Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Ready, Set, Get Busy!

It's getting busy here! First of all, next weekend is the Farm to Table conference, so it's time to put the finishing touches on my presentation about Heritage Livestock breeds and the slideshow full of pictures I have to go along with it. I'm also making sure I have brochures, jams, signs, and everything else I'll need to make my table look nice and full with homemade goodies for sale and information about the farm. I'm so excited to be a part of this, I think as farmers, we really need to do a good job of informing the general public about how food is grown and where it comes from, especially when you are trying to convince them that it truly is better to buy from a family farm. So I'm excited to be the “expert” speaker about Heritage Livestock, I think lots of people would support the efforts to save them and use them on family farms, but most folks just don't know that they exist. I'm hoping to change that, just a little! I'm also really excited about my table in the exhibit hall. Of course, the opportunity to make some extra money is nice, but I'm really looking forward to talking with people about our farm and how & why we do what we do. So if you're in the Pittsburgh area, or already planning on going to the convention center and taking in the event, please stop by and say hello! (For more info & tickets, visit www.farmtotablepa.com)

I was also excited to attend a grazing conference last week. While you might think that there is nothing difficult about animals eating grass in a field, there actually is much more to know than that. What species of grasses or legumes will work best for the animals you want to raise is important. So is management, like how many animals are in a field and how long they are there- anywhere from rotating small pastures every 12 hours to just letting them roam a large area all summer can be done. There are advantages and challenges to each and I was glad I went because I learned so much. It was also really exciting to listen to Dr. Temple Grandin and what she had to say, both about handling animals in a humane way and also about animal welfare issues and how as farms, we need to be sharing what we do with the public, since most folks are generations removed from farms. And she encouraged the farmers in attendance to think about the practices we use- if we wouldn't want the public knowing we handled our animals in a certain manner, shouldn't we be doing something differently?

The past few days have certainly felt like spring is in the air here at the farm. Almost all the snow and ice has melted, leaving the usual muddy mess behind. Inspections of the garden plots revealed ruby red rhubarb poking through the soil, along with herbs- I spotted chives, oregano, sage and lemon balm with new growth. The seedlings I started in flats are also progressing nicely. Each day I take them out to the greenhouse for some sun, then bring them back inside to avoid any cold temperatures overnight. I've also been spending a fair amount of time on egg hunts. I was elated to find a turkey egg on the floor of the turkey house on day this week. Doing a project in the backyard later that evening, I went into the woodshed to get something for Dan, which was good as I found a turkey nest with 6 eggs in it! I would have been more vigilant, but as this is the first year we've raised a breeding flock of turkeys, we weren't entirely sure when they would begin to lay- we had thought it would be a bit later in the spring. So now I'm always keeping an eye out for those crazy birds and where the next stash may be. I've set up a nice, comfy nest box on the floor of their turkey coop, which they happily ignore in favor of the open floor, the back of the greenhouse, the middle of the yard, or (my personal favorite) the one that laid an egg on the couch that sits on the front porch. When you live on a free range farm, egg hunts aren't just for Easter! The pullets are also laying better each day, and I expect to be setting a few of their eggs when we next put eggs in the incubator. Besides the turkey eggs, we're also getting duck eggs, and also eggs from the Phoenix & Cochin hens. I saw the first goose nest of the season as well, but I'll probably leave those eggs alone. Goose eggs need so much humidity, they are tricky to do in the incubator, especially if you're hatching chicken eggs too, which we will be. The geese do a good job of sitting on their eggs, so we'll just let nature take its course.

 
 

Almost There...

March always makes me feel like we've made it through winter's worst. Although I know we'll still get some snowstorms, ice, sleet and all that wintry mix, on other days the snow begins melting and, for the first time in months, we can see the fields instead of just a blanket of white. The days are getting longer, birds are returning from their southern winter hangouts, and it's easy to feel spring coming on.

