Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Another busy week here on the farm! Last week was full of excitement. As I began the early Saturday garden rounds, I heard a soft noise coming from the turkey nest by the old greenhouse. I knew that the Royal Palm hen had been sitting on a few eggs, but since she was nestled on top of some of the wire onion drying racks and not a hard surface, I wasn't holding out much hope that she'd actually hatch anything. However, this was the last nest standing, because we've had some trouble with raccoons and such lately, having lost a couple of hens and the eggs in the turkey nests were raided as well. But as I was getting ready to cut lettuce for sale at the stand, I saw that there was a fuzzy poult with the Palm hen. She ended up hatching 2 of the 3 eggs she was sitting on! While turkeys would normally sit on a larger clutch than that, because of the location, I took most of the eggs and put them in the incubator.
I was somewhat conflicted this spring, because I wanted to have lots of turkey poults, both to sell and to raise for our own Thanksgiving offerings, but I also wanted to see if the hens have enough mothering instinct to actually rear their own young. With poultry, eggs are taken away to incubators, and breeding stock is selected for characteristics such as egg production, weight gain, feather coloration, etc. Mothering instinct is actually selected against in many cases, because if the hen defends her nest from humans, then it's harder to collect the eggs to sell for consumption. Most chickens lay an egg, but never think to do anything further than that. This is not as true with the heritage breeds, as we have seen Phoenix and Cochin hens successfully hatch chicks, which is just the first step. We had a Pekin duck hatch out a few ducklings this spring too. While that was exciting, she just kept on at her normal pace, wandering all around the farm with the drakes, and in a few days the ducklings were gone. She just didn't call to them and keep them close and warm, and when left to sort of fend for themselves it was not a success. But our turkey is doing very well. It's been 10 days now, and both poults are growing and thriving. She stays mostly in the backyard, away from the other birds, and calls to the little ones to keep them close as they forage around. At night or during a rain shower, she hunkers down and collects them between her wing and body, keeping them warm and dry. To me, it's amazing to watch. She was just a poult herself last spring, one raised in a brooder pen with a heat lamp instead of a mother. She has never seen this modeled by other birds, yet she knows.
Just a day after Father's Day, Pixie's father returned to the farm as well. The Muirs of Muirstead farm were willing to lend us one of their bulls, Finnbar, again this year. This is another instance where we do things the all natural way. Many farms that breed cattle never have a bull set foot on the premises, instead relying on Artificial Insemination to produce calves. The advantages to using AI are that you don't have to deal with a bull, and they can be very dangerous to work around. You can also breed your cow to the best bull, basing your decision on any quality you are looking for- milk production, breed show champion, weigh gain for beef, etc. And doing it this way means one bull can produce many, many more calves than he would be able to otherwise. As long as the semen is properly stored, it can last for years so you can even breed to a bull that's dead! The downside to this is that everyone wants to breed to the best, and by doing so the breed as a whole can tend to become very inbred. The Holstein cow is the worst example of this, as 2 bulls born in the 1960's actually make up 30% of the genetics found in the breed today. When that happens, it means that if that bloodline is particularly sensitive to a new parasite or disease, it could go a long way towards wiping out the breed. Inbreeding can also have a lot of other nasty side effects, like genetic deformities, low reproductive rates and shorter lifespans.
Beef cattle to some extent rely less on AI. Heritage breeds are also more likely to use the tried and true method of turning the bull out to pasture with the cows and letting nature take its course. We were thrilled to have Finnbar come again, not only is Pixie a beautiful baby, but he was a pleasure to have around. The biggest concern last year was that a bull would be nasty, and that we would have to be watching over our shoulder as we went about our routines in the barnyard. This was not the case at all! Finnbar isn't aggressive, and while I always keep my eye on the livestock, I don't feel the need to take any more precautions around him than I do the other males, like Rambo the sheep. And it seems Finnbar had a good time here last year as well. As the trailer was backing up, he had his head up and ears forward in anticipation of getting out. When the door was opened, he calmly stepped off and began heading out to the herd. Our Finni was just coming out of heat, so he was a bit more interested in her, but it just amazed me how calm everyone was- no chasing or headbutting, just some sniffing and then back to grazing. He settled in almost instantly. So he will be with us for a couple of summer months before returning to his farm, and we will anxiously await more lovely Dexter babies in the spring!
