Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Turkeys & Other Madness

What a week! Our final week of the season has been our busiest by far. This was my first year to process turkeys for sale, and it's a daunting task. While our original plan in the spring was to raise Broad Breasted White birds and process a few Bourbon Reds as well, an error by the hatchery we were dealing with sent us Broad Breasted Bronze birds instead of the white ones we expected. While nearly identical in that both broad breasted varieties are quick growing, have lots of white meat, and are artificial breeds as they cannot reproduce without artificial insemination, the bronze birds are colored much like a wild turkey rather than having all white feathers. It does make for a more attractive pen of live birds, but it's impossible to clean them up as completely when plucking, as some of the colored pigment remains under the skin. It's much like an ink inside the feathers, which made processing a less than ideal job. I personally went over each bird three separate times, and they still didn't clean up as well as I had hoped. Sunday and Monday were completely consumed with turkeys, and yesterday I had a final cleanup before opening for a special Tuesday afternoon for turkey pickup. I simply let our customers know what they were seeing, and they understood that they were buying a farm-raised, hand-processed bird.

Nearly every customer was thrilled with their bird, and I was grateful that they were happy with the sizes available, as we don't have full control over that. We can feed them quality feed all year, but we don't have the option to choose toms or hens when we buy (or hatch) the babies, which greatly affects the final size of the bird. Too many toms and folks who are having dinner for two or four will be disappointed with a bird that's too big, and too many hens may mean you don't have enough super-sized ones to feed a dozen family members. This kind of lack of choice is the greatest issue with marketing to the general public; most folks are used to getting a bird that's exactly 17 pounds if that's what they want. This is because Butterball or other large industrial producers raise literally millions of birds and freeze them prior to Thanksgiving and other holidays. Out of a few million, there's bound to be hundreds of thousands harvested when they reach just the size you want. A small farm like ours may only be willing to hand pluck two or three dozen birds, and with a number that small, it's possible that not a single one is exactly the weight you originally sought, especially if you're picking up a fresh bird processed just a day or two before. However, a farm bird like the ones we raise will not be “enhanced” with a solution of salt water that can be as high as 20% of the weight you pay for, so going by pounds alone may not be the best way to compare our birds.

Surprisingly, the Bourbon Reds, while still having pigmented feathers, cleaned up much nicer and with less work. Dan and I are discussing the option of offering only the Bourbons in future years. While we'll likely have less birds to process next year if we don't buy poults, I can't say I love doing turkeys enough to be upset about it, and I love the idea of using only heritage birds. Although they were a month or so older than the Bronzes, the Bourbons who did not get to join next year's breeding flock dressed out lighter. However, the heritage turkeys got the same rations as the laying hens, while the meat turkeys got a special turkey grower feed that had a much higher protein content. It will be interesting to me to see how the Bourbons will perform next year on the higher, weight-gaining ration.



Our Bourbon Tom


So all the turkeys have been processed and picked up, but the hectic pace won't slow down yet. Today's agenda includes going to the processor and picking up a pig and a cow. I'll need to sort out the frozen cuts of beef for freezer beef orders that will be picked up Saturday. The pig, as usual, will be cut here, so tonight will include spicing the meat that will become sausage and wrapping roasts, chops and ribs. During a normal week, this would be done on Thursday, but Hirsch's will be closed tomorrow. Friday we'll grind and package sausage as usual, and Saturday we'll finish out the year for our farm stand. When the doors close for the year, all the unsold products will need to be sorted. Canned goods & vinegars will keep, but will need to be moved to the pantry or basement where they will be kept from freezing or direct sunlight. Storage vegetables that we'll use to feed ourselves over the winter will get the same treatment. Extra vegetables will be used to supplement the pig's rations. We'll try to condense all the unsold meats into one freezer so we'll be able to unplug the one in the stand ASAP, and that will be our meals for the months to come. Nothing goes to waste!

Oh yes, in the midst of this madness there's a holiday thrown in too! Since we've got so much going on, we won't be traveling for the big meal. I'm cooking dinner for Dan and I plus Dan's brother Matt. While I'm a master of roasting a whole chicken, this will be the first time in my life that I've single-handedly tried to manage a turkey and all the trimmings. It's also a known fact that I'm no baker, but I hope to have a delicious surprise or two for them. I'm excited, and my guys are the least picky eaters ever, so I'm very optimistic that our dinner will be a success. With sustainably raised ingredients and ones I love sharing the table, how could it not be?

