Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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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.

 
 

Crazy Busy

Today, the sprouts and I are staying inside. It's snowing or sleeting or something out there, which just seems cruel after the 70 and 80 degree weather of a few weeks ago. But truthfully, it IS still early April, and after all, the barn coat is a much more seasonal piece of clothing than the tank top this time of year in our part of the world. But today is one of those cloudy, grey days where the small greenhouse, our sprout house, just won't warm up much. Right now, at noon, it's only in the lower 60's, since it is barely 40 outside with no direct sun.

For about two weeks now, I've been carefully bringing the trays of sprouts inside each evening, so they don't suffer cold damage, and then lugging them back outside for a day of warmth & light. At first, it was a 5-minute chore, as I had 4 trays and only needed to make 2 trip outside to the sprout house. But those trays were seed starting trays, with 96 one-inch spaces for plants. Since then, the tomatoes, cukes, flowers and more have been transplanted into 3” peat pots, and I already have over a dozen trays to move each time. I have some more things to start as spring goes along, and more things in need of transplanting very soon. A plant will pretty much stop getting bigger if it doesn't have any more space for its roots- it's called being “rootbound”. After transplanting, I'm always amazed at how much a plant will grow in the next few days. You can literally notice a difference from morning to night!

While inside, I have some flats under fluorescent lighting up to help to make up for the lost daylight, not that they are missing out on much today. I have the rest near windows, soaking up the ambient light. I'm hesitant to have many more flats, as I'm quickly nearing the end of the available space to set them inside the house! But soon a few will be empties. Last Saturday, the construction on the main greenhouse was completed! Although the ends have been up, and Dan and I put up the 20' wide plastic for the roof the weekend before, we still needed to enclose the sides. We used more plastic, fastened to boards at the bottom for the sides. This way, during the heat of the summer, the sides can be rolled up and tied, providing for even more ventilation than the windows and doors at the ends could provide. We're very excited to have the greenhouse rennovations completed right on schedule. We've already planted onions, chard, lettuce and beets in the ground in the greenhouse, and we're looking forward to getting our greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants in the ground within the next 2 weeks. Although we know there will be some nights we'll have to heat the greenhouse, it's the only way to really get those crops to mature earlier. If all goes according to plan, we're optimistic that we'll be offering cucumbers as soon as we open this year.

It is spring, so of course we're crazy busy. Besides the greenhouse activity, Dan has already started plowing for the year, so it won't be too long before I'm working some of the machinery as well, which I really enjoy. Chick season is here and in full swing. Right now, we have baby chicks for sale. This year we will have Barred Rocks, and Easter Eggers, plus a few Delawares and Golden Phoenix chicks. Monday should bring our first turkey poults of the season. We're getting lots of inquiries about our Bourbon Red poults, and I do have a few folks who have already reserved poults. The quail have finally started to lay, and with only 18 days of incubation necessary (compared to 21 for a chicken or 24 for goose, duck, peacock or turkey) we'll have bumblebee-sized little quail in the brooder next week. The geese have been sitting on nests for a couple of weeks now, so I think we'll see goslings soon, too.

All our lambs are thriving on the good spring grass, and it's a joy to watch them run and play out in our fields. I'm also watching our Dexter cow Finni like a hawk right now. She is due any day now, and we're again looking forward to having a calf in our midst. We bought Finni to be our family milk cow, and we're once again anxious to have our own farm-fresh milk in the fridge. I'm looking forward to dabbling a bit in making some other dairy products, like butter, cheese and sour cream as well.  ...And speaking of cheese, as opening day approaches, we'll once again make the journey to Whispering Brook Cheese Haus so we can offer their raw milk cheese at he stand.  We've missed all the delicious flavors, too!

We don't have enough room in the incubator for all the eggs we're getting, so I've also been busy trying to use them up making a variety of handmade egg noodles here at the farm kitchen. Dan absolutely loves them, and I'm looking forward to listing on our Etsy store (www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa/) and having them available when we reopen at the end of next month. It won't be long now!

Be sure to check out our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Farm/121591150986 ...our album “Greenhouse” shows the whole building process!

 
 

What IS That Sound??


