Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Grinding Cornmeal

One of this week's projects for me has been making cornmeal.  It's not the bright yellow you may have come to expect because instead of using yellow corn, I use an heirloom variety called Earth Tones Dent that we grow here at the farm.  "Dent" means that it's not a sweet corn to be eaten fresh, but rather an Indian corn type which is not harvested until the kernels have dried out, resulting in a dent at the top of each one when the moisture is gone.  It's an heirloom, open pollinated variety which means that it is not a GMO like the corn used commercially for meal, it's not a hybrid, and the seeds can be saved from year to year.  The ears come in a variety of colors from deep red to a mix of blue and purple.  


Once the dried ears have been picked from the stalks, the husks are removed.  We store the husked ears in onion sacks hung from the ceiling to make sure there is enough airflow so it will keep well until we use it.  To make cornmeal, we start by removing the kernels from the cob.  It's a time consuming job if done by hand, but we were fortunate to find a corn sheller at auction last fall.  It looks like a big red box with a large metal wheel on the outside.  A handle is turned until the wheel is revolving quickly, at which point ears are dropped in one at a time through a slot in the top.  Inside, there are large plates with teeth that revolve which separate the cob from the kernels.  The kernels drop out into a bucket or pan placed under the machine while the cobs are spit out the side.  

After that, I grind using a cast iron grain mill in the kitchen.  While this can also be turned by hand, Dan has put a small electric motor on it which powers the grinder using a belt from the motor to the large wheel.  It can be adjusted from a coarse to a fine grind.  The kernels go into a hopper on top, and come out the bottom.  This has not only the cornmeal, but also the hard outer part of each kernel, so the next step is to sift out the usable meal using a simple hand cranked flour sifter.   Finally, I weigh and package it.  We're happy to have it back in stock just in time for Thanksgiving, and are proud to advertise that our cornmeal is grown here, ground here, and hand sifted!


Fall Decoration Time

Beautiful fall weather here after much rain.  We're happy to have 9 more piglets here at the farm, as Fern finally had her fall litter yesterday.  The mud has kept me from the garden lately, but now it's been so much fun to see all the gourds that have matured.  We didn't plant them from seed, but bought some assorted gourd starters from a local greenhouse, so I loved seeing what came of the beautiful yellow and white blooms that appeared on the vines earlier this growing season.  Warty little gourds, smooth colorful ones the shape of pumpkins, and big birdhouse gourds in various colors. We grew pumpkins too.  Our winter squash did very well this year, and there are bushels of acorn, spaghetti, sweet dumpling, and butternut squash at the stand, along with some Hubbard and Giant Pink Bananas as well.  Although there is lees produce filling up the table since we've been hit by our first frost, the floor and benches are overflowing with our fall harvest!

Although I've been fighting a bit of a fall cold, it was so nice to be outside Friday gathering corn stalks to gather into decorative shocks.  Although the strawberry popcorn I planted didn't pan out as I hoped, I'll try again next year and this year be thankful for the deep red stalks I harvested.  Although we do so much by hand and by horse, there is something gratifying about putting together these decorative bundles.  I harvest them simply; with a machete in hand, I chop the base while I hold the stalk, trying to keep the tassel upright.  I carry them down to the shed and tie what seems to be the right number together with bailer twine.  Halloween is a favorite holiday of mine for very personal reasons, so I love decorating for fall.  I love being able to offer these fun treats for my customers as well.

Another fall staple here at he farm is lamb.  We've sold out of most of the cuts from earlier this year, so it's time to send a few more for processing.  It was a great day to saddle up Sara and bring the flock down to the barn.  She seemed to remember how this went last time, and surprisingly so did the sheep.  It was a short ride because it went so flawlessly. 