From our farm to your family, we wish you safe travels and good times with family, friends, and (sustainable!) food. HAPPY THANKSGIVING!


Grinding Cornmeal

One of this week's projects for me has been making cornmeal.  It's not the bright yellow you may have come to expect because instead of using yellow corn, I use an heirloom variety called Earth Tones Dent that we grow here at the farm.  "Dent" means that it's not a sweet corn to be eaten fresh, but rather an Indian corn type which is not harvested until the kernels have dried out, resulting in a dent at the top of each one when the moisture is gone.  It's an heirloom, open pollinated variety which means that it is not a GMO like the corn used commercially for meal, it's not a hybrid, and the seeds can be saved from year to year.  The ears come in a variety of colors from deep red to a mix of blue and purple.  


Once the dried ears have been picked from the stalks, the husks are removed.  We store the husked ears in onion sacks hung from the ceiling to make sure there is enough airflow so it will keep well until we use it.  To make cornmeal, we start by removing the kernels from the cob.  It's a time consuming job if done by hand, but we were fortunate to find a corn sheller at auction last fall.  It looks like a big red box with a large metal wheel on the outside.  A handle is turned until the wheel is revolving quickly, at which point ears are dropped in one at a time through a slot in the top.  Inside, there are large plates with teeth that revolve which separate the cob from the kernels.  The kernels drop out into a bucket or pan placed under the machine while the cobs are spit out the side.  

After that, I grind using a cast iron grain mill in the kitchen.  While this can also be turned by hand, Dan has put a small electric motor on it which powers the grinder using a belt from the motor to the large wheel.  It can be adjusted from a coarse to a fine grind.  The kernels go into a hopper on top, and come out the bottom.  This has not only the cornmeal, but also the hard outer part of each kernel, so the next step is to sift out the usable meal using a simple hand cranked flour sifter.   Finally, I weigh and package it.  We're happy to have it back in stock just in time for Thanksgiving, and are proud to advertise that our cornmeal is grown here, ground here, and hand sifted!


101 Things to Do With a Tractor

One of the things we're known for, and a point of pride for us, is that we do all our field work and hay making with a team of draft horses.  For us, this is truly what "sustainable" is all about; the horses help us to make the hay in the summer that will sustain them all winter, and we use the manure to naturally enrich the soil of our farm the way nature intended.  They are born here and trained here- our mare Dolly is a 3rd generation Pleasant Valley Farm Belgian!  It's definitely a commitment not taken lightly:  the horses actually require more care in the winter, when a tractor can be parked.  Using horsedrawn equipment can be a challenge to find or to maintain, as some pieces we use are nearly 100 years old and parts aren't readily available.  For us though, it is a labor of love and I wouldn't trade Dixie & Dolly for a John Deere, no matter what its retail value might be.

However, we choose to work horses, and unlike the Amish, aren't bound by any restrictions against changing that choice if we feel like it on any given day.  So this weekend was a bit of a noisy one, as Dan and his brother Matt rented a tractor from the neighboring Builder's Supply store.  I asked Dan and he said the real name of the machine would be a compact escavator, or a compact backhoe would also be acceptable.  I'm not really up on the names of construction equipment, so Dan knew if he didn't tell me otherwise I'd probably end up calling it the "orange diggy thing"  or something like it!

 I'm amazed at the number of people who comment that the work must really be winding down, because on a farm work never really slows, it just changes form.  Right now we're putting our energy to building repair, maintenance,  and winterization.  A few different projects got lumped together for tractor time this weekend.  The scooper on the front of the tractor saved my back and arms from wheeling loads of gravel from the pile by the road to the house.  We're putting a gravel floor in the basement, and I'll be excited to have that space available to use someday soon.  Then the next project was digging a ditch and installing a French drain behind the barn, then filling the ditch with gravel.  One problem that occurs whenever we get heavy rain or a significant snowmelt is that water will come into the barn, leaking between the barnstones that form the foundation and into the horses' stalls. That project went very well, the most difficult part was keeping the cows from sneaking past into the haymow for an all-you-can-eat lunch! The rest of the gravel was spread over the parking lot, so neither we nor our customers will be stepping out of our vehicles into mud puddles anymore!  It was great; 3 projects down and 21 tons of gravel moved with minimal hand work.  

