Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Looking Back, Looking Ahead

It's hard to believe 2010 will be history in a few short days.  What a year it has been!  It was exciting to be open for a full season, which was a first for me.  It was a big leap to go from a full time job away from the farm to being here full time, but I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and the elimination of my work position was just a way to show me that I was ready for this new challenge.  It gave me the time to expand the different products I make here, and it's amazing to look back (or in the pantry!) and see the variety of goodies that came from the garden and the kitchen.  Making vinegar was a new adventure, and one that turned out very well.  I really got more comfortable in the kitchen with old and new recipes and have really come to enjoy cooking with cast iron, something that was pretty much foreign to me at this time last year.  I only hope to get a good industrial blender for mustard making in the new year, as I ruined not one, but two this past year trying to blend up experimental new batches that were a bit on the thick side!

We had a nearly ideal growing season for almost everything this year.  While the nights didn't get quite cool enough for the sweet corn and we did get hit by the late blight (thankfully it was at the end of tomato season anyway) the garden was amazing.  It's nearly unbelievable how much food came out of such a small space.   We had heaps of beets, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, rhubarb...the list could go on!  Of course, there is always room for improvement...I'd like to hope I'll do better weeding the garden next year, and find a better way to keep the birds (sparrows and the like, not my birds) from carrying off the blueberry crop.  All in all though, the hardest part of the garden this year will be the same as last, and that is narrowing down all the seeds I'd like to buy to a list we can afford, both financially and with garden space!

There were changes in the livestock, too.  We got out of the goat breeding business but added heritage turkeys.  We doubled our permanent Dexter cow herd to two brood cows.  Peachicks (baby peacocks) hatched here for the first time.  The sows continue to deliver healthy litters of piglets and the sheep had a nice crop of lambs.  I continue to get more comfortable driving the horses and using different machinery.  Running the plastic mulch layer was a fun first this year.

 The meats went well too. Our little farm produced not only a nice variety, but an amazing quantity as well.  We couldn't keep our chickens in stock, which is a great thing! I have really improved my plucking skills, too- practice makes perfect!  Pork continues to be our #1 meat, and folks come looking for the Italian sausages now too, which is neat.  The beef and lamb also sell well, and I think I've gotten to the point where I really understand each cut of meat, how to prepare it, and what cut to recommend if a customer is looking to make a particular recipe.  That was something completely overwhelming to me not that long ago, but since we rely on what we raise for our own groceries, I can say I've learned how to use everything by trial and error in my own kitchen!  We also renovated our meat processing kitchen, putting down a new easy-to-clean floor and repainting.  We also made a huge improvement when Dan installed an industrial sink & spray faucet and built a new, larger meat cutting area.  Those improvements will serve us well for years to come.

So after all this success, how can I possibly hope for more next year?  Because I want to continue to grow, both as a person and as a business.  I'm looking forward to hatching our own little Bourbon Red turkey poults and transitioning to only heritage turkeys for sale at Thanksgiving.  We'll also be butchering a Dexter for beef at some point (Lil's male calf from this year, not one of the girls), and again, we're looking to make a transition towards farm-raised heritage breeds.  Lil and Finni are both expected to have a calf in late spring or early summer, which is also really exciting.  I've never seen a calf born here, and Dan misses it from the days when this was a dairy farm.  And speaking of dairy, we're expecting to transition our household to Dexter milk when this happens, so milkmaid (and possibly amateur cheese artisan!) will be yet another title to add to my job description.  We'll try more heirloom vegetables in the garden this year.  I hope to finally build a new rabbit hutch.  Dan is working on setting up a place to do blacksmithing here.  There are always lots of repairs to be done and although we did lots last year, there is still a long list of things we'd like to see completed in the coming year, like repairing the milkhouse, replacing the steel roof on the upper side of the barn and painting everywhere-house, barn, hog house, etc.  I'm sure some of it will get done and some will be on the list for 2012, we'll just wait and see which is which!

Finally, I have a new challenge/adventure for the coming year.  I would love to incorporate what I do now with the skills I have from college and away-from-farm work.  I'd love to be able to supplement the farm income by going out and speaking about why farms are important, why how your food is grown matters, and all the things that I, as an educated adult, really never thought about or knew anything about before I came to the farm.  I'd like to be not only a speaker, but an advocate for farming.  It's an idea I've tossed around for a while, and I'm really excited to announce that this too is coming to fruition.  In March, I'll be putting on an hour-long presentation about Heritage Livestock breeds and why they matter at the Farm to Table conference in Pittsburgh.   I'll be sure to post all the details when I get them, and I hope some of you will come out to see me there.

