Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Slowing Down

November is here. It's very much a turning point in the year for us. It always feels like the month where fall leaves us and winter moves in, even though the calendar says winter won't officially arrive until well into December. At this point, the garden has had a killing frost and we've seen snow on the ground, so all the vegetable picking is over, with a few exceptions, like the Swiss chard and the beets. Saturday mornings have become much less hectic. I can enjoy a cup of coffee without worrying that I'll run out of time before I get all the vegetables picked, washed and displayed before we open at 10 AM. Although when the frost does come, it's always a bit sad to see the basil turn black and the pepper plants shrivel, the truth is that after six months of planting, weeding, hoeing and picking, the break is welcome. In a few months I'll be busy selecting the seeds that we'll purchase for the 2012 garden, but for now, I'm just fine with taking a bit of a break.

November is the last month that our farm stand is open as well. Although it's got walls, a roof & concrete floor, it isn't heated and some of the Saturdays lately have been more than just a bit chilly. I love visiting with everyone who stops by the stand, but the chilly mornings won't be missed when we close for the year. And, truth be told, having worked every Saturday since May 28, I'm ready to sleep in just once!

Meats are coming to a close for now as well. Hirsch's trailer has picked up the last of the beef & lamb for the year. We'll do a bit more pork, a few more chickens and the Thanksgiving turkeys. After that, all the critters will be with us for the long winter. Although I am proud of what we produce, and feel that our meat animals have the highest quality of life possible, it will be nice to take a break from butchering. I think having that break allows you to avoid being too hardened about the process. It will also be nice to be able to accept an invitation to go out to dinner with friends on a Thursday or Friday evening without having to say “I'll try to make it, depends on what time we get done plucking chickens/grinding sausage/etc.”

Canning isn't as frenzied either. No overwhelming amounts of peppers to can, tomatoes to turn into salsa or cucumbers waiting to be pickled. I get to be a bit more creative right now, instead of just trying not to waste anything. Lately I've had fun making vinegar candy (similar to hardtack), apple butter, and an Oktoberfest mustard. I've made a number of git baskets featuring our processed items as well. I have a few more things I hope to try, either before the end of the stand season, or possibly over the winter. It's never a bad thing to prep some inventory before the season begins again!

And while it is a slower time of the year, there's never a time when we're not busy. Lately we've been working on some temporary fencing. We hope to get the critters out into the hayfield near the garden when the grass runs low in the usual pastures. Stockpiling this grazing will allow us to go longer into the winter before we need to start feeding hay. That means the hay we put up will feed more animals, and we are hoping to increase our beef herd over the winter months, as well as purchase more pigs. Demand for our meats has increased incredibly, so we're already planning on how to have more available for our customers next year!

Winter is a time we look forward to because we can get indoor projects done during those long evenings. We have a room we're remodeling into a library, and I look forward to progressing on that. Dan wants to do more blacksmithing, and working over a hot coal fire just isn't fun in the summer. And I have lots of projects, too, from trying to get back into oil painting to becoming a better baker to keeping this blog updated a bit more frequently. I'm in contact with the Farm to Table folks in Pittsburgh, and it's looking likely that I'll be prepping another presentation for them, to be given in late March.  End of year records will need finishing, and it's never too early to begin planning for the next season!


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Turkeys & Other Madness

What a week! Our final week of the season has been our busiest by far. This was my first year to process turkeys for sale, and it's a daunting task. While our original plan in the spring was to raise Broad Breasted White birds and process a few Bourbon Reds as well, an error by the hatchery we were dealing with sent us Broad Breasted Bronze birds instead of the white ones we expected. While nearly identical in that both broad breasted varieties are quick growing, have lots of white meat, and are artificial breeds as they cannot reproduce without artificial insemination, the bronze birds are colored much like a wild turkey rather than having all white feathers. It does make for a more attractive pen of live birds, but it's impossible to clean them up as completely when plucking, as some of the colored pigment remains under the skin. It's much like an ink inside the feathers, which made processing a less than ideal job. I personally went over each bird three separate times, and they still didn't clean up as well as I had hoped. Sunday and Monday were completely consumed with turkeys, and yesterday I had a final cleanup before opening for a special Tuesday afternoon for turkey pickup. I simply let our customers know what they were seeing, and they understood that they were buying a farm-raised, hand-processed bird.

Nearly every customer was thrilled with their bird, and I was grateful that they were happy with the sizes available, as we don't have full control over that. We can feed them quality feed all year, but we don't have the option to choose toms or hens when we buy (or hatch) the babies, which greatly affects the final size of the bird. Too many toms and folks who are having dinner for two or four will be disappointed with a bird that's too big, and too many hens may mean you don't have enough super-sized ones to feed a dozen family members. This kind of lack of choice is the greatest issue with marketing to the general public; most folks are used to getting a bird that's exactly 17 pounds if that's what they want. This is because Butterball or other large industrial producers raise literally millions of birds and freeze them prior to Thanksgiving and other holidays. Out of a few million, there's bound to be hundreds of thousands harvested when they reach just the size you want. A small farm like ours may only be willing to hand pluck two or three dozen birds, and with a number that small, it's possible that not a single one is exactly the weight you originally sought, especially if you're picking up a fresh bird processed just a day or two before. However, a farm bird like the ones we raise will not be “enhanced” with a solution of salt water that can be as high as 20% of the weight you pay for, so going by pounds alone may not be the best way to compare our birds.

