Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Gabi's Garden

About a week ago, I got a tough phone call.  My college roommate's father called to pass along the sad news that my friend Gabi had passed away.  Though deeply saddened, it didn't come as a surprise.  It also has led me to some soul-searching thoughts as I think about my friend, dead at just 34.  Her father asked me if I ever thought I'd go back to social work, as Gabi and I went through the Master's of Social Work program together at Pitt.  Although I spent quite a bit of time & energy attaining that degree, my reply was no.  I really feel that what I do here on the farm is what I was put here on Earth to do, and that I am blessed to have found something that I love and that makes me happy, but is meaningful. I think that's why I went into social work, because I wanted to do something meaningful for others, but I found it was not what made me happy.  Farming is bigger than yourself; it is life and death.  Beauty and heartache.  Though my heart was heavy, I still had chores to do, animals who depend on me to feed and care for them.  I had baby chicks to pull out of the incubator, their tiny lives just starting.  There is a special kind of peace you get inside when you find what you're meant to do, the place in life you were meant to be...it's the answering of a calling.  And it makes me sad that my friend never found the place that she was always supposed to be, because I think if she had, she might still be with us today.

My siblings called to offer condolences, and we talked about happier times, shared memories.  My sister Laurel made my day by buying flowers and putting them by the house Gabi & I shared in college.  As I looked at the photos Laurel sent, I cried a little, laughed a little.  There, in the background, was the weedy patch of gravelly dirt you'd expect on a city street known more for keg parties than local food.  But, oddly enough, it was the site of my first garden.  While we had flowers planted around my family home, my parents gave up gardening when I was very small, so I don't remember tending anything but flowers.  Gabi always had a garden, and missed it, so the two of us got a couple of tomato and cucumber plants and plopped them right in our little yard.  I added some marigolds and mint I dug up from my Dad's property.  Our plants grew, the soil was so bad the weeding was minimal, and when the tomatoes needed staking, we found some old white metal curtain rods in the basement.  We put them in the dirt and tied up the tomatoes with baler twine I brought from home. We laughed at our little "ghetto garden", but we had fresh veggies for our salads that summer!

So to honor Gabi's memory, and that first little garden...I'd like to "pay it forward", to you.  Send me an email (send to pleasantvalleyfarmpa at yahoo dot com) and I will send you a packet of seeds, for free.  I'll need your address, and I'd like you to share something with me.  Let me know if you're an expert gardener, or if this spring is your first try.  Or why you garden, or where you find your peace.   Share a homesteading dream.  Anything at all, really...let's just make it a little more personal than a blank email with your address, OK?  I'll send out seeds until I run out of packets I can part with.

 It's my hope that these seeds will arrive like a special present in the mail, and you will plant them, watch them grow, and reap the benefits.  Gabi shared the magic of gardening with me, and I would like to pass it to some new friends as a way to honor her memory and her kind heart.  I think she'd like this idea.  

 

 

 I hope you smile like this when you get them.

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More Than Rhubarb

It's hard to believe, but by Sunday our opening day of the farm stand season will be behind us.  Now is the time where I get a bit antsy, worrying that I won't have enough things ready to fill the tables.  It's really hard to have fresh produce on May 26, especially when we've had a frost as late as June 2! (and yes, that was only two or three years ago, not ancient history!)  Although I know that we've been doing prep for months, there is only so much we can put in without running a near-certain risk of losing the plants to frost damage.  So it gets to be a little nerve-racking when opening day arrives, because it seems as hard as we try, we never have just the right weather to have a bounty of produce to fill the tables.  Yet it's bad business to have lots of empty space, so I usually spend the last couple weeks fretting about having enough for opening day.

I spent the better part of yesterday setting up the stand.  Dan rented a power washer Monday night, so the heavy scrubbing was done, but there is still a lot involved getting the tables set up, putting up tablecloth and skirting, wiping out fridges and freezers, and figuring out what I had in stock and where it all should go.  While I put the tables back in pretty much the same spots they were before, I quickly realized that, instead of worrying about how to fill all this empty table space, I needed to get creative to find a space for everything we have!

The cheese will no longer be sitting on ice, with just one example of each kind.  Thanks to my mom letting me have my old dorm fridge back, cheese will now be self-serve.  We're hoping to fit a plexiglass door on the front, but it's just not likely to happen before Saturday.  So I squeezed that next to the “free sample” table.  Also on that table is a new feature for the stand...the feather jewelry I created over the winter.  I also have cute wreaths I made from the hop vines last year.  And I have lots more canned goods starting off the year than ever before- 5 kinds of jam, 4 kinds of mustards,  6 different vinegars, dill pickles, hot pepper rings, corn relish, sweet relish, apple butter, Thai dipping sauce, 2 BBQ sauces- one made with peaches and the other with rhubarb.  Non-canned edibles include sun dried tomatoes and a couple kinds of homemade egg noodles, plus honey.  

Today I'm picking up coffee...three regular flavors plus (ground or whole bean) and an assortment of flavored coffees.  I'm really excited about getting a tasting tour of Happy Mug's coffee.  We are very excited to have a local roaster who uses organic, fair trade and farm direct beans!  We're also looking to put our own stone grinder at the stand, so folks who want to grind their own coffees can!

We'll also have meat.  The broilers may be a bit smaller than usual, but we'll have some ready to go.  We'll also have pork chops, ribs, roasts and three or four varieties of our homemade sausage.  Bacon, ham and beef will be in the very next week.  We'll have some chicken eggs, and new for this year, quail eggs as well.

Outside the stand, we've got an assortment of bedding plants.  A wide variety of herbs, plus a few tomatoes, flowers, hop vines and whatever else I started but ran out of room in the garden for.  Come Saturday, I'll bring down some of the baby chicks, turkey poults and quail.  Maybe some baby bunnies too.  There are peacock feathers, and some cat toys made from those feathers too.  I'll also have bouquets of some fresh herbs...I just need to find a place to set them!

I know since it's a farm, I'll get at least one request for fresh sweet corn or ripe tomatoes, even though I do think that folks are getting better about understanding just what seasonal means.  But even if we only have rhubarb and spring onions to pick out of the garden, I think we'll still be off to a great start for our farm stand season!