The milk house between the barn and the road recently received a new steel roof, (the goats had put holes in the shingles) and next up is to repair the part of the block wall that has fallen in, so the orange diggy...I mean compact backhoe... was taken around the barn to dig out behind the wall.  The angles of the building itself, the corncrib and barn, and the slope of the hill made it a bit tough, but it will be less hand digging now for that project.  I suggested using it to move some of the mud & muck that has accumulated near the gate by the barn and that went well.  The gate is near what we call the "lower part" of the barn, which is primarily used as a run-in shed where pastured animals can get out of the elements.  The problem is where animals congregate, manure happens.  Since that area is dirt, you tend not to notice how much has ended up  there, decomposing and becoming part of the soil, until it reaches a point where water no longer flows past but rater is retained in all that organic material, creating a terrible mess to trudge through while doing chores.  Not something that was crucial on the to-do list of the farm, but while we had the tool to make it a quick project, it just made sense to make life a little easier.  Also, a little drainage ditch was put in to ease the giant mud puddle that forms on the lane through the barnyard down by the road. To me, it seems like when you get access to some new piece of machinery, especially when you pay for it, you can think of 101 projects you'd like to get done before that time is up!

It was a very productive weekend for us, and I'm really thankful Matt came and helped us out so much while I was waiting on the stand.  It's wonderful to have all these projects  well underway or completely finished.  (Believe me, on a farm with numerous 100+ year old buildings, there are always more things you'd like to do than you ever have time or money for!)  However,  we will be completely content to return the tractor and go back to the real horse-powered life.


Retiring Canned Products

I truly enjoy canning.  I love the process of creating something wonderful from scratch, something that will last for months or longer until I open it up to savor a flavor of something that was plentiful seasons ago.  I love playing around with recipes and trying out new ones.  For years, my mother in law made the stand famous with her pies and baked goods.  While I don't share her talent for baking, nothing is a bigger compliment to me than when someone says they stopped by just for my dill pickles or some carrot cake jam or any one of the products I work so hard to create.

Taking stock of what has been produced over the course of this year, I've made 9 kinds of jelly, 3 mustards, 2 salsas, various vegetable pickles using cucumbers, beets, beans and peppers, 6 vinegars, some assorted stuff like Bruschetta, Thai dipping sauce, prepared horseradish, or peach barbecue sauce, plus an assortment of dried herbs.  Now that the farm stand season is winding down to the final month, it's been on my mind to take stock and see if I want to continue all of them into next year.  

The answer

 Most of my canned products are the result of trying to preserve something I have a bounty of during the growing season.  If I have to buy all the ingredients, it may not make sense for me to expect to make a profit, especially when I factor in my time and now that I have built up a selection of recipes tailored just to what we grow.  (That's why, to the disappointment of some, I don't offer blackberry or elderberry jams...we don't grow those here!)  So that is a consideration.  The next is how time-consuming the process is, as the more involved it is the less time I can spend on the numerous other things I may need to be doing in the course of a day.  Some of the really messy or hard ones never even make it to the stand, as Dan and I will eat them when I know it's not a project I would look forward to doing again.  I had a recipe that made both blueberry butter and a blueberry ice cream sauce.   Both turned out to be delicious, but took forever, only produced a very few jars of each, and by the time I was done, everything in the kitchen was stained some shade of bluish-purple, especially me. Not a winning recipe in my book.  

But the final and most important test is whether they sell.  If my customers just aren't interested in them, it makes absolutely no sense to spend lots of time and materials making more of whatever it is. I know many folks don't want to spend their hard-earned money on something they've never heard of and might not like, so I have offered free samples of something or another all season long.  While I have a pretty good sense of what's being purchased since I work the counter every week, I also kept track of how much I made of each over the year.  If I only made a batch or two and still have most of it left, it's a good candidate for retirement.

So, I know you're curious, and yes, decisions have been made.  Fans of Carrot Cake Jam or Black Forest Preserves (chocolate & cherry flavored), don't worry.  It looks like these will be around a long, long time.  However, if you're a fan of the Gingered Pear Preserves or the Oriental Rhubarb Jam, you may want to stop by before the close of the season since you won't be seeing them in the spring. The pears don't really use much of anything produced here, even if they are tasty and not especially hard.  I can use up my rhubarb in the Orange-Rhubarb jam, which is much more popular.  This is the first time I've discontinued any of the products I make, and it is a little hard.  But I want to have room to find new recipes that I love and hope you will too!  So come by and stock up on your favorites now so you won't have to miss them over the winter, and be sure to check back next year to see what new things have been dreamed up in the meantime!

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