Pleasant Valley Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

What Now?

It's early December, so for us that means the farm stand season has finally come to a close.  We're so thankful to everyone who stopped by the farm and supported us over the past season...without folks like you who believe in what we do, we wouldn't be able to do what we love!  

One question I get frequently as the season winds down is "...so, what are you going to do all winter while you're closed?"  It truly amazes me how many folks think I'm going to have a leisurely winter holiday in Florida or somewhere warm.  (Well, maybe the Keys...if some relatives would be kind enough to move back so we have a reason to visit!)  The truth is much less glamorous.  Dan and I spend the winter doing lots of things, but soaking up sun generally isn't one of them.  There are more animal chores this time of year than any other, as the horses, cows, sheep and goats need to be fed hay while the pastures lie dormant.  The horses spend a lot more time in the barn, so there is more manure to move.  Keeping fresh water in all the pens of birds, bunnies and other critters is extremely important, and when it's bitterly cold, something that may have to be done 3-4 times per day.  

There are, of course, lots of "inside" projects, too...this is the part of the year where we can paint a room in the house or take up a new hobby.  For all the things we do here, we're always looking towards learning more to make ourselves more self-sufficient.  This winter, Dan & I hope to get started in leather crafting a bit.  I'm also hoping to play with some of his newer woodworking tools and make some signs & other decorations around the farm.  I haven't really mentioned him in the blog, but we got a young horse, Montana, earlier this year, and I hope to work more with him now than I did in the summer.  It's also a time to review what worked over the past year, what didn't, and what we want to do in the coming year.  The seed catalogs starting arriving before Thanksgiving, and after the holidays I'll devote quite a bit of time inventorying what seed I have, what I want, and then trimming that down to what we can afford, both in terms of money and garden & greenhouse space.

It's also a time to do more of the hobbies we already have...Dan looks forward to more blacksmithing, while I'm excited to have more time to devote to stained glass and jewelry.  The farm stand is closed for the year (tomorrow will actually be my first Saturday off since May 19, and I have to say that's pretty exciting!) but I am trying to make more of a go of our online store.  This week it's been a major project to upload lots of new items to the store.  I have a selection of some of the more popular canned items, plus a couple gift baskets, and now I've got a nice selection of listings of my handmade jewelry, and I've even got a few stained glass items up!  All handmade by me here at the farm, of course.   

I am extremely fortunate to be able to pick and choose what I do each day (at least after the animals are taken care of!) and this time of year means far more leeway in what HAS to be done on a given day vs. what I FEEL like doing.  It's a luxury that makes all the hard work of being self-employed worth it.   On this gloomy, damp day I'm making room in the freezer by making spaghetti sauce from the tomatoes I ran through the food mill & froze, when I had more canning to do than time to do it, earlier in the garden season.  I don't mind having the stove on for hours today, and it's pretty amazing to me that the only store-bought ingredients going into the pot today are salt, sugar, and vinegar. (Although I make vinegar, too, it's not tested for acidity and therefore not safe for canning.)  Everything is boiling now, and in the next few hours when I just need to stir every so often, I'm working on more jewelry plus a new decorative hop vine wreath idea I have...if I get ambitious, I'll list some more items online.  It's great fun to be making things like jewelry and stained glass, and I'm really hoping to have more of a supplemental income this winter from it as well.  The hardest part so far seems to be resisting the urge to keep most of it for myself!

 If you're shopping online this year, we'd love it if you took a look around our virtual store.  I ship nationwide! Visit our online store at: www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa/.  We wish you happy holidays and stress-free shopping!

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Thankful Time

I had a wonderful post typed out on the ALBC conference, but the computer ate most of it.  So, more on that next week...

 It's Thanksgiving week!  For most of us, it means food and family, and if we're lucky, some time off.  For me this year, it's craziness, though!  After the conference I attended in North Carolina, I took some much needed time away from the farm to hang out with three of my siblings (I'm the oldest of 6!).  I had a great time visiting and catching up with sibs, spouses and their kids and returned home last Thursday to all the post-vacation stuff...laundry, catching up on email, and juggling orders from customers looking to stock up on our meats before the end of the season.

 This week is our final week of the farm stand season, and we'll be processing the last of the chickens tonight and the last pig Friday.  It's the time where I start thinking about how our farm year went and all I have to be thankful for, but instead of musing that online today, the plan is scrubbing and baking.  

This year, for the first time, I'm hosting family Thanksgiving.  I've cooked holiday meals for Dan and I in the past, and had Matt over, too, but this year will be the first time I've cooked for my Mom and siblings.  Honestly, I'm a little nervous about it, which is a bit on the crazy side.  I cook from scratch pretty much nightly, and far more so than most folks, so a whole turkey is no big deal, and I'm already pretty skilled at making sure everything comes out at the same time.   Nothing that I'm cooking is difficult to me or something new, but I guess there is that little voice in the back of my head that worries that this will be the year Emily ruined Thanksgiving by (insert disaster here...no mashed potatoes, burned stuffing, whatever).  So today I'm continuing to scrub the farmhouse so it's fit for company and baking.  Since baking is my least-perfected skill, I thought it would be good to do it ahead so that I have a chance to adjust if things go wrong.  However, I'm feeling pretty good, as I'm making a pumpkin cheesecake recipe I've tried before, and it came out awesome the first time.  The other dessert is a Shea family tradition, but also pretty foolproof, and the last thing you'd expect to be served at an organic farm feast.  But the Candy Bar Pie, made with chocolate pudding, graham cracker crust, cream cheese, Cool Whip and Snickers bars requires no baking and just needs to be part of our celebration.  

