Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Feeding the Birds

Most people these days have lost any real connection to farms & livestock.  Years ago, most folks at least had extended family living on a homestead...perhaps not farmers, but Grandma or Uncle so-and-so had a garden, or a couple cows, or some chickens.  It was a touchstone to where food really comes from that has by and large been lost for most Americans.  

Our farm is located in Forest County, PA, which has the distinction of having the highest percentage of seasonal residences to permanent ones in the entire nation.  That means there are more summer cottages and hunting camps than full-time homes.  So, a good percentage of our visitors in the summer are “city folk”. For many of them, the main reason to come to the farm is for fresh tomatoes, or delicious sausage, or any of the other food we offer for sale.  For many others, though, a big part of the draw is just setting foot on a farm.  It's like a mini family field trip. They love that they can walk through the front yard and see the turkeys and chickens, or catch a glimpse of the horses and cows in the pasture.

Living here, it is easy to take for granted what we have.  It is easy to see the same landscape, and instead of beauty, to see work.  Manure that needs shoveled.  Water to carry, and the twice-daily feedings that never take a day off.  Sheep that need shearing. Weeding, mowing, picking, and all the other garden chores.  Fences and roofs to fix and all the other realities of life on a farm.  While it truly is a wonderful life, it is also a hard one.  But to our visitors, these daily chores are moments of magic.
  

When hosting friends or family with kids, I often have given them a scoop of feed and let them feed the chickens and other poultry.  It meant so much to the kids, and their parents as well, that I decided to incorporate it into the farm stand.  So, I filled up some paper cups with feed with a handmade sign saying “Feed the birds! $.50 per cup.  Chickens, ducks, turkeys & peacocks all love it!”.  I have been somewhat amazed by the response.  While it's very popular with families with children, it was a surprise that about 50% of the cups have been purchased by adults.  (A side effect to this is that now the birds are eternally optimistic that any human may come bearing food, so they run up to just about everyone who gets out of a vehicle now.  I've created an army of friendly feathered monsters!)  It's easy to think I'm a business genius, that I'm getting people to pay for food the birds need anyways, and doing my chores for me to boot.  But, I think, for many of these folks, it's literally pocket change for an experience that they will remember for a long time.  The act of caring for creatures stirs something deep within us all.  I can't tell you how many times so far someone has come back into the farm stand to return the paper cup so I can reuse it (unasked!) and to thank me for the opportunity.  

 Farm stand Saturdays are always long.  This time of year, we are literally up with the sun picking and washing the veggies, grinding sausage, setting up shop, and then it's 6 hours of nonstop waiting on the public.  By the time 4 PM rolls around, I'm eager to feed the critters and then eat a decent meal myself and relax for the rest of the evening.  Yesterday, as I'm in the midst of evening chores, a truck pulls up.  A woman I've never met before gets out and asks if her grandkids could get out and look at the birds. Part of me wanted to say no, come back when we're open, that I'm hungry and tired and want to get off my feet and just be done for the day.  But I said sure, let them out, the birds are eating their dinner but the kids can come into the yard for a look.  At that time, Dan had just let the horses out of the barn so they were close at hand as well.   So, after I put fresh water in the bird pen, I walked over and grabbed Montana, our Paint riding horse.  He loves attention, is very gentle, and is much less intimidating (size-wise) than the work horses.  I called over to the group that if they walked over quietly, they could pet him.  

