Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Packing Up

On a farm like ours, it is hard to get away because the livestock are always hungry, whether you need a vacation or not.  However, now that the garden is done for the year and the stand has only a few more weeks left, it is easier to plan to get away. 

I am so excited to be leaving for a trip to North Carolina this week.  Dan will be staying here at the farm and watching the stand for me this Saturday, as well as taking care of the animals and birds.  I will be on a working vacation of sorts.  I am headed to Cary, NC for the annual conference of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the preservation of endangered livestock breeds.  I'm hoping to learn a lot and meet folks who are dedicated to small farming and heritage breeds, like us.  And I am beyond excited to actually be one of about a dozen presenters on Saturday! My presentation is titled "Horse Farming 101: How We Farm with Belgians."  I'll be sharing photos of us at work, explaining why we choose to farm with horses, what we see as the advantages to using draft power, and describing some of the tasks and antique machinery we use here.  I will be one of three morning breakout sessions running concurrently, so I have no idea how many conference attendees will choose to hear my story, but I think it is very exciting.  It's certainly the biggest presentation I've ever done...it's for a national audience!  So today, I'm putting the finishing touches on my PowerPoint and running through it.  I'm also doing laundry and packing my bags, because three of my siblings live about an hour away, so I'll spend a few days relaxing and visiting with them before heading back to the farm.  I'll be sure to post photos and details when I return! 

 

For more information about the ALBC, its mission, and the conference schedule, check out  http://www.albc-usa.org !

 
 

Irreplaceable (Sara's Story)

When I was 12, I wanted a horse more than anything.  By a twist of fate, a kind 4-H leader gave me the opportunity to ride one, at no cost, for an entire summer.  If I liked her, I could adopt her from a rescue society, or return her and she'd have a better chance of being adopted, having had being ridden more often.  My parents tentatively agreed, but warned me not to get too attached, as we had no room to keep a horse, and no money in the family budget for boarding one.

Her name was Sara.  Coincidentally, my own middle name, but she came to me with that name.  I figured it was just meant to be.  She was not registered, but she had a fancy, though not official pedigree.  Her forefathers were government cavalry horses, Morgans who were renown for their endurance, loyalty to their riders, and hardiness.  The first time I got on her, she threw me on my head.  She was 6 and had been ridden only a few months before I, a complete novice got on her back.  She was bad.  (I later learned she'd already been returned to the humane society once!)  She was stubborn.  She liked trail rides, but hated practicing in the ring.  On practice days, she'd try and run away with me.  I wasn't strong enough to stop her, so I had to turn her in tight circles until she stopped.  But I was stubborn and determined to ride.  She threw me, I'd just get back on.  Sara respected that.  At the end of summer, she threw me and I hurt my hand.  My parents were wavering on keeping her, so I didn't mention the fact that I fractured my hand until I was about 18 or so (really- no medical treatment either).   But I got to keep the pony!

 

Sara and I, early summer 1992.  The first picture I have of me riding her. 

By the end of that summer, we were already incredibly close.  I loved my pony with all my heart, and she loved me so much that she even seemed jealous at times.  If I patted or said hello to one of the other horses in the barn before her, she would pin her ears and turn so her tail was against the stall door, making it extremely obvious that she wasn't “speaking” to me.  But she was quick to forgive...all it took was walking in the stall and giving her neck a hug, or giving her a treat.


We logged literally thousands of miles on trail rides.  Plenty of times with friends, lots of just her and I out in the wilderness, too.  We showed in the 4-H shows, competing at the District level, and placing in classes full of professionally trained horses with fancy pedigrees. It gave me great pride to do well against the riders who spent their summers at one show or another competing.  Mostly, Sara and I spent our time in the woods, but when it was time to shine in the ring, we did well there, too.   While I took riding lessons, no one ever got on her back but I.  I spent so much time on her back, I could tell what she was going to do before she did it- I was that in tune with her. She was in tune with me as well, and smart too...she quickly learned that the games in our fun shows ended with running across the arena and stopping at the gate.  If I had to get off for a game like bobbing apples, I could jump on her, laying with my stomach across the saddle, clinging to her mane, and she'd run back at full speed and stop where she was supposed to, whether I had any control of the reins or not.   I think she understood it was a race, and she wanted to win, too.

She was gentle, too. My younger sisters (one was actually born after I met Sara!) would often come with me to the barn.  While I did chores for other horses, I always knew my sister was safe, because  I would boost  her up on Sara's back and hand her a brush.  Sara would stand calmly and soak up the attention.  I would lock the stall door and go about carrying water and hay.  Never once did Sara let me down.  She always took care of the kids, starting when they were preschool-aged, never startling even if they yelled while they were astride. 


Of course though, as the years went by, I rode less, was too old for 4-H, got busy with high school activities and friends, and eventually went away to college.  My family took care of her, and on my sporadic returns home, I cared for her as well.  We would camp out on the property by her pasture, and I can remember many nights where she'd walk over and stand in the glow of the campfire.  We'd pet her and feed her marshmallows and anything else we had to snack on.  She LOVED people food; pizza and Doritos and cookies.  

 

After college, I returned here to Tionesta to help care for my dying father.  After he passed, I stayed for my sisters and my horse too, because I had to find her a new place to live after his piece of land was sold.  Some kind farm boys, Matt and Dan, helped me get her moved to a new home, moving a chest freezer we used for feed storage and setting up the electric fence for the new pasture.  