For the big day, I'm going classic (in my opinion, now is NOT the time to try new recipes!)...roasted turkey and homemade gravy, Mom's famous stuffing recipe, mashed potatoes, my home-canned cranberry sauce, green salad, and a winter squash side.  Maybe some sweet corn, too.  When I talked to my mom on Sunday, she asked what she could bring, so I put her on beverage duty.  I'm excited to have my family sit around the table together, give thanks, and dig in. 

Wishing you and your family a wonderful holiday week filled with family time and great food!  Happy Thanksgiving to all! 

 
 

Little Farm in the Big City

Last weekend was the long-anticipated Farm to Table Conference in Pittsburgh.  I had a great time presenting and meeting lots of great people interested in local foods last year, and I'd been looking forward to doing it again this year.  Also exciting was that my mom was able to attend and see me speak, and my sister Laurel graciously covered the farm's table in the exhibit hall while my presentation, titled "Treasures from our Grandparents' Gardens: Heirloom Seeds" was going on.  I was amazed that I had as many attendees at 11:30 on Friday morning for my speech as I did last year on a Saturday afternoon!  

Speaking so early meant that lots of folks who saw me  had a chance to stop by and say hello or ask follow up questions when they stopped by the farm's table in the exhibit hall.  I was flattered by the number of them who said that they really enjoyed it, and glad that so many of them were able to take away something useful from what I had to say.

 

 Pleasant Valley Farm's table at Farm to Table Pittsburgh, 2012

The conference was much busier this year than last in my opinion.  It was great, I believe that I literally talked to hundreds, if not over a thousand different people, all interested in local foods.  Many of them were even familiar with Tionesta, and I hope to see some of them this summer.  We had lots of positive feedback about the different tastes of the farm we brought to sample- Carrot Cake Jam, Black Forest Preserves, Hot Peach BBQ Sauce, Fiesta Salsa, and Ginger-Garlic Mustard.   We sold out of Ginger-Garlic Mustard, Peach BBQ, and our Blueberry-Basil vinegar, much to the disappointment of some who tried a sample and wanted to pick up a jar on the way out!  All in all, we made some great contacts and hopefully reached a lot of people, and helped to get the word out that there is more to eating locally than just raw veggies! 

 

We were also very flattered to be in the Farm to Table preview article in Pittsburgh's Tribune-Review! Emily was quoted extensively, and the print version featured photos from the farm, a shot of heirloom lettuce growing in last year's garden, and another of Emily working our team of horses (Dixie & Dolly even got their names in the caption!).   To read the article for yourself, check out: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/email/s_787449.html?_s_icmp=enews

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What Do I Want?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot of big-picture thoughts about the farm. The kind of things that are important, but often get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day duties. But it's important to stand back and take a look at the overall picture some days and not just get lost in the details. What do I want to accomplish with this farm? What will it take to be a success? In 10 years, what would you like to see change? What should remain the same?

These kinds of thoughts have been swirling about in my head for a month or so, for a variety of reasons. My birthday is in June, and I do tend to get a little reflective as another year is marked. The transition from June to July marked my one-year anniversary of being home on the farm, not working 25 miles away. Our wedding anniversary is this week, and marrying Dan was a beautiful ceremony here at the farm. In retrospect, it showed a commitment to this place I didn't even realize I was making at the time. Also during this time, I had to decide whether or not to continue a business relationship which sold our meats for us to the customers of a small CSA. All of this added up to some thoughts about where I am and where I want to be.

Dan's biggest fear when I lost my job was that I would be unfulfilled here. I have a master's degree, I was teaching classes, helping people, part of civic organizations committed to changing the county I was working in for the better. Important stuff, events that made the local paper, sometimes even the front page. But, unsurprisingly for social work, I was getting burned out. I was in a rather dead-end job with no hope of further advancement, and I was ready for new challenges. I hated leaving every day because I just wanted to be here. On the farm, hands in the dirt. Or here on this blog, helping to educate others about what it's really like to grow your food. Why what you eat matters. In that way, I very much feel like I'm still teaching.

