as you patronize your favorite farm, try not to be too disappointed if you get there and don't see the product you initially came looking for.  Instead of lamenting the lack, try to celebrate the possibilities!

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