We hope you'll join us as we open for the season!  Brave the heat and stop by to say hi this Saturday, May 26, from 10 AM- 2PM.  

If you can't make it this weekend, we'll be open all the way through November!
 
 

Being a Teamster

 When you hear the word teamster, what springs to mind?  Unions?  Jimmy Hoffa?  Big 18-wheeler trucks hauling freight down the interstate?  (And yes, I am going somewhere farm-related with this...)

Originally, a teamster was one who drove a team of horses.  Someone who made their living with a set of reins in hand.  Back before tractors and big rigs, there were big horses.  They were used to plow the fields and to pull wagons, loaded with goods, from town to town.  Interestingly enough, the word “teamster” stuck with the freight haulers, but not the farmers when hooves were replaced with steel.  So today, most Americans think of teamsters as truckers, but it is also a word proudly used by the small but dedicated group of people who choose to farm with horses, like Dan and I.  Being a teamster, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, is really a dying art, although it does seem to be making somewhat of a comeback with the increases in both interest in sustainable farming practices, and also the cost of diesel fuel.  Being an old-fashioned teamster AND a woman is rarer yet.  And while I certainly am no expert (I won't even think about working the horses if Dan isn't home, just in case), I do take great joy in helping to do some of the real work of the farm with those lines in my hand.

Two weeks ago, Dan spent a good part of the weekend walking behind the plow.  This weekend, we finished the rest of the soil prep.  So on Saturday, Dan harnessed up the horses and ran the disc and harrow.  Both of these machines break up the large clods turned over by the plow into smaller, more workable pieces.   Next comes the cultipacker.  It's like a big roller with a seat above.  You ride it, and it basically smashes the remaining small clods.  It is my absolute favorite piece of machinery to run.  Probably because it was the first piece I ever drove without Dan being right next to me.  That, and it's hard to mess up.  If you miss a spot, you can go back and catch it on the next pass.  If you go over the same spot twice, it's fine.  But of course, it's a point of pride to try and have those rows straight and even, and doing it efficiently means you spend less time doing it, which is important too, since there is never enough time in the day to get everything done on a farm, especially in spring.  Having grown up riding horses (I met my horse just before my 12th birthday), I'm quite used to a set of reins in my hands.  But there is something different when you're driving a team.  I'm not sure if it is because you're controlling them in a different way- using only voice and pressure from the lines as opposed to the subtle ways all your muscles communicate when astride- or if it's the size thing.  I love Dixie & Dolly, I often feed them, bring them inside the barn, clean their stalls...I'm very comfortable working around them.  But they are big.  Really big.  Their backs are at least as tall as the top of my head when I stand next to them, and at 5'4', I'm not terribly short.  Their feet are literally as big as dinner plates.  We estimate their weight to be somewhere between 1800-2000 pounds.  Each.  There is incredible power in those muscles, and especially as a novice teamster, I'm very aware of that when I take up the reins.  

But through generations of breeding and hours of training, the horses really do seem to understand, even enjoy, their job.  When we got to the end of a row, almost before I changed the pressure on the reins to tell them to turn, Dixie & Dolly were already moving to turn the cultipacker.  When it works, it is amazing...a feeling of two horses, a person, and some otherwise lifeless equipment, all moving as one through the field, with the smell of fresh spring soil everywhere.  It's almost magical.  There really is a sense that we are all taking pride in our work, all three of us.  Heads up, backs straight, we move together across the freshly turned earth, preparing it for another spring of new life, and another season of producing real food.  Using many of the simple, effective, and sustainable methods that American farmers used for generations, when small family farms were the norm, and not the exception.  Except for the neighbors driving by in cars and my purple plastic sunglasses, it could be a scene from 1912 as easily as 2012.   

But of course, as easy as it is to be charmed into that daydream by the creak of leather and the jingle of metal, I snap out of it soon enough, when Dixie tries biting Dolly again on another turn, or when the pair of them want to go too fast across the field.  Make no mistake, for all the idyllic splendor of the scene, it is real work.  But the kind of work that leaves you with both tired muscles and a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.  It makes me proud of what we do, and just as importantly, how we do it.

 

 
 

The Biggest Compliment

  In the past, I've had inquiries about turning my farm into a Bed & Breakfast- one of those kinds where you can stay, live a day on a real farm, "help" with the chores and meet the animals. I totally understand why this is becoming popular- most folks don't have a family member who farms, unlike previous generations, and to pack up the kids for a weekend of living the simple life sounds ideal. However, I'm really a private person, and the idea of having strangers paying to sleep in a bedroom upstairs, expecting to have me cook them breakfast and eat in my kitchen sounds like my worst nightmare.

However, there is one couple that is always welcome to take their vacation time and spend it here at the farm working around the vegetables & livestock. That would be my husband's parents, Tom and Betty. They came to visit us for the better part of last week, and were an amazing amount of help. Although they have moved on and are comfortable no longer being tied to the farm, there are still lots of things they miss, so it is fun for them to come and be a part of spring (or any time of the year, really) on the farm. The weather was warm & beautiful, and Tom had a great time harnessing the horses and getting the fields ready with the disc, harrow, and cultipacker. (The cultipacker is my absolute favorite piece of equipment to run, so I was a little jealous about that...but he was having so much fun I couldn't bring myself to ask for a turn! Besides, there is plenty more space in the garden to prep, so I'll have my own turn at it later this spring.) Betty followed, running the rototiller. With their help, the section of field was ready to plant in no time. Dan was away at work, but I knew where all our seed supplies are, so Tom, Betty & I planted many of our spring crops. We planted 4 varieties of potatoes, beets, 2 kinds of peas, 4 kinds of onion, radishes, plus a slew of greens; red and green lettuce, arugula, chard, spinach, bok choi and mustard greens. It was great to get our hands in the dirt and see the first wave of spring planting done. In fact, even though Dan was home relatively early in the afternoon, by that time we were relaxing with some cold drinks on the porch, while Tom & Betty shared stories of farming, and of the history of this farm with me.