What I love most about the farm is that we make an honest living producing healthy food for our neighbors. It's not fancy or glamorous, but it's real. And important. I like being a direct link between food and consumer. I love talking to our customers and friends about how things are growing, about why our food is different from what's in the store. One of the greatest concerns with the CSA was not knowing how we were being represented, and having no direct link to the consumers. All questions and problems were filtered through a third-party middleman. The more I thought about this, the more deeply I was uncomfortable with it. There were other issues too, and in the end, I felt it best to decline their business. It felt like the right thing to do. So I know I want to stay in touch with our customers- I like answering questions, both in person and online via email. And I'm committed to staying hands-on. It's hard to answer how things are really growing if your fields are full of employees while you're inside. It can be overwhelming to be the veggie picker, the chicken plucker, sausage seasoner, website editor/blogger/email contact, in charge of advertising, labeling, ordering, record keeping, tester of new recipes, food processor. Maybe it just means I'm a control freak. But I think of it differently- many years ago, when small farms were the norm instead of the anomaly, the family did everything, or nearly so, without hiring a specialist for each task- each family member was expected to wear many hats. I'm fine with that.

One of the main things I want to do is preserve what is here. While that sounds straightforward, it's really pretty complex. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I am passionate about preserving heirloom plants and heritage livestock. Keeping the old bloodlines, designed for family farms instead of mass production, alive for this generation and for the future. We make more steps toward that each year. But there is more than just the gardens and the livestock. Our barn was built in 1894. The house (the “new house” to the elderly gentleman who used to live here years ago) was built in 1929. The workshop is older yet then either of those. I want to preserve these too. There are plenty of barns in the area, built around the same time, that are falling down. I want to preserve these treasured old buildings, but at the same time I want them to be functional. I'm not trying to live in Colonial Williamsburg or anything. I want to respect the history, but I don't think we need to forsake metal roofing in favor of the wooden shake shingles that would have originally been used, for instance, as long as the overall character of the place remains intact. I'll keep the wood burning stove in the house for heat, but replacing the original windows with energy efficient ones does not greatly change the character of our home, but does add greatly to my comfort in the winter, plus it keeps out the ladybugs. I'm OK with modern materials with trade-offs like that. I also want to make it pretty here. I know that the farms with show-stopping landscapes generally have, well, hired landscapers, but there is already much I've done in a few short years. Perennial flowers, a little at a time. Painting the porch posts to bring out the carved beauty. Peacocks strutting in plain view.  Keeping up on some of the pruning.  Little things that make it our own.

But possibly the most important thing I want to preserve is the idea of the hands-on, horse powered, family farm. The kind without employees, that relies instead on the family members, and sometimes the extended family, to get things done. One that has an intimate knowledge of the land, because they have cared for it personally for generations, walking behind the plow and weeding by hand- the kind of knowledge of a place that does not have its roots in diesel engines and herbicides. Like the seed banks that preserve various strains of plants against future calamity, we need small family farms to safeguard the knowledge of how to do things without gasoline and chemicals. To produce for our neighborhoods instead of the commodity markets. I didn't realize how important these kind of things were until I started reading Wendell Berry's essays. But in doing so, I feel like we're part of a solution to some of the problems of industrial agriculture.

So in the end, if I can be a part of keeping these ideas and buildings and animals alive, I will be a success. There are other, more tangible things I want too, of course. Number one to stay here on the farm. We'd love to get to the point where Dan can be here full time, too. I had such a great experience at the Farm to Table conference, I hope to be able to do more speaking out to the public about farms and real food. I think that too, will come with time. And I want to continue to grow, leaning new skills. I don't for a second feel I'm in a dead end job anymore. Each day is what I make of it, and I can choose to expand what I do and what I know at any time, or to step back and take a break if I need one.  I can choose to focus on learning to operate more of the machines, to make more and different processed goods, more about herbs, more about our farm's history, more about new crops or new animals. In that way, the future is nearly limitless. 

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Excited & Overwhelmed

Saturday is the official start to our farm stand season. I'm excited and overwhelmed, as usual.  Excited to see our returning customers, excited to make new friends as well.  I love being able to provide wholesome, responsibly grown food for my neighbors.  Excited to see what this growing season will bring, how new vegetable varieties will fare, what new canning creations will come out of my kitchen.

 But overwhelmed, too...I've been slowly freaking out about the garden.  The things I had planned on having for sale this weekend, by and large, just aren't ready to harvest.  We planted them at what should have been the right time, but chilly temperatures and too much rain means they are taking longer to mature.  Dan says not to worry, that folks will realize it's been a hard year to farm, they won't expect much this first week. But then I remember the lady who asked me if I wasn't hiding just a couple tomatoes behind the counter opening week last year.  Despite the fact that we just set out the transplants Monday, I'm pretty sure that I'll hear that again this week.  And I do see part of my job as a farmer/farm stand manager as educating customers about what is possible when you are growing and eating seasonally.  In education circles, this is not a crisis, just a "teachable moment".  But at least my rhubarb isn't letting me down- if nothing else, I'll have tons of that!

 It's also overwhelming to think that I won't have another free Saturday until December, but that is farm stand life.  I'm just fortunate that I no longer work away from the farm, and that Dan works with his brother, so we can take time during weekdays to do things that most people have to save for the weekends.

