Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Rain, Finally!

Another crazily busy week here on the farm, but that is just July for you!  We were so happy that the oppressive, 100+ degrees temperatures broke, but most days we're still seeing upper 80's and into the 90's, so with the humidity it sure feels like summer anyway.  But I can't complain, because finally we got some summer rains!!  The ground was so dry here that the creek through the pastures dried up and the garden soil on the unirrigated parts was about bone dry as well.  Between the heat and the dry creek, we've spent much more time than usual hauling water to the livestock- up to 5 times per day in the worst of the heat, up from our usual schedule of 2x per day (morning and evening).  The tomatoes and peppers have been doing great with the drip irrigation under them, but we were starting to worry that we'd lose the entire sweet corn crop if we didn't get some rain.  Fortunately, we got a plentiful amount, and over a few days, not all at once in a single, severe storm. Dan swears the corn stalks grew a foot one day while he was away at work as a result of the rain.   The creek is even showing feeble signs of life again!

But hauling water isn't the only thing that's kept me busy.  I love to find great canning recipes to use up the garden bounty, and the canner has been getting a workout lately.  I've got dilly beans (green beans pickled with dill), hot pepper rings, pickled beets, and my popular dill pickles, made with my own secret recipe.  Those have all been great things to make, and I've enjoyed doing that over the last few years, but I also love to see what else I can find to make-  every cook gets bored with the same old things day after day!  So this week, I made something I'm calling "Sweet Garden Relish".  It's like a sweet pickle relish, but instead of using cucumbers (the heat has not been kind to them) it uses zucchini, onion and bell pepper.  A combo that really works for what the garden is producing right now, and it tastes amazing! I admit, as I was finishing canning it and tasting the final product, I started craving a hot dog or burger from the grill, anything on which I could pile this relish!  

Meats have been keeping us busy, too.  I got to visit my friends from Hirsch's today as I picked up a whole carload of ground beef.  After reading my post about saying goodbye to Buzz, you might imagine that it was an awful trip, but it wasn't.  It was hard to say goodbye, but there is almost instant closure to it, at least for me.  I'm not going to cry about it anymore, or refuse to sell, handle or eat that meat- I respect my animals by treating them with kindness and dignity while they are alive, and not wasting the food they provide later.  If I had trouble moving on like that, I doubt I could farm the way we do.  

We also have been busy processing chickens.  Although it's still just Dan and I, hand plucking and processing, we're trying to up our output a little bit, as we have the wonderful problem of selling out of chicken every week we offer it.  We've talked about making a nice processing pavilion, one that would streamline the process a bit, and we've gotten that underway. If you have wondered what the new building with the green roof is behind the greenhouse, now you know!  We do have some siding up now, which was so nice in this heat to be out of the direct sun.  The gravel floor is down, and now the next step will be to pour cement.  We'll also be running some lines for a sink and the cooling tubs soon.  It's already much nicer that before, and I can't wait to get it all done.  I've been trying to take pictures of the construction process, so hopefully soon I can post a whole start-to-finish slideshow of that project.

I also took a rare day away from the farm this week to attend a field day put on by PASA, the PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture, along with WAgN, the Penn State Women's Agriculture Network.  (I know, it's a mouthful!)  The even was in nearby Brookville at Quiet Creek Herb Farm and focused on Chantrelles and exotic PA mushrooms.  I learned a lot and was really happy to attend, the folks there were amazingly knowledgeable. The workshop was a fun mix of mushroom hunting for personal fun and use (which Dan & I started just last year), cooking with mushrooms (and an amazing lunch!) and a bit on growing & selling mushrooms to the public.  It's something we may like to try in the future, we are always looking to keep up and expand the diversity of our farm stand offerings.

 So, it's been more than enough to keep us busy, but we don't expect any less from the summer months! 




What Do I Want?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot of big-picture thoughts about the farm. The kind of things that are important, but often get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day duties. But it's important to stand back and take a look at the overall picture some days and not just get lost in the details. What do I want to accomplish with this farm? What will it take to be a success? In 10 years, what would you like to see change? What should remain the same?

These kinds of thoughts have been swirling about in my head for a month or so, for a variety of reasons. My birthday is in June, and I do tend to get a little reflective as another year is marked. The transition from June to July marked my one-year anniversary of being home on the farm, not working 25 miles away. Our wedding anniversary is this week, and marrying Dan was a beautiful ceremony here at the farm. In retrospect, it showed a commitment to this place I didn't even realize I was making at the time. Also during this time, I had to decide whether or not to continue a business relationship which sold our meats for us to the customers of a small CSA. All of this added up to some thoughts about where I am and where I want to be.

Dan's biggest fear when I lost my job was that I would be unfulfilled here. I have a master's degree, I was teaching classes, helping people, part of civic organizations committed to changing the county I was working in for the better. Important stuff, events that made the local paper, sometimes even the front page. But, unsurprisingly for social work, I was getting burned out. I was in a rather dead-end job with no hope of further advancement, and I was ready for new challenges. I hated leaving every day because I just wanted to be here. On the farm, hands in the dirt. Or here on this blog, helping to educate others about what it's really like to grow your food. Why what you eat matters. In that way, I very much feel like I'm still teaching.

