Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Springing Ahead

Did you remember to set your clocks ahead this weekend?  Another welcome sign that spring's coming, but I hate it.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy having more daylight in the evenings, but I hate the out of sync feeling you have for a few days.  It also makes the evening chores weird- this time of year we start about 4:30 PM, which gives us enough time to feed everything as well as take care of any unexpected tasks- think fixing the French drain that iced over and caused water to leak into the barn again or fixing the electric fence because Wilbur the boar hog is trying to get loose.  So the critters are used to eating about 4:30-5:00.  They have their own routines, and instinctively know it's time to eat.  The horses will whinny from inside the barn when they hear footsteps (somehow they can tell human from cow, goat, etc!)  The cows return from the far reaches of the pasture to wait by the barn for their hay.  So for them, we bump chores "back" by an hour after the change, which means that in reality they are eating just when they expect, but it always throws me off for a few days. 

Tomorrow I'm going to DuBois, PA for a grazing conference.  One of the nice things about not working, besides all the wonderful stuff I get to do here, is that I can now go to some of the seminars and workshops to see how other folks farm and how I might improve what we do here.  This grazing workshop is really the first one I'll be going to, and I'm excited.  While grazing may not be the most engaging topic ever, it's so important to what we do.  That being said, I'll admit that my main reason for going is the keynote speaker, Temple Grandin.   For those who've never heard of her, Temple is an autistic woman who also has a doctorate in Animal Science.  She's renown for her ability to understand animals and has been instrumental in reshaping slaughterhouses across the country to make the handling of the animals there more humane and less stressful.  In my "previous life" before farming, I earned a Master's in Social Work and did work with autistic kids.  I also loved animals and one day came across Ms. Grandin's book called Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.  It was fascinating and a wonderful read, even for those with little knowledge of livestock or autism.  It gives a lot of insight into animal intelligence, and even why dogs do what they do.  In the meantime, I've heard hers is such a remarkable story that there's even a movie about her out now!  So I'm really excited to go and listen and learn tomorrow.

These is so much going on here at the farm as well!  We're seeing signs of new growth all over the place.  The rhubarb is pushing tiny crimson buds through the soil, and there are deep purple, fern-like shoots in the horseradish patch.  The herb garden perennials are coming back to life as well- an inspection this weekend revealed new leaves on the sage, oregano, and lemon balm, as well as new shoots of chives, already 2" tall!  Inside, I've got cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and herbs sprouting in the flats I planted, and so I now watch the outdoor temperatures to see when it's safe to set them out in the greenhouse for some good spring sunshine.  The pullets have begun to lay in earnest and we're beginning to save their eggs for hatching.  In fact, this time next week I hope to have chicks hatch!  

But possibly the most exciting news for me is that we have another lamb.  Now, once lambing season kicks off, it's not quite as exciting since you've been watching the woolly bundles of joy leap and play for some time now.  But this one is kind of special.  After the whole Sheepie tragedy I watched my other ewes for signs of anything amiss.  Unfortunately, another one of my young ewes seemed a little off within a week after Sheepie's death.  So we brought her in, caught it early, and seemed to get everything straight.  (At least that's what I thought. Dan wasn't entirely convinced that she was ill, but agreed that we should treat her anyway, as the medicine that treats is also used as a preventative.  Better safe than sorry and all that.)  I didn't blog about it, as it was just too hard emotionally to get so many notes of support, then lose the fight anyway the first time around.  However, this has a happy ending, as this ewe, Lisa, has been fine for a month now, but you never know about the baby.  This morning, before Dan left for work, he let me know that she'd lambed unassisted.  Just a single, but alive and healthy and both mom and baby were doing fine in a lambing jug in the barn.  I'm still out of whack, sleep-wise, and forgot to ask if it was a ewe or ram or if it was any color but white.  I went down to the barn to check on them later and found her to be pretty wary of me, although she did take a treat from me.  So I didn't bother to inspect the little one, as it seemed to be doing just fine, resting in the back corner of the lambing jug, and I hate to interfere with the bonding, especially with the younger ewes. Lisa is Rosa's daughter, and Rosa always seems to throw uniquely colored lambs.  Rosa is black, and has had lambs that were all black, black with white markings (esp. on the face & head), and last year the one I called "Speckles" because he was brown and white speckled all over (I so wanted him to be a ewe, so I could keep it instead of processing it in the fall!).  Lisa herself is black with a touch of white on the face, but Rosa's ewe lambs this year are both pure white. (Still adorable, but I do love the fun colored ones!)  So I was about in shock to see this little one...not white, or black, or even brown, but what seems to be a charcoal gray with white all over, which Dan totally failed to mention.  I'll be interested to see what it looks like when it's been dry for a few days, but really an eye-catching sheep.  And I hope it's a girl, since males don't stay nearly as long on the farm, but we'll just see...   