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.

 
 

The Incubator

As a kid, my Easter mornings were pretty standard...a basket of chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps (and eating as many as possible before church!).  Now, my Easter mornings are far less sugary, but with lots of the same creatures.  Tiny, fuzzy baby bunnies in nests of their mother's fur.  And lots of peeps- soft, downy chicks making adorable, soft chirps.  I love getting up in the morning and opening the incubator to see dozens of tiny birds that didn't exist just the night before!

Dan and I began our hatching adventure several years ago with a small Styrofoam incubator that held 42 eggs.  You fill it and wait three weeks to see what hatches.  We liked hatching so much that we bought a commercial-sized one.  The large incubator that we use now has three racks, each capable of holding 66 chicken eggs (or less geese, or more quail...it all depends on the size of the egg).  It works great, since you can fill a rack each week with chicken eggs,  since a chicken takes 21 days to incubate and hatch, as the eggs are ready to hatch and moved to the hatching tray, you have a weekly hatching rotation that can go uninterrupted all spring.  This year, things have gotten far more complicated.  This is because we've been blessed with an amazing number of turkey eggs.  We didn't know what to expect, since this is a new venture for us, we were hoping to get 10-12 eggs from each of our first-year hens. So far, our seven girls have produced over 130 eggs total, and we're still collecting more each day!  It's many more turkeys than we plan on raising up, so we are able to sell the extras for some welcome spring income as well.  But what is making things complicated is that turkey eggs take longer to hatch.  Like ducks & geese, turkey eggs take 28 days.  This means a good part of our rack space is occupied for an extra week.   It's not a big deal, as long as you keep good records and know which eggs need to be moved to the hatching tray at the bottom of the incubator at what time.  (Moving to the hatcher is important, since it's hard for a chick to escape its shell if it's being held upright in the plastic racks, and also the trays turn.  You don't want to see a chick hatch on the trays because they tilt from side to side.  If a chick were to hatch there, it would fall from the rack into the hatching tray below or possibly get crushed by the turning mechanisms.  Not good.)  To maximize tray space, I have to keep good records of what is hatching when, and to avoid confusion, I'll mark the eggs with a Sharpie marker.  It doesn't hurt anything, and I know for sure that the turkey eggs in the tray with, for instance, a blue x on them are ready to hatch while the ones marked with an orange x need to stay a week longer.

 We haven't been hatching near the amount of chicks  we have in the past this spring because our turkey eggs take priority.  Turkeys will only lay eggs for a period of weeks in the spring.  Then they are done for the rest of the year.  Chickens lay eggs over most of the year, so I can always hatch them later.  It's been a bit frustrating, because I do have folks who want to buy chicks from us, but I just don't have quantities of 25 or 50 chickens of a particular breed to sell any given week right now.  One of the hardest things to get used to, for me, is the amount of patience and planning it takes to farm.  I imagine lots of the folks emailing me about chicks expect that I have large pens like they do at Tractor Supply or other stores, and they can come and pick out as many as they like, whenever it is convenient for them.  They don't realize that I have to plan weeks in advance, and that it depends on what is laying and how many eggs are collected.  But that is the way it works on a farm, nothing is instant.  Even plants can take much longer than many people realize- I bought asparagus crowns back in February, they arrived in the mail at the farm last week.  As soon as it dries out enough to work the soil, we'll plant them.  Then we wait.  The plants will establish themselves this year, and next spring we'll be able to have a small harvest, with larger harvests in subsequent years.  Still, it means I won't taste a single bite or make a single dollar selling asparagus until well over a year from when I paid for the plants.  Instant gratification just doesn't happen on a farm.  

The key is to find joy in whatever is happening, and be grateful whenever you have success.  And the incubator brings me great joy every time.  Yesterday morning, I had a dozen turkeys to remove from the incubator tray.  Turkeys are still new enough that even Dan gets a bit excited.  I also had chicken eggs to put in the hatcher over the weekend, and last night, after dinner, I heard loud peeps coming from the incubator.  I've noticed many times that the birds make the biggest noise just as they are making the final push out of the shell.  So I had to check on my babies.  I opened up the incubator to find a single wet, just-hatched chick.  Awww!  Dan asked what it was, and I replied that it was a Delaware.  "Wanna see?" I asked.  No, he's seen hundreds of Delaware chicks and thousands of baby birds hatched here.  I closed up the incubator to let the chick dry overnight while the rest hatched before moving them to the brooder pen this morning.  Dan asked me, as I snapped the incubator door latches shut, "You still get excited every single time, don't you?"