A sincere thanks to everyone who has supported our farm over the past year through your patronage or just by following our adventures here online.  We couldn't do what we love without you!  We hope to see you again in 2011, and send our wishes for a healthy and happy New Year to your family! 



Bouncing Baby Bunnies

Although they don't get much attention in this blog, we also raise rabbits here at the farm.  I just like them, and I'll have young rabbits for sale periodically.  I can watch them out my kitchen picture window while I'm cooking or doing dishes.  The pens all have outdoor access, and some are moveable "tractor" pens which make great mowers as I move them across the back yard.  One such tractor is currently right outside my window and houses Honey Bunny, who basically looks like a wild cottontail, and Leo, our tan and white lop-eared breeding male.  He's got a short face that looks like he's got some Lion Head rabbit in him, and he's quite adorable.  Both bunnies are quite tame and docile.  Although that might sound like a weird thing to say about rabbits, I've lost more blood to the bunnies than all the other farm critters combined (including the cats!)  They have legs made for digging and sharp claws, and if they kick and scratch you while you're moving them to a different cage, it's often worse than a cat scratch.

Anyways, Honey and Leo have been in the same pen for about two months, so yes, that means there are babies! Usually I do try to take the buck (or male) out before the blessed event, otherwise there's a good chance the mama will be pregnant again before the litter is weaned.  It's hard on her to not have a rest between pregnancies, but things have been so busy I just let it slide this time.  There are 5 little rabbits who just opened their eyes a few days ago.  When I looked out at the pen yesterday, I saw Leo, Honey, and a small, grey-white baby bunny outside.   The rabbits get outdoors via a ramp, so I have to put up a small piece of wood to keep the babies from falling out- I call it the "bunny baby gate." By the time they are old enough to climb over it, they seem to be smart enough to get back up into the warm, dry enclosed pen.  However, since the baby didn't seem to be distressed, I figured I could finish what I was doing in the kitchen before climbing in the cage to catch it and put up the gate.  There isn't much cuter than a farm baby, and tiny bunnies are so fun to watch!  It seemed to be snuggling up to mama until she went inside.  Now, many people who raise animals of any kind will tell you it's a bad idea to let a breeding male around the babies because no matter what species, the males will harm or kill the little ones.  I'm not denying that this can happen (I've had male rabbits fight until one was severely injured)  but I also think giving an animal the kind of environment it was designed to live in eases this.  Our lambs are born and live on pasture and Rambo the ram looks after his whole flock, babies included.  When we bred goats, I never saw the male harm the little kids, although other females would head-butt them away from their own offspring.  Leo has been in with babies before and I had no worries about him, but I found it truly fascinating to watch him with this little one.  I looked away, and when I next checked, the baby was nowhere to be seen.  Leo appeared to be grooming his toes or something.  On closer inspection, Leo was actually grooming the baby by licking its little head and letting it cuddle into his fur just like a mother would do.  And yes, since the parents look nothing alike, I'm sure it was papa.  When I caught the baby and put it back upstairs, it was Leo who seemed to be guarding the rest of the nest.  

Raising livestock in a more natural way means that they get to interact with each other in ways more meaningful than just through the bars of one cage to the next.  While the disadvantages to this are that yes, sometimes they can and do fight for dominance, and accidents can and will happen, all farm animals are social in nature.  I do try not to treat the animals as human, but when you interact with them you can see that, if you get to know them, they all do have personalities and even emotions(some more strongly than others).  I think an important part of raising animals naturally is allowing them to have a social life, with members of their own kind and even across species.  To me, it's fascinating to watch how these interactions play out, whether it's a bunny family's dynamics, how a mother hen protects her chicks, or how the cat sunning himself reacts to an inquisitive turkey.  I often think I'd be $10,000 richer if I could only capture some of these moments for America's Funniest Home Videos.  But in addition to providing me with constant entertainment, being observant about these things helps me to be a better farmer.  Giving them natural interactions means my animals will be less stressed, and if I use their natural reactions to my advantage when I handle them, it makes life easier for all.  That, and lots of snacks!




