Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Pop Quiz! Do you know what the #1 irrigated crop in the U.S. Is? It's something most of us see every day, is grown in virtually every neighborhood nationwide, and nothing eats it.
The answer is grass. More specifically, lawns. More of our nation's water supply is diverted to make the yard look pretty than to grow any other crop. Add to that the pollution from lawnmowers & riding lawnmowers, the amount of synthetic herbicides and fertilizers used, and the fact that so many of those grass clippings go not to the compost pile but to the landfill, and you'll realize that lawns aren't the “greenest” feature to many homes.
Here on the farm, we hate wasted space, and it's always seemed like the yard is pretty much that, but we do keep it mowed so it looks nice for business. We've come up with some creative ways to reduce our mowing responsibilities, though. When we debated on where to house the turkeys, we enclosed part of the front yard as their run. It was the part with the pine tree roots I hit with the mowing blade most frequently, so that was another added bonus! Little did we know that the turkeys would roost in the tree and free-range all over the place, but they do. They also do an admirable job of keeping the grass down near their run in their quest for bugs, slugs and such.
We also employ some natural lawnmowers in the back and side yards. We use bottomless pens, called tractors, to house rabbits, quail and our meat chickens. These allow the critters to dine on fresh grass and the bugs in it, and provide a fresh, clean living space when the pen is moved daily. Although we still mow these areas to maintain a uniform look (instead of looking like a patchwork quilt!), at least the grass is being used to provide nutrition to our animals, and cut down on our feed bill!
Spring has arrived early this year, and with it the chore of mowing. Or, at least it seemed so until last weekend. Dan is really good at thinking outside the box, and has solved more than one problem with a single, organic solution!
Yardie, relaxing in the spring sunshine
Our demand for meat has risen drastically in the past year, and so we needed to expand our beef herd. We've also kept a Dexter bull for our breeding program. The problem is that we have a very nice Hereford heifer we will use for beef later on this year, but she can't be turned out with the herd because she is of breeding age. While the pasture has multiple sections, it is in need of some repairs to effectively segregate the cows. Keeping her in the barn on these beautiful, summer-like days, feeding hay, seemed like a waste. The solution? Yard Cow, aka Yardie. Yep, turn her loose on the lawn! Well, not really loose, for now she is tied to a soft cotton rope attached to a stake in the ground. We put her out in the morning and take her back to the barn at night. It has worked exceptionally well so far! Yes, the downside is that there are cow pies in the yard, but truthfully, it really doesn't bother us. At least they are easy to spot, not like the doggie land mines that don't catch your attention until they are all over your shoe! We hope to get a portable electric fence set up for her soon, but for now, I just keep an eye on her to make sure she hasn't wrapped the rope around the stake or anything. I'm also amazed, it's been nearly a week and no one has called or stopped and knocked on the door to tell me there is a loose cow in the yard. (We have folks stop all the time to inform us of our goats' whereabouts when they are in the unfenced hay field.) We're happy to have such a mild-mannered cow, who really seems to love her new job as the head of lawn management here at Pleasant Valley Farm.
Yardie, hard at work in the back yard!
Posted by Emily
@ 09:36 AM EDT
Last weekend was the long-anticipated Farm to Table Conference in Pittsburgh. I had a great time presenting and meeting lots of great people interested in local foods last year, and I'd been looking forward to doing it again this year. Also exciting was that my mom was able to attend and see me speak, and my sister Laurel graciously covered the farm's table in the exhibit hall while my presentation, titled "Treasures from our Grandparents' Gardens: Heirloom Seeds" was going on. I was amazed that I had as many attendees at 11:30 on Friday morning for my speech as I did last year on a Saturday afternoon!
Speaking so early meant that lots of folks who saw me had a chance to stop by and say hello or ask follow up questions when they stopped by the farm's table in the exhibit hall. I was flattered by the number of them who said that they really enjoyed it, and glad that so many of them were able to take away something useful from what I had to say.