 
 

Almost There...

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

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

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

 
 

Happy Fall to All!

Happy fall to everyone!  It has been so busy around here,  I feel as though I've been neglecting my blog.  So here is my attempt to get you caught up with our goings-on!

I've meant to mention that Finnbar has gone home to Muirstead Farm.  He was the Dexter bull we had on loan for the summer.  He is a beautiful example of the Dexter breed; well muscled, docile and compact.  Although I was nervous about having a bull here, as they can be dangerous animals, we had a wonderful experience with him.  I'm always grateful to breeders who value not just production, but temperament as well, and the Muirstead Dexters are joys to work around.  Having Finnbar around for a few months also gave me the confidence that if Dan and I ever expand our little Dexter herd enough to warrant keeping a bull around all year, that with proper care and handling it would be no more stressful than having the other intact males here, like Rambo the sheep or Wilbur the hog.  And speaking of expanding our Dexter herd, we did do just that.  In addition to the calf we'll expect from Finni early next summer, we purchased another cow.  Lil came on loan with Finnbar, so we could have a chance to milk a Dexter this year.  We liked her so much that we chose to purchase her.  She is a former show ring champ and has had quite a few beautiful Dexter babies.  The Muirs have enough of her lineage in the breeding herd they maintain, so they agreed to let us purchase her.  She'll also be due with a calf in late spring or early summer, so we are so very excited!

Today is the first day of fall.  The official first days of summer and winter always seem to arrive a bit after the season starts in my opinion, but fall is right on time.  The leaves are starting to change and the garden is transitioning as well.  Our tomatoes finally succumbed to the blight, but we had a wonderfully productive year anyway.  While we won't have fresh ones at the stand again this year, I have lots of packaged sun-dried tomatoes available and I'm working today on making some more Bruschetta in a Jar with the last of the Romas.   But as I say good-bye to the tomatoes of summer, I'm saying hello to our fall crops.  We've been digging onions and potatoes and last week were able to start picking some winter squash as well.  This week we'll be able to offer acorn, buttercup, butternut and sweet dumpling squash, plus a few pumpkins and a blue hubbard or two.  Later, I'll have some really neat looking gourds (a frost will really bring out their colors) as well as kabocha and giant pink banana squash.  We also tried planting a bit of Bloody Butcher corn, an heirloom deep red corn, this year, so once it dried I'll be excited to try grinding it for cornmeal and see what color we end up with.

As the season goes on, I have more and more neat things I've dried or processed.  Something new we'll have this week is dried sage from the herb garden.  I'm also finishing up processing some peaches into a recipe called zesty peach barbecue sauce.  It's more like a hot peach salsa, so I'm thinking about what name to put on the labels as the jars are bubbling away in the canner.  Either way, it's a favorite here at home, Dan especially loves it with ham so I think ham steaks are going to be dinner tonight! (it's great on chicken or pork chops too.)  Then it's on to making the  Bruschetta and possibly, if the rain lets off, I'll be digging some horseradish to prepare and sell.  I might make some horseradish mustard before the week is up too!

 I'll also be cleaning up the brooder pen in anticipation of our layer chicks which are due to arrive Friday. As the seasons change, I'm always realizing how farming truly is a year-round occupation.  While most of the produce arrives within a fairly small window of time, we're always planning and preparing.  In addition to the hens, we're also deciding what kind of garlic to plant now and what we need to do to keep our fields, buildings and livestock in good shape over the upcoming winter.  It's always a busy time here!

 
 

Saving Summer

Although Labor Day weekend is supposed to be summer's last big celebration,  this weekend sure seemed like an introduction to fall instead with rain, cooler temperatures and the first leaves coming down.  We're really glad it didn't stop folks from coming out to see us on Saturday though, as we had a wonderful day at the stand, seeing lots of old friends and making some new ones.   