The End of Meat Season

The last major farm task for the year is over now.  This weekend we filled our freezer pork orders, and everything is cut, wrapped and frozen,  We're just waiting on the hams & bacons now, as the smoking process takes about a week longer.  Between the whole and half hogs ordered this time, we had 4 total hogs to do over the weekend.  Each time in the past, Dan's father has come up to lend a hand and offer his expertise when we have more than one to do.  However, he lives about 4 hours away and the forecast was for a couple inches of ice topped with a foot or so of snow.   In the interest of safety, we told him to come visit another time and tackled the big project ourselves.  In the past this would have completely overwhelmed me, but since Dan and I have done so many over the course of the season for the stand (although one at a time!)  we pretty much have it down to a two person routine; he cuts and I wrap and label.  I can even tell by looking now the different roasts we offer (shoulder, loin end & Boston butt) whereas a few years ago, I couldn't have told you the different names, much less what they looked like or how to cook them!

It is good to be done with the butchering until next May.   I don't cry over each pig or chicken, as I know why we raise them and know we give them the best life possible.  I do get a little more choked up over my turkeys and cows, as I interact with them for a longer period of time, and to some extent you do get attached.  The cows are here for at least a year usually and are the only meat animals I name. But again, I know why they are here.  Even though we send the pigs to a USDA-inspected facility for slaughter, we still cut them up and make our secret recipe sausages here at the farm.  Pork and poultry are lots of work!  It's a big job to coordinate bulk meat orders and have a variety of cuts available each week at the stand, so it's nice to get a break form that for a bit. I also think that taking a break is good keeps you from taking an animal's life too lightly.  I think the world would be a more humane place, and that consumers would be much less tolerant of factory farming, if everyone who eats meat out there had to raise an animal once in their life and then eat it.  Five years ago, I wouldn't even have considered myself capable of such a thing either, but I see now how pretending that meat just magically appears on a Styrofoam tray in the grocery store meat cooler is not good.    It's not good for the animals, who suffer in horribly crowded conditions, some never seeing the light of day, being force fed antibiotics and chemicals to get them big and tender quickly without regard to the animals' comfort or health. It's not good for us, because we have no idea where our food comes from or who is producing it, and the end result of that is bad food.  We've seen it time and again with the recalls of meat, eggs, and so many other products.  Recalls prompted by people getting sick and even dying just because of what they ate.  I'm proud to be a part of the movement to change that; I won't sell anything I don't feed my own family, and raising healthy animals is good for them and good for us too.

On a completely different (and lighter!) note: I believe I invented a completely new sentence in the English language yesterday.   Finally, I've had time to put up my tree and do some holiday decorating.  Despite the fact that it was about 15 (without considering the wind chill) I was out on the porch hanging up my lights and putting some tinsel around the porch columns.  Some of the animals were still happily free ranging despite the weather, and about half of my Bourbon Red turkeys came over to see what in the world I was doing.  My tinsel is iridescent white with little foil snowmen on it, and as I was finishing winding it around the column, I laughed when I heard myself say:

"Shoo, turkeys! It's tinsel, not turkey food!"



My Personal Cooking Challenge

The first week of December sure has been a snowy one here!  It seems it's been coming down steadily for a week now, with a foot or so on the ground here on the farm and road conditions that make me happy I can stay home instead of travelling.  

Maybe it's the allure of a warm oven, or maybe it's the Christmas spirit, but I've been  baking this week.  While I love to be in the kitchen, cooking and canning and making vinegar and mustards and all kinds of other things, the truth is I am a miserable baker.  I can screw up brownies from a box mix.  I bought a bread machine thinking I could surprise Dan with homemade bread, which he loves, from time to time, but it almost invariably fell and turned into something so rock hard I was afraid even the pigs would have trouble swallowing it!  I don't know exactly why I have so much trouble with this form of cooking, since everything else comes fairly naturally.  Maybe it's because I love creating my own spin on things and rarely follow a recipe without adjusting it a bit?  No, that can't be it...canning is very similar in regard to substitutions and I have no problems there.  Maybe it's because of the living yeasts that make things rise?  Well, as a farmer, I'm so used to living things, raising animals tending plants, and I've even had success making cheese (using living enzymes) and vinegar (using living mother of vinegar) so I'm sure I can learn to get along with my little yeasty friends.  