Pleasant Valley Farm's table at Farm to Table Pittsburgh, 2012
The conference was much busier this year than last in my opinion. It was great, I believe that I literally talked to hundreds, if not over a thousand different people, all interested in local foods. Many of them were even familiar with Tionesta, and I hope to see some of them this summer. We had lots of positive feedback about the different tastes of the farm we brought to sample- Carrot Cake Jam, Black Forest Preserves, Hot Peach BBQ Sauce, Fiesta Salsa, and Ginger-Garlic Mustard. We sold out of Ginger-Garlic Mustard, Peach BBQ, and our Blueberry-Basil vinegar, much to the disappointment of some who tried a sample and wanted to pick up a jar on the way out! All in all, we made some great contacts and hopefully reached a lot of people, and helped to get the word out that there is more to eating locally than just raw veggies!
We were also very flattered to be in the Farm to Table preview article in Pittsburgh's Tribune-Review! Emily was quoted extensively, and the print version featured photos from the farm, a shot of heirloom lettuce growing in last year's garden, and another of Emily working our team of horses (Dixie & Dolly even got their names in the caption!). To read the article for yourself, check out: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/email/s_787449.html?_s_icmp=enews
Posted by Emily
@ 01:29 PM EDT
As I went out to start my morning round
of chores on Friday, I heard an unfamiliar noise coming from the
direction of the pond in the pasture. It sounded most similar to the
call of our Coturnix quail, but a quick glance in the direction of the quail pen assured me that the door was still closed and I could see a good
number of them hopping about in the grass. After taking water
and food to the various pens of poultry and rabbits, I took a short
walk to the pond to investigate. As I came close, I could see
hundreds of black eyes starting back at me, floating on the surface
of the water. Frogs. Not the itty little spring peepers, whose call
is so loud it seems impossible for the frog's body size, but not big
ol' bullfrogs, with their deep throaty calls, either. These were the
mid-sized, shiny green frogs that the part of my brain which must
have been paying attention in high school biology wants to call
leopard frogs. The kind that leap to the water as you approach the
bank of many small streams or ponds around here. The noise I was
hearing was apparently the mating call of hundreds of these frogs,
which had taken advantage of the summer-like weather to gather in our
pond to lay eggs. I stood on the bank for a minute, admiring the
sheer number of these little guys (and gals!), and watching the
ripples dance across the pond from the places where some had gone
under the surface of the water as I had approached. The little
ripples expanded in ever-widening circles, reflecting the overcast
sky like a living mirror. But, as always, spring days bring lots of
things on the to-do list, so I didn't stay long.
As I closed the gate behind me, I heard
the unmistakable honking cry of Canada geese. As I watched, a pair
descended and came to a splashing landing in the pond. The frogs
shut up ever so briefly. We are usually graced with a pair or a
small flock of these birds on spring days. The pond seems to be a
rest area on the northward migration, at least for some small groups.
Often, a pair will stick around for a few days to a week or so. I
always hope they'll build a nest, either by the edge of the pond, or
a short distance further up in the pasture field where there is
shelter provided by a few small trees and some brush. But, each year
they move on. While we have barnyard geese, (Toulouses) who will
hatch their own goslings and swim about the pond, I still like to
think that maybe this year, their wild cousins will settle down here
for the spring. They have such a grace and beauty to them, and I
love looking out my kitchen window and seeing them outside.
Lunchtime came, and as I was inside
fixing myself a sandwich, the turkeys began to gobble incessantly.
They are loud this time of year, but this went on without pause for
10 minutes or so, which was unusual. Some of it seemed to sound like
it was coming from across the road, but when I looked outside, I
could see both gobblers near the turkey house, where they belonged. I
have learned that sounds will bounce around here, off of buildings
and the surrounding landscapes since we are in a valley. Often,
something sounds like it is coming from the opposite direction than
it actually is. So, I ate and then went back outside. I saw our
Royal Palm hen on the road, obviously coming from the other side back
to the farm. I went to see what she had been up to, as some of her
sisters had used the brush pile across the street as a nestbox last
year, and I wanted to discourage any notion of using it again this
year. As I crossed the road, I saw something shiny and blue on the
footpath ahead of me. It was the two yearling peacocks, who live a
free-range existence with the turkey flock. So I started down the
path to try and round up my birds, who were staring down the path,
looking deeper into the forest. Then I saw a bronze shadow flitting
between the trees, headed away from us. It was a wild turkey. A
male, another gobbler, and as best as I could judge, bigger than our
own Gobbles, and with a longer beard. (A turkey's beard is a hairy
thing that hangs from the chest of the males. Longer = older bird.)
