Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Irish Blessings

It sure looks like a winter wonderland outside my windows today! We've had over a foot of snow fall since the beginning of the weekend, erasing most of the signs of spring around the farm. Last Monday was a different story, though! The pasture fields were showing the first blushes of spring green, and the sheep & cows were venturing out away from the barn to taste those first green blades.

Another sure sign of spring is farm babies, and we had been watching one of our Dexter cows, Finni, closely that day. She was standing about, all alone, tail straight out. Her udder had been steadily getting bigger for the past week as well, so we were pretty sure labor was imminent. It was a nice day, T-shirt weather, and I was keeping watch on her each time I stepped outside. I hung a load of laundry out on the line and noted she was off in the far corner of the pasture by herself, standing quietly. I did another load of clothes and returned outside less than 30 minutes later. First, I noticed Pixie, Finni's 2-year-old daughter, was up there, too. Then I noticed a small, wobbly little black shape. I looked again, just to be sure, but it certainly was the unmistakable outline of a newborn calf up there! I had not even seen Finni lay down to give birth, and yet mama and baby were both already on their feet. Nature is truly amazing!

When feeding time came in the evening, Finni and the newborn made their way down to the barn. We separated them from the herd and locked them in one of the outbuildings,. We call it the Sheep House, since that's where we put the ewes when lambing season arrives. While the other cows, including the bull, are generally protective toward any new arrivals, we like to give them a couple weeks inside this time of year. With the wild swings in weather, keeping baby inside gives our new arrivals the best start possible. There is also a sizable coyote population around as well, so it's also not a bad idea to keep the babies safe until they are a bit more steady on their feet.

This is Finni's third calf, and it's a girl. Each time, Finni has delivered quickly and without problems and has been a great mother. Many of the larger cattle breeds (especially Holstiens, the big milk cows) require help during delivery, which is not fun for man or beast. It's just one of the many qualities we love about our Dexters. The Dexter is an Irish breed, and was developed to be a family cow. Small, docile, producing enough milk for a family (but not too much), and muscular enough to raise calves for beef, and do great on a grass-based diet. Like many breeds of livestock, they are considered endangered, because all the qualities that make them great cows for the homestead do not make them great in our industrial food production systems. Without small farms and breeders, breeds like these cows would go extinct. So, every time we have a calf born (or a turkey poult or chick hatch), it's reason to celebrate!

Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, the most Irish of all holidays, and Pixie had her first calf (also a heifer, or baby girl!) in the wee hours of the morning, before we got up to do our chores. Dan found them in the morning, near the barn, both mother and baby doing fine. Since Pixie & Finni get along very well, and there is plenty of room in the Sheep House, we put them both together in there. Once Pixie's calf gets a few days older and figures how to use those legs, I'm thinking they will be quite the adorable twosome, bouncing and playing together.

Pixie's calf is especially exciting, not only because she's healthy and Pixie is stepping up to be a great mother, but because she is our first calf born to Dexters we've bred and raised. Our first calves born here were two years ago, when Finni had Pixie and Lil had a boy now known as Bullwinkle. Bullwinkle is the father to both of this spring's calves, and Pixie's calf marks the first calf here to be a second-generation Pleasant Valley Farm Dexter. We're overjoyed at out little Irish blessings, and hope these girls will be part of a long line of Dexters here for many years to come!  

 

Pixie's calf is front and center, with Finni and her calf looking on. 

 
 

I Love Old Stuff

Readers of this blog and farm visitors may have guessed this by now, but Dan and I love old stuff. Honestly, when I look at a list of events for a “living history” festival, usually the only activity I haven't tried my hand at is spinning wool (although I would love a spinning wheel...it's on the buy-it-someday list!) I guess it's because we truly live history every day here at the farm...it kind of comes with the territory when you choose to work horses. But in addition to that, we just love being as self-sufficient as possible, and that frequently means doing things the old-fashioned way, whether it means making gate latches in the blacksmith shop or preserving food the way our grandmothers would have.