The Lack

Saturday at the stand, we had beets, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow zucchini, pattypan and crookneck squash, bell peppers, jalapeños, sweet banana & inferno banana peppers, Swiss chard, heirloom lettuce, red & white new potatoes and plum tomatoes.  We had fresh herbs- basil, Thai basil, mint, chamomile, chives and cilantro plus 4 kinds of herb seeds for growing at home, dried oregano, chamomile, and coriander.  I have personally canned and offered for sale my secret-recipe pickles in two sizes, extra hot pepper rings, 2 kinds of whole grain mustards (honey & ginger garlic), 3 flavored and one home fermented vinegar (blueberry basil, dried herb, mulled blackberry and champagne) and seven kinds of jelly (mint, hot pepper, black forest, carrot cake, cranberry-peach conserve, gingered pear and oriental rhubarb) and a sweet & hot dipping sauce.  We had free range eggs, pastured pork (bacon, ham, 4 varieties of homemade sausage, roasts, chops, ribs, ham steak & ham hock), whole farm-raised and -processed chickens, and our grass fed beef (ground beef, stew meat, sirloins, T-bones, round steaks, rib steaks, chuck roasts, R.B. roast, rolled rump roast, tip roast).  We also had (but do not make ourselves) six different flavors of raw milk cheese (cheddar, smoked cheddar, jalepeno, dill & bacon, horseradish and goat's milk) from a family-run farm & cheese house in Chambersburg, PA.  As I set up, things looked full and prosperous to me.  I feel that it is an amazing variety for a 50-acre farm worked by hand and by horse, with just 2 employees (Dan and myself- no hired help!) making sure everything gets done.


Imagine my frustrations then, when about 1/4 of our visitors asked variations on the question "Don't you have much of anything today?" Our sweet corn will be ready this coming weekend, as will lots more tomatoes, including the big beefsteaks.  For a quarter of my customers this past weekend, apparently that is all that is worth going to a local farm for.  Some folks were just disappointed that they had to alter the weekend's menu. For others,  "We'll have it next week"  was greeted by "but I want it this week!"  It sounded like a preschooler's tantrum, minus the foot-stomping, and was immediately followed by demands for directions to another farm that might be more cooperative. It was also a slower day, and that made it easy to feel a bit discouraged.  While I realize that as farmers, part of our responsibility to our customers is to help them understand what local and seasonal really mean, not everyone is going to be interested in that lesson, especially if it means they can't have exactly what they want whenever they want it.

 It reminded me of a speech I heard a while back at a forum on dealing with folks in poverty...the speaker addressed "the lack."  Her use of it was basically if someone is poor, they are often seen as lacking anything to contribute, but if you truly look at the person they often have non-monetary things in their favor- creativity, compassion, a good work ethic, etc.  God-given gifts that as humans we often fail to see.  I saw my farm that way this weekend; some of my folks couldn't see the bounty for the lack of corn.  I understand the seasons here and know we did everything in our power to get the corn and tomatoes to ripen (organically!!!) as soon as possible.  But I also know what an amazing meal I had last night using things that were on the table over the weekend- a ham with a glaze made from mulled blackberry vinegar, with sautéed julienned zucchini smothered in cheese and fresh herbs.  Certainly we didn't fell any lack at the table last night, other than a lack of restraint when it came to second helpings!  My beautiful plum tomatoes, which were soundly rejected as being "too meaty" by a customer looking for tomatoes, perfumed my living room as I turned them into sun dried tomatoes in my dehydrator.  So this weekend, as you patronize your favorite farm, try not to be too disappointed if you get there and don't see the product you initially came looking for.  Instead of lamenting the lack, try to celebrate the possibilities!


How Much Corn Do We Need?

When I was younger, my family didn't garden, so I really never paid any attention to vegetable varieties.  Corn, for instance, came on the cob, canned, creamed, frozen, or popped.  Now that I'm actively involved in planning the varieties we'll depend on for the year, the names of different varieties are like old friends to me.  I'm always on the lookout for a new friend who will perform well, too.  This means we'll plant multiple varieties of many vegetables, and there really is a lot to learn before you can be successful.This year, we are planning to plant seven different varieties of corn.  Not all seven will ripen at the same time, or even be used for the same purpose.

