Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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(Almost) An Old-Fashioned Barn Raising

Dan has had a few rare days off of work lately, as his brother Matt (and the other half of the construction company) is out of town visiting his folks. With some time to spend here on the farm, Dan has put some thought into what he'd like to accomplish this week. We decided to get to work on a project we'd been discussing for a couple months now, namely building a new workshop for Dan's blacksmithing. The oldest building on the farm was once a blacksmith shop, but due to the condition of the chimney and the age of the building (late 1800's), we'd rather err on the side of not burning it down. Dan has been working in a small shed, but the 8' x 10' space isn't big enough to accommodate much more than the forge & anvil. So, we decided to build a new workshop big enough for the forge & smithing tools, and also other metalworking tools such as welders, grinders, chop saws, etc. This way, all the tools will be in the same place and a metal project can be worked start to finish in the same place. He was also generous enough to promise me a section of workbench, because I'd like to try my hand at doing some stained glass projects during the off-season. You know, because I need another hobby.

Dan came up with the blueprints himself, and the new shop is 16' x 20'. We began setting a few posts over the weekend, and building in earnest this week. And an amazing thing happened. Some of our friends happened to have a few days off at the same time, and came to see the building go up. One had 20 + years of construction experience and is semi-retired, so it was easy to hand him a tape measure and a saw. Other friends were eager to pick up the cordless nail gun and get the boards secured. We had extra riders over to the Amish sawmill to pick up more rough cut lumber. Enough guys were happily building away that my main job has been picking up scraps of lumber so no one trips, and making sure there are enough refreshments in the crock pot and the cooler.  As much as I feel guilty not making salsa or pickles or dilly beans (and letting the produce go to the livestock or the compost bin), I think about what I'll remember 5, 10 or 20 years from now. Canning is my full-time summer job, but I don't think I'll ever have the opportunity to have a hand in building a blacksmith shop here on the farm, one we hope will outlast us.

 And even though all the men helping are old enough to be Dan's father, no one questions how he is going about with the project. They just ask what needs to be done next, and then grab a ladder or more nails or whatever is called for.  At the same time, he isn't afraid to bounce an idea off of someone on the best way to do something, either. While it's not the enormous project of raising a barn in a day, it surely has the same spirit of community, of helping a neighbor because you know that he would do the same for you. And in an age where almost everything is done by hired experts, or bought already assembled, I also think that there is a need to be a part of the doing of a project like this. To see the raw boards and steel roofing go from piles on the ground to a finished building, to create. It's the same kind of spirit that surely was present 150 or so years ago when the first shop was built, and an amazing thing to be a part of now.

 
 

Irreplaceable (Sara's Story)

When I was 12, I wanted a horse more than anything.  By a twist of fate, a kind 4-H leader gave me the opportunity to ride one, at no cost, for an entire summer.  If I liked her, I could adopt her from a rescue society, or return her and she'd have a better chance of being adopted, having had being ridden more often.  My parents tentatively agreed, but warned me not to get too attached, as we had no room to keep a horse, and no money in the family budget for boarding one.

Her name was Sara.  Coincidentally, my own middle name, but she came to me with that name.  I figured it was just meant to be.  She was not registered, but she had a fancy, though not official pedigree.  Her forefathers were government cavalry horses, Morgans who were renown for their endurance, loyalty to their riders, and hardiness.  The first time I got on her, she threw me on my head.  She was 6 and had been ridden only a few months before I, a complete novice got on her back.  She was bad.  (I later learned she'd already been returned to the humane society once!)  She was stubborn.  She liked trail rides, but hated practicing in the ring.  On practice days, she'd try and run away with me.  I wasn't strong enough to stop her, so I had to turn her in tight circles until she stopped.  But I was stubborn and determined to ride.  She threw me, I'd just get back on.  Sara respected that.  At the end of summer, she threw me and I hurt my hand.  My parents were wavering on keeping her, so I didn't mention the fact that I fractured my hand until I was about 18 or so (really- no medical treatment either).   But I got to keep the pony!

 

Sara and I, early summer 1992.  The first picture I have of me riding her. 

By the end of that summer, we were already incredibly close.  I loved my pony with all my heart, and she loved me so much that she even seemed jealous at times.  If I patted or said hello to one of the other horses in the barn before her, she would pin her ears and turn so her tail was against the stall door, making it extremely obvious that she wasn't “speaking” to me.  But she was quick to forgive...all it took was walking in the stall and giving her neck a hug, or giving her a treat.


We logged literally thousands of miles on trail rides.  Plenty of times with friends, lots of just her and I out in the wilderness, too.  We showed in the 4-H shows, competing at the District level, and placing in classes full of professionally trained horses with fancy pedigrees. It gave me great pride to do well against the riders who spent their summers at one show or another competing.  Mostly, Sara and I spent our time in the woods, but when it was time to shine in the ring, we did well there, too.   While I took riding lessons, no one ever got on her back but I.  I spent so much time on her back, I could tell what she was going to do before she did it- I was that in tune with her. She was in tune with me as well, and smart too...she quickly learned that the games in our fun shows ended with running across the arena and stopping at the gate.  If I had to get off for a game like bobbing apples, I could jump on her, laying with my stomach across the saddle, clinging to her mane, and she'd run back at full speed and stop where she was supposed to, whether I had any control of the reins or not.   I think she understood it was a race, and she wanted to win, too.