 I do.   

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Not Really Vacation

Today is my 4th day off in a row, and by "off" I mean not commuting to my day job, because as usual, I've been busier here than I am at work!  Friday, Dan and I worked until 1 AM getting the butcher shop finished.  Although the Stevensons have always done some of the processing here, the kitchen was in need of a good cleaning and a coat of paint.  Not only did we paint, but we also put down a new tile floor, added much needed shelving and built a larger butchering table.  It turned out wonderfully, will be easier to clean, and if yesterday was any indication, a better workspace makes the whole process easier and more efficient.  We'll be butchering 3 more hogs today with the help of Dan's father, Tom, and that will complete our freezer pork orders.  Soon we'll be moving on to hogs we'll be selling at our stand when we reopen for the season on May 29. 

Of course butchering hogs & making sausage makes for busy days, but I've also been working hard on getting other things ready.  This weekend alone I made Honey Mustard, Cranberry-Peach Compote (like a chunky jam, but with almonds too!), Thai Hot & Sweet Dipping Sauce and repackaged all of my flavored vinegars into the new bottles.  Today I hope to bottle a bit of the champagne vinegar I made, buy more champagne because it turned out so well, and split the mother of vinegar to make some real white & red wine vinegars as well.  I also have some Blueberry Basil Vinegar that's nearly done and will need bottled in a week or so as well as some Dried Herb Vinegar, so I think I need to order more bottles too!  I filled some of my new herb containers with dried chamomile and the oregano in the dryer should be done today, so I'll package that and set more oregano on the racks to dry.  

The baby turkeys arrived, but they must have had a bad trip because only about half survived the 48 hour period after we picked them up.  There was a guarantee though, so Welp's hatchery sent us replacements.  There weren't enough turkeys to ship safely, so they filled the box with extra chicks so everyone would stay warm.  They look like Barred Rocks, so I'll gladly keep any hens and add them to our egg laying flock, since that is a breed we have here.  To date, the new turkeys and the survivors from the last batch are doing great and growing like weeds! We also picked up a batch of broiler chicks Saturday, and they are all doing well too.  We've been getting to know our postal workers pretty well, because this morning we went to the office before they opened again, this time to pick up hatching eggs.  We're going to try raising Cortunix quail for eggs and meat, so if they hatch well we may be offering those products at the stand by the end of July!

Most of our plants survived the early frost, so we're anxious to be offering things like rhubarb, spring onions and lettuce when we open.  But for now, I've got to go, we've got lots to do today! 

 
 

Starting the Garden

It's an unseasonably warm weekend, and a long one away from the office for me.  We're excited to be getting some things in the ground at last! Our garlic overwintered well, and the chives are ready to be cut anytime now.  Other than the lemon balm and oregano though, there's not much green in the garden right now.  Dan has been doing a bit of tilling and I'm excited to start the day tomorrow by doing a bit of planting.  We've got onion sets for some early green onions and some carrots, beets, radish and lettuce varieties to start.  All of these can handle a light frost, since we're sure to have quite a few more, even though the high today was 82.  This should put them on pace to be ready by Memorial Day, when we open the stand. Plus I've really been missing fresh greens, so I'm anxious for a nice spring salad!  I also couldn't resist picking up some bare root strawberry plants while I was out, so I think we're going to risk the frost and put them in the ground with a nice layer of mulch hay to keep the frost off for the time being.  While I'm not going to be planting enough to plan offer them at the stand, if I have enough extras I'm sure they will end up in some delicious jelly or jam for sale. 

Another project underway is getting another greenhouse up and operational.  Dan's tilled a few times, and once we get a new layer of plastic over it, we'll be able to plant tomatoes, peppers and a few other plants right in the ground for an earlier first harvest.  This is new for me, and I'm pretty excited about it. 