Kids without farm experience generally want to run & scream in all this open space, but I'm always pleasantly surprised that just by telling the kids that running and being loud scares the animals and makes them run away, their behavior changes pretty much instantly.  So the kids came over quietly, and I couldn't help but notice that the young woman with them was walking on two prosthetic legs.  Not that her handicap made her any more deserving of my time, but it kind of helped to crystallize a concept for me.  Today's kids (and many adults, too!) are farm handicapped.  There has been research into what has been called “Nature Deficit Disorder”...the idea that as a society we're so tuned in to our TVs, our smartphones and  iPads that we don't see nature, we no longer understand nature, and we don't value what we don't see or understand.  I think the same is ultimately true with our food system.  We don't see it, and we don't understand it, which has led to factory farms, high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, Monsanto, and all the other evils of the industrial food system.  What will it take for real change to occur?  I think it has to start one eater at a time, and it has to be something that is meaningful- something personally experienced.  What will it take to take the happy out of a Happy Meal for our kids?  I think it has to start with something they can relate to- a flurry of feathers as they feed some chickens, or soft equine breath on a hand as they pet a pony.  I don't necessarily think that I'm changing the world a cup of chicken feed at a time, but hey, it's a start.  So if you're in the neighborhood, stop by.  Feed the birds and see for yourself.  And if you're lucky, maybe you can meet Montana, or the Dexter calves, or one of the other friendly beasts that call our farm home.  Just remember to speak softly and walk slowly...which, if you think about it, is pretty good advice, no matter where you are...

 
 

Lessons I learned from Rocky

On a farm like ours, animals come and go pretty regularly. That's what happens when you raise meat. Now I know tonight is a processing day, and that we'll butcher a dozen or so chickens, but the broilers are eating machines without much personality, not at all like the heritage breeds we raise for eggs. But there are always certain critters that find a way into your heart, and that's what made yesterday a bit sad here. Our Barred Rock rooster, Rocky, passed away. It was sad, but expected. Rocky was five years old, a very senior chicken. His legs were thick and scaly, he had lost most of his comb to frostbite over the winters, and his tail had turned from black and white bars to nearly all white. Over the past week or so, I'd noticed his legs seemed to be hurting him and he wasn't getting around very well, so I've been sort of mentally preparing for the end.

Rocky was the first rooster I ever really got to know. Roosters have a (generally) well-deserved reputation for being nasty creatures. They will jump up and spur you, even drawing blood through a pair of jeans. Your size doesn't intimidate them at all. When I first began coming to the farm with Dan, the layers had been sold off and not replaced, as the farm was on a temporary hiatus, so the coops were silent. When we got married in July of 2007, his parents bought us a few unusual wedding presents, ones that would help us to a fresh start here on the farm. One was a Dorset ram, and another was a starter flock of chickens. Betty & Dan went and picked out a nice assortment of started pullets, around 4 months old. (I would have gone too, but I still worked away back then.) They brought back a few Red Star hybrids, some Buff Orpington hens, a few Ameracaunas who lay the beautiful blue-green eggs, and some Barred Rocks. Of the 22 birds, all were hens except for one rooster. Although Betty has had enough bad experiences that she really does not like roosters, it was decided that one would be good. That rooster eventually became known as Rocky.

In the five years he ruled the layer flock, he never once challenged me, nor did he ever act aggressively towards anyone. I could turn my back on him in the coop while I collected eggs without fear. Now I have had many roosters come into my life after that, and there were plenty that got mean. Rocky taught me that I didn't need to put up with that, and the mean ones never stay long. Even with chickens, you can (and, I would argue, should) breed for temperament as well as production traits. It was a hugely important idea- breeding males shouldn't be crazy and mean. It's one that has largely been lost in modern agriculture. For instance,most dairies do not have a bull, all their cows are bred by artificial insemination. That way, anyone can breed to the most productive bloodlines. It doesn't matter that the bulls are extremely dangerous, as the farmers using the bloodlines never have to deal with the ornery beast. Another downside is that the breed becomes excessively inbred, losing its genetic diversity. In addition, I do think it matters how you treat the animals- if you approach the animal expecting it to hurt you and behave accordingly, I can't help but think that that expectation will affect the animal's behavior. Reassured that the rooster didn't have to be mean, I took the same approach of cautious trust with the other farm males. The ram, the boar, the mini stallion, and even our Dexter bull have all been known to eat treats out of my hand. I don't trust them all the time, because sometimes they do act up. But I've learned that if you get to know your animals, you can read their moods, and it's completely possible to interact with a big boy of whatever species without expecting (and getting!) the worst.