What a good looking bull!
Posted by Emily
@ 09:44 AM EDT
I've always been an avid reader. Dan is too, an so we subscribe to a number of magazines. The latest National Geographic came in the mail on Saturday. I love reading about the exotic places, cultures and animals inside, but in this issue, one of the stories was very close to home. On the cover, I spotted "How Heirloom Seeds Can Feed The World". The actual article is entitled "Food Ark". It begins by discussing Seed Saver's Exchange in Iowa, where we buy many of our garden seeds. The two-page photo spread feature of uncommon chickens featured a dozen breeds of chickens, and out of the hundreds that could have been used, two featured (Orpingtons & Phoenixes) have been hatched in our incubator here at the farm. The selection of potatoes, showcasing unusually colored and shaped tubers, included the blue that I enjoy growing. Of course I read that article first, and found that it introduced quite a few concepts that are familiar to me but not for many Americans: heirloom seeds and heritage livestock breeds, and the fact that they are in real danger of extinction; why reliance on a few high-yield varieties is dangerous; and that knowledge of traditional farming techniques is also slipping away as farming, like everything else, becomes increasingly mechanized. While mud huts in Ethiopia are much more in line with the expectations of this publication, much of what they said could have easily been written here too. Although I know I lead a far from mainstream life, I never really though of it as exotic enough for National Geographic!
Of course, I knew all about he concepts they were introducing, and to do more than touch on each of them was beyond the scope of the article. But I was really excited to see it because it reaches out to such a wide scope of people. Plenty of information is out there, but if you're not keeping up on agricultural or food-centric publications and websites, this might be totally new to you. An article in National Geographic certainly reaches beyond those niches. Hopefully, it will get even just a few more folks to really question where their food comes from, how it is grown, and maybe even inspire them to stop by a farm sometime.
It was also neat to see something I do featured so prominently in a national publication. Not only are we dedicated to growing, selling, eating and preserving heirloom seeds and heritage breeds, we're doing our best to conserve farming knowledge, too. Using the horses in the fields isn't some sort of gimmick, it something we truly believe in doing. To many, it seems like the hard way, and it does take more time to do many tasks, as horses need to rest, unlike a diesel engine. But to be on one of the horse drawn pieces of equipment, and many of them are antiques, with the lines in your hand, and the horses moving on your command is something powerful, something amazing. I know it's sustainable. I know it's healthy for the farm, the environment, the food and the eaters of that food. And in a very real way, I feel like I'm touching history. And by touching it, I'm keeping it alive, bringing it forward through time to share with my customers, and here online with the world. That is something really large, and surprisingly easy to lose when you're so focused on the day-to-day tasks at hand.
Posted by Emily
@ 02:32 PM EDT
If you live on a small farm, it's pretty much guaranteed that you'll be asked to do tours from time to time. People don't have personal connections to how their food is grown anymore, and lots of people don't have connections to animals either, not even pets. So it's no wonder that a farm like ours is a source of interest. In my previous life I was in adult education, and I do think it's important to give people of all ages the opportunity to learn new things, and as farmers I believe we have a duty to engage those interested in learning more if we want to succeed both as businesses and as advocates for knowing and supporting where your food comes from. It's really impossible to tell people that they need to take personal responsibility for knowing what they are putting into their bodies, but not allow anyone to ever look around our own farms. That being said (and as I talked about in my last entry) my farm is also my home, and I'm not going to indulge everyone who just shows up and wants to walk around, I couldn't or I wouldn't get my farming done! I am however, willing to coordinate with groups, especially for educational purposes, as long as we can get it set up far enough ahead of time.