I love to listen to them...I always learn so much. I love knowing more about the history of this place (I really want to make time to write down all they know about it someday), both of things that they experienced here, and history they learned by talking to folks who had previously lived here, some of whom have passed away now. Of course, I married their son, and they love to share cute stories of his childhood with me also. But they also share so much knowledge with me, so I try always to pay attention & soak up what they say. They have been farming for longer than I've been alive, and worked these very fields for over 20 years before I walked them, so they have so much knowledge that is a help to me. For instance, they complimented us on getting rid of much of the quack grass (a troublesome weed) in the garden, and then went into how the weed that you see are a reflection of what your soil needs...quack is more prominent when soils need lime. So if you see it, you can be nearly certain that your soil could use limed, even without taking a soil test. To me, that is amazing.

Another major task tackled last week was getting the sheep sheared. Tom spent many years shearing, and even was hired to do other farmer's flocks, so he's simply quicker and better at it than Dan. And since shearing isn't one of Dan's favorite tasks anyways, he was grateful for the help. So one evening, the men went to the barn while Betty and I decided to stay in the warm house. While Dan was helping Tom to hold unruly sheep not wanting to be clipped, we had a great time talking. I have stepped into her role as main selector of seed varieties and the starter of greenhouse seedlings. It is neat to have someone as a mentor who understands the joys & stresses of being a woman farmer. Someone who understands how greenhouse seedlings of tomatoes, peppers and such can feel strangely like children and the excitement of watching them grow. By the time the men were done, we had spread seed catalogs across the table. She wanted to check to see if seed for the tastiest melon ever grown on the farm was still available (it is...and is high on next year's list already). I was showing her a great lettuce I love to grow which we find does not get bitter in warmer weather, so it may be a good fit for her garden which is further south now.

It was truly a great visit. Tom and Betty were excited to see what we've been doing with their beloved farm, from turning a spare bedroom into a library and getting all the books out of the attic, to building the greenhouses. Also, we do things now that they never tackled, so they like to see that too. Hatching chicks with the incubator was not a part of the farm for them, but they enjoyed checking out the chicks, turkey poults and baby quail.  About the only thing they weren't crazy about was the bull, but having known farmers who have been killed by bulls, I understand their concern. (I like to think I'm alert & careful around all the animals.  Even a ram sheep can be deadly. But that also doesn't stop me from feeding any of them cookies.) 

But the best part for me was that they allow Dan and I to make the farm decisions, and even treat me like I know what I'm doing. I don't always feel like I know what I'm doing yet! As we were planting, Betty finished a row and asked “Hey Boss Lady! What next?” Who, me? The newbie as Boss Lady? Or when Tom found me in the greenhouse and asked if the peas had all been planted...I said no, then started to tell him how I just wanted to check the greenhouse seedlings so they didn't get too dried out, and that I'd be right back to finish my peas. I probably sounded like a kid making excuses for why her chores weren't done yet. Tom said “Oh no, I wasn't questioning you're judgment, Em. You're doing the right thing. Betty just likes to plant peas and will finish up the row while you're busy here.” Or that Betty wanted to buy some herb seedlings to take home with her. Betty, who has started literally thousands of seedlings at once, wanted a few of my plants because she thought they would look better than the ones she had started by the time she got home. I guess it's like a stamp of approval from experienced farmers whose opinion really matters to me. Being in business for yourself is always hard, and farming is even trickier as there is so much beyond your control. To have someone who has been down this road and succeeded, it's an amazing feeling to hear them say that you look like you're on the right path. And I treasure that, because I'd like to be right here, doing this, for many years to come.

 

Planting potatoes while Tom uses the rototiller to plow another row.  For once, I'm actually in the picture, as Betty was kind enough to use the camera for me!  Also pictured is one of our free-range chickens, a Delaware rooster, inspecting my work.

 

 
 

The Sprout House

 

A big projet has been crossed off of our spring to-do list.  The greenhouse we use for starting seeds was really showing its age.  The plastic was in tatters, the inside was filled with skeletons of last year's overgrown weeds, and with all the rain we've seen, you had to walk through a real muddy mess to get to the door.   

 

 

This is what it looked like. Not a friendly space to work or grow.  So, we cleaned up the inside, removed the workbenches, and stripped it down to the wooden frame, which was in great shape due to being built with treated lumber.

 

Halfway there! (As you can see by the snow, this was not a one-day project!)

Once down to the frame, Dan and I moved it about the length of the building and placed it closer to the processing pavilion (in rear of photo). This area is just slightly higher, and therefore drier.  Once the frame was level and in place, we put a floor of underlayment fabric down.  This should shade the weeds and prevent them from taking over every summer!  Then we put new plastic over the frame, inside and out, then replaced the worktables.  This time, we put them slightly lower so they are easier for me to work with.

 

 

I love the new sprout house! It's so much more inviting now. Dan boxed in a corner to use as a raised bed, and after the cold snap over the weekend, we are hoping to direct seed some frost tolerant veggies like radish, lettuce, chard and spinach.  I've also got flats of seed trays here in the house.  I've already started tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant for our big greenhouse.  This is another project we hope to complete soon.  We'll be taking down the metal frames out in the garden, using the ones in the best shape, and making a 65' greenhouse.  We'll plant these vegetables right in the soil, but we'll be able to do it much earlier and so will be able to offer our customers these veggies earlier and for a longer time during our market season.  I've also started a few flats of herbs, including basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley, catnip and echinecea (purple coneflower) so far.  I hope to have a nice variety of potted herbs for sale when we reopen this year, a new venture for me!  The trays are here in the warm kitchen until the seeds germinate, then we'll be taking them out to the sprouthouse for lots of sun and an early start on the season.  It's good to be growing again!

 

 
 

Sliding towards Spring

It's the halfway day of February already! Winter seems to be just flying by. Although, the fact that it has been warm and snow free for much of the time probably has a lot to do with that feeling. But as we start on the downhill of the month, I can't help but feel like things are going to get crazily busy before I've had a chance to get around to my winter projects!

The cold and snow have kept me inside most of this week, but I'm already thinking spring. I lugged a big bag of potting mix into the kitchen to thaw out, and by tomorrow I should be filling flats with seedlings for early tomato, pepper and cucumber plants for the greenhouse. I should be getting some herbs seeds very soon, and am hoping to be able to offer a few potted herbs when we open for the season.  Plants for the main garden will follow in a few weeks. I'm excited about rehabbing the small greenhouse near the house over the next week or so, and using it to start more of our own plants than we have in the past. I'm also excited about getting a big greenhouse up, and planting the plants right in the ground inside. This will be new for me, although Dan did it for years. We had hoped to last year, but it didn't happen, mostly because of the incredible amount of rain we had last spring. But, we're determined to get it up and operational this time around.

