Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Excited & Overwhelmed

Saturday is the official start to our farm stand season. I'm excited and overwhelmed, as usual.  Excited to see our returning customers, excited to make new friends as well.  I love being able to provide wholesome, responsibly grown food for my neighbors.  Excited to see what this growing season will bring, how new vegetable varieties will fare, what new canning creations will come out of my kitchen.

 But overwhelmed, too...I've been slowly freaking out about the garden.  The things I had planned on having for sale this weekend, by and large, just aren't ready to harvest.  We planted them at what should have been the right time, but chilly temperatures and too much rain means they are taking longer to mature.  Dan says not to worry, that folks will realize it's been a hard year to farm, they won't expect much this first week. But then I remember the lady who asked me if I wasn't hiding just a couple tomatoes behind the counter opening week last year.  Despite the fact that we just set out the transplants Monday, I'm pretty sure that I'll hear that again this week.  And I do see part of my job as a farmer/farm stand manager as educating customers about what is possible when you are growing and eating seasonally.  In education circles, this is not a crisis, just a "teachable moment".  But at least my rhubarb isn't letting me down- if nothing else, I'll have tons of that!

 It's also overwhelming to think that I won't have another free Saturday until December, but that is farm stand life.  I'm just fortunate that I no longer work away from the farm, and that Dan works with his brother, so we can take time during weekdays to do things that most people have to save for the weekends.

 The table won't be bare, either.  I have a nice selection of canned goods- flavored and home fermented vinegars, a variety of jams, mustards, and two barbecue sauces, including a brand-new creation.  When spring hands you rhubarb and you're sick of making jelly, you get creative...and end up with Sweet & Tangy Rhubarb-B-Q Sauce!  I'll have fresh herbs and even a few pots of chives after thinning my own bed. We're heading to Chambersburg today to pick up our raw milk cheese (it's the only thing we sell that we don't make ourselves) from Whispering Brook Cheese Haus.  I'll also be heading to Hirsch's to pick up our beef and our lamb kielbasa on Friday.  We'll have eggs too.  

It's a busy time.  I also hope to can just a few more batches of things, maybe dry some herbs.  The stand needs scrubbed, tables recovered, signs and price tags need to be made.  Maybe weed the garden, definitely mow the grass...which means blogging any more thoughts will need to wait til next week.

We hope to see you at the stand on Saturday! Come visit us between 10:00-2:00, right here at the farm! 


Hunny Bunny to the Rescue

When raising livestock, there is nothing more important than having animals with a strong instinct to care for their young.  A new mother who refuses to let her baby nurse is frustrating and angering, especially when you end up having to bottle feed poor baby.  Those animals are not kept around the farm long, whether it is a goat, sheep, cow or whatever.   

We've had several nests of rabbits born over the past few weeks, and all had seemed to go very well.  Rabbits tend to be a bit more unpredictable, I don't know why, but I've had does that did wonderfully one litter and then terribly the next.  Since the rabbits are more for my own enjoyment than farm income, I tend to be a bit more sentimental about who I cull.  Plus, since the gestation period is only about a month and you end up with 4,6, or even 8 rabbits each time, you're not investing a whole lot in a lost litter compared to, say, a cow who carries for 10 months and has only a single calf.  But the other night, as I did chores, I could tell something had gone wrong with the litter that was in the hollow log in an outdoor run.  It was rainy and cold, and there was a baby bunny outside.  In the past, with a different doe, it meant that the wind had carried much of the mother's fluff she uses to build the nest away and the little blind bunny (it takes a few weeks before they open their eyes) had crawled out looking for warmth.  In that case, I merely had to block the wind, put the baby and the fluff back in the nest, and Scotchie, the mama bunny, took care of the rest. As I investigated, though, the rest of this nest was dead. The whole nest needed to be cleaned away, as it was pretty gross.  This doe had been feeding these for a week prior, so I don't know what happened to make her abandon them.  I picked up the soggy little living one.  Dan thought it was dead too, but I saw that it was moving and making small, pitiful noises.  As I climbed out of the run, I found a second baby from the same litter, in the same cold condition.  It had crawled even farther.  

Now I had a dilemma- what to do with them?  Trying to get the doe to care for these seemed as good as just letting them die at that point.  It would  be less cruel to just put them down, at least it would be quick.  Option #2 would be to try and hand-raise them.  I've tried this before, even going as far as carrying the tiny things to my job (even to a staff meeting 40 miles away!) to feed them regularly, but unlike with the sheep and goats, I was not successful in getting them to eat, and they died anyway.  Losing babies is always hard, it's worse when you're directly responsible for them that way.  So I mentally ruled that out right away.  So I could put them down...or...there are 2 other well-cared for nests here at this point.  One contained babies just a day old, and I hesitated to disturb it more than I had that day by checking for stillborns.  I didn't want to place these little ones in there, who already were long shots at surviving, only to upset another mama and lose another nest.  No, that wouldn't be a good idea.