A mental block?  Probably.  For years have I told myself and others that I can't bake, I don't like to bake, and I won't bake.  Add to that total strangers demanding it of me for the past year and a half, and there is probably something to this idea.  For years, our farm was locally famous for Betty's homemade pies, breads, sticky buns, pumpkin get the picture.  I've been asked, cajoled and have even been given rude demands to take some baking lessons from my mother in law and begin to offer these goodies for public sale again.  Now, we get along really well, and I'm sure she'd be happy to share her recipes with me, but the truth is, I just know if I had to do it weekly I would certainly hate it.  I like to can and enjoy doing it, so that's what I concentrate on making for sale, along with the veggies, meats, chicks, eggs, field work, weeding, stall cleaning, the list of responsibilities around here never ends and I'm hesitant to add anything major onto it!  

However, there is something about a warm kitchen on a cold, snowy winter's day.  In the summer, I run my sauce tomatoes though a food mill and freeze them, saving the squished result in the freezer until right about this time of year to spend hours boiling it down to make my own spaghetti & chili sauces. I took care of that last week.  I have more than enough jellies and pickles to both give as presents for friends and family and to last us through the winter, so I really don't need to be making any more of it at the moment.  I was stuck in the house and low on bread though, and the newest issue of Mother Earth News had a cover story about easy, practically no-knead bread, so I figured I could give it a try.  Plus, using only flour, milk, egg, yeast and salt, it has to be so much healthier than the store bought stuff that contains preservatives and HFCS.  It was...not a total disaster.  Not as fluffy as I'd hoped and a bit on the chewy side, but definitely edible.  Dan loved it.  While I wouldn't call it a huge success, it had a glimmer of hope to it.  For me, part of the enjoyment of the long winters here is to challenge myself to learn something new.  Last year, I really became comfortable cooking with cast iron, and even made some meals by simmering them on the woodstove.  This year I had planned my goal to be to teach myself how to play guitar, but the winter is certainly long enough to allow for more than one project.  So I mixed up another bowl of dough this morning and am letting it rise as I type.  I really love learning skills that allow us to be more self-sufficient and many of them have lots of practical uses on the farm or result in a new product to sell.  But sometimes it's necessary to do something just because you want to, not because you have to or for any financial reason.  So I'm going to continue to see how this goes...they say practice makes perfect! 


How to Use a Whole Cow

Since our last cow processed for beef was at the very end of our season, we had a selection of all the cuts in stock when we closed.  This means we got some of the "good stuff" for ourselves to eat over the winter.  So I treated Dan and myself to some grass fed, farm raised Porterhouse steaks for dinner last night.  For a truly gourmet cut of meat, like grass-fed Porterhouses, I wanted to let the flavor of the beef shine through without overpowering it with sauces or condiments.  Since it's snowing outside, I wasn't in the mood to grill, so I heated up my favorite cast iron skillet and melted plenty of butter.  I caramelized an onion, added another pat of butter and added the steaks.  I topped them with a splash of Worcestershire sauce and let them cook, turning once, until they were cooked to about medium. They were tender, flavorful, and truly didn't need anything else, the flavor was that good.

I've learned so much about what different cuts of meat are by being involved directly in the process.  A Porterhouse is a T-bone steak  with a bit of extra tender meat on the end.  Any Porterhouse could also be cut down to a T-Bone, but only a small percentage of T-bones (around 1/5) can be cut to be Porterhouses.  And there aren't a whole lot of either in a single cow; we have essentially a 1/4 beef in our freezer, and that meant only 1 package (containing 2 steaks) of Porterhouses and 3 or 4 packages of T-bones.   That's a good reason why they are expensive cuts of meat; not only are they tender and delicious, they are relatively rare.  In a whole cow, at the size we process, we expect approximately 4 packages of Porterhouses and maybe a dozen of T-bones. In comparison, we'll get lots more of other cuts- around 125 pounds of lean ground beef or 20 or more each of round steaks and chuck roasts. We have a standard way our beef is processed that results in 5 different cuts of steak, 5 kinds of roasts, as well as ground beef, stew meat, and soup bones.  This is the most efficient way that best utilizes the whole cow into sellable parts for us, without resulting in ground beef that is less than lean.  However, it's not uncommon for us to run out of one cut or another (especially steaks) before we have enough freezer space to process another cow, or before the next cow has reached the size we'd like it to be.  