What I love most about the farm is that we make an honest living producing healthy food for our neighbors. It's not fancy or glamorous, but it's real. And important. I like being a direct link between food and consumer. I love talking to our customers and friends about how things are growing, about why our food is different from what's in the store. One of the greatest concerns with the CSA was not knowing how we were being represented, and having no direct link to the consumers. All questions and problems were filtered through a third-party middleman. The more I thought about this, the more deeply I was uncomfortable with it. There were other issues too, and in the end, I felt it best to decline their business. It felt like the right thing to do. So I know I want to stay in touch with our customers- I like answering questions, both in person and online via email. And I'm committed to staying hands-on. It's hard to answer how things are really growing if your fields are full of employees while you're inside. It can be overwhelming to be the veggie picker, the chicken plucker, sausage seasoner, website editor/blogger/email contact, in charge of advertising, labeling, ordering, record keeping, tester of new recipes, food processor. Maybe it just means I'm a control freak. But I think of it differently- many years ago, when small farms were the norm instead of the anomaly, the family did everything, or nearly so, without hiring a specialist for each task- each family member was expected to wear many hats. I'm fine with that.

One of the main things I want to do is preserve what is here. While that sounds straightforward, it's really pretty complex. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I am passionate about preserving heirloom plants and heritage livestock. Keeping the old bloodlines, designed for family farms instead of mass production, alive for this generation and for the future. We make more steps toward that each year. But there is more than just the gardens and the livestock. Our barn was built in 1894. The house (the “new house” to the elderly gentleman who used to live here years ago) was built in 1929. The workshop is older yet then either of those. I want to preserve these too. There are plenty of barns in the area, built around the same time, that are falling down. I want to preserve these treasured old buildings, but at the same time I want them to be functional. I'm not trying to live in Colonial Williamsburg or anything. I want to respect the history, but I don't think we need to forsake metal roofing in favor of the wooden shake shingles that would have originally been used, for instance, as long as the overall character of the place remains intact. I'll keep the wood burning stove in the house for heat, but replacing the original windows with energy efficient ones does not greatly change the character of our home, but does add greatly to my comfort in the winter, plus it keeps out the ladybugs. I'm OK with modern materials with trade-offs like that. I also want to make it pretty here. I know that the farms with show-stopping landscapes generally have, well, hired landscapers, but there is already much I've done in a few short years. Perennial flowers, a little at a time. Painting the porch posts to bring out the carved beauty. Peacocks strutting in plain view.  Keeping up on some of the pruning.  Little things that make it our own.

But possibly the most important thing I want to preserve is the idea of the hands-on, horse powered, family farm. The kind without employees, that relies instead on the family members, and sometimes the extended family, to get things done. One that has an intimate knowledge of the land, because they have cared for it personally for generations, walking behind the plow and weeding by hand- the kind of knowledge of a place that does not have its roots in diesel engines and herbicides. Like the seed banks that preserve various strains of plants against future calamity, we need small family farms to safeguard the knowledge of how to do things without gasoline and chemicals. To produce for our neighborhoods instead of the commodity markets. I didn't realize how important these kind of things were until I started reading Wendell Berry's essays. But in doing so, I feel like we're part of a solution to some of the problems of industrial agriculture.

So in the end, if I can be a part of keeping these ideas and buildings and animals alive, I will be a success. There are other, more tangible things I want too, of course. Number one to stay here on the farm. We'd love to get to the point where Dan can be here full time, too. I had such a great experience at the Farm to Table conference, I hope to be able to do more speaking out to the public about farms and real food. I think that too, will come with time. And I want to continue to grow, leaning new skills. I don't for a second feel I'm in a dead end job anymore. Each day is what I make of it, and I can choose to expand what I do and what I know at any time, or to step back and take a break if I need one.  I can choose to focus on learning to operate more of the machines, to make more and different processed goods, more about herbs, more about our farm's history, more about new crops or new animals. In that way, the future is nearly limitless. 


I'll Miss Him


 I'm having a rough day today. It's 90+ degrees out, which is just too hot for me...I'll find stuff to do indoors rather than be out in it, but it's hard not to feel like I should be out in the garden or mowing the lawn or doing something outside. But the main reason for my melancholy is not the blistering sun. I know that the trailer will be here tonight to take a cow for processing. And this time, it makes me very, very sad.

I've gotten used to the idea of sending animals to be processed and I don't really get bothered by it anymore. I know that the life we provide for these creatures is a good one, and light years away from the conditions found on feedlots & factory farms. I take pride in being able to offer my customers meat raised without cruelty or inhumane conditions- meat from healthy animals, leading a natural life in the sun and grass. I'm proud of what we do and how we do it, and I know the purpose of the animals when they come to the farm. I don't pretend I'm getting a pet cow, even if I do name them and feed them. I monitor the inventory and make the arrangements with our processors. The process is one I'm totally involved with from start to finish.

So why is it so hard this time? We got a little calf, just days old, two years ago. We fed him bottles and watched him grow. We called him Baby Buzz. He would gleefully run up to people, and like all bottle baby cows, you had to watch that he wouldn't headbutt you trying to get you to feed him. As he grew, he went from the small paddock into the fields with the other cows. As he grew and the heard changed, he went from being the smallest cow to the tallest. Buzz appointed himself the leader of the herd. The girls follow him around, the babies play with him. When Lil went into the barn, Buzz called for her more than Lil's calf from the previous year did- Buzz wanted to know where his herdmate went. And he's still a friendly beast, always sneaking up on you to see if any snacks are to be found. Besides Finni, he is the most sociable cow here. I've been telling Dan that he would make a great ox, because I hate to see him go so badly. But that's just not in the cards. So tonight, the trailer comes, I don't think I'll be there. While I'll help get Buzz into the barn this afternoon, I think, for the first time ever, I'm going to stay out of the barn when they load him up. This time, it's just a little too hard. Dan tries to cheer me up by reminding me that we saved Buzz from his likely fate- veal- and extended his life very considerably. And I know he's had a good one, and that I need more burger for the stand, but...

 Some animals are just special for some reason or another. Some have the ability to capture your heart, and it's hard when they go.  I'll sure miss this face.

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