 Probably the most important corn is one we won't eat, and that is our field corn.  It will be the variety we plant the most of, for it is what we feed to the animals all winter as a supplement to their hay.  Many a city kid has been bitterly disappointed when raiding a farmer's field after dark for those luscious looking yellow ears, only to take them home, cook them, and find them to be starchy and tasteless.  We'll leave it on the stalks to dry until late fall, when we'll pick it.  Some will be left whole and on the cob, while some of it will be ground into feed.  We also use some of this (in a different grinder!) to make the cornmeal we sell here.


I have planted Earth Tones Dent corn for the past 2 years now, it's an ornamental, or "Indian" corn.   It's very pretty, and we sell some of it for decoration in the fall.  It also dries like the field corn and can be fed to the animals or used to make colored cornmeal.  I'm still using up my yellow cornmeal, but the next time we grind, I'll be interested to see what it looks like.  It is also not a hybrid, unlike most corn varieties, so I save the seed from the biggest and prettiest ears every year.  We plant a little more each year, and are going to try planting more this spring to use as animal feed as well.  It would be so nice to have a dependable corn crop from a seed that we don't have to buy each year, as it can be quite an expense!  Plus I have a fondness for the old time varieties.


Two varieties we're planting this year are new to the farm. Dan wanted to plant Bloody Butcher, a macabre name for a red corn that again can be used for animal feed, decoration (it's a deep, deep red) or for an interestingly colored cornmeal.  I wanted to try strawberry popcorn, a cute little miniature ear, only 2" long, that can be popped right in the microwave.  It just sounds fun,   and if it does well, we'll have it for sale at the farm stand later on in the season.  We purchased both these varieties from Seed Savers Exchange, so if they do well, we'll be able to grow them for years to come, saving the seed from year to year.

So four of our planned varieties are for the fall, as the kernels have to dry out before they are ready to harvest.   Don't worry, it just wouldn't be a farm stand without sweet corn, and we have three varieties of that in mind!  I really thought sweet corn only came in three varieties- all white, all yellow, and butter and sugar, the yellow and white kind.  Turns out that's not the case at all.  One catalog we receive has over 70 varieties of sweet corn alone!  Most are bi-colored- turns out "butter and sugar" could be one of at least 50 different, named, varieties.  That explains why some taste so much better than others!  We'll be planting 2 bi-color and one all yellow variety of sweet corn.  While they all mature much earlier that the fall corns, each variety has its own pace.  The catalog gives you a rough guess of how long it can take between the day you plant and the day you pick.  A short one will be something around 65 days, extending all the way to 90 or so.  This is a rough guess, and will vary depending on weather conditions and the like, but if you pick varieties that ripen a week or two apart, it's possible to have fresh, ripe corn for a much longer stretch in the summer.  So there really is a lot more to planning than deciding something named Silver Queen or Seneca Dancer sound tastier than the new ACX MS4012BC F1 (all real varieties!)  Of course, all the planning in the world can't protect you completely from bad weather, bugs, or blights, but doing my gardening homework and looking at the pictures of those delicious plants of summer sure help to pass the winter nights!


Gold & Jewels from the Fields

Although the season of delicious corn on the cob is long past here, field corn season is taking its turn as the main farm job.  We planted quite a few acres of field corn in the spring to feed the animals over the winter.  Unlike sweet corn, field corn isn't picked until the stalk is dead and the kernels are dry and have begun to dent inwards due to moisture loss.  That's why some varieties are called "dent" corn.  We spent last Sunday picking the smallest field, and we were able to complete harvesting it in a short time with the help of Dan's father and brother.  Everyone had a row or two to pick.  The ears were pulled from the stalk, the husk was pulled off, and the ears were thrown into the wagon being pulled by the horses.  The wagon had plywood boards to make the side away from the pickers higher, so that you could hit the board and the ear would bounce off and into the wagon.  It kept many ears from landing in the pasture or field!  Picking corn can be very enjoyable; with a number of people there is bragging about who is picking faster than whom, reminiscing of harvests gone by, helping out whoever has the densest row to pick and general good-natured conversation.  It's a real group effort that not only gets a very important job done, it isn't a bad way to pass a late fall afternoon.  The result is as precious to a farmer as gold for the winter.  Our little 3/4 acre field yielded a bit over 60 bushels, a very respectable total considering it was the field that Bandit, the Angus steer, love to escape to for a meal and parts of the field were damaged during the neighbor's runaway horse accident earlier in the summer. The wagon we used was built by my husband out of an old Toyota truck that was no longer roadworthy.  In its current state, it has a variety of uses around the farm, and was even our transportation from our wedding here at the farm to the reception hall a few miles away!

