Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Farm to Table

What a weekend! I was so happy to be a part of Pittsburgh's Farm to Table conference, but it sure made for a few long days. I'm fortunate that one of my sisters lives just a few miles from downtown, so I was able to stay with her and have some help setting up Friday morning. My greatest worry about the conference, since this is an entirely new venue for us, was if I was bringing enough stuff. I wanted the table to look full all the way to the end. I also wanted to have a profitable weekend, so part of me wanted to sell out completely!


 Always a family affair- sister Laurel and I finish setting up

 

Friday started out slowly, as many folks had to work, but it did get busier as the day progressed. I had a nice time talking to a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, so I was hopeful that we'd get a mention in Saturday's edition. During the afternoon, more people we in attendance and stopped by. It always makes me smile, about half of the people had no idea where Tionesta was (or how to pronounce it) while the other half knew from coming here to a camp. Many even described in painstaking detail how I could find their weekend getaway! I sold some jams, talked to some lovely people, and got ready for the evening food tasting by setting up an electric roaster and cooking a leg of our pasture raised lamb. By the time 5:00 PM rolled around, the tasting hall smelled like my lamb. I set up my table with a selection of jams & mustards to sample and purchase, along with thin slices of our farm-raised ham. I put on my apron and gloves, got out the cutting board, and began slicing lamb for samples as well. We were told that the tasting was sold out (all 500 tickets!) and I had a line of people around the table pretty much all night. I got lots of fabulous feedback on everything we offered, especially the meats. I was even told our lamb was better tasting than a local farm, also doing the tasting, that is a high-end restaurant supplier and locally well respected around Pittsburgh. That really made me proud of what we do. People also couldn't believe that I cooked both the ham and the lamb in pans with nothing more than some water because they had such great flavor. I let people know that I cooked them as simply as possible because I wanted to showcase the flavor of our meats, not my cooking skills. All in all a great day, but after 12+ hours on my feet (in heeled boots, no less) I was ready to head back to my sister's and relax for the night.

I got back to the conference center Saturday morning with a Post Gazette. After I made sure my table was ready for the masses, I took a quick look for the promised article about Farm to Table. It was really nice, and I couldn't believe how much of it came from my conversation with the reporter. He detailed when I would be speaking, what the topic was, where & how we farm, and even gave a fantastic description of my Carrot Cake Jam! (To read it for yourself, click here:http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11085/1134851-34.stm) Saturday was much busier, and I had a number of folks excitedly ask if this was the jam featured in the paper, and it was very cool to be able to say yes. I even had one lady who told me that she had no intentions on coming to Farm to Table, but changed her mind and came just to get her hands on my jam. Wow! Not surprisingly, I sold out of Carrot Cake Jam. I also sold out of Ginger-Garlic mustard, pickled beets, and the hot and mild pepper rings. By the end of the conference, I didn't have much inventory left of anything, really, but the table looked respectably full and I made far more than I had dared hope.

Saturday was also the day of my big presentation, titled “Heritage Livestock Breeds: What They Are, Why They Matter, and How to Find Them.” I was really impressed that people stopping by the table would get excited when they realized I was the speaker, and they let me know that mine was one of the things they had planned on attending. I was very pleased with the turnout. My Powerpoint full of animal photos loaded without incident, and the speech itself went well. For those of you who missed it, basically I started out by defining a breed of livestock, emphasizing that these were created by people for a specific purpose in a specific place. Heritage breeds have become endangered not because they don't do their jobs well, but because agriculture has changed so dramatically. There simply isn't demand for family milk cows or draft horse power like there was 150 years ago. These breeds are becoming endangered because of habitat loss, and that habitat is small, family farms. To understand what industrial agriculture has become, we looked at a few photos and touched on the basics of beef (feedlot conditions), pork (confinement & gestation crates), dairy (inbreeding of the Holstein breed), chicken (broiler hybrids and heath issues), turkey (Broad breasted whites & their inability to breed), and eggs (confinement in egg cages). I then had photos of the heritage animals that call our farm home. I talked about Barred Rock, Polish, Phoenix, Blue Cochin & Delaware chickens, Toulouse geese, Bourbon Red turkey, Dexter cattle and Belgian draft horses. I talked about the strengths of each breed and why we raise & how we use them on our farm. I mentioned the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the work they do to conserve and protect these animals. I gave reasons why people should care about these animals- the fact that biodiversity means food security, because a larger gene pool will be more resistant to new diseases and climate change. That supporting heritage breeds will mean supporting smaller scale & family farms- these breeds are endangered because they don't do well on industrial levels. Although I'm no nutritional expert, I talked about the benefits of heritage breeds-they are virtually always raised in pasture-based operations, so I used some studies from www.eatwild.com to talk about nutritional benefits. I talked about taste and about the Slow Food Ark of Taste program. I let the folks in attendance know what they could do to help these breeds, first and foremost being supporting them by purchasing the heritage products directly from farmers. That they should feel free to ask for them at restaurants-if enough people do, change will happen. I let my listeners know that they can join groups like the ALBC without being a farmer if they find that saving endangered livestock is a cause they want to support and get involved. For those interested in starting a backyard flock, or other livestock, to consider heritage breeds. I let folks ask questions, and was amazed that they were less about the topic in general and more about our farm. I think people have a real desire to become more connected with the manner in which their food is produced and with the farmers who are producing it, and that is great. 