 The table won't be bare, either.  I have a nice selection of canned goods- flavored and home fermented vinegars, a variety of jams, mustards, and two barbecue sauces, including a brand-new creation.  When spring hands you rhubarb and you're sick of making jelly, you get creative...and end up with Sweet & Tangy Rhubarb-B-Q Sauce!  I'll have fresh herbs and even a few pots of chives after thinning my own bed. We're heading to Chambersburg today to pick up our raw milk cheese (it's the only thing we sell that we don't make ourselves) from Whispering Brook Cheese Haus.  I'll also be heading to Hirsch's to pick up our beef and our lamb kielbasa on Friday.  We'll have eggs too.  

It's a busy time.  I also hope to can just a few more batches of things, maybe dry some herbs.  The stand needs scrubbed, tables recovered, signs and price tags need to be made.  Maybe weed the garden, definitely mow the grass...which means blogging any more thoughts will need to wait til next week.

We hope to see you at the stand on Saturday! Come visit us between 10:00-2:00, right here at the farm! 

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Good to Be Back

The impossible happened this week...Dan and I actually took a bit of a vacation from the farm! We joke that even if the world ended, we'd still have to do chores before we left. While I'm not taking anything away from vegetable and crop farmers, the garden has a down time. You can go on a tropical vacation over the winter if you please. The plants won't suffer terribly if left alone for a day or two mid-season. Having as much livestock as we do, it's very rare that we can get away as a couple, even overnight. I think the last time we did was October of 2009, and that was just for a night. There is a reason raising farm animals is called “animal husbandry”; in a sense, you are married to your animals. They need to be cared for every day, without fail, and whether or not you are tired or ill. You need to care for them when they are sick, and be there for births. Your schedule revolves around their care every single day of the year, including holidays and weekends, since there is no magic day when the animals won't be hungry. I can't count the number of times we have been visiting friends or family locally, only to leave in the middle of the gathering because it was chore time. Please don't get me wrong though, I love my critters, I do choose to live this way, and I wouldn't trade it for anything else in the world. But we all need a bit of a break now and then!

Both my mom and Dan's parents live in the middle of the state, just far enough to feel like a mini vacation, and we had been looking forward to visiting on this little trip for some time. There was a pretty small window of opportunity between the holidays and the start of lambing season/piglet time/starting seedlings that we could leave for a few days. Dan's brother Matt agreed to tend to the livestock and the woodstoves in the house while we were gone, or it wouldn't have happened. Matt lived here on the farm for many years and visits us all the time, so the animals know him and he knows them. I can't think of anyone else I could trust to get everything done! We had planned to leave earlier, the end of January, but then Sheepie got sick. Caring for her meant putting any leisure plans on hold. We fought through that, but I'm very sad to report that in the end, it was all too much and she didn't make it. We did our very best, but it was a difficult condition to treat successfully. Then Nutmeg, one of our oldest ewes and consistently the earliest to lamb, had a healthy little ram. We knew the rest of the sheep would soon follow, and Char was expected to have a litter of piglets in mid-February as well, so for us, it was now or never. Baby season is just too much to put on someone else, even a great farm person like Matt.

So Dan and I visited family and took in some local sights from Sunday to Friday. It was nice, but it's great to be back home too. The house was warm and the animals were well-fed and thankfully, none of the animals gave Matt any trouble (except for Puff, my fluffy cat- he demands attention from everyone!). My replacement hens, although close to full grown, seemed like they grew while I was gone. And it seems as though we got back just in time. As we were doing chores last night, I noticed Rosa wasn't following me around looking for snacks as she usually does. I got her into the barn, and by this morning she had two beautiful, healthy ewe lambs. We also knew Char was close and have been watching her and giving her lots of extra bedding, and this morning, eight tiny piglets were busily nursing. The temperatures here are warming a bit, the snow is melting from the rooftops, and with all these babies, spring can't be far behind!

 
 

Taking Care of Business

Winter has definitely set in for the season here. We've had quite a few inches of snow fall since the beginning of the year, and today's temperatures are only in the teens, with a wind chill closer to zero. I know it's cold out when the rabbits prefer to stay in the hutch instead of spending a good part of the day in the outdoor run (which I can see from the warmth of my kitchen counter!) While we do have plenty of animal chores to keep us busy, especially breaking up ice to insure everything has access to water, it is probably the slowest time of the year on the farm. No butchering in sight, months to go until field prep begins, no garden bounty to preserve, and I've already finished putting together the seed orders for our 2011 garden. (I'm already watching my mailbox for them to arrive!)