We hatched 39 chicks last weekend and are hoping for even more coming out of the incubator this week.  I love hatching, but I really get excited when we have hens dedicated enough to do it without my help.  The mothering instinct has been bred out of many, many chickens, so they literally won't reproduce without human assistance, which to me is sad. However, my golden phoenix hens hatched 12 of their own last year, so when I saw them pooling their eggs into one nest box this spring, I let them go and didn't take the eggs away.  A hen will only sit on the eggs when she thinks there is enough to invest her time in, so I let them build up.  This evening, there was a broody phoenix hen covering the eggs.  She didn't give up last year, so I'm optimistic we'll be seeing some naturally hatched chicks three weeks from now!

 
 

A Very Successful Weekend

It was a very busy weekend here.  Thursday night I heard the first peeps coming from the incubator, we kicked off hatching season with a Delaware chick followed by many more Delawares, some Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons and a few Polish and Blue Cochins.  My favorite part of hatching season is opening up the incubator in the morning or after I get home from work.  When I pull out the hatching tray, it's just amazing to see little fluffy chicks where solid eggs were just a few hours prior.  Even after hatching hundreds of chicks, it never grows old for me.  In fact, this is later in the year that we started hatching previously, and I really missed it!

Another successful event this weekend was Friday's Farm to Table conference.  We only got a little lost on our way to the convention center!  It was great to finally meet Mia from PASA, I feel like I know her since we've exchanged so many emails.  She was really great in person, truly excited about local foods, and I look forward to meeting her again.  We had samples of my Black Forest Preserves, Carrot Cake Jam, Horseradish Mustard, Ginger-Garlic Mustard, and Thai Dipping Sauce available to all who walked by the PASA table.   Although all were well-received, the Carrot Cake Jam was the hands-down winner.  My favorite quote from the conference was a woman who not only wanted to buy a jar, but wanted me to make a whole bathtub for her so she could "just soak it all in!" I was amazed, even in a big place like Pittsburgh, about half of the folks who stopped by knew where Tionesta was.  We hope to see lots of them at our stand this summer!  It was a great place for farmers and other vendors to network as well.  Although I had quite a few requests to carry my products at other locations, for now the only place they will be available is at our stand here at the farm.

I was pleasantly surprised by the edible Allegheny table as well.  The magazine had contacted me last year about advertising in it.  Although it was a bit too expensive to fit into our current advertising budget, I offered to host them if they ever cared to do a story here.  I was told that only farms that advertise would get stories published about them  This really soured me on the magazine, because it is a beautiful publication that states its purpose as supporting local farms and seasonal eating, but I felt that if they only profiled advertisers, they were misleading the audience about the true availability of local food by ignoring small producers.  One of the women at the booth asked if I had heard of the magazine before, and when I relayed this story, she told me that it was not true at all, and that she was in fact the editor of the publication.  I gave her one of my cards, and whether or not they ever want to do a story here, I'm excited about the magazine now.  I'm looking forward to sitting down with the issue they handed out at the conference and to seeing the subscription come to my mailbox.

 
 

Lots of Excitement!

The weather here has been beatuiful, the mud is drying and we have even more beautiful farm babies!  Lambing season continues, we now have a total of 6 healthy little lambs...5 rams (boys) and one ewe.  Last years we fininshed the season with 4 ewes and only 2 rams, so I guess it's just the boys' year this time!  We also have three more ewes who we are watching closely, as they have yet to deliver.

Both our sows have delivered their piglets, with Fern giving birth a few days after Char.  We have a grand total of 19 healthy little piglets!  Wow!

The incubator is filling with eggs and our first chicks of the season will hatch next weekend.  I've missed the soft peeping of chicks, so I'm excited about that, too.  I also spotted the first goose egg of the season this week.  This goose found a nice spot under the rabbit cages in the back yard.  It's fairly out of the way, but I can watch from my kitchen window, so I'm hoping she sticks with this spot for hewr nest this year.  I noticed this location as I moved the bantam Japanese chickens from that rabbit cage back into their summer home.  It is a bottomless pen called a chicken tractor, and now that the snow has melted, I can put those birds back out on grass.  It sure is nice to see them in the yard again!