So yesterday, I was excited to host a group of youth from Clarion University's Educational Talent Search program. This is a program open to kids in grades 7-12, as a way to tour different places and give them some new perspectives on what careers are out there, perhaps introducing the kids to something they never thought of as a viable occupation before. I had talked with their advisor and had set up that they would arrive in the morning, we would tour the barn and the animals, they would go to nearby Tionesta Lake for their bagged lunch (call me selfish, but I just wasn't willing to have 20-30 kids tromping through my house to use the single bathroom, so that was a nice alternative!) and when they returned we would take a look at the garden, talk a bit about the plants, they would plant a seed to take home, and we would have time for a question and answer session about anything they had seen before the bus pulled away. The weather was perfect, not too hot, and sunny, and everything else went almost flawlessly. Almost, in that the horses refused to come into the barn in the morning before the kids arrived, except Sara. So I was able to let the kids pet her before turning her back out with the other (misbehaving) equines. The cows were almost too friendly, sneaking into the open barn while we looked at the pigs, but the kids got to see them up close as well. Even the rabbits seemed charmed by the kids, and Scotchie patiently ate blades of grass out of as many hands as cared to feed her. The boys in particular seemed to enjoy looking at the horse drawn equipment. The kids were great listeners and stayed together as a group, heeding my requests to watch where they stepped in the garden. The kids all had the option of planting something to take home with them; basil, sage, chive or Swiss Chard, and I had enough that everyone was able to plant their first choice. As we got to the Q & A, I got some thoughtful questions, like "how do you water your garden?" and "Do deer eat your plants?" to some unexpected ones- "Are there any palomino colored cows besides Guernseys?" or "Do you trim the turkeys' beards?" We talked a bit about the different careers a small farm like this encompasses- from horticulture to animal husbandry, to being an entrepreneur or a butcher or advertising & web design.
We probably would have come up with many more, but some of the kids noticed that the big horses had come out of the far reaches of the pasture and were under the trees by the barn. I was able to put all the horses in their stalls, so we ended the day by seeing all the horses up close, and all were gracious about letting many hands pet them, even Ponyboy, who can be quite skittish (even with Dan and I) at times. The most popular question by far was whether it was possible to ride our impressively large Belgians, which I assured the kids we were able to do. At that point, it was time to board the bus for the return trip, each youth armed with a planted seed and instructions for its care and use, as well as a paper listing resources for finding our more about farms and food. I sincerely hope that the little seeds in the paper cups grow for each and every one who was here, and I also hope, even in a small way, I was able to plant some seeds in their mind, whether it is just to look for small farm to connect with instead of only shopping at Wal-Mart, up to introducing the idea that farmer is still an occupational choice, even in this modern age. We need all the good ones we can get!
Posted by Emily
@ 10:13 AM EDT
Now that we've gotten a few open weekends under our belt, it's easy to be right back in the summer/market routine. The weather has been great for both the garden and the hay fields, and we're still working on getting our first cutting hay raked and put away in the barn. Dan is actually raking right now, and I'll be helping him get a few loads in the barn before dinner tonight. After dinner,when the shadows begin to fall across the garden rows, we'll work on keeping the weeds at bay in the garden. Also, tonight Hirsch's will come to pick up a pig, and we'll be grinding sausage this week. We'll cut and season the meat Thursday, let it marinate in the fridge overnight, then grind and package Friday night so we'll have fresh offerings on Saturday. Earlier today I cleaned out the incubator, then put new eggs in the hatcher. I moved rabbits around and added another tractor to the number of pens in use (and that will need feed and water daily now), both to utilize grass instead of pelleted feed and because I have a new litter of bunnies on the way. Other tasks I also have to fit in this week include mowing the lawn, getting chicken feed, canning rhubarb, bottling vinegar, mucking stalls, potting some herb starters, and taking poultry and possibly some rabbits to the livestock auction. Although it always seems as though there is no season where I don't feel busy, this is perhaps the most jam-packed part of the whole farming year. I'm also trying to finish my monthly email newsletter, get it sent out and also posted online and keep the website price list up to date, as well as blog.
As you can imagine, that doesn't leave much free time, although Dan and I have been taking some time to do things (away from the farm) that we enjoy as well. While we have to be responsible to the farm, we also don't want it to rule our lives so completely that we can't take a break or take time for ourselves. That's important, too, no matter what your occupation or how much you love it. We also see a lot of folks here in Tionesta who are on vacation, as Forest County has the highest percentage of seasonal residences anywhere in the country. Lots of people have camps or cottages that they come to in order to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We love our seasonal visitors, and find that once they visit our farm stand, many make it a point to stop by again the next time they are in our area. It becomes a destination, a sort of attraction, that they add to their vacation schedules.