 The other option was the doe I call Hunny Bunny.  She has a litter of very well fed babies who are about a week older than the orphans.  Hunny is diligent about her nest- removing the fluff during the hot spell we had recently to make sure they don't overheat, putting them all back in the nest box and covering them when the temperatures dip again.  She also doesn't get upset when I handle the babies.  That could work, but at this point the orphans are cold and wet.  So I took them inside, put a dish towel on my bathroom counter, and gently blow-dried them to get them warm quickly.  They began squirming and trying to suckle my hand.  I couldn't just let them die without trying something.  So I went back outside and opened Hunny's pen. I placed these little ones with the rest of the litter, covered the whole group back up, and hoped for the best.  I had no doubt that Hunny would still care for her babies, but I was unsure about the orphans.  Would she notice?  Or care?  I figured the worst that could happen is that she would throw them out of the nest and I would find them dead in the morning.  Or they would be dead in the nest anyway, due to the stress they had just undergone.  Either way, it seemed like a slim chance, but one worth taking.

Yesterday morning, I went to see if they had made it though the night.   If she hadn't fed them, it would be obvious at this point.  At first, all I saw when I moved the fluff was a bunch of sleek, healthy rabbit babies.  No dead ones, and nothing out of the nest either.  But I had to find the two I put in there to make sure.  As I looked, I realized they were right on top, warm and with full bellies.  They had eaten, Hunny had accepted them, if not as her very own, at least as ones she was willing to care for.  It may get a bit tricky when the others open their eyes soon, but for now, all is well.


The tan/grey one in the center is one of the fosters, its grey sibling is just beneath! The "big sibs" seem to be surrounding them and everyone is warm on this rainy morning.


Planting at Last!

Finally, the warm temperatures and sunny skies are making it feel like spring!  This weekend, we were finally able to get the horses harnessed and get the majority of this year's garden plowed.  We'll still need to do lots more, like discing and harrowing, before it's ready to plant, but it sure is nice to see some freshly tilled soil when I look outside.  We did get a few things in the ground as well, in a space tilled with our BCS rototiller.  Again, we planted beets, green onions, radishes, lots of lettuces, carrots and peas.  It's important to plant things like lettuce and radishes every few weeks in order to be able to harvest routinely as the season wears on.

 We also planted some potatoes.  Our potato order from Seed Saver's Exchange arrived, so we wanted to get them into the ground as soon as possible. We're trying a neat new variety this year called Mountain Rose.  These red-skinned potatoes also have swirls of rose through the flesh.  The description in the catalog said they will be a non-waxy potato, great for chips, fries, mashing or a unique looking potato salad.  We were also anticipating more All-Blue potatoes, which we've grown for the past couple of years.  They're small, with a purple-blue skin and flesh.  Tasty potatoes that are great for baking & frying, and also retain their color when boiled.  I had visions of a really patriotic potato salad if I combined the two varieties!  Unfortunately, despite the fact I placed my order months ago, when it came time to ship, they were out of the All Blues.   I'm still trying to locate another source with hopes of growing them yet this year.  But I was excited that Seed Savers shipped another variety of potato (at no charge) to make up for the ones I wouldn't be getting.  So we're growing Nicola potatoes this year.  They are medium-large, white potatoes.  They are said to have a low glycemic level and are waxy and excellent for boiling & salads.   I've yet to be less than amazed at the rich flavors of the wonderful heirloom plants from Seed Saver's Exchange, so I'm looking forward to trying these as well.

We're also looking at moving at least some of the herb garden.  It's been years since the soil has been tilled and properly limed and fertilized.  The weeds are thick and most of what herbs are there need thinned.  So yesterday, as Dan was plowing, I began transplanting some of my chives, thinning them and moving them to their new home.  This morning, they looked great, it didn't seem to faze them one bit.  I have more to thin and move, so I just may put some in pots and offer them for sale when we open.

It's hard to believe, but we'll be open for the season in just three weeks, on May 28!  There is lots to do before then.  One thing we needed to take care of was getting meat processed- we'll be offering our grass fed beef by the pound and also some lamb kielbasa on opening day, so of course we needed to make arrangements for those animals to go to Hirsch's, our meat processor.  We penned up the animals in the barn last night, which ended up being a very good thing.  Matt was around and able to lend an extra hand sorting out the right animals and moving them. The trailer usually comes in the evenings, but this morning I got a call asking if it would be possible to load them this morning instead.  I said yes, it was just great as far as I was concerned to get it done with earlier in the day.  The only thing was that Dan was working an hour away, so it would just be me  and Tom, the driver.   He is almost always the driver who comes to the farm, and is a pro at loading the animals with a minimum of fuss and stress for all involved.  When he got here, I opened the barn doors, spotted as he backed the trailer, and let him know it was just me on the farm today.  He said it would be no problem, and 15 minutes later, the animals were loaded and the trailer was on its way down the road.  