The plants are coming to life as well.  I noticed the first glimpses of crimson popping up through the mulch covering our rhubarb patches.  The blueberry bushes are showing little buds and it looks like my rosebush survuved the winter.  A few early leaves of green mark where the oregano, thyme and lemon balm are in the herb garden as well. The daffodils are poking up and I'm sure the forsythia and lilac bushes will be blooming soon, as the buds are starting to swell on the branches.

Besides all the spring excitement, I'm also looking forward to the Farm to Table conference set for next Friday & Saturday at the David L. Lawerence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.  While the cost of a table for the 2 days was a bit out of our farm's advertising budget this year, we belong to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, aka PASA.  They are featuring member farms and giving free samples of products at a table there, so I've already sent them a box of our jams and mustards.  Dan and I are planning on attending on Friday as well, and if all goes according to plan, we'll be at the PASA table when our farm is featured to answer questions and have some of our products to sell.  I think this is really neat, but I'm also just as excited to check out what other farms in our region are doing.  When I find out the actual time our farm is scheduled, I'll be sure to post it so that you can stop by and say hello if you're there!

 
 

Start of Chick Season

It's a bit later than past years, but this week we're dusting off the incubator and filling trays with fertile eggs.  We invested in a large incubator that lets us set about 60 eggs per week.  This year, we'll be hatching Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Delawares, Golden Phoenixes, and Blue Cochins.  There will probably be some crossbred chicks from the other breeds as well, but we don't keep aggressive roosters, so I don't have an Ameracauna or Polish rooster at the moment.  That may change as spring moves on, but for now we're not planning to offer them this year.  

I've missed hatching, so I'm happy to get this underway.  Even after hatching literally hundreds of peeps the past couple years, it's still exciting to get up in the morning and see small fluffy birds where eggs were the night before.  We set on Sundays, and the chicks will hatch about 21 days later.  We have three levels for trays in the incubator and a hatching box in the bottom, so once we start setting we will have 50+ chicks hatch every week. An 80% hatch rate is pretty good, although we've hatched 95% or better in some batches.  Some batches were below that too, which is why it's important to keep good records to find out what happened.   Once the eggs are set, it's pretty low maintenance; our incubator has a bucket on top for water to keep the humidity up that doesn't need filled often, and the trays turn every 4 hours, eliminating the need to do it by hand. A mother hen will rotate the eggs by shifting around on her nest, but a mechanical incubator just tilts the trays at an angle one way, then the other.  If you have an incubator that doesn't come with that feature, you need to turn the eggs over by hand every few hours (at least 3-4x per day) or the chicks will develop lopsided and stuck to the inside of the shell and won't hatch. The incubator beeps every time it shifts the trays, and after a week or so we don't even notice, it just becomes part of the normal noise of the house. (The incubator is inside, in a small heated space off of the kitchen.) However, guests notice the noise right away and tend to look at us slightly alarmed, since it does sound a bit like a smoke alarm or other such warning!

Dan and I started this project 2 years ago, the first batch was hatched in a small Styrofoam incubator in a spare bedroom in a trailer I rented at the time.  Most hobbies give the encouragement that you, too, can learn to do this, but we were a little apprehensive about incubating eggs.  The catalog we got our first incubator from also had a book called A Guide to Better Hatching.  The description said that hatching was possible now with this new book.  The book itself was no more reassuring...humidity too high? Nothing will hatch.  Too low? No hatch. Too warm? They might not hatch, or they might be deformed.  And so on...we were partly worried we'd never get it right, but tried to reassure ourselves that it couldn't be that hard, since after all, a chicken could do it!  I can still remember the excitement of looking through the small plexiglass window and seeing small cracks in the shells on day 21.  I must have called Dan three times between the time I got home from work and the time he came to my house with updates!  Having a large incubator, we set up brood pens with heat lamps out on the enclosed porch, but for a time the brooder was right in the house too.  I was a bit worried that Puff, my big fluffy house cat, would think the chicks were kitty play toys and bat them through the bars, but he's lazy and just thought that the heat lamp was set up for a nice warm kitty sleeping area near the pen.   While it will probably never be quite as exciting as the first time, it's still a joy to get up on a Sunday morning and hear soft peeping coming from the incubator while you put the coffee on!  Another sure sign of spring!