Although I hate to let any produce go to waste, it seems even more critical now as certain plants are reaching the end of their season.   At one point, I felt inundated by cucumber, and while I pickled what I could, I didn't feel terrible about feeding some to the pigs as well.  Now each is like a final green gem from the garden, and I'll miss their cool crunch for many months once they are done. Cukes are actually my personal favorite garden veggie, I like them more than the ever-popular corn and tomatoes, but once they are gone I fall back on my pickles.  I won't buy a tastless, slimy one coated in wax from the store.  Although it's a long wait between the end of  the season in September to the first new ones in June, there are also so many tasty foods we grow or that I preserve here, it doesn't ever feel like deprivation.  It's more like a decadent overabundance when the season is here.

I really hate to waste tomatoes, they seem especially precious after the blight destroyed almost the entire crop last year.  This year we're selling them by the literal bushel and I'm still looking for ways to preserve the rest.  If you've visited us, you've likely seem the hot and mild varieties of salsa and our sun dried tomatoes for sale.  I have also run quite a few through my food mill and frozen the results.  Late in the year or early next, I'll defrost the squished tomatoes and spend a day making chili and spaghetti sauces for myself.  I'll enjoy the all-day process of boiling it down when it's warming the house from winter's cold.   But for now, I still have tomatoes, so I'm always looking for something different, and something that doesn't contain hours of processing...a summer recipe!  Last week, I found one for Bruschetta-in-a-Jar.  Chop the tomatoes, pack in hot jars, and fill with a boiling mixture of wine, vinegar and Italian spices.  Easy and delicious, but not one you could really get a taste of before processing.  One of the labels was rather lumpy-looking, so I told Dan Saturday morning he could have it.  He asked what exactly it was supposed to be.  I replied that he should imagine spreading it over warm garlic bread, possibly sprinkled with cheese.  He popped the jar open and sampled it with a tortilla chip I had set out for salsa samples.  I warned him as I had made it just days before, it may not have had time to fully incorporate the flavors.  He argued that it couldn't possibly get much better and when he offered me a taste of the finished project, I had to agree.  I'll be making lots more of it this week!  Along with another effort to let no tomato go to waste, I'll have lots of other projects as well.  The hot peppers will either be made into hot pepper rings or a batch of salsa.  I'll be making dilly beans and pickled beets.  Also, the dehydrator will be running full of herbs, tomatoes or anything else that seems like a good candidate.  And who knows, I may find another wonderful recipe during the course of the week like the Bruschetta.  While it can be overwhelming to try to put up all the food the garden produces, it's a wonderful challenge and one that's filled with nearly limitless possibilities of flavors and colors! 

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Garden Bounty

Saturday was tour day, so last week I spent much time finishing cleanup, laminating signs, and sorting the poultry into separate pens (which they did not stay in!).  Unfortunately, between the high heat & humidity and the fact that most of the stops were in southwest PA, it didn't really attract many new folks.  But I am glad we gave it a try, it was a good learning experience for me.  But I always say either my house or my barn is clean, and since last week was devoted to rarely-completed chores such as washing the windows in the chicken coops,  Sunday was a day to get the house back into shape. 

As July turns toward August, the garden is really producing an amazing amount of food.  My goal today and for the next few days is to get some serious weeding done.  Today I'll be picking off zukes & cikes to make pickles, relish, and to try and prevent having only ones the size of baseball bats on Saturday.  We planted a pretty good assortment of hot and bell peppers and I cannot believe the production of our "inferno" banana peppers!  Not only are they very hot, they are just loaded with beautiful peppers, so I've made some extra-hot pepper rings along with some really great flavored hot pepper jelly.  As soon as I have some extra tomatoes, I'll definitely be using them to flavor my hot pepper salsa as well.  I love the challenge of seeing what is producing in the garden or leftover after we close on Saturday, and then trying to find an amazing recipe to can.  If it passes a private taste test here at the house, I'll put it out for sale.  So far I've had very few that didn't make it to the stand, and most of them were due to the fact that they were delicious, but too time-consuming to make a regular part of my canning menu.  Dan usually hopes something doesn't seal properly or that I have only half a jar so that it can go into our fridge instead!  I'm also grateful to Betty, my mother-in-law, for being gracious enough to share some recipes for farm stand favorites she made in years past, like her pickled beets. So I'm off to weed, stake tomatoes, and generally inspect what's going on out there...I know there is a lot that's been happening while I was busy cleaning the chicken pens!