All dressed up & ready to present!

 

After the speech, it was a short downhill slide to the end of the day. I had a wonderful time, but I was ready to pack up, drive home and trade in my dress pants for jeans, and get back to the spring routines of hatching, caring for seedlings, farm babies, and waiting for the day when we can begin prepping the fields with our team.   

 
 

Ready, Set, Get Busy!

It's getting busy here! First of all, next weekend is the Farm to Table conference, so it's time to put the finishing touches on my presentation about Heritage Livestock breeds and the slideshow full of pictures I have to go along with it. I'm also making sure I have brochures, jams, signs, and everything else I'll need to make my table look nice and full with homemade goodies for sale and information about the farm. I'm so excited to be a part of this, I think as farmers, we really need to do a good job of informing the general public about how food is grown and where it comes from, especially when you are trying to convince them that it truly is better to buy from a family farm. So I'm excited to be the “expert” speaker about Heritage Livestock, I think lots of people would support the efforts to save them and use them on family farms, but most folks just don't know that they exist. I'm hoping to change that, just a little! I'm also really excited about my table in the exhibit hall. Of course, the opportunity to make some extra money is nice, but I'm really looking forward to talking with people about our farm and how & why we do what we do. So if you're in the Pittsburgh area, or already planning on going to the convention center and taking in the event, please stop by and say hello! (For more info & tickets, visit www.farmtotablepa.com)

I was also excited to attend a grazing conference last week. While you might think that there is nothing difficult about animals eating grass in a field, there actually is much more to know than that. What species of grasses or legumes will work best for the animals you want to raise is important. So is management, like how many animals are in a field and how long they are there- anywhere from rotating small pastures every 12 hours to just letting them roam a large area all summer can be done. There are advantages and challenges to each and I was glad I went because I learned so much. It was also really exciting to listen to Dr. Temple Grandin and what she had to say, both about handling animals in a humane way and also about animal welfare issues and how as farms, we need to be sharing what we do with the public, since most folks are generations removed from farms. And she encouraged the farmers in attendance to think about the practices we use- if we wouldn't want the public knowing we handled our animals in a certain manner, shouldn't we be doing something differently?

The past few days have certainly felt like spring is in the air here at the farm. Almost all the snow and ice has melted, leaving the usual muddy mess behind. Inspections of the garden plots revealed ruby red rhubarb poking through the soil, along with herbs- I spotted chives, oregano, sage and lemon balm with new growth. The seedlings I started in flats are also progressing nicely. Each day I take them out to the greenhouse for some sun, then bring them back inside to avoid any cold temperatures overnight. I've also been spending a fair amount of time on egg hunts. I was elated to find a turkey egg on the floor of the turkey house on day this week. Doing a project in the backyard later that evening, I went into the woodshed to get something for Dan, which was good as I found a turkey nest with 6 eggs in it! I would have been more vigilant, but as this is the first year we've raised a breeding flock of turkeys, we weren't entirely sure when they would begin to lay- we had thought it would be a bit later in the spring. So now I'm always keeping an eye out for those crazy birds and where the next stash may be. I've set up a nice, comfy nest box on the floor of their turkey coop, which they happily ignore in favor of the open floor, the back of the greenhouse, the middle of the yard, or (my personal favorite) the one that laid an egg on the couch that sits on the front porch. When you live on a free range farm, egg hunts aren't just for Easter! The pullets are also laying better each day, and I expect to be setting a few of their eggs when we next put eggs in the incubator. Besides the turkey eggs, we're also getting duck eggs, and also eggs from the Phoenix & Cochin hens. I saw the first goose nest of the season as well, but I'll probably leave those eggs alone. Goose eggs need so much humidity, they are tricky to do in the incubator, especially if you're hatching chicken eggs too, which we will be. The geese do a good job of sitting on their eggs, so we'll just let nature take its course.