 
 

Super Scruff Hen Returns

What is a scruff hen? At our farm it's a hen that came to us that we weren't really looking for.  As in, I buy a particular chicken at an auction and it comes with another, less desireable chicken.  One such gal came to be know as "Super Scruff Hen" as she looked to be molting when we got her, and was in no hurry to get her feathers back.  She's a small gold and black barred bird that lays white eggs quite consistantly.   I think she's probably a Campine.  We were going to take her back to the auction, but she just kept laying eggs.  Then we moved her to a pen that, unlike the first, was not completely enclosed, and she became a barnyard bird as she could figure out a way out of the pen daily, no matter how short her wings were clipped or what you did to the fence.  But, being the extremely cagey bird she is, she would see me at chore time and follow me back into the coop, where she would safely spend the night.  Several weeks ago I stopped seeing her, and I was sad, but we had lost quite a few hens to the predators, and all seemed to be my favorites! We found out what happed to Super Scruff Hen this week...she had relocated herself to a secret location in the haymow and made a nest to sit on.  I found a rather soggy chick last night and put it under the heat lamp to dry, but we couldn't find its mom.  Super Scruff Hen reappeared today, with two more tiny chicks in tow!  Now if I can just lure her back to the henhouse...

I sit typing this as my first "full time farmer" activity.  Tomorrow is my first day of being laid off, so I am keeping my head up and making the most of it...it's a great time of year to be home on the farm!  Tomorrow Dan and I plan to put the finishing touches on shed cleanup and we'll be set for the grand reopening on Saturday from 10-2.  I've canned some dilly beans, blueberry basil vinegar, and a Thai sweet and hot dipping sauce to sell and I intend to get some mustard made in the next day or so.  I hope to see some of you there, but I must go now...time to mow while the sun shines to make the place look presentable!

 
 

Full of Surprises!

Monday was a real emotional rollercoster.  I found out the agency I work for (away from the farm) is laying everyone off for the month of August due to the fact that as the Pennsylvania state government can't pass the budget, so our agency won't receive the grant money they use to pay us.  While  I feel for the families who depend on our services and the employees who rely soley on that paycheck, I am kind of excited to have a whole summer month to be on the farm.  Dan and I had just been discussing plans for reopening the farm stand, so for me, the timing couldn't be better. But knowing I still had to spread the bad news to the employee I supervise the next day, I started evening chores with a lot on my mind. The animals always seem to have a way of taking your thoughts back to the present though, and this day was no exception.  I heard the sound of newborn goats as I was tending to the chickens and found both Lolly, a Boer, and Callie, a Boer/Pygmy cross, had kidded.  In the same spot.  The babies were all mixed up.  But Dan and I got everyone down to the nursery barn, both mothers and all 4 babies.  We determined that Callie again had a single baby and that Lolly had triplets!  However, Callie was feeling so maternal she wanted to take care of all 4 babies, even the little triplet who wasn't looking so good.  Sometimes when there are 3, one is weak and won't make it.  This appeared to be the case- the poor little guy wouldn't stand and appeared he might die before we even left the barn.  So we put him in with Callie and her little girl, figuring if she had an interest in him, he might have a little better chance of making it.  But as he was on death's door, we didn't think it mattered very much anyway, so that was pretty sad.  But chores needed to be finished, and the suprises were not over.  I found a litter of 5 healthy baby rabbits!  And as we were finishing up the chicken chores, Dan asked me "Why do I hear peeping?"...a little bantam had been sitting on a nest and hatched a little bantam chick, who was making all that noise!

After dinner, Dan checked on the goats again, and I expected to hear that the little guy had died.  But when Dan checked on them, he was standing on his own, nursing.  I'm happy to report that as of last night he seemed to be healthy and doing well, although I always hold my breath and usually don't name them for the first week or so.  They always seem so frail!  But the 3 born on Thursday are doing splendidly.  Mama's little girl is the picture of heath and quite possibly the cutest thing ever born.  Mocha has settled into motherhood as well, and her twins are also healthy and active.  We're even getting a fair amount of milk from Mama, so it looks like one less thing I'll have to worry about buying while I'm laid off, which is always good.