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New Arrivals

Lots of excitement going on here at the farm!  We have 3 new Dexter cattle here as of yesterday afternoon.  Mark & Edlyn Muir were kind enough to loan us a few!  We met these wonderful people last fall when we purchased Fiannait from them.  This time, they brought us Finn-Bar,  one of their impressive bulls, for us to breed Finni to.  (So far, they've hit it off quite nicely!) Although Dexters are not tall, he is a beefy, solid, well-built animal, and gentle enough to follow me into the barn calmly when we put them in away from the heat of the day this morning. He gladly followed me, but it may have had something to do with the feed bucket in my hand! As the Muirs sold us Finni knowing we were hoping to milk her in the spring, they were disappointed for us that a calf never arrived.   So Lil also came with them, along with her calf.  They were kind enough to loan Lil to us for the summer so we could have a family milk cow for a time, and the calf is ours to keep as a replacement for the one Finni didn't have this past spring.  It is just amazing to deal with breeders like that!  Plus the cattle are so tame and easy to work with, even the bull, that they are a true joy to have here.  I'm excited to try my hand at milking a cow for the first time ever this evening!

I was also thrilled to check the incubator this morning and find three newly hatched peachicks!  We set every egg the peahens laid this year, but being that these were the very first eggs they had ever produced, I wasn't expecting a great hatch.  Sometimes it takes a few tries before a bird will produce a hatchable egg.   So, I'm just tickled pink with 3 out of 5 hatching!  That's probably all for our first round, but there are more eggs in the incubator, and I'm confident that there are more chicks on the way.

The garden is looking amazing. Saturday we were able to have the first of our green peppers for sale, and more are on the way this week.  I spy some jalapeƱos and other hot peppers as well.   I see tiny zucchini, yellow zucchini, and crookneck squash, as well as cucumbers, that should be ready for this weekend.  The new crop of lettuce, spinach & other salad greens are going strong, although I may give them another week before I start cutting.  I have green tomatoes appearing on more plants every day. I should have green beans by now, but the deer have been munching on them and the peas, so we'll see if there are enough to pick by the weekend. We often don't have enough hot weather to grow melons properly, but these past couple weeks have been ideal.  Even the seedlings that didn't look so hot at first are thriving. This year, I'm trying 3 varieties of watermelon (2 heirlooms), a honeydew, a cantaloupe, and an exotic French heirloom melon (Delice de la Table) that I didn't have success with last year, but sounded so intriguing I had to give it another shot.   I have herbs sprouting and otherwise just going crazy in those beds as well.  I'm headed back outside to do some more weeding, so among the weeds that took over some of the earlier plantings, I'm hoping to see kohlrabi, pac choi, beets and Swiss chard, hopefully of picking size. 

It's hot and humid here, but the chance of rain looks fairly low for the next few days, so Dan is out mowing hay.  He mowed some a few days ago, so hopefully it will dry out enough later today or tomorrow to get it into the barn.  We had hay in by the beginning of June last summer, but this year it's so far been next to impossible as we need 3 rain-free days in a row, and June hasn't cooperated much!  I like to help with the horse drawn equipment, so I'll probably be raking hay, as well as driving the haywagon again when we load it.  

Another pig left us this morning, so we'll be making sausage by the end of the week to have fresh sausage to sell this weekend.  I'll also need to make a seperate trip to Hirsch's to pick up our beef, which will be available for the first time since last fall.  Plus I have more vinegar to bottle, and more bottles should be delivered tomorrow.   These is so much ripening and coming in that I may need to get another table to the stand before the weekend to have a place for all of it!  What a great time to be home on the farm!

 
 

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. 

 
 

How We Roll

I'm commonly asked how we control weeds if we don't use pesticides.  The rototiller and hand weeding between plants are the main tasks once the plants are up.  For other veggies, like peppers & tomatoes, we put down a thin layer of black plastic, called mulch, and then make small holes to put the transplants in.  The black plastic absorbs the sun's warmth, heating the soil surrounding the roots up more quickly, but since light doesn't pass through, weeds don't grow underneath it.  The past two season Dan and I have put it down by hand, stretching it tight and straight before heaping dirt along all sides so it won't blow away in the wind.  This year we wanted longer rows, and frankly, putting it down can be a real pain, especially if even a tiny bit of wind kicks up.