 
 

Springing Ahead

Did you remember to set your clocks ahead this weekend?  Another welcome sign that spring's coming, but I hate it.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy having more daylight in the evenings, but I hate the out of sync feeling you have for a few days.  It also makes the evening chores weird- this time of year we start about 4:30 PM, which gives us enough time to feed everything as well as take care of any unexpected tasks- think fixing the French drain that iced over and caused water to leak into the barn again or fixing the electric fence because Wilbur the boar hog is trying to get loose.  So the critters are used to eating about 4:30-5:00.  They have their own routines, and instinctively know it's time to eat.  The horses will whinny from inside the barn when they hear footsteps (somehow they can tell human from cow, goat, etc!)  The cows return from the far reaches of the pasture to wait by the barn for their hay.  So for them, we bump chores "back" by an hour after the change, which means that in reality they are eating just when they expect, but it always throws me off for a few days. 

Tomorrow I'm going to DuBois, PA for a grazing conference.  One of the nice things about not working, besides all the wonderful stuff I get to do here, is that I can now go to some of the seminars and workshops to see how other folks farm and how I might improve what we do here.  This grazing workshop is really the first one I'll be going to, and I'm excited.  While grazing may not be the most engaging topic ever, it's so important to what we do.  That being said, I'll admit that my main reason for going is the keynote speaker, Temple Grandin.   For those who've never heard of her, Temple is an autistic woman who also has a doctorate in Animal Science.  She's renown for her ability to understand animals and has been instrumental in reshaping slaughterhouses across the country to make the handling of the animals there more humane and less stressful.  In my "previous life" before farming, I earned a Master's in Social Work and did work with autistic kids.  I also loved animals and one day came across Ms. Grandin's book called Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.  It was fascinating and a wonderful read, even for those with little knowledge of livestock or autism.  It gives a lot of insight into animal intelligence, and even why dogs do what they do.  In the meantime, I've heard hers is such a remarkable story that there's even a movie about her out now!  So I'm really excited to go and listen and learn tomorrow.

These is so much going on here at the farm as well!  We're seeing signs of new growth all over the place.  The rhubarb is pushing tiny crimson buds through the soil, and there are deep purple, fern-like shoots in the horseradish patch.  The herb garden perennials are coming back to life as well- an inspection this weekend revealed new leaves on the sage, oregano, and lemon balm, as well as new shoots of chives, already 2" tall!  Inside, I've got cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and herbs sprouting in the flats I planted, and so I now watch the outdoor temperatures to see when it's safe to set them out in the greenhouse for some good spring sunshine.  The pullets have begun to lay in earnest and we're beginning to save their eggs for hatching.  In fact, this time next week I hope to have chicks hatch!  