Many times, the best tools are the old ones. So, not surprisingly, we would much rather shop at an auction or flea market than the mall or Wal-Mart. Besides the utility, the old stuff has character. They are things that were made to last, made with pride by real American craftsmen (and women!), not disposable junk from some sweatshop overseas. Preserving this stuff, along with the knowledge of how to use it, is an incredible honor. A few weeks ago, we spent the day at a rather large area flea market. Dan was looking for specific items for the blacksmith shop, like vices and hammers. I had some cash in my pocket just for whatever we might come across. I was excited to find some glass beads that looked like they had been taken off an old chandelier, as I have a stained glass project I'd like to try which calls for them. Then I came across a very reasonably priced trunk. For some reason, I have a weakness for old trunks, and picked this one up. I'd like to try my hand at restoring it over the winter, cleaning up the metal parts and replacing the dry-rotted leather straps and handles. Dan found some tools, and we had a fun day, but had seen most of what was being offered and were heading back to the car with our treasures.

As we were walking back, we walked by a booth that had lots of horse stuff- saddles, saddle pads, bridles. I need more of that like I need a hole in the head, as I already have eight saddles in the tack room, and only four horses in the barn! But I can't resist looking, and something caught my eye immediately. It was a large, English-type saddle, but with what looked like two horns at the front. It was obviously old and in need of repair work before it would ever be usable, but you could tell it was well made. I had never seen a saddle like this in person before. I asked Dan if he knew what it was, and after giving it some thought, he admitted he was stumped. I knew that what we were looking at was an antique ladies' sidesaddle, the kind women riders would use before it was OK for women to wear pants! I just had to ask what the woman wanted for it. She replied “Make me an offer.” I threw out a pretty low figure, not knowing if she put any value on this old saddle, obviously in unusable condition. “I've had far higher offers than that!” she replied. She went on to say that she knew the woman whom the saddle had been made for, that she had gotten it after the woman's death, and that it was over 100 years old. She went on to tell me what she thought she could get for it on eBay, which was far more than I had to spend on a whim.

But then she said how that, more than the money, she just wanted it to go to someone who would appreciate it, who would treasure it, and would care for it like the piece of history that it is. I replied that I understood, as we farm with horses and antique machinery, and that our team is a pair of girls that both were born right here on our farm. “Then you know” she said. “I farm with horses, too. So you obviously know what it means to give something a forever home. That's what I want for this saddle- a forever home with someone who will take care of it.” And then she let me have it for about a quarter of what she thought she could get for it on eBay.

I've never ridden sidesaddle, so part of me wanted to take it home and just sit on it, just for a minute, just to see what it felt like. But with the hole Sara's passing has left in the barn, it wasn't possible. Dixie and Dolly are just too tall, it would have touched the ground on Ponyboy, and I wasn't putting it on Montana, since he isn't broke to ride yet. Although he is a sweetheart and likely wouldn't have minded, I'm not ready to trust him with an irreplaceable antique just yet. Regardless, it is something I treasure. I hope to get it professionally restored someday and try it out. It has a stirrup on the left side only, the right leg is placed between the two horns in the front. The seat and the place between the horns was once upholstered.  It has billet straps underneath to accommodate an English-type girth. The only thing I'm a bit unsure of are the two straps, the one on the left being just behind the stirrup, and in the same spot on the other side even though there is no stirrup on that side. There are no holes in this strap, but I thought perhaps it held some sort of overgirth, to keep the flaps tight to the horse's body, keeping the woman's dress from getting under the flaps and getting full of sweat & horsehair. But if that were the case, I would expect to see wear marks where the strap would have attached. There are none. My next guess is that they might be for mounting. Getting on a sidesaddle has to be a bit more complicated, so perhaps the one on the left is like a handle for the lady mounting, and the one on the off side would be for a stable hand or riding partner to hold while she got up, so the saddle wouldn't slip off-center. Or maybe they're just decorative, I really don't know. Feel free to leave a comment here if you know more than I about this! 

 

Isn't it a beautiful piece of history?  I just love old stuff!