I've gotten used to the idea of loading animals onto the trailer for processing into meat, and I don't get too choked up about it anymore.  A frequently asked question I get is how I can eat something that I raised (and usually named, as well!) The answer is that I know we raised them in a humane way, with all the luxuries of pasture, sun, and wholesome diet that most animals raised for meat don't get.  The animals wouldn't even be born if they didn't have a purpose, so giving them a good existence before they are killed quickly and humanely is nothing to get too upset about.  In fact, just the opposite- not only do the animals live in a way fitting to their nature, but it gives people in our area an option to support something besides the factory farms with their food dollars if they choose to eat meat.  And it tastes so much better!  So, over time, loading has become more of a semi-routine farm chore and less of an emotional roller coaster.  Even though it was unexpected, it did feel good to know I could take care of this chore myself, without Dan.  It wasn't a big deal, everything went well, and the driver seemed comfortable working with just me there in the barn, which to me was a big compliment.  I've noticed that many farm and livestock folks aren't big on giving each other praise.  Often the biggest is that they are happy to work with you, and when they do, you trust each other enough to get the job done safely and quickly, like we did today.


Milking Finni

Last Monday, Dan had to go out of town for work.  He wasn't sure if he'd be gone for the day or for the better part of the week.  While I am very comfortable with all the animals, things always seem to go a bit goofy when I'm here alone.  I admit, I checked outside more than usual just to make sure the horses and cows were inside the pasture fence.  I also knew I had a very pregnant cow in the barn, but since Dan didn't say anything when he did morning chores, I didn't check on her during the day.  At evening chore time, I entered the barn and turned on the lights.  Finni was up, but definitely wet in the back end.  Oh NO! I thought, what if she has trouble, I'm here by myself, she's a first time mom and you never know how that will go, what if she won't take care of the baby,  what if she gets super protective with those horns?!?  So many thoughts went through my head.  Then I looked into the stall.  There was a half-dry calf on the ground already, no help needed.  As I poured water into Finni's empty bucket, the calf jumped to its feet.  I could tell that the calf was strong and by the look of its belly, it had already nursed, so Finni became a mom, and a good one, during the afternoon without any pesky humans around.  I also saw that we have a little heifer, a girl.  I was elated and couldn't wait to tell Dan.  He was just as excited as I, and also relieved that everything went smoothly.  Even though he got home very late that night, he couldn't wait to walk down to the barn and meet our new little girl, who I have named Pixie.


Meet Pixie!


One of the main reasons we got Dexters was to provide milk for ourselves.  We're not interested in becoming a dairy or selling any milk, it's simply too much on top of what we already do, but we have been excited about doing this for ourselves for some time.   We waited a few days, because the milk is actually colostrum for the first three days, and we weren't interested in drinking that, and it's so important for the calf's health that she gets lots of it for her immune system to start up properly.  So, on Thursday, we set out, stainless milk pail in hand, to see how Finni would take this new adventure.  I love Finni, and think it's awesome that she had horns, she just looks like an old-fashioned family cow.  But I've seen wool hanging from the ends of them when the sheep got too close to her feed outside- she knows just how to use them, and they are pointy!  I remembered how Lil kicked when we tried to milk her last year, all I could think was that this time, there would be danger from both ends!  Why did I think a horned milk cow would be such a cool idea?  So we tied Finni up very short, and Dan agreed to try milking her at first, both because he's milked by hand many times and I haven't, and so if anyone got kicked, it would be him, not me. (Who says chivalry is dead?)  My job was to give Finni small amounts of feed to distract her and keep her calm.  The first day, it was a bit hard because she kept knocking her feeder off of the boards and getting upset when it landed out of her reach.  We fixed this the next day by using a rubber pan that sits on the ground.  We've milked nightly since and Finni has never once kicked.  She doesn't even swish her tail and hit Dan with it, which is another common thing cows do when they aren't happy to be milked.  She has been a perfectly cooperative lady so far.  The only downside has been that we aren't getting much milk, but we had not tried separating her from the calf.  We're planning on keeping them separate for a few hours, milking Finni so we get a decent amount, then letting the calf nurse naturally for the rest of the day.  This way, we'll get milk and so will the calf- we won't have to bottle feed her expensive milk replacer.  We're having fun with this new adventure, and I am thrilled that my little cow has taken to supplying us with milk so gently!


Dan & Finni on our first try

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