 The other corn that is still standing out in the field is called Earth Tones Dent and is an ornamental corn (aka "Indian corn").  I grew some last year and saved a few of the nicest ears until spring when we planted the seed from those ears.  Now it's time to harvest, and unlike the field corn, I want the husk left on for decorative purposes.   So each husk is carefully peeled back, one layer at a time, until the ear is revealed.  It's exciting every time to see what color it will be...shades of cranberry red, a rainbow of pastels from pink to orange to blue & purple, a pink & purple ear, one dotted with bright yellow kernels, or a mysterious shade of purplish black with deep green mixed in. The finished pile quickly looks like the garden's jewelry box.  I will sell some for decoration, decorate a bit myself, but what happens to the rest?  We grind our own cornmeal, so I want to see if I can produce a blue or red cornmeal just for fun.  The ears that grew large, straight, beautiful & disease-free will be the chosen few planted for next year's crop.  And the rest, just like the golden field corn, will provide nourishment for the animals over the coming winter months.



Auctions and Old Equipment

Dan and I love going to auctions.  Lately, we haven't been to many as most farm auctions start at 9 AM on Saturdays, which is our mad rush to get the stand in order before opening.  So I was very excited to find an "old farm moving auction" on a Wednesday afternoon only a few miles from the farm.  The advertisements always list a portion of the items to be sold, and what really caught our eye was a corn sheller.  This is a machine that seperates the kernels from the cob.  It is used for field corn, which is hard and dry (think decorative indian corn, but usually all yellow.) Some have motors, but this one is powered by a hand crank that moves in a circle on the side.  We have been looking to purchase one of these to shell the corn to be used in our animals' feed and also as the first step in grinding our own cornmeal.  The last one we saw at auction was a John Deere model (with a motor) and it went for $750, so it didn't go home with us!  This one had obviously been restored, but was in beautiful working condition, and we were very cautious about bidding on other items before the sheller came up, as we didn't want to overspend on small stuff and be short when it came time for what we really wanted.  There were many crocks & other antiques, so there were a lot of antique buyers present.  Luckily for us, the restoration which enhanced its usefulness to us also ruined its antique value for those who would buy it just to sit in a corner and look pretty.  Dan and I discussed how much we were willing to spend on this piece of equipment, and agreed that I would bid on it.  It's good to sort this out ahead of time so you don't overspend or accidentally bid against each other!  When I first started going to auctions, I was far too nervous to bid, afraid I'd make a mistake or buy the wrong thing somehow.  Now that I've been to plenty, I have a better understanding of how they run and can follow what the auctioneer is saying, which at first sounded like gibberish to me.  So bidding can be great fun!  When the sheller came up, I was the first to bid.  It went slowly at first, then a couple other bidders jumped in, but when it was over, I had the winning bid, and for a good bit less than what I was willing to spend if necessary.  My hands were shaking a bit because I was so excited.  It's a standing model, which weighs a couple hundred pounds, and the location it sat in wasn't really accessible to the truck at the time, so we waited until the crowds thinned as the auction ended to try and load it.  That way we could drive up. In the meantime, we bought a few other tools and other useful things for the farm.  I had to laugh though, because much like the dump rake, the corn sheller was a big conversation piece for the older auction goers.  We had a few gentlemen come up to us and ask if we really planned on using it, and most people seem surprised that we do plan on using the equipment we buy at auction. I imagine it's because we are a young couple doing things the old fashioned way, but we really love using things the way they were designed to be used.  Older equipment is a part of America's farming heritage, and a part that slips away as bigger farms and better machines become the norm, so it's very cool to me to be a part of the preservation of how things were done years ago.