 
 

Maternal Instinct

We've had a second baby boom of sorts here at the farm lately. It's the time of year where we're happy to let the birds sit on eggs and hatch out their own broods. By this time of year, the incubator is silent, unless I'm hatching out a few quail or peafowl. We collect the turkey eggs all spring & early summer for two reasons- #1 if you take the eggs, the hens will lay more and #2 not all hens will sit the full 28 days necessary to hatch out the chicks (21 days for chickens, but the same two rules apply).

It's actually pretty unusual to have birds that hatch their own young. Mothering instinct has been bred out of virtually all livestock breeds these days. While it sounds unbelievable that animals don't know how to raise their own young, it's true, because the demands of modern agriculture often are at odds with nature's instinct. A broody hen will peck at you and draw blood to defend her clutch if she's ready to hatch a brood. This is a royal pain if you're a farmer making a living selling eggs. Likewise, if you're selling milk, you'll be taking the calf away from mama and bottle feeding it while milking the cow and selling the milk. You don't want the cow lowering her head and charging you to keep you away from her calf.  It's much easier if she doesn't mind that it is gone.  Both situations actively encourage breeding that protective mothering instinct out of the animals.

Fortunately, because heritage breeds of livestock have been largely left alone by modern agriculture, they retain that instinct. When my mom came to visit, she came in from the backyard and told me she'd found our “secret chicken”. It was one of our Golden Phoenix hens, tucked away in a patch of iris leaves, sitting on her nest. We've had these hens hatch chicks before, so we let her go to see what would happen. Last week, the chicks did hatch. Turns out she was sitting on a full dozen eggs, and of those, she successfully hatched out 11 chicks! That would be a great hatch rate even in the digitally controlled incubator. Of course, that is only the first half of the mothering equation. Next, mama bird has to protect her little chicken nuggets from cats and other hungry critters, show them how to forage, and protect them from the elements. If mama chicken still had 8 right now, I'd say it was a huge success. But, incredibly, she still has ALL 11, well over a week later! The chicks are hardier than the ones we have in the brooder pen, too...we've seen them soaking wet after a thunderstorm, which could be fatal, but they run around like nothing's wrong, with no heat lamp to huddle under. Chicks in the brooder are kept warm and given unlimited fresh food & water, but these little buggers out there are hardier, smarter, and I even think they grow more quickly. What a difference a parent makes!

It's magic to watch the hen at work, too. She makes sure to go slowly enough that the kids can keep up, and clucks softly to let them know where she is at all times. She'll fluff up her body and extend her wings just enough that the chicks can hide from the weather under her. It's simply amazing to watch 11 tiny birds disappear like that...mama doesn't seem big enough to protect them all, but she does somehow. And she is fierce about protecting her young. As the bringer of food, she doesn't mind me so much, but she keeps a watchful eye on everything else. Yesterday, I was doing chores, and the cows came out of the barn to see if they could get some delicious chicken food. Mama hen and her brood were in the same part of the barnyard. One of the yearling cows, Ling Ling, must have walked through the area where the chicks were, because the next thing I saw was mama hen attacking the cow much like a rooster would do. In this chicken vs. cow fight, there was a crystal-clear winner. Ling Ling ran for the barn while the hen stood her ground and collected her young. I laughed pretty hard!

But our Phoenix isn't the only one with a brood these days. Dan had found a Bourbon Red turkey hen had made a nest behind the shop amongst the machinery. I went to look for her after putting the horses in the barn Monday morning, but found only a few feathers and broken shells. I looked for the hen, but she was no where to be found. But as I was doing evening chores, I saw a lone turkey in that general area, near the creek. The grass is kind of high along the bank, but as I watched, I counted four little poults, foraging for bugs with mom. We're hoping she has as much maternal instinct as the Phoenix hen!

 Our Golden Phoenix hen, with 2-day-old chicks.