Surprisingly, the Bourbon Reds, while still having pigmented feathers, cleaned up much nicer and with less work. Dan and I are discussing the option of offering only the Bourbons in future years. While we'll likely have less birds to process next year if we don't buy poults, I can't say I love doing turkeys enough to be upset about it, and I love the idea of using only heritage birds. Although they were a month or so older than the Bronzes, the Bourbons who did not get to join next year's breeding flock dressed out lighter. However, the heritage turkeys got the same rations as the laying hens, while the meat turkeys got a special turkey grower feed that had a much higher protein content. It will be interesting to me to see how the Bourbons will perform next year on the higher, weight-gaining ration.

 

 

Our Bourbon Tom

 

So all the turkeys have been processed and picked up, but the hectic pace won't slow down yet. Today's agenda includes going to the processor and picking up a pig and a cow. I'll need to sort out the frozen cuts of beef for freezer beef orders that will be picked up Saturday. The pig, as usual, will be cut here, so tonight will include spicing the meat that will become sausage and wrapping roasts, chops and ribs. During a normal week, this would be done on Thursday, but Hirsch's will be closed tomorrow. Friday we'll grind and package sausage as usual, and Saturday we'll finish out the year for our farm stand. When the doors close for the year, all the unsold products will need to be sorted. Canned goods & vinegars will keep, but will need to be moved to the pantry or basement where they will be kept from freezing or direct sunlight. Storage vegetables that we'll use to feed ourselves over the winter will get the same treatment. Extra vegetables will be used to supplement the pig's rations. We'll try to condense all the unsold meats into one freezer so we'll be able to unplug the one in the stand ASAP, and that will be our meals for the months to come. Nothing goes to waste!

Oh yes, in the midst of this madness there's a holiday thrown in too! Since we've got so much going on, we won't be traveling for the big meal. I'm cooking dinner for Dan and I plus Dan's brother Matt. While I'm a master of roasting a whole chicken, this will be the first time in my life that I've single-handedly tried to manage a turkey and all the trimmings. It's also a known fact that I'm no baker, but I hope to have a delicious surprise or two for them. I'm excited, and my guys are the least picky eaters ever, so I'm very optimistic that our dinner will be a success. With sustainably raised ingredients and ones I love sharing the table, how could it not be?

From our farm to your family, we wish you safe travels and good times with family, friends, and (sustainable!) food. HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

 
 

Goodbye, Garden 2010

Yesterday was another glorious fall day and a great day to be outside.  I'm so blessed to be home on the farm full time where I can take advantage of such days and not be confined to an office for 8 hours!  

The day started out cold, with a low temperature of 28 overnight resulting in a freeze here,  That means even row cover wouldn't save the frost-sensitive plants, so my basil and peppers are truly gone until next year, except for ones I've dried, canned or frozen.  We've also finished digging onions and potatoes.  While I hope to have beets again and the Swiss chard is still growing strong, the last major vegetable to harvest is our winter squash.  If you've been to the stand recently, you've seen baskets overflowing with them, but the vines are dead and it was time to bring in the rest for storage as they were as ripe as they will get out there.  Although the Kabocha and buttercups didn't do quite as well as they had in the past, we had a bumper crop of butternuts and great success with a new variety called sweet dumpling.  It's like an acorn with a lighter, milder flavor and a beautiful white & green mottled exterior.  There were still so many out there, I got the garden tractor and a trailer to cart them back to the stand.  Although I can drive this little tractor, it's a joke between Dan and I that I can't touch a lawn tractor without breaking it; I get it stuck in a ditch, a bolt for the steering comes loose and I shut it off and abandon it mid-field, a belt breaks, or I jackknife the trailer hopelessly trying to turn.  He's always on the lookout for where I've left the tractor around the farm after some such disaster for him to repair when he gets home.  Amazingly, it was a tractor problem-free day.  The squash looked so pretty, I just had to take a picture of it partway through collecting: you can see various gourds, acorns, buttercups, butternuts, sweet dumplings, spaghetti, and hubbard squash!

 

Hundreds of pounds of squash later, I was done.  After we cut some more sunflower heads and some more corn shocks, all that will remain to do will be to pull up the plastic and fabric mulches that helped to keep the weeds at bay over the growing season.

 Every year, there are successes and failures, that's why it's so important to us to have a diverse planting of vegetables.  This year, the successes far outweighed the crops that under-performed.  We keep careful track of which varieties work well for us, so each year we can learn more and take that knowledge into the next growing season.  Although it's always a bit bittersweet to see the seasons change and the plants die or go dormant in preparation for winter snow, I know when the snow really starts to pile up I'll be able to warm myself by the cozy woodstove in the living room, perusing the seed catalogs, eyeing up new varieties and old favorites, and planning for the 2011 garden.

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