So, what do we do with all this free time? All the things we've put off until we have time for “winter projects”! I've done some interior painting around the house, and plan on repainting our roadside signs in the next week or two. Dan repaired the back door to the produce shed and did some winterizing by putting up batten strips in the rear, making it more weatherproof for the feed and other things that always end up getting stored there during the months we're not open. But, depending on the weather, not every day can be spent outdoors. I spend a lot of time on the business end of things now, meaning lots of computer time. The start of the new year means I'm starting out new records for everything from feed records to finances, and I'm still mastering the art of spreadsheets. We're also reviewing when to expect babies, and how soon we need to adjust where the moms-to-be are being kept and how they are fed. (We will be expecting our 2011 crop of farm babies to start arriving as early as next month, with lambs, rabbits and piglets coming due!) We will likely begin to hatch chicks in March, so I'm already planning when and how I'll separate the breeding flocks. Also, since I do all the advertising, it's a good time to review any online listings of the farm for accuracy and work on any new pages I'd like to get online on the website before spring. Other yearly business tasks include reviewing our business cards and brochures, seeing if changes need to be made, and deciding if/when to have more printed. It's also the time of year when association memberships are up for renewal, so it's a good time to look critically at the organizations your business partners with, both to determine if it makes good financial sense to be a part of them, but also to make sure the values you hold are the same as what the organization is promoting. There is so much to running a farm; you need to stay on top of all the things a regular business does, like finances and inventory and the like, but also so much more since you're in the business of raising living things. It seems as though I've fallen behind when I'm not actively planning 6 or 12 months down the road. While that may seem like an exaggeration, it takes 18-24 months for a cow to reach butchering weight (plus nearly a year gestation if you're breeding them), or 6-7 months before a chicken will lay a single egg. This all has to be taken into account well before you plan on offering a product, be it spaghetti squash or homemade sausage. So taking a month or more to review what works, what hasn't, and planning what needs to be done, how you intend to do it, and what tools, seeds, materials or livestock you'll need is a necessary part of the process.

It's also time to spend on ourselves. Dan has been excited to make progress in the forge, and I love to help him. It's fascinating to watch, in my opinion! I've also been catching up on some reading and working on research for a presentation I'll be doing in March. I also find winter to be a wonderful time to spend in the kitchen. I love being around a warm stove on a cold winter's day, so I've been pursuing my goal of making a decent loaf of bread, as well as slow simmered soups and other goodies.

 


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Winter Farming

Saturday was our final day for the 2010 season.  A sincere thanks to all who stopped by this year, you made it a great one for us!  Although I'll miss the weekly interaction with my customers as well as the income, it's kind of exciting to look forward to my first weekend off since May as well.  Our lovely farm stand is enclosed, but it's not heated, and I was very lucky with the weather this year, only having snow the last day.  Today looks like a winter wonderland out there, and with temperatures expected to stay pretty chilly, it's a good thing that all the jars of goodies and winter squash and other storage veggies are safely in my pantry or basement to keep them from freezing.   (If we  were still open, I would have needed to bring everything to the house anyway, but this way I don't have to lug it all back down there!)

I have heard so many comments lately to the effect that since we're closed for the year we'll finally be able to relax.   Although it's surely not as hectic as the middle of summer with the garden, the stand, canning, and making hay all at the same time, a farm is a busy place 100% of the time.  Now that the pasture has finally worn out for the year, we need to start feeding hay and bringing the horses and cows into the barn.  This means more feeding chores twice daily, not to mention the additional chore of cleaning stalls since the animals are now inside.  Inclement weather means every creature will be spending more time inside voluntarily, so the pig pens and poultry houses will also need to be cleaned more frequently.  There's also the ever-present challenge of making sure all the critters have access to fresh, clean water, which will soon mean breaking up ice and putting out rubber pans to prevent the plastic bell waterers we normally use from freezing and cracking.  And as far as a nice, long winter vacation to someplace warm goes, we just can't do it (at least not together!) unless we have someone who is capable and willing to take care of horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and peafowl twice a day for as long as we're gone.  I love my animals and our lifestyle, but in some ways it is like a marriage- you have to fully commit to being a diversified family farmer and understand it's a year round obligation, not just a fair weather one.

 So besides feeding, watering and stalls, what will I do all winter?  Plenty!  I have pages I'd like to work on to expand our website, and I'll put out a few email newsletters as well.  The seed catalogs have already begun arriving almost daily, and  I'll have to plan what we'll grow.  Planning a market garden is a big job, we have to figure out what did well last year, what didn't that we won't grow again, which new varieties sound promising, which crops we might be able to transition to heirloom varieties, what we didn't grow last year that customers requested and how much seed of each type (that we didn't save ourselves) will need to be purchased.  Although we stick to a few catalogs, I compare prices and varieties and have it all sent out before the groundhog will be looking for his shadow.  Our home is a lovely 100+ year old farmhouse, and winter is usually the only season we have time to spend working on it.  Winterization is always a big chore, and this year we've planned projects upgrading things like insulation and windows.  It's also a good time to paint the interior, sew new curtains, and other small upgrades.  I also hope to spend some time in the workshop doing things like finally building a new hutch for my rabbits.  Perhaps we'll even get to the new bookshelves we've been planning for some time. A million other projects, too!  And like everyone else, the holidays are almost here and we'll want to celebrate by spending time with family.  And of course, I'll be blogging all about it throughout the winter!