Shortly before the farm went on hiatus, Dan and his family purchased a piece of horse drawn equipment called a plastic mulch layer.  It holds a large roll of plastic as well as a roll of drip tape, which goes underneath to provide irrigation.  There is a seat and a foot pedal which can be used to turn the wheels in case the horses step aside, since it's pretty important to keep the row of plastic as straight as possible. There are also two discs in the back to cover the sides of the plastic as you go along so it won't blow away. It had only been used a year or two, and besides the cobwebs from being stored in the barn, is practically new.


 The trickiest part was remembering how to thread everything through the rollers, but once that was finished  the job went very quickly.  I've been wanting to learn to operate more of the equipment this year, so I got to drive.  Once Dan covered the end of the plastic with some garden soil for a little tension, we put it in gear and away we went!  Overall, it was fairly straight...good enough that we didn't have to pull it up and do it over!  Although I'm getting much better at driving the team, this was absolutely my first time steering with my feet and hands at the same time, and it took a bit to get used to the feeling!  The plastic and drip line were cut, we turned around, centered the freshly tilled row, and Dan again covered the end.  Getting the hang of it a bit more, it was much straighter this time.  I was excited to learn about a new piece of our equipment, and was wishing just a bit that we needed to put down more than two rows.  I know it's pretty unusual for a non-Amish family to farm with horses, even more so for young farmers.  Also, few teamsters (originally the word referred to those working horses, not driving trucks) are women, so I'm both excited and proud to be one of those few.


The view from the driver's seat is pretty neat, don't you think? 

 
 

Busy Season Starts

The summer-like sun is still shining here, making it hard to be inside blogging when there is so much going on outside!  We covered the rhubarb with floating row cover, a white, gauzy fabric that lets light through but helps keep the temperatures above freezing during frosty nights.  It's like a little greenhouse for the beds, with the added benefit that the free ranging chickens won't be able to scratch the new shoots when they're searching for bugs in the compost.  We also broke out the rototiller in a small patch of garden over the weekend and got some cold-hardy seeds into the ground.  Peas, lettuce, spinach, chard, beets & radishes will all survive a light frost or snow, as will the onion sets we planted Saturday.  We covered that bed with floating row cover as well, so if you're driving by, I didn't lose bed sheets from the line on a windy day, we're just keeping our sprouts warm!I'm looking  to having the first green treats from the garden, and hoping for good initial harvests.  We're opening the farm stand for the summer on Memorial Day weekend, so it's time to get things in the ground so the tables won't be bare!  We did decide that the weather is sure to turn colder yet this month, so we held off on planting my much anticipated strawberries.  I suppose the wait will seem worth it later when I have productive plants instead of frost-killed nubs.

We've been hatching and selling our own chicks for a couple of weeks now, and it is going very well.  However, we don't hatch the meat birds we raise.  Our first batch is expected to arrive this Friday, and so that also puts us on schedule to have fresh, farm-raised chicken for opening day.  It takes a lot of planning to time things like that, and it's exciting to move from the winter planning stages into the spring doing stages.  Also on the week's agenda is castrating the male piglets and shearing the sheep (this weather has been extremely hot if you're still wearing a wool coat!).  We're happy to have some extra help for these tasks, as Dan's father, Tom, is visiting.  He knew well in advance that this would be a working vacation here at the farm, but we try to at least feed him well with good home-raised food.  Depending on the amount of rain we get, we're also hoping to be breaking ground with the horses this week.  We're giving last year's garden and some of the other fields a rest by using cover crops, but they still need to be plowed, as will this year's garden and corn fields.

Among the many things I was able to complete this weekend was the next installment of our farm's monthly e-Newsletter.  If you'd like to be added to that list, feel free to email us at pleasantvalleyfarmpa@yahoo.com. 

