Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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The Hard Part

When I was five years old, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I believe that was my first serious thought about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had an idea that playing with puppies & kitties all day would be the best job ever. As I got a bit older, I realized that vets deal far more often with sick animals, involving blood & guts & surgery and that not every animal was going to get better; some would die. That seemed too much to bear, so I moved onto something else (at 6 I wanted to be a paleontologist, since by definition studying dinosaurs meant they couldn't die on you!) It's a bit ironic now that I do spend a good bit of time as an amateur veterinarian, now that I am a “grown up.”

I have immense respect for vets, but find that we do most of our own care here. The nearest office is 20 or so miles away, and farm calls are not cheap, so it's pretty much a financial necessity to have the knowledge to be able to do your own worming, vaccinations, foot care and other routine stuff. The supplies for all this kind of medical care and more is available at our local farm supply stores. It's harder when it comes to animals actually getting sick, but again, if you can pinpoint the cause, you can generally get the products to do the care yourself.  

A few days ago, Dan noticed a sheep all by itself in the pasture. He went to check on it, thinking maybe it had somehow got tangled in the fence or something, but it was just standing there. He chased her (very slowly) back to the rest of the flock in the barnyard. When I went to do evening chores, I looked for her and found her by the creek, staring off into space and not really responding to anything going on, even me approaching her. She's normally shy and flighty, so this was a sure sign that something was very wrong. After finishing up the birds' care for the evening, I went inside and consulted the various veterinary manuals- all seemed to point to the same thing, ketosis, or twin-lamb disease. This happens when a ewe is carrying twins or triplets and doesn't get enough carbs in her diet to support her rapidly growing babies and her own body. We feed a bit of grain to the sheep this time of year for that reason, but the sick one is shy and easily chased off by some of the older ewes. This is her second pregnancy, and although she had a single lamb last year it's very possible she's carrying two for the first time. This disorder also seems to be set off in some instances by changes in feeding schedule (nope) moving the flock (nope), or sudden changes in weather (a big yes- the day she got sick was COLD, with highs only in the teens and a sub-zero wind chill. It would drop to -18 that night.) Although I would have had a hard time describing her symptoms, descriptive words from the manuals included “dopey” and “generally slow” which pretty much hit the nail on the head. Symptoms can quickly proceed to blindness, paralysis, coma and death. As many as 80% of affected animals don't survive, according to one of the books.

Dan and I moved her into the small pen in the barn. Although she might not make it, leaving her outside would surely mean death. Since I didn't have any propylene glycol, the recommended treatment, I used the old-time trick of feeding her molasses. I also made sure to try and get her to drink, since dehydration will worsen the situation. Not being one of the tame favorites of the flock, she didn't have a name, so I started greeting her as "Sheepie" when I entered the pen.  In the morning I found a store carrying the glycol, got it, and began her on the dosage proscribed in the book.  Since then, she's been pretty touch and go. I still am not confidant she'll live, which is the hardest part. (I've debated for days about blogging this, as it's so likely to have an unhappy ending.) I make Dan go into the barn in the morning and then tell me that she's alive before I go inside with fresh water and her medicine- in these kind of situations they always seem to lose their fight during the night. When she seems to be going downhill, it can be hard for me not to cry while I'm trying to get some nourishment into her. When she seems marginally better, it's hard not to get my hopes up too high. I'm never sure what is harder, losing something you've been nursing for days or a week, or finding something happened suddenly, like when raccoons get into the coop and kill most of your favorite hens in one night. I tend to take it all personally, as though I am solely responsible for the outcome, even when it's something I couldn't have prevented or the advice I find states that treatment is frequently unsuccessful even under the best of circumstances. Dan reminds me that their lives are ultimately out of our hands, and all we can do is our best.



** It took me a couple of days to publish this, so I thought I'd include an update on Sheepie.  She's still alive and in the pen in the barn.  She's more active every day, including running from me this morning.  (She never was very tame, and now she associates me with an unpleasant attempt to tube feed her.  I doubt she'll be eating snacks from my hand any time soon.)  She's eating hay and drinking water and appears to be regaining strength rapidly at this point.  She does still have some wobbliness; it remains to be seen if this too will disappear or if it's some sort of permanent nerve damage.  Also up in the air is the fate of the lambs.  Will she end up aborting?  Stillborns? Will they be alive, but somehow damaged?  Or happy, healthy lambs?  Only time will tell.  I'm also watching the rest of the ewes like a hawk, I don't want to go through this again. 