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Diversity Lesson

Diversity is a word we often hear, frequently it is in relation to race, gender, religion or politics.  That word takes on a whole new meaning here at the farm.  We are a diverse farm in many ways.  We don't rely on a single crop for our income, nor do we raise just one kind of animal.  Our garden is constantly in rotation depending on the season.  Early spring brings peas, rhubarb and lettuce, mid summer has peppers, corn and tomatoes and in late fall  we'll be harvesting pumpkins, winter squash, onions and potatoes. Planting a wide variety of crops (many more than on the short list above!) not only gives us an income throughout a much greater part of the year, it is also a safety net for when weather or pests hit a crop.  For instance, last year, we got virtually no tomatoes due to late blight that arrived fairly early in the season.  While we weren't able to make much of a profit on them, it was fine because we had other things to offer.  I also preserve what I can and am able to offer lots of pickled vegetables or jellies, and I'm having a lot of fun experimenting with making my own vinegar and mustards.  It all helps to make a well-rounded assortment of home-produced goods for our customers!  Another benefit to many varieties of plants is that we nearly always have something blooming, which is great for attracting beneficial insects, especially pollinators.  A colony of wild honeybees is much more likely to take up residence near a field with a variety of plants that blooms from May through October than a monocrop field of acres of potatoes or soybean which is only in bloom for a few weeks out of the whole year.  The bees, butterflies and other insects benefit from us, and we in turn reap the benefits of natural pollination without any input in time or money.  It's a natural cycle that works beautifully. 

Having a variety of animals also contributes to the diversity of our products: we sell pork, beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, eggs to eat and in the spring we can offer fertile hatching eggs, baby geese, ducks and chicks as well.   Right now I have peachicks (baby peacocks) for sale as well as another batch of baby rabbits that will be ready to go in another month or so.   Not only is a variety of animals good for our market, it's good for our fields.  Cows have favorite plants in the pasture, as do horses, but they are not the same ones.  Sheep eat plants down close to the ground while the goats prefer the taller brush and thorns.  When a variety of pasture plants are eaten, none get overgrazed and it reduces the need, as well as the expense, of reseeding the pasture. Still, the pastures are important parts of the farm and do require periodic maintenance.  I had noticed a corner of the pasture near the house had grown up in thistle.  Now goats will eat this, but too much can overtake the pasture so I had every intention of going out and cutting them down to encourage the grass to grow.  But, as so often happens on a farm, you get busy with other tasks and before I knew it the thistles were tall and blooming.  As I went to feed my rabbits one evening, a spot of yellow caught my eye among the purple.  My mother is an avid birdwatcher and I knew from years of seeing her feed them that this little drop of sunshine was a goldfinch, and that their preferred food is thistle seed.  As I looked, three of them were carefully pulling the fluff from the flowers and eating the seeds.  Nature loves diversity and everything, even plants we humans don't fully appreciate on "our" land, have a place and a purpose.  Although I will cut the thistle down, it's nice to know when it reappears somewhere else (and it will!) that even something thorny and unpleasant to the touch can still bring such beauty and grace close by. 

 

 

 
 

Farm Visit Etiquette

We are busy preparing for July 24th, as we are a stop on the Western PA Buy Fresh Buy Local farm tour.  We will be open extended hours that day, from 10 AM to 6 PM.  We will also have a short walking tour so our guests can get an up-close look at the poultry we raise, fun facts, and a better idea of what it takes to successfully care for birds in an organic, cage-free environment. We're excited to be a part of this year's tour, and wanted to give some helpful ideas on what we, as farmers, expect from you, our visitors.  Becoming a valued customer of a local farm doesn't take a lot of money.  It involves following some basic etiquette rules.  Here is the inside track!  (These apply the farm stand visits on non-tour days as well, and are good to keep in mind no matter what farm you are visiting.)

Know what time the tour is going on/stand is open.  Arrive early, and we'll be in the fields picking the day's fresh produce or tending to morning chores.  Arrive late, and we're likely to be tired or just sitting down to a meal.  Neither is ideal.  Respect your farmer, and if you absolutely can't make it on time, at the very least call to see if you can make alternate arrangements, and stick to them.  Don't show up Sunday at dinnertime if we agreed to a Monday morning pick up because you were in the mood to take a drive.  If you don't know your farmer well enough to expect them to drop by your house unannounced for a cup of coffee, don't drop by the farm unannounced because you're in the mood for bacon.  

Butt Out.  Unless you see a designated area, assume smoking is prohibited. Wooden barns, hay, sawdust and the like are all flammable and fire is one of a farmer's worst nightmares.  Animals don't know what a cigarette butt is, and, still smoldering or not, may try to eat it.  It's also not a nice smell around the fresh food we have for sale.

Respect Privacy.  I'm a private person.  I really don't like strangers wandering though my back yard and don't imagine you would enjoy it either. Please remember that a family farm is a home as well as a business, and if you're unsure which areas are private and which are public, please, please ask before taking a self-guided tour.  "I'm from the city" is no excuse to wander around without permission, even if you think you might get a better view of the cows from under my laundry line.  Especially if it's after hours and you're smoking a cigarette.