It's hard though, because as much as I want to dig into the soil and get things underway, I know we aren't safe from frost here until June. Yes, really. Two seasons ago our last frost was June 3. It's a hard balance to strike between getting an early jump on crops and not losing whole fields of plants that can't handle a cold snap. One exciting project this year is returning a greenhouse or two into operational growing space. The plastic has been off of them for several years, and we had considered tearing down the metal frames since they aren't really all that attractive if not in use. One is still slated for being torn down, as it's pretty beat up, but we're excited to have plans to recover another one or two in plastic and put them back into production. This will allow us to put plants out earlier and to have things like tomatoes and peppers earlier in the season. The greenhouse veggies will have all the flavor of our field grown ones, because we still plant them right in the soil, not in pots or hydroponically. The structure is just used to get the soil up to planting temperature earlier, and to keep the plants warm during the inevitable spring cold snaps. Since we'll be able to transplant the seedlings outside earlier, that means starting the seeds earlier too, so I've got trays planted with tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and herbs. The hardest part was resisting the temptation to start everything right now, but we'll hold off on crops, especially the vining ones like squash & pumpkins for a few more weeks, otherwise they will get too big for their pots before we're able to successfully transplant them outdoors. But it is good to have trays full of seeds, I hope to see sprouts very shortly!

Another exciting sign of spring is eggs. Birds don't usually lay eggs in the winter, because it's not a good time to raise chicks. Generations of selective breeding have made chickens lay more eggs over a longer period of the year, but there is always at least a bit of slowdown in the winter. The days are getting noticeably longer, and it's signaling the birds to begin laying in earnest again. We're also beginning to get eggs from our layers which hatched last September. We've gotten eggs from some of the Barred Rock and Delaware hens, and it's certain that we'll soon be seeing blue eggs from our Ameracauna girls, too. While it's wonderful to have plenty of eggs to cook and bake with, this time of year I get most excited about hatching chicks. The quiet hum of the incubator, along with the periodic beeps letting us know the eggs are being turned, have become a sign linked in my mind with the arrival of spring over the past few years. There is nothing like opening the door to the incubator and pulling out a tray of downy chicks where just eggs were the day before. We set eggs for the first time this season yesterday, and we will be hatching our first few babies in about three weeks. We'll be hatching every week after that until sometime in late May, when we'll be collecting eggs to sell at the stand again. I'm also on the lookout for duck eggs, and I have a feeling it won't be long before the large eggs of our Toulouse gees begin appearing around the barnyard as well!   

 
 

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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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! 

 
 

All About Eggs

The days are starting to lengthen noticeably.  I'm so glad to have the luxury of daylight after my 25 mile commute home when I change into my farm boots and begin my share of the evening chores.  I know the chickens can sense spring is coming too, since I'm getting more eggs every day now.

 A hen will only lay one egg per day, but her body tells her to knock that off as fall approaches and winter sets in, because that's no time to be raising babies!  Even though the mothering instinct and the will to sit on eggs for 3 weeks has been bred out of the majority of laying hens, their bodies still respect the natural rhythms of the seasons.  It's possible to trick the hens into thinking the dark days of winter have passed by putting a light on a timer in the hen house.  During the shortest days in December, we set it so that it the hens have light for 12 hours- 7 am to 7 pm.  (it helps me get the eggs collected when I'm running late as well!).  It does make a big difference, but even though the light is still on, I'm noticing an average increase in my eggs as the weeks creep toward spring.

We actually eat more eggs during the winter, for although the chickens are not laying as many as they do in the summer months, I'm not selling near as many since the stand is closed.  So it's egg salad to pack my lunch or a treat of deviled eggs with dinner. Having fresh eggs all the time, it's easy to forget what a treat they are compared to those white things in the supermarket.  

When I went to North Carolina over the holidays to visit with my family, my brother Cory was so excited to have "real eggs."  He wanted to know why brown eggs taste better, and what the difference was between brown & white.  I told him that the shell color is determined by the breed of hen it came from.  While the breed that holds up best in factory-farm type conditions lays a white egg, most barnyard breeds lay brown eggs.  Since barnyard birds usually get more exercise, sunlight, and good natural food like worms and grass, the eggs do taste stronger, but it's a flavor most folks appreciate.  Farm eggs are generally fresher as well, so that's why a common misconception is that brown eggs taste better. All my fresh eggs taste wonderful, and I have eggs that are dark brown, light brown, white, and even blue-green!  The last ones come from yet another breed of hen, but yes, they really are chicken eggs!

 

I love having "rainbow" eggs. 

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