Another thing that has me busy is preparing for the Farm to Table conference in Pittsburgh, March 23 & 24. I'll be speaking once again, this time on Heirloom plants, so I've got an hour long speech & Powerpoint to put together. I'll also have a table in the main hall both days, so I've been planning on how best to fill it. I've bottled some vinegars, made some mustard, and have been working on plenty of feather jewelry too.

In addition to my talk on Heirloom plants, it's looking like I'll be involved in a couple of other educational presentations. The local Lions Club is putting on a walk & educational program about diabetes awareness, and they reached out to us to partner with them. There is a meeting next week to plan it, but I know that usually if someone volunteers, they are put to good use. Also upcoming is to do some education on nutrition, organic foods and shopping local for families in a nearby town in a health & nutrition program. I am looking forward to helping out local groups, but also trying to get a good outline of what I want to say, as well as any handouts I might want to pass out, because I know better than to put off my homework until the middle of spring. It's impossible to stay inside in the spring on a farm, but for now, it's nice to stay warm and dry here in front of the keyboard.

 
 

The Perfect Garden

Right now, this year's garden is perfect. That may seem strange, as it's covered with a few inches of snow, and harnessing up the horses to plow is still months off. But right now I can see it, I've planned it all out, and it's the only time of year where I don't have to deal with the difficulties of actually growing. So, in my mind, the weather has been perfect, no pests or diseases, and all the varieties are doing well. The weeds haven't been a problem, and you can tell by now that I'm totally delusional.

I've gone though all the seeds left over or saved from last season, took stock of our inventory, and figured out what I could avoid buying this year. I get excited about using heirloom varieties and finding ones that work for our microclimate. It is not too much work to spend a few hours in the fall picking dry bean seeds or scooping out the seeds from a squash to save for next year. Each time I do, I help to perpetuate a variety that in some cases is old and in danger of going extinct. In any case, it's like money in the bank, as I've created my own seed for next year. I am trying, year by year, to become better and save more different kinds of vegetable seed. I think if I can become proficient at saving seeds and starting plants in the greenhouse, I should be able to slash the seed bill somewhere around half. Some seeds take too long to save (for example, carrots are biennials, and would require field space for two seasons to produce seed, so it is worth it to us to purchase seed instead) and in some cases, especially with things like sweet corn, we will likely stick to the hybrid varieties, as they are what the public is geared to look for.

I've looked over my records of the last few years, noting which plant varieties performed well, and which I might like to try a new substitute. I've perused the seed catalogs and noted which varieties are no longer available and made acceptable substitutions. It's always a bummer when your favorite kind of something is no longer available. This year it was our favorite zucchini from Johnny's seed, Cashflow. We've picked out a new variety now, and hope it will be similar in taste & performance. At first, planning the seed purchase was almost overwhelming to me, as each variety sounds so amazing. (The catalogs are worded so that it is possible to feel overwhelmingly excited about something as plain as a radish!) I grew up with flowers in the yard, not veggies, so the names were not the old friends to me that they were to Dan. But I've got enough growing seasons under my belt that I am pretty confident about what (and how much!) to order, although Dan and I always sit down together and look it over before I send it in.

But hands down, my favorite part of spring garden planning is trying new things. In the past few years, we have had spectacular successes and also things we won't plant again, even for fun. Swiss chard grew fantastically, and is now one of my favorite greens. Herbs were not a big part of the farm and I've had fun starting with the basics and working my way up to more exotic flavors. Peanuts didn't work so well, and I'm still searching for the perfect melon for our weather, so not every gamble pays off, but if you don't try, you'll never find new, exciting things! So this year my wish list included everything from fingerling potatoes to salsify, a vegetable that supposedly tastes like oysters. I've seen fennel in so many recipes lately (I subscribe to what are probably too many cooking magazines!) that I have to try it. We've even tossed around the idea of branching out of the plant world to try our hand at growing gourmet mushrooms. So, as you can see it's easy to picture the perfect garden right now. The green house, the fields, everything is pictured with perfect optimism. Now I know there will be crop failures and pests and problems, but if you can't have joy in your heart picturing how this season will be the best ever, than you're probably in the wrong line of work.   

 And besides daydreaming about the perfect garden, there are still lots of things keeping us busy.  Our first lamb of the season was born on Sunday. I've been canning things I put away in the freezer until a slower time, so last week I finally defrosted a bucket of cherries and made case upon case of Black Forest Preserves.  (If you're looking for a unique Valentines gift, what could be sweeter than chocolate jam with PA-grown cherries in it for your sweetie?  We also have jewelry, handmade from our birds' feathers, and we ship nationwide!  Click over to our store at www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa to check it out!)  The sun is streaming through the window, and the thermometer is reading nearly 50 degrees, so I guess it's time to get off the computer and get outside! I'll try to post baby pictures in the near future!

 
 

Taking Inventory

The first real winter storm has hit the farm.  It's cold out, the wind is blowing and I can barely see the woods line from where I type, meaning visibility is not good at all.  It's a good day to take on indoor tasks, and after I finished sweeping up the mud on the kitchen floor again, I needed another project for the day.  Strangely enough, seeing all this blowing snow gets me excited to start thinking about the 2012 garden.  I enjoy sitting on the couch or near the woodburner, perusing the seed catalogs with a highlighter and a pen and notebook to begin creating a wish list of plants I'd like to grow, plus lots of price & volume comparisons.  It's a major undertaking, but it's always enjoyable.  

But before I start planning our seed purchases, I need to find out what is still here, meaning an afternoon of sorting through seed packets which have been stored away since planting stopped.  I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the types of seeds I have, both what vegetable and what variety, plus the quantity on hand and when it was purchased or harvested.  I've been trying to do better at saving seed from our own garden plants, which is only possible with older, heirloom plants, not the modern hybrids.   We do use some of the modern varieties for disease resistance or productivity, but we've been steadily incorporating more heirlooms each year.  So in addition to seeing how many small white packets of commercial seed are in the box, I also have an assortment of envelopes and brown bags, each carefully labelled "Chives"  or "Christmas Lima" or "Pink Banana Squash".  It's exciting to see how much of our own seed we can preserve, which in the end results not just in a smaller bill come spring planting, but also should produce plants that are most suited to our particular climate and location.  