Find a Pet Sitter.  We love animals, that's why we choose to farm.  However, we can't  guarantee the safety of your pet when you bring it here, nor are we sure it won't get loose and chase the livestock, which can cause injury to our animals or a day of fixing fences for us.  I also don't want to feed my table full of free samples to anyone other than the human visitors, so please leave your pooch at home, or at least in the car.

Ask before you taste.  Unless it is a U-pick farm, please don't help yourself to the produce. (and even then, be sure to follow the rules of where to pick and how to pay for those tasty treats!)  A farmer might just be happy to give you a free sample of something, but please don't pick up a pint of blueberries, taste a few, and then put it back.  The next customer will thank you too.

Kids are welcome.  But please, make sure you are supervising them. That wide open space that looks fun to run across may just be a freshly planted field that would be harmed by little feet. Little ones can be in danger if they get through a fence near large animals or wander towards farm machinery, and no one wants to see anyone get hurt on a visit.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. We are really proud of what we do, and want you to understand where your food comes from and how it is produced. Don't see what you are looking for? Ask when it will be available, since many times it depends on the weather, unlike a grocery store.  Understand that a late frost, hot weather, or hungry wildlife may have changed the date when the crop you are looking for will be ready.

 

Some of these ideas may sound silly, or like I'm making things up, but every single one has happened to me in the past year.  I don't think any of the folks meant to cause problems or bad feelings, they simply didn't think.  I promise, this will make you stand out in the mind of your farmer, but we'd much rather remember you for pleasant conversation and great questions about how your food is raised.  Follow the easy steps above, and you're well on your way to being a farm stand V.I.P.!

 For more information on the Buy Fresh Buy Local farm tour, which is taking place Saturday July 24 and features 24 Western Pennsylvania farms and 11 restaurants for just $10 per carload, check out http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=116297249299054396449.000488370651d72096061&ll=42.803462,-77.871094&spn=4.247492,9.876709&z=7 for an interactive map with all the details!

 



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A New Season Begins

A new season is here at our farm!  Yes, it's officially summer now, although it's been pretty hot with lots of thunderstorms for some time now.  As I mentioned in my last post, we're transitioning to a new season in our lives as well.  Tomorrow is my official last day of off-farm work.  I'm excited, optimistic, and yes, a little nervous about where this will lead.  I'm walking away from what I've known for the past five years, but during the "test run" of a 3-month layoff last fall, I came to know, without a doubt, that this is really where my heart lies.  Will I have to find another day job or will the farm be enough?  I don't know.  I do know I have a vision of what I'd like the farm to be someday.  A teaching place.  A place where anyone can learn about how food is grown. How it is possible to build up the soil rather than destroy it while producing your crops.  How to raise animals in a way that is humane, sustainable and healthy for the creatures, the people and the environment.  How to partner with horses to work the land like Americans have done for generations, before our dependence on oil put a tractor in nearly every field (and why this part of our lives doesn't have anything to do with being Amish).  What an heirloom plant or heritage livestock breed looks like, what it tastes like, why it's valuable and how we can save them.  I'm not sure exactly how this will work or what it will look like.  I am excited to take a small step in that direction July 24th by being part of the PA Buy Fresh Buy Local farm tour.  I'll be showcasing the poultry on a short walking tour, letting people see our birds and letting them know more about what we raise and why.  We'll see where it goes from there!

The garden is thriving in this weather.  My heirloom lettuces, Grandpa Admire's and Crisp Mint Romaine, have taken the heat well so far and didn't bitter like some of the other varieties.  Peas are here, both sugar and shelling.  The borage (a beautiful herb that tastes like a cucumber) is in bloom already.  The green onions are rapidly growing into big onions. Tiny zucchini and summer squash are appearing with the promise of being plentiful as always. Little green tomatoes have appeared, and so far no reports of the blight that plagued farms in our area last year.  More treasures appear every day.  I swear you can see the corn stalks' growth between morning and night!   The hay fields are also more than ready, and with a break in the predicted thunderstorms we'll be mowing hay Friday with any luck. A great time to be in the fields.

All the animals are thriving on pasture.  We recently got a couple more beef cows that have joined the herd without incident.  This weekend we're anticipating the loan of a Dexter bull along with a Dexter cow to milk and a calf to raise.  One of my doe rabbits just had 6 healthy babies.  The spring lambs are growing so fast on the lush pasture, some of the boys are nearly as tall as their mothers.  The turkeys are growing by leaps and bounds, with the males attempting some hilarious-sounding teenage gobbles.  While the peafowl are finished laying eggs for the year, the eggs are in the incubator and I'm anxious to see if we have a successful hatch. A wonderful time to have animals.

I've begun canning garden excess, so far I've made 2 rhubarb jams- one with oranges, the other with ginger and oriental spices.  I have new batches of homemade vinegars fermenting, and I'm excited to try some  herbal or fruit infusions with them when they are ready.  There are new mustard recipes to try, including my quest to master a good champagne-dill one.  I was trying to use Google to find an alternate recipe last night, and I had to laugh when my blog entry about my utter failure with this earlier in the year was the #4 result when I typed "champagne dill mustard recipe"! A superb time to use up the bounty of the garden, to try new recipes, to create my own.