 
 

Farm to Table

What a weekend! I was so happy to be a part of Pittsburgh's Farm to Table conference, but it sure made for a few long days. I'm fortunate that one of my sisters lives just a few miles from downtown, so I was able to stay with her and have some help setting up Friday morning. My greatest worry about the conference, since this is an entirely new venue for us, was if I was bringing enough stuff. I wanted the table to look full all the way to the end. I also wanted to have a profitable weekend, so part of me wanted to sell out completely!


 Always a family affair- sister Laurel and I finish setting up

 

Friday started out slowly, as many folks had to work, but it did get busier as the day progressed. I had a nice time talking to a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, so I was hopeful that we'd get a mention in Saturday's edition. During the afternoon, more people we in attendance and stopped by. It always makes me smile, about half of the people had no idea where Tionesta was (or how to pronounce it) while the other half knew from coming here to a camp. Many even described in painstaking detail how I could find their weekend getaway! I sold some jams, talked to some lovely people, and got ready for the evening food tasting by setting up an electric roaster and cooking a leg of our pasture raised lamb. By the time 5:00 PM rolled around, the tasting hall smelled like my lamb. I set up my table with a selection of jams & mustards to sample and purchase, along with thin slices of our farm-raised ham. I put on my apron and gloves, got out the cutting board, and began slicing lamb for samples as well. We were told that the tasting was sold out (all 500 tickets!) and I had a line of people around the table pretty much all night. I got lots of fabulous feedback on everything we offered, especially the meats. I was even told our lamb was better tasting than a local farm, also doing the tasting, that is a high-end restaurant supplier and locally well respected around Pittsburgh. That really made me proud of what we do. People also couldn't believe that I cooked both the ham and the lamb in pans with nothing more than some water because they had such great flavor. I let people know that I cooked them as simply as possible because I wanted to showcase the flavor of our meats, not my cooking skills. All in all a great day, but after 12+ hours on my feet (in heeled boots, no less) I was ready to head back to my sister's and relax for the night.

I got back to the conference center Saturday morning with a Post Gazette. After I made sure my table was ready for the masses, I took a quick look for the promised article about Farm to Table. It was really nice, and I couldn't believe how much of it came from my conversation with the reporter. He detailed when I would be speaking, what the topic was, where & how we farm, and even gave a fantastic description of my Carrot Cake Jam! (To read it for yourself, click here:http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11085/1134851-34.stm) Saturday was much busier, and I had a number of folks excitedly ask if this was the jam featured in the paper, and it was very cool to be able to say yes. I even had one lady who told me that she had no intentions on coming to Farm to Table, but changed her mind and came just to get her hands on my jam. Wow! Not surprisingly, I sold out of Carrot Cake Jam. I also sold out of Ginger-Garlic mustard, pickled beets, and the hot and mild pepper rings. By the end of the conference, I didn't have much inventory left of anything, really, but the table looked respectably full and I made far more than I had dared hope.

Saturday was also the day of my big presentation, titled “Heritage Livestock Breeds: What They Are, Why They Matter, and How to Find Them.” I was really impressed that people stopping by the table would get excited when they realized I was the speaker, and they let me know that mine was one of the things they had planned on attending. I was very pleased with the turnout. My Powerpoint full of animal photos loaded without incident, and the speech itself went well. For those of you who missed it, basically I started out by defining a breed of livestock, emphasizing that these were created by people for a specific purpose in a specific place. Heritage breeds have become endangered not because they don't do their jobs well, but because agriculture has changed so dramatically. There simply isn't demand for family milk cows or draft horse power like there was 150 years ago. These breeds are becoming endangered because of habitat loss, and that habitat is small, family farms. To understand what industrial agriculture has become, we looked at a few photos and touched on the basics of beef (feedlot conditions), pork (confinement & gestation crates), dairy (inbreeding of the Holstein breed), chicken (broiler hybrids and heath issues), turkey (Broad breasted whites & their inability to breed), and eggs (confinement in egg cages). I then had photos of the heritage animals that call our farm home. I talked about Barred Rock, Polish, Phoenix, Blue Cochin & Delaware chickens, Toulouse geese, Bourbon Red turkey, Dexter cattle and Belgian draft horses. I talked about the strengths of each breed and why we raise & how we use them on our farm. I mentioned the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the work they do to conserve and protect these animals. I gave reasons why people should care about these animals- the fact that biodiversity means food security, because a larger gene pool will be more resistant to new diseases and climate change. That supporting heritage breeds will mean supporting smaller scale & family farms- these breeds are endangered because they don't do well on industrial levels. Although I'm no nutritional expert, I talked about the benefits of heritage breeds-they are virtually always raised in pasture-based operations, so I used some studies from www.eatwild.com to talk about nutritional benefits. I talked about taste and about the Slow Food Ark of Taste program. I let the folks in attendance know what they could do to help these breeds, first and foremost being supporting them by purchasing the heritage products directly from farmers. That they should feel free to ask for them at restaurants-if enough people do, change will happen. I let my listeners know that they can join groups like the ALBC without being a farmer if they find that saving endangered livestock is a cause they want to support and get involved. For those interested in starting a backyard flock, or other livestock, to consider heritage breeds. I let folks ask questions, and was amazed that they were less about the topic in general and more about our farm. I think people have a real desire to become more connected with the manner in which their food is produced and with the farmers who are producing it, and that is great. 