Once all the packets have been inspected and inventoried, I'll put the boxes back in their cool, dry space in the pantry.  Then I'll get out the highlighter and notepad and the gorgeous assortment of seed catalogs that have arrived and start dreaming of the possibilities of spring! 

 
 

Reflections of 2011

A gentle snow is falling here at the farm. The animals take it all in stride. We tried to bring the horses into the barn last night for a warm bed & a manger full of hay, but they preferred to stay outside. Even now, with more than a dusting of snow on their backs as I look out my kitchen window, they are standing contentedly just beyond the pond. The cows are black shapes through the flakes in the pasture up by the woods. The warmth of wool is evident on the sheep's backs, as they have much more snow on them than the goats do. Even the turkeys are carrying little white patches on them as they wander through the garden, looking for any stray kernel of corn, forgotten squash, or other morsel. All is calm, all is bright. This is my peaceful corner of the Earth, or at least until the geese begin fighting or Ponyboy tries to chase the cows again.

The Christmas cards have stopped coming, but the seed catalogs are arriving daily now. In the next month or so, it will be time to really sit down and plan out what next year's garden will include. But for now they wait on the bookshelf.

This is the lull in the holiday season for most of us, sandwiched between the celebrations of Christmas and New Year's. I find it a time to be reflective about the almost-over year, and look forward to the new one to come, as I'm sure many of you do as well. This year, I'm amazed at the things that have happened in the past year, and how much Dan and I have to be thankful for. I'm so pleased at how my first year farming full time went. I loved it, and our business grew because of it too. Leaving the working world (and those steady paychecks) seemed like a big jump, but I couldn't be happier, and no one can put a price tag on that. I'm proud of all the processed products that came out of my kitchen, and it is such a great feeling when someone tells me they drove to the farm just for one of my creations, like Carrot Cake Jam or my secret-recipe Dill Pickles. I truly believe we have the greatest customers and I look forward to seeing them again next year!

There were lots of fun firsts as well with our first turkey poults hatching this year, and the birth of our first two Dexter calves. I don't think there is anything more joyful (although sometimes exhausting!) than baby season on the farm, and we're looking forward to more calves and poults next year, too. Despite the wet-dry-wet extreme of the growing season, we did well overall. Of course, not everything in the garden grew as hoped, so for next year I'll make a wish for a better season for corn & cucumbers, but for the most part we had a great growing season. We also planted crops last year that take more than one season to be productive, so this coming year we're anticipating seeing our first harvests of asparagus and garlic. The strawberries didn't do well, the few that sprouted got eaten by a pesky deer, so it's on the list for the year to come, as are more blueberry bushes (we hope!). Our plans for 2012 also include finishing the butchering pavilion we started this year by pouring a concrete floor and putting more washtubs there. Getting the greenhouses up & producing not only seedlings but crops like peppers, cukes and tomatoes is another thing high on my list, as we hoped to already have that done  but the extremely wet spring didn't allow that to happen this year. One of the wonderful things about farming like we do is the endless options, and we're always brainstorming new product possibilities...we've talked about everything from smoked quail to rabbit meat to selling handmade items from Dan's blacksmith shop.  The winter off-season is a wonderful time to reflect and to then plan ahead and experiment with the possibilities.

Another fun first this year was my first invitation to speak as a guest expert. I had such fun at the Farm to Table conference in Pittsburgh!   I loved meeting new friends at a table where I had delicious farm goods for sale, and also during my presentation on heritage livestock breeds. I was excited about both the number of people that turned out to see me, and the in-depth questions that followed. It was such a good time, it looks like we'll be doing it again, and I can't wait to get all the details so I can let everyone know.

The final big milestone for the farm in 2011 has been setting up an online store. We have had so many requests to ship our products or sell in other markets, we decided to try online sales. This time of year is perfect to launch it, since it's a time when money is a little tighter and I'm spending more time indoors anyway. So far, we've had a good start, a few sales and good feedback from our customers. I've listed canned products like vinegars, jams and mustards, and have been having a lot of fun making and listing some feather jewelry I've made with feathers from our peacocks and turkeys. (Check us out online at http://www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa !)  Right now I have everything from cat toys to earrings, necklaces and hair extensions, and I'm having a great time creating these items.  I also am excited about the custom option I have on the store, so I can work with a customer to create just the gift basket or piece of jewelry they had in mind! (And it's really useful to combine different items so I can try to save my customers on the shipping cost, too.)

 Thanks to all of our customers and friends for supporting us in 2011, and we hope to see you back again in the coming year.  We hope your 2011 was as blessed as ours.  All of us here at Pleasant Valley Farm send you wishes that 2012 is a healthy and happy year for you and your family!

 
 

Home Cooking

Isn't it amazing how it feels like fall the minute the schools open again? Just a night or two before our local schools started the new year, we had lows in the 40's and I'm seeing the first blushes of color in the leaves of the trees. The garden says fall is near as well. Although there are still plenty of tomatoes and peppers to pick, the corn and beans have given their last picking. Weeds have gained control of much of the rows, and instead of spending my days weeding them, we'll just till them under when we put the garden to bed for the year. It has a feeling of winding down, despite the fact that there is still more picking to do. We'll wait for the first frosts to harvest the winter squash, so until then, it's not quite the frenzied feeling when picking and prepping Saturday mornings before the stand opens. There is lots to can during the week as well, but it also feels like the downhill slide.


One part of the garden is still getting my attention though, and that's the herbs. Part of it is because they don't get as tall as lots of other plants, and would quickly be shaded out if I didn't keep up on the weeding. But mostly, I think it's because I love weeding there. Even gently brushing by the various leaves as I weed, I'm rewarded by the fragrances. My nose alone can tell if I'm caring for the thyme, the sage, the basil. The dill is blooming so strongly right now I can smell it when I pass by on the riding lawnmower, even above the motor and fresh-cut-grass smells. The herbs were the first garden plants that I really tended myself as I came to the farm, and still, they feel like the part of the garden that is mine alone. I plan it, I pick it, I decide whether to freeze or dry them or what to season with them. I like that. And most importantly, I've learned how to use them in my cooking.