Taking Care of Business

Winter has definitely set in for the season here. We've had quite a few inches of snow fall since the beginning of the year, and today's temperatures are only in the teens, with a wind chill closer to zero. I know it's cold out when the rabbits prefer to stay in the hutch instead of spending a good part of the day in the outdoor run (which I can see from the warmth of my kitchen counter!) While we do have plenty of animal chores to keep us busy, especially breaking up ice to insure everything has access to water, it is probably the slowest time of the year on the farm. No butchering in sight, months to go until field prep begins, no garden bounty to preserve, and I've already finished putting together the seed orders for our 2011 garden. (I'm already watching my mailbox for them to arrive!)

So, what do we do with all this free time? All the things we've put off until we have time for “winter projects”! I've done some interior painting around the house, and plan on repainting our roadside signs in the next week or two. Dan repaired the back door to the produce shed and did some winterizing by putting up batten strips in the rear, making it more weatherproof for the feed and other things that always end up getting stored there during the months we're not open. But, depending on the weather, not every day can be spent outdoors. I spend a lot of time on the business end of things now, meaning lots of computer time. The start of the new year means I'm starting out new records for everything from feed records to finances, and I'm still mastering the art of spreadsheets. We're also reviewing when to expect babies, and how soon we need to adjust where the moms-to-be are being kept and how they are fed. (We will be expecting our 2011 crop of farm babies to start arriving as early as next month, with lambs, rabbits and piglets coming due!) We will likely begin to hatch chicks in March, so I'm already planning when and how I'll separate the breeding flocks. Also, since I do all the advertising, it's a good time to review any online listings of the farm for accuracy and work on any new pages I'd like to get online on the website before spring. Other yearly business tasks include reviewing our business cards and brochures, seeing if changes need to be made, and deciding if/when to have more printed. It's also the time of year when association memberships are up for renewal, so it's a good time to look critically at the organizations your business partners with, both to determine if it makes good financial sense to be a part of them, but also to make sure the values you hold are the same as what the organization is promoting. There is so much to running a farm; you need to stay on top of all the things a regular business does, like finances and inventory and the like, but also so much more since you're in the business of raising living things. It seems as though I've fallen behind when I'm not actively planning 6 or 12 months down the road. While that may seem like an exaggeration, it takes 18-24 months for a cow to reach butchering weight (plus nearly a year gestation if you're breeding them), or 6-7 months before a chicken will lay a single egg. This all has to be taken into account well before you plan on offering a product, be it spaghetti squash or homemade sausage. So taking a month or more to review what works, what hasn't, and planning what needs to be done, how you intend to do it, and what tools, seeds, materials or livestock you'll need is a necessary part of the process.

It's also time to spend on ourselves. Dan has been excited to make progress in the forge, and I love to help him. It's fascinating to watch, in my opinion! I've also been catching up on some reading and working on research for a presentation I'll be doing in March. I also find winter to be a wonderful time to spend in the kitchen. I love being around a warm stove on a cold winter's day, so I've been pursuing my goal of making a decent loaf of bread, as well as slow simmered soups and other goodies.



Pleasant Valley...Forge?

I've mentioned many times how so little goes to waste on a small farm like ours- manure becomes fertilizer for the garden, garden leftovers are canned, and the scraps from that process supplement our pig's food. The same is true for lots of stuff here- non-organic “stuff”, that is. The original produce shed was a humble 8' x 12' building. Sales quickly outgrew it, but when our current stand was built, the old one didn't just go away. It made a very serviceable garden shed for a number of seasons, housing tomato stakes, irrigation equipment, hoes and more. Last year, we brought it closer to the house, did some repairs and maintenance, and our flock of Delaware chickens happily called it home. This year, we're breeding fewer varieties of chickens and we don't need the extra coop, but unused space rarely stays that way for long. This little building is now a fully functional forge, which is also a great way to recycle scrap metal from around the farm.

Dan isn't the first farm resident to try smithing, nor is this the first forge here. In fact, the original forge is still here. It's located in the workshop building, which is the oldest building on the farm. (It's older than the barn, which was built in 1894.) It was once a busy place, shoeing teams of horses and mules on their way to the town of Nebraska just over the hill. (The town is long gone, a boomtown that had mostly disappeared before being flooded under what is now Tionesta Lake.) The original stone forge is still there in the center of the shop, but the chimney leans at a pretty significant angle as it passes through the second story. While it would be really neat to use it again, the chances of the building catching fire are just too high, and we decided to err on the side of not burning it to the ground! So the anvil, the hand-cranked blower and other tools such as hammers, punches, chisels and tongs have been moved to the new, smaller forge. The anvil & blower are old, probably 100+ years, and have been on the farm much of that time. At least a pair or two of the tongs were likely made here in the old forge, as blacksmiths routinely make their own tools. The smaller workshop does have the advantage of being quite warm and toasty in this winter cold, as the heat from the coal fire necessary to heat the metal up soon warms the building as well. Dan has already made a few projects for the house, including a poker for the woodstove and decorative hooks for my cast iron skillets to hang from in the kitchen. Although I'm not much help besides cranking the blower to help the metal heat faster, it's fascinating for me to watch an ordinary piece of scrap metal be turned into something useful and beautiful as well. It's a wonderful way to pass some of the winter away!