It was a good decision to get a roster with our starter flock, because although hens will produce eggs without a male around, the eggs will not be fertile. In the spring of 2008, we decided to try incubating and hatching our own eggs. Without Rocky, it wouldn't have been an option. I'll never forget the experience of the first time, the worry, hope and anticipation that we would be able to hatch our own little chicks. I didn't even live at the farm yet, but I rushed home from work on the expected day to see the eggs had started cracking from the inside. A few hours later, we would have peeps in the brooder pen under the soft glow of the heat lamp, and we would go to sleep the next few weeks hearing their chirps from the spare bedroom across the hallway. That was years ago (as well as thousands of chicks ago), but thinking about it always makes me smile.

To me, Rocky was a kind of living link to my pre-farm self. He and his hens were a real introduction to agriculture for me. And he was just a cool chicken. He defended his girls to the best of his ability from night time marauders, and greeted us with his crows each morning. The barnyard is a little quieter here without him, but I have kept one of his sons to replace him. In that way, I hope his docile genetics will always be a part of the farm. 

 
 

New Hens

On every farm, you have a division of labor according to each person's skills and comfort level.  While either Dan or I can care for any of the animals here, we each have our own chores we do daily.  We never sat down and formally figured this out, it came rather naturally over time.  For instance, Dan usually feeds the pigs.  Not that I can't, but most days it just makes sense because it involves frequent lifting/moving of feed sacks weighing 100 lbs.  I have trouble with 100-pounders and need to empty part of it into a bucket first, while Dan can carry two at a time.  While Dan is feeding the hogs, I'll take care of the chickens.  It's no less important, but the feed comes in 50 pound bags and chickens eat a lot less than hogs, so I don't even have to move those all that often.  As a result, I'm much more in tune with the birds.  I know which breeds are laying best, when we may need to fix a fence or put up a light, and when birds are missing and we need to set up traps for predators.

Fall is here, and the shorter days mean less eggs.  We'll fool mother nature somewhat by putting up a timed light to trick them into thinking the days are still long, but production will slow down.  It's also a good time to think about culling the less productive hens.  Commercial egg factories eliminate any hen going through her first molt, which happens when the hen is about 1.5 years old.  As they are small and wiry by then, they become the chicken in your soup or pot pie, or the "real meat" in your pet's food.  We aren't that draconian, but when they are no longer producing, we can't afford to be running a retirement home for washed up hens, so we take them to a local auction.  Some of our flock was getting as old a 3 years, and while we do hatch our own replacements, it's always wise to have some fresh bloodlines from time to time.  

Normally, I confer with Dan before making most any farm decision, but I decided that now was a great time to order female chicks to be replacement layers.  Why now? A hen doesn't begin to lay eggs until she's 5 or 6 months old, so chicks hatched now will start to lay in March sometime, which is when we begin to really need an increase in egg production.  So I decided what I wanted and called up the hatchery we deal with.  Next week, I'll be getting some little fuzzy chicks.  Some will be mostly coal black and will grow up to be my black and white speckled Barred Rocks.  Some will be yellow, and will grow up to be my favorite birds, Delawares, which are mostly white with a bit of black on their wings and tails.  I don't know what colors to expect the rest of the chicks to be, as they are Ameracaunas. They are known as the "Easter Egg chicken" since they lay blue-green eggs, which I just love.  They have fluffs of feathers that resemble a beard under the beak and on the sides of the face that look like earmuffs (called, not surprisingly, muffs and beard!)  They come in a rainbow of colors as well, I've had jet black girls, brown, white, and multi-hued Ameracaunas.  So I'll look forward to opening that box and meeting them!

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Vegetarian Hens

Periodically, I try to review the sites that list our farm and keep them updated.  Yesterday, I looked at our eatwellguide.org listing.  I don't really like that one, because I can't edit it myself and it's just not user-friendly from a farmer's perspective.  Oh well.  I noticed that it still had our old RD Box address, so I clicked on it to update.  Then I noticed what it said about our products...no veggies listed, but all the meats were there, even turkey.  We didn't do turkey last year, but that's on our list of things to do this year, so I didn't see leaving it up as a problem.  Then I read the descriptions.  Pasture raised, no hormones, no antibiotics, organic methods...all were accurate.  Except one.  This listing advertised our poultry as being "100% vegetarian fed."