Anise & Rosemary

 

I grow a decent variety of herbs, so I can pretty much season any dish I like. This year, I had success with chives, oregano, lemon balm, basil, lime basil, borage, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, anise, thyme and sage. I also planted garlic chives from seed, and they've finally gotten to the point I think I'll be cutting a few before too long. About the only thing that didn't take was the Thai basil, which isn't bad considering I plant from seed, and herbs are notoriously tricky and/or slow to come up. Ancient wisdom said that parsley had to go to the underworld and back seven times before it would sprout, it takes so long to germinate!

 

Thyme & Parsley  

Believe it or not, before I came to the farm, I wasn't much of a cook. Cooking was something that had to be done, but not because I enjoyed it. “From scratch” was something other people did, Hamburger Helper was good enough for me. My idea of seasonings ran toward garlic salt or grilling seasoning mixes. Now, I've done a complete turnaround. When bringing ham barbecue to a gathering last weekend, “I made it myself” meant not only did I cook the pork and make the sauce instead of pouring it out of a bottle, I gave the piglets their baby shots and loaded them onto the processor's trailer. I find I enjoy cooking so much more now, and the flavors are just incredible when you can walk out the kitchen door, scissors in hand, and walk back in with the flavorings. No salts, fats or preservatives, just fresh clean flavors. I like being able to say that the sage in our sausage is our own, or the cilantro in my salsa was cut just before I added it to the pot. But most of all, I just enjoy having them for myself, when I'm cooking for Dan and I. I love being able to take chances and throw things together and see what tastes I can come up with just mainly ingredients we make ourselves. And Dan is the farthest thing from a picky eater, over the last five years there have maybe been two times we decided to pass on whatever dish just didn't turn out right. Not bad, considering most of it was created on the fly, without much guidance from a recipe book!

Borage, Dill & Cilantro/Coriander

To me, being able to do that is the epitome of eating seasonally, and that is something I really strive to do, because the tastes are unbelievable. I even threatened that last night was my last night to cook, ever, because I'm not sure if the meal could be topped. I started out with the idea of making chicken alfredo, so I cooked up a breast of one of our chickens. I made the sauce from homemade chicken stock from the freezer and cream cheese. (No, that wasn't from my own cows, but even I'm allowed to cheat once in awhile!) Then I grated up some pattypan squash to add to the mix. For flavor, I put a good deal of fresh parsley and a bit of basil in my hand-cranked herb mill, and threw in some of the smoked cheddar we sell. Now it was getting some good flavor. Usually I would use garlic and a lot more basil, but I wanted a milder, creamer flavor so as not to overpower the most gourmet of my ingredients- more prized than naturally raised chicken or artisan smoked cheese- my mushrooms. Earlier, just an hour or so before, Dan and I had investigated our secret patches. I had a few chantrelles, but they still aren't coming on as strong as I expect they will after the next rain. And chantrelles retail for something like $50 per pound, and are one of the three gourmet mushrooms of western Pennsylvania that are highly sought after by chefs and cannot be grown, they must be harvested wild from the forests. We're lucky to have a good patch. The other two such forest fungi treats are morels (sadly, I have yet to pick one of those) and hen of the woods. I also found a hen last night and harvested part of that large mushroom as well. That went into the mix too. The result, served over some whole wheat pasta, was truly worthy of a five star restaurant. It likely would have cost a pretty penny at one of those places, considering the number of gourmet items that aren't always easy or possible to procure that went into it. However, I made it for (literally) the cost of some butter, cream cheese and noodles. So to me, eating seasonally means eating well, and life was sure good last night. So good I probably won't top it for awhile, but on second thought I don't think I'll give up cooking just yet. Ordering pizza in just wouldn't be as good!

 
 

Summer Has Arrived!

It seems summer is finally here, bringing lots of sun.  We've even had some 90+ days here at the farm already, which have sure helped to dry things up after the rains of spring.  Other than crops like lettuce and beans, which we plant small batches of throughout the summer, the garden is in.  Most of  the seeds are showing at least tiny sprouts.  On Saturday, Dan hoed a bit of corn up to check its germination, since none were showing through the soil.  It was hard to believe, but by Sunday afternoon, the rows of corn were clearly visible, with 2" tall plants! The transplanted plants, like peppers, tomatoes, and squash are thriving as well.  We're even seeing blossoms on the peppers and a couple of tomatoes! We got by with no frost on any of the transplants, which is a wonderful thing.  While it may seem too late to worry about frost, just two years ago our last frosty morning was June 2!  

This year, however, June 2 was noteworthy for another reason...it is the earliest we've ever been able to put hay up.  After cutting some hay Monday, we had a few hot, dry days, and we were able to rake and load the first wagon loads of the season last night.  It's amazing to begin putting dry hay away in the barn, while it seems summer has barely arrived we're already storing what we need to get through winter.  But at the farm, there is no such thing as planning too far ahead.   There is also nothing like the smell of fresh cut hay as it fills the barn!  On days like this I wish I could bottle it for a sniff of summer during those long, cold winter months.  We were also very fortunate that although sunny and breezy, the temperatures dropped into the 70's,  much more tolerable for all the physical labor of putting up hay.  Dan has cut more, so with a little luck weather-wise, we'll be loading hay again in another day or two.  

With all this sun, the only thing I'm falling behind on is my computer work.  I confess I've been a bit behind on blogging, and my June newsletter isn't ready yet either.  But you just can't feel bad about that when you've got hay in the barn and the weeds are (temporarily) at bay in the garden.  The sun is shining again, so it's time to log off and get out there! 

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Planting at Last!

Finally, the warm temperatures and sunny skies are making it feel like spring!  This weekend, we were finally able to get the horses harnessed and get the majority of this year's garden plowed.  We'll still need to do lots more, like discing and harrowing, before it's ready to plant, but it sure is nice to see some freshly tilled soil when I look outside.  We did get a few things in the ground as well, in a space tilled with our BCS rototiller.  Again, we planted beets, green onions, radishes, lots of lettuces, carrots and peas.  It's important to plant things like lettuce and radishes every few weeks in order to be able to harvest routinely as the season wears on.

