Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Lost Arts

I don't think it's a big stretch to say that we do many things here at the farm that are rapidly becoming "lost arts".  The most obvious is our choice to depend on draft horses and antique machinery for our field work and hay making.  Raising heirloom plants and heritage livestock is another area we've ventured into.  It's no surprise to me that most people have no idea how to blacksmith, making tools and useful items with hot metal, coal and a hammer, although I think it's really neat that Dan can, and one of these days we'll find some elusive spare time to do it more.  What is surprising to me, however, is how cooking is becoming a lost art as well.

Although I've seen articles touting the resurgence of home canning, and I think that's great, what I see more often at our stand is that people simply don't know how to cook whole, unprocessed foods anymore.  We have beautiful bone-in hams, but many people are so accustomed to deli food that I frequently get requests for a pound of ham.  When I explain that it is a several-pound piece of meat that will need to be cooked thoroughly, plenty will find another item to buy that isn't "so much work."  Folks don't have a clue how to pick out a good squash, or what to do with it when they get it home, so they put it back down on the table. I lose sales by offering only whole chickens and not skinless thighs or breaded, frozen chunks of white meat.  Folks either don't know what to do with a whole bird anymore  or feel that it would be wasteful since there would be leftover food.  How self-reliant can Americans really be these days if we can't put together a meal for ourselves or our families without step-by-step directions on the packaging?

I have to admit though, it wasn't long ago when I considered making a Hamburger Helper meal to be "cooking".  I'm proud of how far I've come, how I can make an entire meal with only what we've raised on the farm, other than a bit of olive oil or a dash of black pepper.  I guess what is surprising to me is that it really isn't that hard if you just give it a try.  Sure, a chicken or ham might take 2 hours to cook, but once you put it in the oven, you really can just go about your usual routine, watching TV or helping the kids with homework, while it cooks. The longer cooking time seems a small price to pay for knowing exactly what is in your meal (ever read the ingredients on packaged convenience food?  It doesn't really tell you what's in there unless you have a degree in chemistry!) not to mention controlling the fats and salts that we all know we eat too much of anyway.

I also find the more I learn about cooking from scratch, the less I waste.  This really isn't much of a surprise, as the virtues of cooking the way our grandmothers or great-grandmothers did valued feeding your family even when food was scarce.  While virtually all my kitchen scraps get fed to another creature on the farm, there are ways to stretch each meal a bit further and I try to master new ones all the time.  Pigs are omnivores and enjoy most everything we do.  I could give my boar, Wilbur,  the scraps of the chicken I made for dinner last night, but it was so good, roasted with a bit of my white wine vinegar and home grown sage and rosemary, that I'm making chicken stock with the whole carcass today. This again, isn't hard, but it's something I haven't really tried before.  After picking off all the meat I could, I put the whole picked over bird into a big pot full of water, added some big slices of onion and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, put a lid on it and turned up the heat.  It's been simmering for an hour and a half now, and all those last little bits of meat are falling off the bones, the liquid is deep golden yellow and it smells like something you can't get enough of on a rainy fall evening.  I imagine I'll strain out the bones soon and then I'll need to decide how it will become dinner.  A hearty stew, or maybe a rice dish, cooking the rice right in that liquid.  I do know it will be good, that it will be healthy, and that it will be worth any effort it took to make sure I respect the chicken that gave its life for our meal by not wasting any more than necessary. 


Happy Fall to All!

Happy fall to everyone!  It has been so busy around here,  I feel as though I've been neglecting my blog.  So here is my attempt to get you caught up with our goings-on!

I've meant to mention that Finnbar has gone home to Muirstead Farm.  He was the Dexter bull we had on loan for the summer.  He is a beautiful example of the Dexter breed; well muscled, docile and compact.  Although I was nervous about having a bull here, as they can be dangerous animals, we had a wonderful experience with him.  I'm always grateful to breeders who value not just production, but temperament as well, and the Muirstead Dexters are joys to work around.  Having Finnbar around for a few months also gave me the confidence that if Dan and I ever expand our little Dexter herd enough to warrant keeping a bull around all year, that with proper care and handling it would be no more stressful than having the other intact males here, like Rambo the sheep or Wilbur the hog.  And speaking of expanding our Dexter herd, we did do just that.  In addition to the calf we'll expect from Finni early next summer, we purchased another cow.  Lil came on loan with Finnbar, so we could have a chance to milk a Dexter this year.  We liked her so much that we chose to purchase her.  She is a former show ring champ and has had quite a few beautiful Dexter babies.  The Muirs have enough of her lineage in the breeding herd they maintain, so they agreed to let us purchase her.  She'll also be due with a calf in late spring or early summer, so we are so very excited!