While chickens aren't meat-thirsty carnivores, they aren't strict vegetarians, either.  We don't feed our chicks any animal byproducts, just high protein, corn based poultry feed.  However, we do raise them on pasture.  The pens they live in have no bottom, and are dragged to new grass each morning.  This means that they not only have new grass to pick at and eat, they have lots of bugs to hunt and kill, which they do.  I've even seen the egg hens chasing each other when one of them kills a frog...a prize each wants to claim.  A chicken is designed by nature to hunt bugs as a part of its diet.   If you watch a chicken in a true free range/pasture pen, its attention is always drawn to the small movements of insects.  It just makes sense to me to let nature take its course and reap the benefits in the garden of having the chickens controlling the insect population. 

So what is the big deal?  My chickens eat bugs, who cares?  The problem I have is the misleading advertising that is present in our food system.  "100% vegetarian-fed"  is just a buzzword to get you to buy a product.  It's a lie if the chickens are truly raised in outdoor free range conditions.  It also makes you think that animal welfare is important, but if the birds can't eat bugs, they must be raised in some pretty sterile, unnatural conditions.  I've seen the phrase on plenty of egg cartons dropped off at the farm.  An under-educated customer buys it, but are they getting what they think is being advertised?  Maybe.  I'll never advertise my chicken or eggs as vegetarian-fed, but unlike big industry, I would never feed them beef by-products just to up the protein content of the food. (Yes, this actually happens- it's standard procedure for factory farms.) 

 As a consumer, find a farmer and ask about the living conditions and type of feed used if it is something you want to know about.  Small farmers make their living by being open and honest about what we do and how we do it.  We welcome and encourage educated customers. 


 

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Even Critters Get Spring Fever

For what seems like forever, the farm has been blanketed with snow...unbroken white all the way to the tree line. With a week of spring sunshine under our belts and temperatures breaking 60 today, it's quickly being replaced by more spring-like footing- mud everywhere!  Although the pond in the pasture is still frozen over, it won't be for long.  I can see the outline of the water shading the snow and ice yellow.  I'm guessing in a day or two there will be open water.   For now, the ducks are swimming in a rather large puddle between the house and the greenhouse.

We hope to be in the greenhouse, starting vegetable seeds, before long.  Another box of seeds arrived today in the mail.  Even though I placed the order and know what's inside, I still rush to open it.  It's like holding a box of promises.  Each packet whispers another secret, another color, another taste.  I can't wait to be elbow deep in trays and potting soil.

I swear, even the animals get spring fever.  Although the doors remain open all winter, the chickens don't venture out if there is snow on the ground.  Today they were looking for buried treasure in the exposed mud.  A couple of the Phoenix hens need to have their wings clipped again, as they are spending more time loose than in their outdoor run these days.

Last night, I let the cows and horses out while I cleaned up the barn and put feed in the feed boxes.  As I was scooping our home-ground feed out of the barrel, I looked out the window to see the cows racing through the pasture.  The animals generally go to the creek and drink and then mill about the barnyard until the door reopens, but last night the cows raced through the pasture, turning around the island of trees and brush halfway up the field.  Fiannait led the way, her heels kicking up higher than her ears in what looked like bovine glee.  Louie, Happy and Baby Buzz weren't far behind.

Our five little lambs are doing well.  They seem to be in a constant state of joyful motion; jumping and frolicking as much as they can in the pens.  We can't wait to let them out so they can  play in the great outdoors.  That will come soon, we hope in the next couple of weeks if the weather cooperates!

 
 

It's a boy and a girl and...