She was gentle, too. My younger sisters (one was actually born after I met Sara!) would often come with me to the barn.  While I did chores for other horses, I always knew my sister was safe, because  I would boost  her up on Sara's back and hand her a brush.  Sara would stand calmly and soak up the attention.  I would lock the stall door and go about carrying water and hay.  Never once did Sara let me down.  She always took care of the kids, starting when they were preschool-aged, never startling even if they yelled while they were astride. 


Of course though, as the years went by, I rode less, was too old for 4-H, got busy with high school activities and friends, and eventually went away to college.  My family took care of her, and on my sporadic returns home, I cared for her as well.  We would camp out on the property by her pasture, and I can remember many nights where she'd walk over and stand in the glow of the campfire.  We'd pet her and feed her marshmallows and anything else we had to snack on.  She LOVED people food; pizza and Doritos and cookies.  

 

After college, I returned here to Tionesta to help care for my dying father.  After he passed, I stayed for my sisters and my horse too, because I had to find her a new place to live after his piece of land was sold.  Some kind farm boys, Matt and Dan, helped me get her moved to a new home, moving a chest freezer we used for feed storage and setting up the electric fence for the new pasture.  

You could say Dan and my first date was a trail ride, with me riding Sara, of course.  I felt like moving her to the farm was a huge commitment and step forward in our relationship when the time came.  Dan loved Sara too, and worked with her in harness.  He loved how she had spunk, even in her 20's, and would really dig in to pull her weight.  We bought a sleigh; my dream of a Christmas Eve tradition of romantic sleigh rides lasted exactly one year- the year she took off, kicked the shafts apart, and pulled me through the front boards.  Still bad, after all these years.  But she was good too- Dan would ride Dolly, and I Sara, and we would trail ride.  We took the horses camping out in the woods, carrying food & tents in our saddlebags and falling asleep to the sounds of the forest and our contented steeds.  The last few years, we haven't ridden much, and she lived in semi-retirement, other than helping me to herd sheep, a job she figured out and liked.


A month before she passed, she was the picture of health- glossy coat, graceful movement, just a touch of grey. In the last couple weeks, she had started to lose a little weight.  I made a mental note to get someone out to look at her teeth.  Then she just didn't seem herself.  Standing alone, not moving around a whole lot.  The weather had turned suddenly from hot, humid days to cooler, rainy ones, so I chalked it up to arthritis acting up.  Then, Sunday morning, she was off by herself, away from the barn and very stiff when she moved.  I checked on her, and she wouldn't eat a cookie for the first time in her life.  By the time I got in touch with a vet, she was laying down in her stall.  When the vet arrived, she was colicky (also for the first time in her life) and in obvious pain.  The vet gave her a painkiller.  Her eyes brightened and my fighter of a girl tried to get on her feet again.  She didn't quite make it.  At first I thought she was struggling to get up again, her hooves clattering on the stall floor, but it was a seizure.  I knew these were going to be her last moments with me.  I dropped to the floor, my arms around her neck, soothing her with voice and touch.  The vet lost the heartbeat, and told us so, but I could still feel her faint pulse in her neck.  I held on as she took two last, ragged breaths. The vet offered her condolences and left the barn.  Dan was in the doorway, and at that moment Sara's pulse came to a halt. I think she knew I was there, and that she needed me to be there for her.  Maybe she'd come to a darkened path, and needed me to guide her like I had so many times on the trails.  To let her know it was all right to leave and take the road that we can't see down until our own time comes.  And through it all, she held on until the barn was still, and just us.  As incredibly painful as it was to have her die in my arms, it is also an incredible comfort.  I was there for her, we took her pain away, and she wasn't alone.

I walked the pasture until I found a spot that seemed right to lay her to rest.  You can see the house and barn, but it's back far enough to have the peaceful and solemn feeling that so many old cemeteries do. Dan and I dug the hole by hand.  As we were digging, my back was to the house and most of the farm.  “Look at the sun coming down,” he said to me.  I turned, and there were holes in the clouds, and broad rays of sunshine sparkled down as though heaven itself were looking out over our farm.  Maybe it was.

Sara was a huge part of my life.  That horse knows every secret thought I've had in the past 20 years.  Many were the times I stood with my arms around her neck, pouring out my heart about first crushes, the bumps along the way to growing up, and all the things that were too painful or embarrassing to tell your high school best friend or your mother. I feel like I literally grew up upon her back.  I sobbed in her mane when my high school sweetheart went overseas and when my father died.  My husband asked me to marry him while I was sitting on her back.  I think she knew that was a special moment too, because she stood perfectly still instead of pawing and walking off as she normally did.  I have wedding pictures that include her.  Part of my heart has always remained 12 years old, convinced that ponies are magical creatures who love unconditionally and live forever.  