Tomorrow, I'll come home and put the khaki slacks away.  (ok, I'll wash them first.)  I'll put on my jeans and barn boots, and begin a new day, a new season.  I don't know how long it will last or what storms lay on the horizon, but I'm excited.  I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be, and I can't wait to have more time to put my hands in the dirt. 

 
 

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!

 
 

History in Context

One of the great things about our farm is the sense of history you get just by being here.  Not just because we choose to farm with horses and use antique equipment, but the very buildings are antiques too!  One of my long-term goals is to research the history of the farm and write it down, but for now I know for sure that the barn was built in 1894.  It's carved into the foundation stones, so that I'm quite sure of.  The building used as the workshop is older than that, and the house was put here later than the barn, but not by too many years.  It was built on an adjacent farm, pulled by horses and rolled on logs to its current location, so it is a bit harder to date.  Looking at the hand-hewn beams of the barn, it's fascinating to me to picture how it was actually built.  It's been in continuous use without any major structural repairs (other than a board here and there or a new roof) so it was built right the first time, as the saying goes.  The pictures of horses and buggies and a blacksmith shop here are easy to picture.  It's a bit more mind-boggling to picture that in the larger context of history, of the area and the nation as well.  

At my day job, we are in the process of relocating the office.  We will be moving to the historic Transit building in downtown Oil City.  While touring the building looking for office space, we found out a lot about the history of the structure.  It was built by John D. Rockefeller in the days of Standard Oil.  It processed something like 90% of the world's orders for petroleum products at that time.   Our little corner of the world was the birthplace of the oil industry, and at that time huge Victorian homes were being built, many of which still stand today in places like Oil City, Franklin,  or Titusville.  Boom towns like Pithole appeared overnight, full of the lawless and the newly rich.  I knew all this, it is celebrated in annual town festivals, it is talked about frequently in the local newspaper, and there are many historic monuments within a short drive of home.  But somehow, it can be hard to reconcile with our little farm.  Still farming with horses and heating with wood, we seem pretty far removed form the oil boom.  So what brought it all home to me the day I was in the Transit building?  J. D. Rockefeller, a prominent national historical figure of his era, was building his 4-story brick superstructure to handle petroleum orders the very same year my barn was built, 1894.  The two structures are separated by less than 30 miles.  I had never really put those events side by side, as one seemed to be something from a history textbook and the other an extension of personal history, the history of my home.  Wow.  History in context.

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Opening the Stand

Thanks to everyone who stopped by to see us at the stand's reopening on Saturday!  After being closed for over 3 years, we weren't sure what kind of turnout we would have.  Once the stand opened, everything ran smoothly, but we did have a little more craziness than expected that morning.  Frankie Blue Eyes, a rabbit, has been on the loose for about a month, but as he was doing no damage, we didn't try real hard to catch him.  Of course, Saturday morning he discovered the cabbage transplants we had set out 2 weeks ago and was systematically eating them all. After catching him, which required both Dan and I and a large net on a pole, we had to catch the other 2 boys from that pen.  They have not been out since we put wire on the floor of the moveable pen months ago, but not only were they hopping through the yard, but the cats were chasing them.  Now the cats have never chased Frankie, but the other boys must have looked like lunch because the cats were really being aggressive.  Finally the rabbits are put away, the stand is stocked, and I go to change into something a little nicer than muddy jeans and wet sneakers.  Having a few minutes to spare, I thought I'd go into the barnyard and cut a bit of chammomile to pretty up the checkout counter.  As I, in a skirt no less, am cutting stems, around the corner of the building comes Wilbur, our boar hog.  Now the last thing I wanted was a mud covered 800 pound creature coming to rub all over my nice clean clothes, but Wil thought I might be interested in scratching his back like usual.  I'm not sure he understood my threats of turning him into bacon if he got any closer, but we settled on a compromise...I scratched behind his ears and decided that I had enough flowers!  

I got to the stand and hoped my animal excitement was over for the day.  However, Puff had other ideas.  Puff is a great big fluffy housecat that I raised by hand after his mother was killed on the road.  Puff was 3 weeks old then and is now 8 years old and spoiled rotten.  Puff strode into the stand as if he owned it, and being carried back out several times did not deter him.  He thought about jumping up on my table of sauces, probably because they are all in glass jars and they'd make a great mess if he knocked them onto the cement floor.  Luckily for me, that was too much work for a lazy cat.  Then the people started coming in.  I was excited to have customers and Puff was excited to have visitors!  He lay in the very middle of the floor and seemed quite pleased to have new friends to pet him.  Apparently there were too many new friends because he jumped into the horse drawn sleigh and went to sleep.  After awhile he'd feel more sociable and be back down oon the floor, then back to the sleigh again.  I will be back at the stand on Saturday from 10 am-2pm and I imagine "Puff the Farm Stand Mascot" will be too.  We hope to see you there!

 

 
 
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