However, lately I've been getting a pretty high volume of emails asking me to go out of my way to coordinate pickups for folks at times other than our business hours. They're on vacation, they tell me, and they would just rather come by Thursday. Or Friday. Or Saturday evening or sometime Sunday. Maybe Monday morning. When it's convenient for them. Some even give me a window of 5 or 6 hours, they'd like to be there sometime during that window, say between 2:00 and 7:00 PM , depending on traffic and all. (I wonder if these same people are annoyed when a plumber or cable guy gives them the same sort of time estimate!) In the past, I've bent over backwards to coordinate such pickups. This year, I'm learning to say no. I certainly don't mind accommodating someone who is picking up a whole pig or half a cow and needs to come another day because of a lack of a chest freezer at camp. But it's important to me to have some down time as well, and it's not worth it to me to cut a canoe trip or evening with friends short because someone wants to stop by for a dozen eggs or two pounds of sausage. In the past, when I had been that accommodating, my kindness has been repayed by folks showing up on a totally different day (early) because they "felt like taking a drive". Or showing up with a minivan full of family and friends who expected me to drop everything and give them an hour long tour along with the $7.50 in farm products they were buying (which I did). And it seems that, after going so far out of my way to oblige their request, it was a one-time transaction. The folks who really value what we do, who are regulars, find a way to get here when we are open. And you bet I'll be more than happy to work with someone I know as a good customer, whether it's a meat pickup or allowing them to come over to get manure for their garden. But I'm learning to say no to the out-of-the-blue requests from people I don't know. While it may sound harsh to be told to come Saturday only, the truth is that we do so many different things, without outside help, that even though I am home, I'm often not able to drop what I'm doing to cater to someone else's schedule. If I indulged every request, I'd have nothing to sell because nothing would get done.
The bottom line is that farmers are busy, busy people. Just because they may work from home doesn't mean that the public is welcome anytime. And if you want your farmer to make a special exception for you, be courteous. Make sure you have enough of a relationship with your farmer that they at least know you by first name. Make an appointed time and stick to it, just the same as you would with your doctor or lawyer. Make it worth your farmer's time- don't expect to drop by anytime for a transaction of a few dollars. If you expect a private tour, be up front about it. Don't expect one otherwise. We know your time is valuable, but please remember that ours is as well!
Posted by Emily
@ 03:06 PM EDT
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It seems summer is finally here, bringing lots of sun. We've even had some 90+ days here at the farm already, which have sure helped to dry things up after the rains of spring. Other than crops like lettuce and beans, which we plant small batches of throughout the summer, the garden is in. Most of the seeds are showing at least tiny sprouts. On Saturday, Dan hoed a bit of corn up to check its germination, since none were showing through the soil. It was hard to believe, but by Sunday afternoon, the rows of corn were clearly visible, with 2" tall plants! The transplanted plants, like peppers, tomatoes, and squash are thriving as well. We're even seeing blossoms on the peppers and a couple of tomatoes! We got by with no frost on any of the transplants, which is a wonderful thing. While it may seem too late to worry about frost, just two years ago our last frosty morning was June 2!
This year, however, June 2 was noteworthy for another reason...it is the earliest we've ever been able to put hay up. After cutting some hay Monday, we had a few hot, dry days, and we were able to rake and load the first wagon loads of the season last night. It's amazing to begin putting dry hay away in the barn, while it seems summer has barely arrived we're already storing what we need to get through winter. But at the farm, there is no such thing as planning too far ahead. There is also nothing like the smell of fresh cut hay as it fills the barn! On days like this I wish I could bottle it for a sniff of summer during those long, cold winter months. We were also very fortunate that although sunny and breezy, the temperatures dropped into the 70's, much more tolerable for all the physical labor of putting up hay. Dan has cut more, so with a little luck weather-wise, we'll be loading hay again in another day or two.
With all this sun, the only thing I'm falling behind on is my computer work. I confess I've been a bit behind on blogging, and my June newsletter isn't ready yet either. But you just can't feel bad about that when you've got hay in the barn and the weeds are (temporarily) at bay in the garden. The sun is shining again, so it's time to log off and get out there!
Posted by Emily
@ 12:21 PM EDT