We are looking to open the farm stand, located roadside at the farm, on Saturdays for the remainder of the summer.  We are hoping to open July 25, but are in the process of rearranging some other commitments.  I will be posting dates and times on our website, www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com, as soon as the details are finalized. 

 
 

Loose Hay and "The Claw"

The major task of spring, planting corn, is over so we've transitioned into the work of summer- making hay and keeping the weeds under control in the garden and fields.  As it is just Dan and I putting up hay this year, after much thought and discussion we decided to make loose hay instead of hiring someone to help us bale it.  Much of the process is the same-Dan uses the horses to mow the field, we pray for 3 days of clear weather and watch the hay dry, and then use a horsedrawn hayrake to pile the hay in the field into long windrows.  At this point, we would have been dependent on someone else to come and operate the baler through the field and we would have taken the wagon out into the field to collect the bales.  But I would have needed to drive the wagon and stack all the bales, while Dan would have been walking the field and throwing them onto the wagon.  Then each bale would have been pulled off the wagon and stacked again in the hay mow in the barn.  For those of you who've never picked up a bale, they usually weigh about 40-50 pounds each and we plan on making 1,000 or so to get us through the winter. Each bale must be handled twice, and that is a whole lot of weightlifting for just 2 people!  So, after the hay is dry, we will rake it more than once, meaning instead of several small windrows across the field, we will have a few larger ones.  Then I will drive the wagon alongside the windrow while Dan uses a hayfork (like a pitchfork, but with only 3 tines) to load it onto the wagon.  My other job is to keep the horses from snacking on the new hay while they are working! 

Once we have a good wagonload, we drive down to the barn and the wagon is backed up inside.  Then we let the claw do the work for us!  Up in the rafters, there is a track with a scary-loking contraption that operates in much the same way as the claw arcade games where you try to win a stuffed animal.  The rope is lowered and the 4 prongs are pushed into the pile of hay on the wagon.  There is a rope that runs through a series of pullies and is hooked to the horses.  When they pull it, the rope lifts the claw and hundreds of pounds of hay clear up to the barn rafters.  When it meets the track, it slides over to the side of the barn over top of where the hay will be stored.  Then, when another rope is pulled, it triggers the release and the hay falls to the floor.  The wagon is unloaded in minutes and with very little labor.  It's an amazing piece of machinery to see in action, all the more so because it works flawlessly despite the fact it was installed when the barn was built- in 1894. 

We already spent an afternoon putting up hay, it looks like so much, but as it's not compressed it probably equals out to about 75 bales or so.  But it is beautiful hay and fills the barn with a delicate scent.  We were so excited that the weather held up and we were able to cut the hay in its prime and have some in the barn on June 1!  Today is the start of 3 days of anticipated clear weather, so we hope to be making lots of hay Saturday.

Last Sunday we had baby chicks born on the farm.  While during the spring we usually hatch 50 or 60 chicks per week with our incubator, these were hatched by a hen.  This is fairly unusual, many of the chickens used for eggs today have been selected over time to produce eggs all year round and not defend the nest when the farmer comes to collect the eggs.  Because of this, most common breeds of chickens no longer know how to hatch babies: we've bred the mothering instinct out of them.  We have a variety of breeds, about 12 different breeding flocks over the spring months, and each have thier own special qualities.  The Phoenix roosters have long beautiful tails and the hens are more colorful than the average female bird.  I noticed one hen sitting on eggs one day and guarding them fiercely from me, so I let her go.  They lay smaller white eggs that I usually don't sell anyway, so I saw no harm in letting her give it a try. Then another hen joined her in the nest box and they sat out the 3 weeks it takes to hatch the eggs.  All together, they hatched 12 little chicks and have protected them from the hungry barn cats for about a week now.  It's pretty amazing to see.  I'm  keeping a close eye on my Giant Cochin hens, 3 of them are sharing a box right now, and I hope they have as much success as the Phoenix girls did! 

 
 
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