The first may be true, but unfortunately, the second part isn't.  I would say that she was a once-in-a-lifetime animal, but I don't think she was.  I think she was a once-in-many-lifetimes animal.  We shared a bond deeper than I can explain.  There will always be horses in my life, I hope, but there will never be another Sara.  Sweet, gentle, spunky, mischievous, charismatic, loyal, healthy, strong and completely irreplacable.  She was a magnificent creature with a personality bigger than her physical presence.  She charmed nearly everyone, even folks who were usually afraid of horses.  I was blessed with a little over 20 years with her. She lived a good long life, just 5 days shy of her 27th birthday.  It's still hard to believe she won't be there when I flick the barn lights on.  But perhaps a part of her spirit is still here with me, racing gracefully across the fields, just for the sheer glory of it.

 Sara and I chasing sheep, taken last year.  The last picture of me riding her.


Goodbye, Dear Friend.  Our trail together was a long one.  Whatever life brings me, you will not be forgotten, and when my time comes, I have faith that you'll be waiting on the other side to greet me.


 
 

Maternal Instinct

We've had a second baby boom of sorts here at the farm lately. It's the time of year where we're happy to let the birds sit on eggs and hatch out their own broods. By this time of year, the incubator is silent, unless I'm hatching out a few quail or peafowl. We collect the turkey eggs all spring & early summer for two reasons- #1 if you take the eggs, the hens will lay more and #2 not all hens will sit the full 28 days necessary to hatch out the chicks (21 days for chickens, but the same two rules apply).

It's actually pretty unusual to have birds that hatch their own young. Mothering instinct has been bred out of virtually all livestock breeds these days. While it sounds unbelievable that animals don't know how to raise their own young, it's true, because the demands of modern agriculture often are at odds with nature's instinct. A broody hen will peck at you and draw blood to defend her clutch if she's ready to hatch a brood. This is a royal pain if you're a farmer making a living selling eggs. Likewise, if you're selling milk, you'll be taking the calf away from mama and bottle feeding it while milking the cow and selling the milk. You don't want the cow lowering her head and charging you to keep you away from her calf.  It's much easier if she doesn't mind that it is gone.  Both situations actively encourage breeding that protective mothering instinct out of the animals.

Fortunately, because heritage breeds of livestock have been largely left alone by modern agriculture, they retain that instinct. When my mom came to visit, she came in from the backyard and told me she'd found our “secret chicken”. It was one of our Golden Phoenix hens, tucked away in a patch of iris leaves, sitting on her nest. We've had these hens hatch chicks before, so we let her go to see what would happen. Last week, the chicks did hatch. Turns out she was sitting on a full dozen eggs, and of those, she successfully hatched out 11 chicks! That would be a great hatch rate even in the digitally controlled incubator. Of course, that is only the first half of the mothering equation. Next, mama bird has to protect her little chicken nuggets from cats and other hungry critters, show them how to forage, and protect them from the elements. If mama chicken still had 8 right now, I'd say it was a huge success. But, incredibly, she still has ALL 11, well over a week later! The chicks are hardier than the ones we have in the brooder pen, too...we've seen them soaking wet after a thunderstorm, which could be fatal, but they run around like nothing's wrong, with no heat lamp to huddle under. Chicks in the brooder are kept warm and given unlimited fresh food & water, but these little buggers out there are hardier, smarter, and I even think they grow more quickly. What a difference a parent makes!

It's magic to watch the hen at work, too. She makes sure to go slowly enough that the kids can keep up, and clucks softly to let them know where she is at all times. She'll fluff up her body and extend her wings just enough that the chicks can hide from the weather under her. It's simply amazing to watch 11 tiny birds disappear like that...mama doesn't seem big enough to protect them all, but she does somehow. And she is fierce about protecting her young. As the bringer of food, she doesn't mind me so much, but she keeps a watchful eye on everything else. Yesterday, I was doing chores, and the cows came out of the barn to see if they could get some delicious chicken food. Mama hen and her brood were in the same part of the barnyard. One of the yearling cows, Ling Ling, must have walked through the area where the chicks were, because the next thing I saw was mama hen attacking the cow much like a rooster would do. In this chicken vs. cow fight, there was a crystal-clear winner. Ling Ling ran for the barn while the hen stood her ground and collected her young. I laughed pretty hard!

But our Phoenix isn't the only one with a brood these days. Dan had found a Bourbon Red turkey hen had made a nest behind the shop amongst the machinery. I went to look for her after putting the horses in the barn Monday morning, but found only a few feathers and broken shells. I looked for the hen, but she was no where to be found. But as I was doing evening chores, I saw a lone turkey in that general area, near the creek. The grass is kind of high along the bank, but as I watched, I counted four little poults, foraging for bugs with mom. We're hoping she has as much maternal instinct as the Phoenix hen!

 Our Golden Phoenix hen, with 2-day-old chicks.

 
 
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