Planning the 2011 Garden

One of the hardest things for me to get used to on the farm is how far you need to plan ahead to be successful. In college, while studying for my Master's degree, I got to be a horrible procrastinator; I can remember getting up at 5 AM to write a paper due at 9 AM, one that I'd had weeks to work on. Not just once, but often. As long as it got me an A, it didn't really matter. Now, what I do (or don't do) today can have consequences not just tomorrow, but 6 months or an entire year down the road! Although I do try to stay on top of things, one of my resolutions this year is to make sure I keep better records, it's the only way to know what works and what doesn't.

One of my major tasks so far this year has been to plan our seed orders, which will set the stage for what we grow and sell all year. Not just what we sell in May, but right up through November, and it will decide what I'll be eating this time next year, as we're big on using storage vegetables or things I've canned or frozen to feed ourselves through the winter. Truthfully, I probably would have gotten started on this even before Christmas, but my favorite catalog, from Seed Saver's Exchange, didn't get here until late last week. The conventional thinking is that farmers just do what they do, guided by old time wisdom or maybe this year's farmer's almanac. More than once, I've been asked why I'm farming when I have so much schooling, the insinuation being that I'm wasting my intelligence by doing something any hick could do.  In reality, it takes a lot of planning, record keeping, and the like to be successful.  Be it plants or animals, you have to know what does well on your particular farm to be able to make a living out of it. Growing is more than throwing some seeds in the ground and waiting to harvest. I do have very good records of the seeds we've ordered, variety, amount and all, from our past growing seasons, but the truth is, I make it a huge project not only because it's important, but because it's fun. I ogle seed catalogs the way some girls pour over jewelry ads.

While I do stick to many varieties that we've had success with, and start out our plan with those, each year I add new ones. Some will not work out, but others will make it into our garden for years to come, and the only way to find out is to take a chance on something new. I love the idea of helping to resurrect heirloom varieties instead of planting the newest hybrids, and that's one of the reasons I love Seed Saver's Exchange. Not only can I help to make the farm more self sufficient and sustainable by saving seeds from a plant we want to grow again the following year, but these heirlooms have a history. One I took a chance on a few seasons ago was a lettuce called Grandpa Admire's. It surpassed anything either I or Dan had grown here before. Not only is it lovely to look at, being green tinged with red, but it also has great flavor and goes a long time without getting bitter, a real plus for summer gardening. Also, it's a variety that has been planted and saved and replanted since the Civil War. Not only delicious, but a real piece of American history right on your plate!

Then there are others that are less than successful. For two years, I've longed to taste a melon called Delice de la Table, a very rare French heirloom. The rarity, the beautiful picture of the fruit, and the description made me give it a try after it failed to produce a single melon the first year. It was a tough growing season, though, so I gave it another try. Last season was very favorable, but again I got nothing. Not a single melon from multiple planted seeds. Part of me hates to give up, but it's wasted money and, perhaps even more valuable, wasted garden real estate. But I do think a nice French cantaloupe would be wonderful to offer for sale...luckily for me there are more options! My master list currently has two options- one that says it is the easiest to grow and prolific, but prone to cracking open when ripe; the other is said to be the “most divine and flavorful melon in the world.” I've yet to decide which one (or both?!?) will grace our garden this season. These are the kind of difficult decisions I love to have.

Not every new plant is an heirloom experiment, though. Will anyone in our area buy okra? Hmm, probably not, we're too far north. What about baby corn, like you use in Chinese stir-fries? It's on the list for me to consider, along with a couple exotic sweet corns- one bright red, the other steely blue. I'll also consider things my customers asked for last year that we didn't offer. Orange Hubbard squash? Yellow beets? So many choices. Also, our all-time favorite sweet corn, Seneca Dancer, has been discontinued, so I'll ponder its replacement carefully, since that is such an important crop for a farm stand. In addition to names, descriptions and histories, there are also other considerations- to order seed or wait to buy started plants, days to harvest, tolerance to heat, cold, plant diseases. And that's before I even get into comparing prices. While some places offer things very cheaply, if you're not familiar with that company, you're also taking a chance on the quality of the seed they ship. It's not a bargain if only half the seeds germinate as compared to the slightly more expensive version from a company with quality seed that you usually deal with. So it's a job worth spending a good bit of time over, and in the dead of winter, there is something uplifting about staring at the pictures of ripe red tomatoes, golden ears of corn, and colorful peppers that make spring seem that much closer.  

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