All dressed up & ready to present!

 

After the speech, it was a short downhill slide to the end of the day. I had a wonderful time, but I was ready to pack up, drive home and trade in my dress pants for jeans, and get back to the spring routines of hatching, caring for seedlings, farm babies, and waiting for the day when we can begin prepping the fields with our team.   

 
 

The Delaware Chicken Experiment Results

As promised, the results are in on our heritage chicken experiment!  Normally, our Cornish-Rock hybrid chickens are processed at 7 or 8 weeks of age, but our Delaware rooster was about 7 months old.  Because of this, we wanted a cooking method to keep the meat nice & tender, so grilling was out!  Dan had been looking to try poaching a chicken, so we decided that a big pot of water could only help keep our bird from getting tough. The water came to a boil, and in went our chicken along with a variety of garden vegetables and homegrown herbs.  After chores were finished we settled down to a feast.  I'm always excited when most or all of the food on the table is produced right here at the farm.  In this case, the only non-farm products were the salt & pepper, the butter for the sweet corn, and the sour cream used on the potatoes.  Not 100% farm raised, but pretty darn close!  So we dig in to the chicken, and I noticed that the dark meat was super tough, but with an awesome chicken flavor.  The legs were even tougher than expected, but these guys were truly free range, running all over the garden and backyard for months.  Note to self: if we do this again, a smaller pen may be in order!  However, dipped in my homemade Lemon-Sage Wine Mustard, it was still great.  Then we tried the breat meat, and the texture was totally different.  I have never tasted such tender, flavorful meat.  Growing up on store bought and fast food chicken, I never really understood what real chicken flavor was, and although our broilers do taste like real chicken, the Delaware did even more so.  My father-in-law always said that his stewing hens (old layers no longer profitable to keep on the farm)  got their flavor from "years of contented living under their wings".  My Delaware must have had a content life because he was full of that flavor too! It was a great chicken dinner, complete with potatoes, the absolute last of this year's fresh sweet corn, along with some zucchini, cabbage and green beans.  I was stuffed and wanted nothing more than a nap, but it was off to the local county Extension Office as I'm serving on the Board of Directors (as well as the secretary of the group) and it was meeting night.

 

The final verdict on my experiment was this:  while he was delicious, he was also a little too tough to market for more than stew or dumplings for the most part.  Unfortunately, it's not going to be economically possible for us to offer them for sale.  This year we raised over 200 meat chickens, but had no more than 90 at any given the due to the (much) shorter time frame of raising the hybrids. I don't think we would have had the space for that many Delawares for that many months.  Also, a longer life span means more total feed for each bird, and just to cover our costs of feed alone would make for one pricey chicken.  But we are still looking to support heritage breeds.  We plan on raising turkeys again next year, and I am very interested in the Burbon Red and Dan would like to try the Royal Palm variety.  So perhaps that will be next year's adventure.

 
 
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