On a farm, by necessity, you live seasonally.  This is the time of year when I'm busy freezing and canning what I am able to prepare before the first killing frost and the long winter that follows.  It's generally not time for babies.  Today was a big exception.  Because pigs will breed year round, we were expecting a litter from each of our 2 sows soon.  We had moved them into the same pen the mother goats occupied a few months ago after a lot of cleanup and a little work to make 2 seperate, pig-proof pens.  We then moved Charlotte & Fern to thier new home to let them get adjusted before the big day arrived.  Although they were appearing close to farrowing (giving birth if you're a pig), we thought they were still a week or so away and were still allowing them access to the outdoor run.  Fern also started to build a nest out of hay, grasses & corn husks, but again, that means she is close but not necessarily beginning labor.  I was in the kitchen canning a wonderful peach barbeque sauce when my brother in law came in and informed me that the pigs were in labor.  I had to go out and see, as most farm animals birth at night, not at 1PM wit the sun high in the sky.  However, Char was outside with 2 piglets by her side and Fern was inside with 3.  It's very unusual for pigs to need assistance when farrowing, so we let them go.  Each of our girls had 10 babies, with one from each litter being stillborn, not uncommon for pigs.  I've learned not to cry for those ones and instead be glad about having 18 live ones.  While our girls have always had their little ones within a week of each other, It's pretty unusual to have them on  the same day, much less at the exact same time!  We had to get the moms inside where everyone can stay warm and dry.  Fern weighs around 400 lbs and gets really mean after she has piglets, so while she was exhausted and fairly calm we picked up all her babies and moved them, then she reluctanly followed.  Char was thirsty, so she was already up, it was a matter of picking up her babies as well and moving mom & the kids inside.  Everyone quickly settled down and no humans were injured in the process.  It was a good day.

 

I know some of you are wondering how the Delaware tasted.  I still don't know.  We offered free samples of our homegrown chicken at the stand this weekend and had lots of leftovers from roasting 2 whole birds.  So the Delaware went into the freezer and between stuffing ourselves with the last of the garden's bounty of sweet corn and using up the leftovers, I'm not sure when I'll get it cooked.  But I promise I'll post it here! 

 

Apologies to Maureen for not personally replying to her comment from last post, but it's been hectic here.  She wanted to know why a commercial chicken would have all that salt water added.  The industry calls it "plumping" and says they do it because customers like the taste better.  A natural chicken will have a bit of sodium in it- 45-60 mg if you don't add any salt during the cooking process.  A plumped chicken can have 10 times as much.  To put that in perspective, it's more salt than an order of fast food fries!  Why?  You are buying by the pound but purchacing salt water, which is dirt cheap for big business to add to their product.  And customers across the country paid billions of dollars last year for the weight of the salt water alone! I'm also guessing that the salt and the seaweed product carrageenen, which is also used in the plumping process, preserve the chicken somewhat and allow it to sit in the store's cooler a bit longer before it starts to smell or look funny.  I haven't seen that in print though.  The best way to avoid all this is to find a farmer you can trust and buy direct.  Your taste buds will thank you too! 

 

Ok, I just can't get the pictures to come up on this blog.  If you'd like to see the piglets, just go to www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com and scroll down until you see "Our Newest Arrivals".  The piglets are about 2 hours old in the pictures!

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Oooh, That Smell...

Although we've been hopeful that the chicken killers are no longer with us, we have been shutting the doors to the coop in the evenings.  On Saturday, we noticed that although  the chickens were safe, one of our Pekin (duck) hens was missing from our little flock. The ducks don't have a pen to be shut into at night, so I was starting to worry about how to keep them safe as well.  On a happy note, she was safe and sound and sitting in a little nest I hadn't noticed in the front yard of the house.  Pekins aren't known for going broody and she gave up sitting on the 5 eggs in a few hours, but after the rancid stink bombs I cleaned out of the Cochin's box, I'm ok with just using the incubator!