As for those of you wondering about the piglets, all 18 are healthy and doing well.  They had their first round of iron shots last night.  The sows don't understand about booster shots, so we locked them outside and when they came back it was over and everyone was doing just fine! 


Cutting Corn

The corn is put up for the year, one more task to mark as "done" on the to-do list.  Two bushels seems sufficient for my husband and myself.  Though a little time consuming, I really love my vaccuum sealer for putting up food.  I used it on 3 dozen ears this year, so I should have sweet corn well into spring!  We always freeze whole kernel corn as well, and this year for my birthday Dan got me an American Corn Cutter- a little kitchen gadget that consists of a long piece of plastic which is curved to fit the shape of the ear, and 2 metal blades in the middle.  The blades can be adjusted for whole kernel, creamed or shredded corn.  I love my Roma food mill and kitchen gadgets in general, so he though this would be a time saver and something I'd use.  I can't work it to save my life!!  I tried on Monday, and figured I had the blade adjusted wrong.  It was really frustrating, so I set it aside and used a knife and cutting board.  Yesterday, Dan helped me and he had no problems.  He gave me lots of helpful advice, like not pushing down so hard, changing the angle, etc but I still couldn't do it.  So I  gave him the cutter while I husked, and he was done far more quickly than I was the day before with my knife.  Many times in farming, and life, you just have to know when to just ask for help.


One of the many things I love about being on the farm is how easy it is to find a use for things that might otherwise go to waste.  Freezing 2 bushels of corn leaves a lot of husks, cobs and silk behind, but we never throw them away.  My bunnies love it so much, they run up to me every time I  walk by, hoping for husks and cobs.  The cobs still have a bit of corn on them, and the rough inner part is good for a rabbit to chew.  Their teeth never stop growing, so I have to make sure they have chew toys or they will use the hutch itself. The stalks are still full of nutrients and the cows and horses come on the run when they see us cutting and throwing them over the pasture fence.


Well it's off to town now for jars and vinegar- I still have canning to do for this weekend and I need to get moving as I have family visiting later this week.  I just want to say thanks to everyone who reads this blog as well, I was amazed to see Pleasant Valley Farm at the top of the most popular blogs yesterday.  I hope you enjoy reading about my adventures as much as I enjoy living them! 


Saving the Harvest

On a grey day like this morning, I'm reminded that dreary days in fall and winter won't be far behind.  It gives me extra incentive to put up what I can for those cold months when growing anything that won't fit on a windowsill is impossible.  So the dehydrator is humming in the background this morning as I type.  I've sliced tomatoes thinly, and they will keep forever if they dry thoroughly.  I love to put them on homemade pizza or in pasta salad.  I love them so much, but I'll probably sacrifice a few to sell a the stand.  We are most likely done having fresh tomatoes for sale, the blight has pretty much wiped out our plants.  It seemed so sad to me, the bucket full of blighted tomatoes filled up so much quicker than the one for the useable/sellable tomatoes.  Dan told me not to get down, however, because many, many people got no tomatoes at all.  And our pigs love to eat the less than perfect vegetables, so they weren't going to waste.  Still, I love to make my own sauces- spaghetti sauce, salsa, chili sauce- and that isn't going to happen this year unless I buy tomatoes from somewhere else.  So it was hard to feel lucky just then.    

 With temperatures reaching down into the 40's, it's time to start planning for the first frost too.  So I dry herbs or freeze them depending on my plans for them.  The ones that are best fresh I'll try to keep on the window sill during the winter, but I dry a lot of sage for one of our sausage recipes.  I've also been saving seed to sell, give away or use myself.  I have chive and parsley seed already, I'm sure dill isn't far off either.  I also have lots of  cilantro seed, which is the spice coriander if you crush it in a pepper mill.