Today is the first day of fall.  The official first days of summer and winter always seem to arrive a bit after the season starts in my opinion, but fall is right on time.  The leaves are starting to change and the garden is transitioning as well.  Our tomatoes finally succumbed to the blight, but we had a wonderfully productive year anyway.  While we won't have fresh ones at the stand again this year, I have lots of packaged sun-dried tomatoes available and I'm working today on making some more Bruschetta in a Jar with the last of the Romas.   But as I say good-bye to the tomatoes of summer, I'm saying hello to our fall crops.  We've been digging onions and potatoes and last week were able to start picking some winter squash as well.  This week we'll be able to offer acorn, buttercup, butternut and sweet dumpling squash, plus a few pumpkins and a blue hubbard or two.  Later, I'll have some really neat looking gourds (a frost will really bring out their colors) as well as kabocha and giant pink banana squash.  We also tried planting a bit of Bloody Butcher corn, an heirloom deep red corn, this year, so once it dried I'll be excited to try grinding it for cornmeal and see what color we end up with.

As the season goes on, I have more and more neat things I've dried or processed.  Something new we'll have this week is dried sage from the herb garden.  I'm also finishing up processing some peaches into a recipe called zesty peach barbecue sauce.  It's more like a hot peach salsa, so I'm thinking about what name to put on the labels as the jars are bubbling away in the canner.  Either way, it's a favorite here at home, Dan especially loves it with ham so I think ham steaks are going to be dinner tonight! (it's great on chicken or pork chops too.)  Then it's on to making the  Bruschetta and possibly, if the rain lets off, I'll be digging some horseradish to prepare and sell.  I might make some horseradish mustard before the week is up too!

 I'll also be cleaning up the brooder pen in anticipation of our layer chicks which are due to arrive Friday. As the seasons change, I'm always realizing how farming truly is a year-round occupation.  While most of the produce arrives within a fairly small window of time, we're always planning and preparing.  In addition to the hens, we're also deciding what kind of garlic to plant now and what we need to do to keep our fields, buildings and livestock in good shape over the upcoming winter.  It's always a busy time here!


New Hens

On every farm, you have a division of labor according to each person's skills and comfort level.  While either Dan or I can care for any of the animals here, we each have our own chores we do daily.  We never sat down and formally figured this out, it came rather naturally over time.  For instance, Dan usually feeds the pigs.  Not that I can't, but most days it just makes sense because it involves frequent lifting/moving of feed sacks weighing 100 lbs.  I have trouble with 100-pounders and need to empty part of it into a bucket first, while Dan can carry two at a time.  While Dan is feeding the hogs, I'll take care of the chickens.  It's no less important, but the feed comes in 50 pound bags and chickens eat a lot less than hogs, so I don't even have to move those all that often.  As a result, I'm much more in tune with the birds.  I know which breeds are laying best, when we may need to fix a fence or put up a light, and when birds are missing and we need to set up traps for predators.

Fall is here, and the shorter days mean less eggs.  We'll fool mother nature somewhat by putting up a timed light to trick them into thinking the days are still long, but production will slow down.  It's also a good time to think about culling the less productive hens.  Commercial egg factories eliminate any hen going through her first molt, which happens when the hen is about 1.5 years old.  As they are small and wiry by then, they become the chicken in your soup or pot pie, or the "real meat" in your pet's food.  We aren't that draconian, but when they are no longer producing, we can't afford to be running a retirement home for washed up hens, so we take them to a local auction.  Some of our flock was getting as old a 3 years, and while we do hatch our own replacements, it's always wise to have some fresh bloodlines from time to time.  

Normally, I confer with Dan before making most any farm decision, but I decided that now was a great time to order female chicks to be replacement layers.  Why now? A hen doesn't begin to lay eggs until she's 5 or 6 months old, so chicks hatched now will start to lay in March sometime, which is when we begin to really need an increase in egg production.  So I decided what I wanted and called up the hatchery we deal with.  Next week, I'll be getting some little fuzzy chicks.  Some will be mostly coal black and will grow up to be my black and white speckled Barred Rocks.  Some will be yellow, and will grow up to be my favorite birds, Delawares, which are mostly white with a bit of black on their wings and tails.  I don't know what colors to expect the rest of the chicks to be, as they are Ameracaunas. They are known as the "Easter Egg chicken" since they lay blue-green eggs, which I just love.  They have fluffs of feathers that resemble a beard under the beak and on the sides of the face that look like earmuffs (called, not surprisingly, muffs and beard!)  They come in a rainbow of colors as well, I've had jet black girls, brown, white, and multi-hued Ameracaunas.  So I'll look forward to opening that box and meeting them!


Turkeys Behaving Badly

If you've been to the farm recently, you've probably seen our flock of (very) free-range turkeys.  Most of them are Bourbon Reds, but we also have a few black-and-white Royal Palms too.   There is even a big white Broad Breasted turkey, due to a mix-up when we got the poults. (he was supposed to be a Palm, oops!)  While we've tried to pen them up, they jump and fly to roost in the pine trees above the run each night and unfailingly jump down on the free-range side of the fence each morning.  When I walk across the yard to get the paper or the mail each morning, I have a trail of turkeys crossing the road with me.  They were content to just roam the front yard until recently.  Now, I can't go outside without being swarmed by them.  They make friendly little turkey noises and strut in front of me, hoping to impress me enough for and extra helping of food.  I can deal with that, but we're about to clip wings 'cause my birdie buddies are spending too much time near the road.  I don't want any harm to come to them, and they simply don't herd well.  Not to mention I look like a fool, waving my arms, yelling "turkeys get away from the road!"