It must have been he who got my domesticate birds so vocal...and why
it sounded as though something was calling from across the road,
because he was! It was like magic to watch him run down the path and
out of sight. Although we live surrounded by the forest, we don't
often see its wild inhabitants. They come by at night, leaving us to
find footprints or signs of last night's dinner in the fields.
I try and look for the signs of life all around, and for that I was rewarded one more time that day. As I began my evening chores, something orange caught my eye. A small orange & black butterfly floated past our woodshed. While not unusual to see on a summer's day at the farm, it is still the middle of March.
I've always been proud of how, on our
farm, we work as much with nature as we can. Of course, farming is
always linked to nature with cycles of seasons, weather, creatures
being born and dying. But there is something to be said about
working with the larger ecosystem to the greatest degree possible.
This does not mean that we will happily allow the local predators a
free pass to dining on our poultry, nor do we want to see groundhogs
building ever-larger holes in the hayfield. (These holes can break a
horse's leg if stepped in. Since we make hay with the horses, this
is a concern.)
But the stream that runs through our pasture, that
supplies our livestock with water, supports a breeding population of
native trout downstream, a fish that is very sensitive to pollution
and water quality. Dan and I have planted a crooked row in the
garden so as not to disturb the nest of a killdeer. She and her babies do us a valuable service, as they dine on insects that would otherwise dine on our crops. Avoiding a small nest in the garden costs us nothing, but we are rewarded many times over by her insect hunting services. I think about how
chemical fertilizers and pesticides would silence the frogs' song
coming from the pond, how so many bird populations suffered the effects of DDT
over the years, how so few people will ever know the excitement of
unexpectedly seeing a wild turkey crossing their path. I know how
lucky I am to have these wild encounters on a daily basis, and I try
not to ignore them, nor take them for granted. It reinforces my
commitment to farming the way we do, caring for the soil and water in
a responsible way. It reminds me that I do this not just for me, or my family, or my customers' families. It's for them too- the bees and the bears, the whitetails and the warblers, the turkeys and the trout. And also for the ash tree, the lady's slipper flower, even the skunk cabbage. It's good for all of us. And really, isn't that the kind of place you wanted your food to be coming from anyways?
Posted by Emily
@ 12:45 PM EDT
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This time of year, a strange sound comes from my large kitchen pantry. A beep...beep...beep...beep sound. One that always seems to make friends and family look around as if there is either something on fire or about to blow up. But for me, it's one of the wonderful sounds of spring. So what machine is lurking in the pantry, making ominous beeping noises? It's the incubator!
A few years ago, Dan & I invested in a large cabinet incubator. It has three trays, each capable of holding 66 chicken, turkey, peafowl or duck eggs. (Quail eggs, being much smaller, mean we can use smaller trays which hold many more.) We generally set one tray each week. This works really well, as chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch, so we can have a continuous supply of adorable chicks all spring. It is fully automated, with a digital thermostat for keeping a steady 100 degree temperature, a five gallon bucket that feeds into the machine's tray for steady humidity, and an automatic turner. This turner is necessary so that chicks do not develop lopsided and sickly. A real mother hen shifts on her nest, turning the eggs during incubation, and this fills that function and saves me from turning them by hand multiple times each day. The incubator beeps each time the trays turn, which happens every couple of hours. After a day or two, it becomes a background noise to me, just like the roosters crowing, one that means everything is going just fine. (But a noise that sounds suspiciously like a fire alarm or bomb to visitors!)
I'm excited to have chicks again. As always, we'll be saving some of the laying breeds (our Barred Rocks and Delawares) and keeping some hen chicks to replenish our own laying flock. Others we offer for sale to those looking to start their own flocks. We're looking forward to adding turkey and, hopefully, quail eggs to the mix in the next few weeks, and peafowl eggs later in the spring, probably May sometime. But most of all, I look forward to the day when I can pull out the hatching tray and pull out the first few downy chicks to move to the brooder pen. Because even though I've pulled literally thousands of chicks out of the incubator so far, it's still exciting every time. Seeing new life never gets old.
Posted by Emily
@ 08:39 PM EST