 We also planted some potatoes.  Our potato order from Seed Saver's Exchange arrived, so we wanted to get them into the ground as soon as possible. We're trying a neat new variety this year called Mountain Rose.  These red-skinned potatoes also have swirls of rose through the flesh.  The description in the catalog said they will be a non-waxy potato, great for chips, fries, mashing or a unique looking potato salad.  We were also anticipating more All-Blue potatoes, which we've grown for the past couple of years.  They're small, with a purple-blue skin and flesh.  Tasty potatoes that are great for baking & frying, and also retain their color when boiled.  I had visions of a really patriotic potato salad if I combined the two varieties!  Unfortunately, despite the fact I placed my order months ago, when it came time to ship, they were out of the All Blues.   I'm still trying to locate another source with hopes of growing them yet this year.  But I was excited that Seed Savers shipped another variety of potato (at no charge) to make up for the ones I wouldn't be getting.  So we're growing Nicola potatoes this year.  They are medium-large, white potatoes.  They are said to have a low glycemic level and are waxy and excellent for boiling & salads.   I've yet to be less than amazed at the rich flavors of the wonderful heirloom plants from Seed Saver's Exchange, so I'm looking forward to trying these as well.

We're also looking at moving at least some of the herb garden.  It's been years since the soil has been tilled and properly limed and fertilized.  The weeds are thick and most of what herbs are there need thinned.  So yesterday, as Dan was plowing, I began transplanting some of my chives, thinning them and moving them to their new home.  This morning, they looked great, it didn't seem to faze them one bit.  I have more to thin and move, so I just may put some in pots and offer them for sale when we open.

It's hard to believe, but we'll be open for the season in just three weeks, on May 28!  There is lots to do before then.  One thing we needed to take care of was getting meat processed- we'll be offering our grass fed beef by the pound and also some lamb kielbasa on opening day, so of course we needed to make arrangements for those animals to go to Hirsch's, our meat processor.  We penned up the animals in the barn last night, which ended up being a very good thing.  Matt was around and able to lend an extra hand sorting out the right animals and moving them. The trailer usually comes in the evenings, but this morning I got a call asking if it would be possible to load them this morning instead.  I said yes, it was just great as far as I was concerned to get it done with earlier in the day.  The only thing was that Dan was working an hour away, so it would just be me  and Tom, the driver.   He is almost always the driver who comes to the farm, and is a pro at loading the animals with a minimum of fuss and stress for all involved.  When he got here, I opened the barn doors, spotted as he backed the trailer, and let him know it was just me on the farm today.  He said it would be no problem, and 15 minutes later, the animals were loaded and the trailer was on its way down the road.  

I've gotten used to the idea of loading animals onto the trailer for processing into meat, and I don't get too choked up about it anymore.  A frequently asked question I get is how I can eat something that I raised (and usually named, as well!) The answer is that I know we raised them in a humane way, with all the luxuries of pasture, sun, and wholesome diet that most animals raised for meat don't get.  The animals wouldn't even be born if they didn't have a purpose, so giving them a good existence before they are killed quickly and humanely is nothing to get too upset about.  In fact, just the opposite- not only do the animals live in a way fitting to their nature, but it gives people in our area an option to support something besides the factory farms with their food dollars if they choose to eat meat.  And it tastes so much better!  So, over time, loading has become more of a semi-routine farm chore and less of an emotional roller coaster.  Even though it was unexpected, it did feel good to know I could take care of this chore myself, without Dan.  It wasn't a big deal, everything went well, and the driver seemed comfortable working with just me there in the barn, which to me was a big compliment.  I've noticed that many farm and livestock folks aren't big on giving each other praise.  Often the biggest is that they are happy to work with you, and when they do, you trust each other enough to get the job done safely and quickly, like we did today.

 
 

Rain Delay

April showers are still falling here at the farm, making it hard to get much done outside these days. I've been so excited to spend my first spring on the farm full time and have been anxiously awaiting conditions outside to dry out so we can begin the spring field work prep with the horses. Last year, I have photos of Dan plowing on April 15, with a trail of dust behind him because of the dry weather. This year, it's hard to even take the plants out into the greenhouse without losing a boot in the mud and slop. But such are the realities of farming; I honestly can't think of a job that requires more patience or that is more weather-dependent.  I just keep my fingers crossed that the sun will find its way back, the soil will dry out, and we'll be able to get plowing.  I'm looking forward to trying my hand at more of the machinery this season.

Even though we have yet to plow a round, though, doesn't mean things here have been slow! April is always a busy month. Lil's calf continues to grow, and we've let the pair out in the pasture to join the rest of the herd. He loves the freedom and runs and plays- it's so cute I often find myself stopping what I'm doing just to watch. While we had discussed milking Lil, we decided not to. She's an older cow at 13 years old, and we felt it was best not to tax her body too much with milk production. Most Holsteins have a productive life of just 3-4 years, so this shows what a difference using heritage breeds such as Dexters can make, as this is likely Lil's 10th or 11th calf! However, we still have plans to try milking, as our other Dexter cow, Finni, is very close to calving. So close, in fact, that we penned her up in the barn last night. While I'm sure she would rather be out in the pasture, we don't want to take any chances. It will be her first calf, and we want to make sure it's born in a safe, clean, dry place. It's also easier to keep an eye on her there to watch for any problems. We're optimistic that everything will go smoothly, but it's always best to be prepared to give assistance if necessary.