But possibly the most exciting news for me is that we have another lamb.  Now, once lambing season kicks off, it's not quite as exciting since you've been watching the woolly bundles of joy leap and play for some time now.  But this one is kind of special.  After the whole Sheepie tragedy I watched my other ewes for signs of anything amiss.  Unfortunately, another one of my young ewes seemed a little off within a week after Sheepie's death.  So we brought her in, caught it early, and seemed to get everything straight.  (At least that's what I thought. Dan wasn't entirely convinced that she was ill, but agreed that we should treat her anyway, as the medicine that treats is also used as a preventative.  Better safe than sorry and all that.)  I didn't blog about it, as it was just too hard emotionally to get so many notes of support, then lose the fight anyway the first time around.  However, this has a happy ending, as this ewe, Lisa, has been fine for a month now, but you never know about the baby.  This morning, before Dan left for work, he let me know that she'd lambed unassisted.  Just a single, but alive and healthy and both mom and baby were doing fine in a lambing jug in the barn.  I'm still out of whack, sleep-wise, and forgot to ask if it was a ewe or ram or if it was any color but white.  I went down to the barn to check on them later and found her to be pretty wary of me, although she did take a treat from me.  So I didn't bother to inspect the little one, as it seemed to be doing just fine, resting in the back corner of the lambing jug, and I hate to interfere with the bonding, especially with the younger ewes. Lisa is Rosa's daughter, and Rosa always seems to throw uniquely colored lambs.  Rosa is black, and has had lambs that were all black, black with white markings (esp. on the face & head), and last year the one I called "Speckles" because he was brown and white speckled all over (I so wanted him to be a ewe, so I could keep it instead of processing it in the fall!).  Lisa herself is black with a touch of white on the face, but Rosa's ewe lambs this year are both pure white. (Still adorable, but I do love the fun colored ones!)  So I was about in shock to see this little one...not white, or black, or even brown, but what seems to be a charcoal gray with white all over, which Dan totally failed to mention.  I'll be interested to see what it looks like when it's been dry for a few days, but really an eye-catching sheep.  And I hope it's a girl, since males don't stay nearly as long on the farm, but we'll just see...   

 
 

Almost There...

March always makes me feel like we've made it through winter's worst. Although I know we'll still get some snowstorms, ice, sleet and all that wintry mix, on other days the snow begins melting and, for the first time in months, we can see the fields instead of just a blanket of white. The days are getting longer, birds are returning from their southern winter hangouts, and it's easy to feel spring coming on.

It's hard though, because as much as I want to dig into the soil and get things underway, I know we aren't safe from frost here until June. Yes, really. Two seasons ago our last frost was June 3. It's a hard balance to strike between getting an early jump on crops and not losing whole fields of plants that can't handle a cold snap. One exciting project this year is returning a greenhouse or two into operational growing space. The plastic has been off of them for several years, and we had considered tearing down the metal frames since they aren't really all that attractive if not in use. One is still slated for being torn down, as it's pretty beat up, but we're excited to have plans to recover another one or two in plastic and put them back into production. This will allow us to put plants out earlier and to have things like tomatoes and peppers earlier in the season. The greenhouse veggies will have all the flavor of our field grown ones, because we still plant them right in the soil, not in pots or hydroponically. The structure is just used to get the soil up to planting temperature earlier, and to keep the plants warm during the inevitable spring cold snaps. Since we'll be able to transplant the seedlings outside earlier, that means starting the seeds earlier too, so I've got trays planted with tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and herbs. The hardest part was resisting the temptation to start everything right now, but we'll hold off on crops, especially the vining ones like squash & pumpkins for a few more weeks, otherwise they will get too big for their pots before we're able to successfully transplant them outdoors. But it is good to have trays full of seeds, I hope to see sprouts very shortly!

Another exciting sign of spring is eggs. Birds don't usually lay eggs in the winter, because it's not a good time to raise chicks. Generations of selective breeding have made chickens lay more eggs over a longer period of the year, but there is always at least a bit of slowdown in the winter. The days are getting noticeably longer, and it's signaling the birds to begin laying in earnest again. We're also beginning to get eggs from our layers which hatched last September. We've gotten eggs from some of the Barred Rock and Delaware hens, and it's certain that we'll soon be seeing blue eggs from our Ameracauna girls, too. While it's wonderful to have plenty of eggs to cook and bake with, this time of year I get most excited about hatching chicks. The quiet hum of the incubator, along with the periodic beeps letting us know the eggs are being turned, have become a sign linked in my mind with the arrival of spring over the past few years. There is nothing like opening the door to the incubator and pulling out a tray of downy chicks where just eggs were the day before. We set eggs for the first time this season yesterday, and we will be hatching our first few babies in about three weeks. We'll be hatching every week after that until sometime in late May, when we'll be collecting eggs to sell at the stand again. I'm also on the lookout for duck eggs, and I have a feeling it won't be long before the large eggs of our Toulouse gees begin appearing around the barnyard as well!   

 
 
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