The other place they love to be is my front porch.  They actually jump up on to the back of the porch swing.  They will raise and lower their turkey tails in order to balance as the swing rocks, which has the unique result of actually pumping the swing, just as you did with your legs when you were a kid.  It would be a neat trick I would encourage but a) everywhere is an OK place to do your business if you're a bird (ewww!) and b) company does not like to be startled by a 15 lb bird jumping up behind them when you're trying to visit. So as you can imagine, I have lots of daily interactions with the turkeys.  I'm so glad that we'll be keeping some as a breeding flock, I would truly miss them if they all were processed for Thanksgiving dinners.  Bourbons & Palms are both considered endangered breeds of livestock, brought to the brink of extinction by the dominance of the Broad Breasted White and the consolidation of turkey raising, which now occurs almost exclusively in factory-farm conditions.  

Last week, I was taking a short break from the oppressive heat of the canning kitchen, relaxing on the cooler front porch with a nice glass of ice water.  Of course, a few of the turkey came up to see what I was doing.  As I was shooing one back to the yard (he was looking at my painted toenails as if it were a bull's-eye begging to be pecked), that really hit me.  These are ENDANGERED, and I have the good fortune to care for them.  Many, many people never get closer to an endangered creature than the glass enclosure of the zoo, yet here I am doing a small part to make sure that these lovely birds don't disappear from the earth forever.  It was a pretty cool moment.   But I still made the birds get back into the yard...endangered or not, I still am not a fan of poop on my porch!


Saving Summer

Although Labor Day weekend is supposed to be summer's last big celebration,  this weekend sure seemed like an introduction to fall instead with rain, cooler temperatures and the first leaves coming down.  We're really glad it didn't stop folks from coming out to see us on Saturday though, as we had a wonderful day at the stand, seeing lots of old friends and making some new ones.   

Although I hate to let any produce go to waste, it seems even more critical now as certain plants are reaching the end of their season.   At one point, I felt inundated by cucumber, and while I pickled what I could, I didn't feel terrible about feeding some to the pigs as well.  Now each is like a final green gem from the garden, and I'll miss their cool crunch for many months once they are done. Cukes are actually my personal favorite garden veggie, I like them more than the ever-popular corn and tomatoes, but once they are gone I fall back on my pickles.  I won't buy a tastless, slimy one coated in wax from the store.  Although it's a long wait between the end of  the season in September to the first new ones in June, there are also so many tasty foods we grow or that I preserve here, it doesn't ever feel like deprivation.  It's more like a decadent overabundance when the season is here.

I really hate to waste tomatoes, they seem especially precious after the blight destroyed almost the entire crop last year.  This year we're selling them by the literal bushel and I'm still looking for ways to preserve the rest.  If you've visited us, you've likely seem the hot and mild varieties of salsa and our sun dried tomatoes for sale.  I have also run quite a few through my food mill and frozen the results.  Late in the year or early next, I'll defrost the squished tomatoes and spend a day making chili and spaghetti sauces for myself.  I'll enjoy the all-day process of boiling it down when it's warming the house from winter's cold.   But for now, I still have tomatoes, so I'm always looking for something different, and something that doesn't contain hours of processing...a summer recipe!  Last week, I found one for Bruschetta-in-a-Jar.  Chop the tomatoes, pack in hot jars, and fill with a boiling mixture of wine, vinegar and Italian spices.  Easy and delicious, but not one you could really get a taste of before processing.  One of the labels was rather lumpy-looking, so I told Dan Saturday morning he could have it.  He asked what exactly it was supposed to be.  I replied that he should imagine spreading it over warm garlic bread, possibly sprinkled with cheese.  He popped the jar open and sampled it with a tortilla chip I had set out for salsa samples.  I warned him as I had made it just days before, it may not have had time to fully incorporate the flavors.  He argued that it couldn't possibly get much better and when he offered me a taste of the finished project, I had to agree.  I'll be making lots more of it this week!  Along with another effort to let no tomato go to waste, I'll have lots of other projects as well.  The hot peppers will either be made into hot pepper rings or a batch of salsa.  I'll be making dilly beans and pickled beets.  Also, the dehydrator will be running full of herbs, tomatoes or anything else that seems like a good candidate.  And who knows, I may find another wonderful recipe during the course of the week like the Bruschetta.  While it can be overwhelming to try to put up all the food the garden produces, it's a wonderful challenge and one that's filled with nearly limitless possibilities of flavors and colors! 

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