I've learned so much about how to cook the different cuts, because before I had a freezer full of my own beef, I didn't eat a lot of it, and what I did was limited to a few different cuts.  I didn't cook roasts much at all, and I suppose that's not uncommon, because they are certainly less popular than steaks or ground meat at the stand.  I now know that chuck, R.B., and English roasts are all equally delicious when put in a crock pot all day with some potatoes & onions- a true one-pot meal!  The tip roast is my go-to when I want to make a stir fry, cheese steaks, or fajitas, as it slices thinly and cooks up beautifully with great flavor and without being tough.  Round steaks are a tougher cut of meat on any cow, but ours are great grilled after marinating or slow cooked in a skillet with some liquid.  I don't get to cook the other steaks (rib eye, sirloin, T-bone & Porterhouse) quite as often, as the farmer usually eats the cuts of beef that didn't sell as well (or the turkey with the torn skin, the chicken that didn't pluck right, the "cosmetically challenged" veggies, etc...).  Although at first it was a challenge for me to figure out how to cook cuts of beef I'd never even heard of before, there are simple ways to turn any of them into a great meal.  So if you're shopping at a farm selling cuts you aren't familiar with, don't hesitate to ask your farmer what they are best used for. Or, tell the farmer what dish you're looking to cook, and he or she can suggest the cut that will cook best using that method.  At our farm, roasts are lower priced than the steaks, and with a helpful hint on what to do with a particular cut of meat, you may find that a dinner of humanely raised, grass fed beef (or lamb, or whatever) is more affordable than you thought, and certainly better tasting than feedlot beef!


Winter Farming

Saturday was our final day for the 2010 season.  A sincere thanks to all who stopped by this year, you made it a great one for us!  Although I'll miss the weekly interaction with my customers as well as the income, it's kind of exciting to look forward to my first weekend off since May as well.  Our lovely farm stand is enclosed, but it's not heated, and I was very lucky with the weather this year, only having snow the last day.  Today looks like a winter wonderland out there, and with temperatures expected to stay pretty chilly, it's a good thing that all the jars of goodies and winter squash and other storage veggies are safely in my pantry or basement to keep them from freezing.   (If we  were still open, I would have needed to bring everything to the house anyway, but this way I don't have to lug it all back down there!)

I have heard so many comments lately to the effect that since we're closed for the year we'll finally be able to relax.   Although it's surely not as hectic as the middle of summer with the garden, the stand, canning, and making hay all at the same time, a farm is a busy place 100% of the time.  Now that the pasture has finally worn out for the year, we need to start feeding hay and bringing the horses and cows into the barn.  This means more feeding chores twice daily, not to mention the additional chore of cleaning stalls since the animals are now inside.  Inclement weather means every creature will be spending more time inside voluntarily, so the pig pens and poultry houses will also need to be cleaned more frequently.  There's also the ever-present challenge of making sure all the critters have access to fresh, clean water, which will soon mean breaking up ice and putting out rubber pans to prevent the plastic bell waterers we normally use from freezing and cracking.  And as far as a nice, long winter vacation to someplace warm goes, we just can't do it (at least not together!) unless we have someone who is capable and willing to take care of horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and peafowl twice a day for as long as we're gone.  I love my animals and our lifestyle, but in some ways it is like a marriage- you have to fully commit to being a diversified family farmer and understand it's a year round obligation, not just a fair weather one.

 So besides feeding, watering and stalls, what will I do all winter?  Plenty!  I have pages I'd like to work on to expand our website, and I'll put out a few email newsletters as well.  The seed catalogs have already begun arriving almost daily, and  I'll have to plan what we'll grow.  Planning a market garden is a big job, we have to figure out what did well last year, what didn't that we won't grow again, which new varieties sound promising, which crops we might be able to transition to heirloom varieties, what we didn't grow last year that customers requested and how much seed of each type (that we didn't save ourselves) will need to be purchased.  Although we stick to a few catalogs, I compare prices and varieties and have it all sent out before the groundhog will be looking for his shadow.  Our home is a lovely 100+ year old farmhouse, and winter is usually the only season we have time to spend working on it.  Winterization is always a big chore, and this year we've planned projects upgrading things like insulation and windows.  It's also a good time to paint the interior, sew new curtains, and other small upgrades.  I also hope to spend some time in the workshop doing things like finally building a new hutch for my rabbits.  Perhaps we'll even get to the new bookshelves we've been planning for some time. A million other projects, too!  And like everyone else, the holidays are almost here and we'll want to celebrate by spending time with family.  And of course, I'll be blogging all about it throughout the winter!

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