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Starting the Garden

It's an unseasonably warm weekend, and a long one away from the office for me.  We're excited to be getting some things in the ground at last! Our garlic overwintered well, and the chives are ready to be cut anytime now.  Other than the lemon balm and oregano though, there's not much green in the garden right now.  Dan has been doing a bit of tilling and I'm excited to start the day tomorrow by doing a bit of planting.  We've got onion sets for some early green onions and some carrots, beets, radish and lettuce varieties to start.  All of these can handle a light frost, since we're sure to have quite a few more, even though the high today was 82.  This should put them on pace to be ready by Memorial Day, when we open the stand. Plus I've really been missing fresh greens, so I'm anxious for a nice spring salad!  I also couldn't resist picking up some bare root strawberry plants while I was out, so I think we're going to risk the frost and put them in the ground with a nice layer of mulch hay to keep the frost off for the time being.  While I'm not going to be planting enough to plan offer them at the stand, if I have enough extras I'm sure they will end up in some delicious jelly or jam for sale. 

Another project underway is getting another greenhouse up and operational.  Dan's tilled a few times, and once we get a new layer of plastic over it, we'll be able to plant tomatoes, peppers and a few other plants right in the ground for an earlier first harvest.  This is new for me, and I'm pretty excited about it. 

We hatched 39 chicks last weekend and are hoping for even more coming out of the incubator this week.  I love hatching, but I really get excited when we have hens dedicated enough to do it without my help.  The mothering instinct has been bred out of many, many chickens, so they literally won't reproduce without human assistance, which to me is sad. However, my golden phoenix hens hatched 12 of their own last year, so when I saw them pooling their eggs into one nest box this spring, I let them go and didn't take the eggs away.  A hen will only sit on the eggs when she thinks there is enough to invest her time in, so I let them build up.  This evening, there was a broody phoenix hen covering the eggs.  She didn't give up last year, so I'm optimistic we'll be seeing some naturally hatched chicks three weeks from now!

 
 

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!

 
 

Spring Sunshine

The sun has been shining here for almost a week now.  It's refreshing after all the gloomy and snowy days of February.  The snow is melting and soon Dan will be able to begin plowing for the year.  My goal is to take lots of pictures of the equipment and how the process works and get it up on the website sometime this spring.  It will look a lot like the page up now that covers hay making.

I just hit "send" on another seed order this morning.  I can't wait to begin starting seeds!  we plan on making use of the greenhouse this spring to get a jump on the season.  We plant around 75 different vegetable varieties every year.  Sometimes I feel like  it's hard to narrow it down to that many, as the seed catalogs do a good job of making everything sound so good!

Our little owl friend is still living in the barn.  After a bit of online research, we've decided that we have a red phase screech owl.  We have been wondering if it is looking for a nesting site, so I looked up the dimensions and we hope to have a nest box hanging for it soon. 

I think this is one of the hardest times of the year...while the sun is shining, I feel like I should be outside, doing something!  But with a foot of snow still melting off the fields and pastures, it's really just not time yet.


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How Much Corn Do We Need?

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 
 

Seeds for the Garden, Flowers for the Outhouse

Despite the snow and freezing rain, spring feels a little closer.  I've started to order seeds for this year's growing season, so visions of tomatoes and zucchini have been dancing through my head.  Planning a home garden takes some thought, and planning a garden you intend to sell from is an even bigger project!  

We start out with the list of what we planted last year and decide if we want to plant the same varieties this year.  There are so many varieties of each type of vegetable, there's no use sticking to one that doesn't do well for you.  I had no idea there were over 70 varieties of sweet corn available until the cover of one of our wholesale garden catalogs came last year!   Our next consideration is how long the plant takes to finish growing.  We have a short growing season this far north, and need to make sure the plant will do what it is supposed to do before the frosts come again in the fall.  Also, if you plant varieties which ripen at different times, you can have that vegetable available for a longer season, both in the stand and in the kitchen.

The order I just sent out was to Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit group committed to saving rare and heirloom vegetables.  They have lots of things not seen in any of the other catalogs we receive (and we get plenty!) so I always spend a little extra time picking out a few goodies to experiment with.  As an added bonus, I can save the seed to plant next year if they do well!  Last year I fell in love with Grandpa Admire's lettuce, so I ordered lots more of that.  Since it was such a rough growing year, I ordered a few things that didn't do very well last year, but either showed promise or I just can't resist. Normally, we wouldn't be so lenient, but almost no tomatoes survived the summer anywhere, and the weather didn't favor melons either.  However, if I don't get any Delice de la Table melons this year, they won't be on my list next year.  I ordered most of my fun experiments through this catalog.  Hopefully,  I'll find a tasty use for a bounty of ground cherries and you'll be able to purchase mini popcorn on the cob from the stand this fall!  