We've been trying to proctect the henhouse from any further attacks, so this weekend we put a trap by the door just in case there was still a problem.  We awoke Sunday morning to a horrid smell wafting through the open windows.  SKUNK.  Yep, we caught a skunk and he was not happy about it.  Even after getting rid of the actual animal, the scent lingers.  Not much we could do after the spray but close all the windows in the house, light scented soy candles, and I guess I won't be hanging laundry outside for a few days!

If you'd like to learn a bit more about the farm and see some picture of the critters, please check out our new website at www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com.  It lists what's currently for sale (with prices), FAQs, and I'm working on descriptions of the animals as well as their pictures.  Be sure to sign the guestbook too!

 
 

Really Old School

We went to a farm auction on Wednseday looking to pick up some equipment to make haymaking easier.  Although the hay loader went out of our price range, we were able to pick up a dump rake. It was quite the conversation piece; many of the older men gathered around it to reminisce.  One gentleman, probably in his 70's, came up to tell us how he had not run one since he was a little boy, and seemed very happy we were going to use it rather than use it as an antique yard ornament.  It made me laugh a bit inside, as he was Amish and has been using more current technology for years!  But the dump rake is home and worked great for Dan yesterday.  We'll have much less hay wasted by being left in the field, and it will be much simpler to load several piles of hay than forking up long, narrow windrows.

On a much sadder note, we've had some deaths in our chicken flock recently.  We eliminated a raccoon who had eaten several of my best layers and though it was over.  Three of the 4 killed were my Ameracauna girls, so I'm having a bit of a blue egg shortage at the moment although I do still get one or two a day.  Unfortunately, one of the feral barn cats has developed a taste for chicken and last night killed her 7th hen.  She has got all our adult Giant Cochins, both my Porcelin bantam girls and a mother Phoenix died defending her babies.  We have no choice but to kill her, as she is wild and would not be a candidate for the local humane society.  It makes me sad though.  So I just want to remind everyone out there that farmers do not need extra cats.  Over the years many midnight feline drop offs have occured here because people assume that if they can't give away kittens then they will have a happier life on a farm than if taken to a humane society.  I have 4 "bitty kitties" that came to us in this way in October.  Please know that not all have a happy life- established barn cats, a new road, lack of food if they don't know how to hunt...many other kitties don't make it long.  So let me just channel Bob Barker for a minute and remind you to spay or neuter your pet if you personally can't handle a litter of suprise babies.  I can't take care of them either, and it breaks my heart when I have to destroy one!

 
 

First Taste of Summer

Summer is officially here! The garden is so close to full production I can almost taste it when we go out in the evenings. Actually I guess we have tasted it- I've been able to make a few small salads with fresh greens, spring onions and a few baby radishes, served with a delishious bluberry-basil vinegrette from vinegar I made myself! Delicious!  The peas are blooming, as are the tomatoes and zucchini and last night we put up trellis for our rapidly growing pole and lima beans.  I have a few hot peppers that are getting to pickable size, now I'm busy looking over my canning cookbooks for a good hot pepper relish. If you have a good recipe, I'd love to hear about it.  I can't wait to get started canning for the summer! 

Hay production is going well, as of last week we had 2 entire fields dry and put up in the barn, which put us exactly 2 fields ahead of where we were last year! Dan spent yesterday cutting more, and if the weather is as beautiful as the forcasters are predicting, we will hopefully be done with our first cutting hay by the weekend, including the oat hay which I cultipacted much earlier in this blog.  The fields that have already been cut are growing back at an amazing rate, and we fully expect to be getting a good second crop later this summer.

Our broiler chickens have done so well out on grass, despite the unpredictable weather, that they've reached butchering size in just 7 weeks.  We started processing the first ones last night and hope to wrap this batch up by the weekend.  Chicken is the one thing we butcher start to finish here at the farm, but I don't mind too much.  Dan and I each have jobs to take care of during the process, and it runs pretty smoothly.  We have had orders rolling in for our chicken so if you are interested, contact us soon.  We're already sold out until mid to late August, so don't miss out!   For me, the first real taste of summer comes with some absolutely fresh chicken cooked over our charcoal grill with a wonderful garden salad. 

 
 
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