In addition to calves, we've had other babies born lately too.  There are fluffy, moving nests of rabbit fur with tiny bunnies inside. Also, the incubator is a busy place this time of year! We've hatched out a variety of fuzzy chicks as well as our first few Pekin ducklings of the year. We also had another batch of Bourbon Red turkey eggs ready this past weekend, and every single one hatched. We're so thrilled with how this has gone. While we definitely wanted to be sure of hatching enough turkeys to supply our farm's Thanksgiving bird orders, we would also like to see if our hens will hatch out poults naturally. One hen has been sitting on eggs for a couple of weeks now, but as I had been collecting all the turkey eggs at that time, I'm quite sure she is not sitting on her own eggs. If the hatch is successful, I'm pretty certain she will be the proud surrogate mother to a nest of goslings! The other hens have been laying in some crazy places, and most of the nests I collect to discourage them from using. I do not want a turkey attempting to hatch eggs on my front porch furniture. Likewise, I don't want them sitting across the road. They found a brush pile which has been heavily used for nesting, but I don't like them crossing the road. It's also in the woods, and the other day, when getting the morning paper, I noticed gobs of white feathers all around. They were unmistakably from one of the Royal Palm hens, and my heart sank. It was a lot of feathers, pulled out in hunks, the kind of evidence of a predator attack. Eggshells were also scattered around and licked clean. I went into detective mode, trying to figure out what had befallen my bird, but I couldn't find blood or body parts (like a wing) nor could I find any animal tracks in the leaf litter. Discouraged, I went to check on the birds near the turkey pen to get a head count. At first, I thought I counted all my Palm hens, but that couldn't be...I thought I must be mistaking an escaped Delaware hen (also white with a bit of black markings). But there they all were, with one looking a bit scruffy from missing feathers. No blood or signs of injury though, and she is doing well. So I definitely don't want a hen sitting for a month in that spot! However, the hens have finally made a nest I'm ok with...it's right next to the house in a secluded spot that should be safe. I hope one of them sits on it. They must all be using it to lay, as I counted 17 eggs in it last night! I removed some of them as it was too many for a single bird to cover, but I'll just try to keep the number reasonable and see what happens.  

We did have a day or so of nice weather last week, and Dan and I took advantage. I got some necessary pruning done on the blueberry bushes, and Dan finished up work early and we did get out into the garden. Although we haven't worked up the soil, there was a stretch that had been covered by landscape fabric over the winter which was weed-free. After a single pass with the tiller, we had a nice stretch of bed to plant. It's pushing the season a bit, but we were excited to get some seeds in the ground. Some garden plants can tolerate a light frost, which is still very likely, so we planted beets, carrots, radishes, peas, chard, lettuce and a variety of other salad greens. We also put in onion sets and some seed potatoes. It was great to get our hands in the soil, if only for an afternoon! We also tilled up a small spot in my herb garden and planted a few strawberry crowns. While I don't anticipate growing enough berries to sell by the pint or quart at the stand, it's something I want for myself. Dan though it was a great idea, so we picked up crowns of Ozark Beauties, an everbearing variety. Most strawberries are June bearers, meaning you need to wait a year for the plants to establish themselves before you can harvest any fruit. But because these are everbearers, with a little luck, I may even have a few berries by the end of summer. I'm excited to see how this goes and decide if I want to put more berries in the garden in the future...perhaps someday I'll even be able to offer strawberry jam!

 
 

Poults & Plastic

April sure has been a roller coaster, weather-wise, so far!  We're not even 2 weeks into the month and we've had everything from snow to thunderstorms to 80+ degree temps!  We're hoping things will even out and dry up a bit soon so we can get serious about preparing our fields for planting.  Getting the horses harnessed up and making the first few rounds with the plow says spring more than anything else here!

The started sprouts have been getting some good greenhouse time, and I see new growth daily.  I'm getting ready to start some more things that we'll want to plant as seedlings, but in the garden rather than the greenhouse.  This will include some of our open-pollinated and heirloom tomatoes and peppers as well as things like zucchini and squash that just don't need greenhouse space, but that we want to get a jump on in preparation for our sales season.  We are also hoping, if the weather cooperates, to get in some serious work on the greenhouses this weekend.  We plan on putting up plastic on one of the metal frames for our tomatoes, cukes & peppers.  We may also tear down one of the frames that is not in good shape.  There is also some repair work to be done on the small one I'm currently using for seedlings.  The back end of that greenhouse was made of untreated wood and is in rough shape.  The recent winds went a long way towards removing the plastic on that part, so we'll work on that and tearing down the lumber supports.  We've tossed out ideas for what we'll do with that space next- it could be anything from an asparagus bed to a new pavilion for poultry processing. 

But the most exciting event of the recent past was definitely on Sunday.   We have been hatching chicks for the past few years, and have over a thousand healthy chicks under our belt, so while it is exciting and fun, it's also not groundbreaking when the first fuzzy chicks of the season hatch.  Our incubator has also brought other birds to life, in the past few years we've had good luck with ducklings, quail and even peachicks.  We've also tried goslings, but they seem to require such high humidity that they don't hatch well, especially if we need to balance it with the needs of the chicken eggs in the incubator at the same time.  So we just let the geese do their thing, it works much better.  Our hope this year was that the Bourbon Red turkeys we bought last year would lay eggs and we would, for the first time ever, be able to hatch our own poults.  We've found eggs everywhere, it seems.  The hens have rejected my cardboard nest box in the safety of the turkey coop.  Instead, I've collected eggs from the yard, the woodshed, the bad part of the greenhouse, my front porch furniture, and the most popular spot, the neighbor's brush pile across the road.

 Since this is their first year to breed, so many things could go wrong.  Are they fertile?  Will the first eggs be viable? (often the first eggs laid by a chicken don't have as good of a hatching rate as ones from a slightly more mature hen.)  Did I find the hiding spot before the eggs got too cold?  Will we have any luck at all???  We set our eggs weekly, so that they don't get too old & lose viability.  The first time I set turkey eggs, I had a total of seven.  They take 28 days to mature (chickens take 21) so this weekend was the time to find out what, if anything, was going on inside them!  I had hoped that at least a few of the first eggs would hatch.  I was optimistic we wouldn't fail totally, but  was prepared to call even two poults a success.  I pulled out the hatching tray Sunday morning after hearing telltale peeping.  We had chickens in there too, so I saw a rainbow of adorable fuzzies...Barred Rocks, Cochins, Phoenix chicks...and two little turkeys! SUCCESS!  I removed all the dry birds to the brooder pen.  Then I snuck a look and noted that other eggs were also pipped (showing the first cracks as the bird works its way out).  More chickens and also more turkey eggs.  In the end, we had what we considered a monumentally successful hatch with 6 of 7 eggs producing a healthy baby turkey!

 We are looking forward to more hatching this weekend, including a bunch of Mille Fleur bantams from purchased eggs, more of our own variety of chicks, lots more turkeys and possibly a few ducklings as well.  I'm confident we'll have success, but as the saying goes, you really can't count your chicks (or poults) before they hatch...

 
 

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.

 
 
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