Our corn has done pretty well, except the raccoons (or possibly the black bear that's been sighted in the neighborhood) found the ripe sweet corn the night before market.  They seem to have an uncanny ability to sense when the corn is at the peak of flavor, and then it's hard to keep them out.  Luckily we had plenty, and what is left over I'm going to freeze.  Last year I bought a vaccuum sealer and tried freezing corn on the cob.  It was the most amazing treat duing the long winter, like a little taste of summer.  Of course, it loses a little texture, but  we were happy with it and plan to do a lot more in the next few days for this coming winter.  I always freeze bags of whole corn as well, it's great to have on hand when making chili or winter soups, or just by itself!
 on my side

It finally stopped raining here in Tionesta just in time for the 4th of July weekend.  I was finally able to get around to weeding my herbs.  I was thrilled that Dan and I were able to find some lime basil under all the weeds!  Now that the little seedlings will be getting some sun, I hope to be harvesting some leaves before too long, they smell delicious!  I was a little disappointed that we didn't find any Thai basil sprouting, but herbs from seed can be fickle and we've had some real extremes in both precipitation and temperature this spring and summer so far.  I was able to harvest the spent chive flowers and have a nice collection of seeds for starting them indoors when winter approaches.  I've got extra if anyone is interested in starting their own.  Many of my other herbs are bolting quickly this summer, so I spent a good bit of time trimming the cilantro, thyme, basil, sage,and oregano to keep the production in leaves a bit longer. I especially want the sage to keep producing leaves.  Not only is it one of my favorite cooking herbs, but I dry the leaves and use them in the sage sausage we make from the hogs we raise.  It worked so well last time that hope to dry enough to use in all our sausage orders this time! 

The sky is blue, with big puffy clouds right now, so of course we're preparing to make another field of hay.  The nice weather is supposed to stick around for a few days.  This will pretty much wrap up all of our first cutting hay.  We'll then wait a bit to cut second cutting, which simply means making a second crop in the same field.

The old farmer's adage is that corn should be "knee high by the 4th of July" this case we are in great shape, as much of it comes nearly to my waist!


Grass fed pigs?

The fields and garden are nearly planted.  The only major planting task left is to finish planting the last of the field corn.  However, with the rain we've had over the last few days that may have to wait until the weekend, the field is too wet to be worked right now.  But the corn that is in the ground has sprouted; we can see faint green rows across the fields getting a little taller every day.  It is amazing what warm weather and rain can do!  The transplants that survived frosting and the ones we set out this past weekend are thriving.  There are blooms on the peppers and beans, lettuce and peas sprouting, so produce will be coming soon.  I will keep everyone posted on what is available.

The animals are loving the lush pasture this time of year.  I love it too, it means so much less manure to move!  We have 6 little goslings following the proud parents around the pond and fields.  They did better than we did in the incubator!  The little ones grow so fast, I joke that they will only be cute for another 24 hours or so.  All the little lambs are doing fantastic on pasture too, and the bottle baby calves we are raising are chewing thier cud more every day.  Pretty soon we won't need to be mixing up milk replacer every 12 hours. 

Even the hogs are getting out on grass! We have been pleasantly surprised how easy it has been to put our boar and two sows on a rotational pasture.  Believe it or not, a single strand of electric fence about 8" off of the ground is enough to keep a 6oo lb animal where you want them.  If only goats were so easy! But the hogs seem to enjoy the new space and have been grazing and not rooting it up too much.  Most of the piglets are gone, we sold the ones we needed to last night at the auction.  We kept 5 to raise and they have moved out of the hog house into the pig tractor.  The tractor is a 16' x 8' pen with no floor.  We will be moving it onto fresh grass as needed.  It has all the comforts of home: sides and a roof over about half the area, a nipple waterer so they can drink fresh from the garden hose and a feeder full of piggie chow. So far it's working well, and soon we plan on doing some major renovations to the hog house, so we're glad that the pigs are happy on pasture.

The chickens are getting plenty of sunlight and grass as well and are laying beautifully.  We're not incubating much besides duck and quail eggs at the moment, so we have eggs for sale.

It is a beautiful time of year to just take in the view of the farm from our back porch in the evening while we're grilling dinner.  It's my favorite activity this time of year. 

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