SSE also carries flower seed.  I love to plant flowers, but I favor hardy perennials that take care of themselves year after year.  I simply don't have time to spend hours on flowers in the spring, but I love having good habitat for pollinators like bees and hummingbirds, and every place needs a bit of pretty, farms included! My mom had her own floral shop once upon a time, so I know a bit about flowers, which is more than I could say for vegetables until recently. This time I decided to give hollyhocks a try- they are big, bold flowers that come back on their own, although planting from seed I won't see flowers until next summer.  This variety is called Outhouse Hollyhocks, which sound like a terrible name for a flower, but they have a charming story.  According to the Seed Savers catalog, "years ago, refined ladies just looked for the hollyhocks and didn't have to ask where the outhouse was."  Being 6-9 feet tall, they hid the building as well.  We still have an outhouse here, although we do prefer the pleasure of indoor plumbing, it is a part of the character of the farm and we have no plans to tear it down.  So it seems fitting to me to decorate it with hollyhocks!

I've been working on the website again, and have plans to start a monthly e-newsletter.  If you'd like to be a part of that, just go to www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com and fill out your name and email on the form on the home page.  There is a place to leave a comment or let me know what you'd like to hear more about as well.   And when I say monthly, I mean it...I'm too busy to send you spam! I also set up a fun little poll you can vote as well.  Once I get some names, I'll work on a newsletter, but it will probably be late February before it goes out.

 
 

Brrr!

Winter is really here, and with a low temperature of -13 last night the main job around the farm these days is keeping warm!  We'll bed the pigs down with a bit more hay, and increase the hay fed to the other animals (horses, cows, sheep & goats) since they'll use the extra calories to keep warm.  The bunnies have lots of hay too, but I've never seen creatures less concerned about the weather.  My does love to be outside, and I can frequently see the outline of the individual snowflakes on the backs of my black girls.  The chickens have plastic over the windows to keep the wind out, and have plenty of feed as well, but they can actually suffer frostbite on their combs, especially the roosters who have large, single-type combs.  Rocky, our not-so-creatively named Barred Rock rooster, lost a good bit of his comb last winter when it got down to -25 one night last winter.  I've heard that if you cover the combs with Vaseline they won't get frostbite, but that doesn't seem like a very practical solution when you have more than just a few pet or show chickens.  It looks like our Delaware might have a bit of frostbite the tips of his comb this time, but nothing major.  The frostbit part will eventually turn black and fall off, which sounds horrible, but doesn't seem to bother the birds.  Some people actually dub, or cut off, the combs as a standard practice anyway, so the overall effect is more cosmetic than life-threatening.  But as much as I'd like to keep this from happening, there isn't much else I can do besides move south or put heaters in the pens when it's really cold.  And since both my chickens and I prefer that the hen house doesn't burn down in the middle of the night with them inside, space heaters are out too!

Not surprisingly, there hasn't been much outside activity around the farm these days besides plowing out the parking area and knocking ice out of the animals' water buckets.  Dan has been busy trying to repair and old farm engine so we can use it to grind our whole corn into animal and chicken feed later this month.  It can also be used to run our hay baler in the summer so we don't have to put everything up as loose hay again.  The old Wisconsin engine has been sitting for many years, so it's not going to be a quick project, but he's making progress.  We recently got a new computer, so I've been busy transferring records and setting up new tracking sheets for the new year.  While bookwork isn't my idea of fun, it does give me something constructive to do and, more importantly, it's inside!  

The other main project we're working on is planning our seed orders for the coming growing season.  Looking through the list of what we planted last year reminds me of all the successes we had despite the difficult weather we had here last summer.  The color pictures of all the beautiful plants, vegetables, and herbs get me excited about planting a new garden.  Our final order will be a good mix of heirlooms and commercial varieties, some which have grown here successfully in past years, and some new ones which seem too good to pass up.  While keeping in mind what we need to plant for the stand and for us, I'm adding some "wish list" seeds to my initial lists.  I'm sure I'll have to trim back the final list, but I figure that because I was able to save seed from a few varieties of plants, I don't need to purchase those seeds again so I have some room in the budget for some new varieties or anything that just sounds fun to plant!

 
 
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