You could say Dan and my first date was a trail ride, with me riding Sara, of course.  I felt like moving her to the farm was a huge commitment and step forward in our relationship when the time came.  Dan loved Sara too, and worked with her in harness.  He loved how she had spunk, even in her 20's, and would really dig in to pull her weight.  We bought a sleigh; my dream of a Christmas Eve tradition of romantic sleigh rides lasted exactly one year- the year she took off, kicked the shafts apart, and pulled me through the front boards.  Still bad, after all these years.  But she was good too- Dan would ride Dolly, and I Sara, and we would trail ride.  We took the horses camping out in the woods, carrying food & tents in our saddlebags and falling asleep to the sounds of the forest and our contented steeds.  The last few years, we haven't ridden much, and she lived in semi-retirement, other than helping me to herd sheep, a job she figured out and liked.


A month before she passed, she was the picture of health- glossy coat, graceful movement, just a touch of grey. In the last couple weeks, she had started to lose a little weight.  I made a mental note to get someone out to look at her teeth.  Then she just didn't seem herself.  Standing alone, not moving around a whole lot.  The weather had turned suddenly from hot, humid days to cooler, rainy ones, so I chalked it up to arthritis acting up.  Then, Sunday morning, she was off by herself, away from the barn and very stiff when she moved.  I checked on her, and she wouldn't eat a cookie for the first time in her life.  By the time I got in touch with a vet, she was laying down in her stall.  When the vet arrived, she was colicky (also for the first time in her life) and in obvious pain.  The vet gave her a painkiller.  Her eyes brightened and my fighter of a girl tried to get on her feet again.  She didn't quite make it.  At first I thought she was struggling to get up again, her hooves clattering on the stall floor, but it was a seizure.  I knew these were going to be her last moments with me.  I dropped to the floor, my arms around her neck, soothing her with voice and touch.  The vet lost the heartbeat, and told us so, but I could still feel her faint pulse in her neck.  I held on as she took two last, ragged breaths. The vet offered her condolences and left the barn.  Dan was in the doorway, and at that moment Sara's pulse came to a halt. I think she knew I was there, and that she needed me to be there for her.  Maybe she'd come to a darkened path, and needed me to guide her like I had so many times on the trails.  To let her know it was all right to leave and take the road that we can't see down until our own time comes.  And through it all, she held on until the barn was still, and just us.  As incredibly painful as it was to have her die in my arms, it is also an incredible comfort.  I was there for her, we took her pain away, and she wasn't alone.

I walked the pasture until I found a spot that seemed right to lay her to rest.  You can see the house and barn, but it's back far enough to have the peaceful and solemn feeling that so many old cemeteries do. Dan and I dug the hole by hand.  As we were digging, my back was to the house and most of the farm.  “Look at the sun coming down,” he said to me.  I turned, and there were holes in the clouds, and broad rays of sunshine sparkled down as though heaven itself were looking out over our farm.  Maybe it was.

Sara was a huge part of my life.  That horse knows every secret thought I've had in the past 20 years.  Many were the times I stood with my arms around her neck, pouring out my heart about first crushes, the bumps along the way to growing up, and all the things that were too painful or embarrassing to tell your high school best friend or your mother. I feel like I literally grew up upon her back.  I sobbed in her mane when my high school sweetheart went overseas and when my father died.  My husband asked me to marry him while I was sitting on her back.  I think she knew that was a special moment too, because she stood perfectly still instead of pawing and walking off as she normally did.  I have wedding pictures that include her.  Part of my heart has always remained 12 years old, convinced that ponies are magical creatures who love unconditionally and live forever.  

The first may be true, but unfortunately, the second part isn't.  I would say that she was a once-in-a-lifetime animal, but I don't think she was.  I think she was a once-in-many-lifetimes animal.  We shared a bond deeper than I can explain.  There will always be horses in my life, I hope, but there will never be another Sara.  Sweet, gentle, spunky, mischievous, charismatic, loyal, healthy, strong and completely irreplacable.  She was a magnificent creature with a personality bigger than her physical presence.  She charmed nearly everyone, even folks who were usually afraid of horses.  I was blessed with a little over 20 years with her. She lived a good long life, just 5 days shy of her 27th birthday.  It's still hard to believe she won't be there when I flick the barn lights on.  But perhaps a part of her spirit is still here with me, racing gracefully across the fields, just for the sheer glory of it.

 Sara and I chasing sheep, taken last year.  The last picture of me riding her.


Goodbye, Dear Friend.  Our trail together was a long one.  Whatever life brings me, you will not be forgotten, and when my time comes, I have faith that you'll be waiting on the other side to greet me.


 
 

Seedling Trauma and Stunt Pigs

Well, last Friday we planted a few seedlings in the garden.  Some of the heritage zucchini, squahes and melons were getting a bit crowded on the kitchen window sill.  We put down black fabric to cut down on weeding and put the plants in.  A gentle rain fell all night and the temperature stayed in the mid 60's.  Sounds like a great start...until the wind started on Saturday.  The black cloth ended up wrapped around the moveable rabbit pen at the edge of the garden.  I'm not sure how or if we'll get it back where it should be.  Plus last night was the 3rd night in a row we had to cover everything with floating row cover because of frost.  Happily, more than half of the seedlings appear to have survived their traumatic transplanting!! My flower bed and herbs seem to have weathered through well. Some of the potatoes got nipped a bit by the frost, but they'll be ok, and the rhubarb seems to be indestructible at this point.  It's beautiful but I just don't have enough time right now to be making anything with it.

Alicia, our only ewe born last year, had a little ram lamb on Monday.  She's a dedicated mother and he seems to be doing just fine. She was born last year the day after Mother's Day, and had her own baby the day after Mother's Day this year! It's been cold the past few nights, so I put a little fleece blanket on him.  I think it makes me feel better than the baby, but it surely isn't causing any harm.  I started making the "lammy jammies" this February when most of the lambs were born out of scraps of fleece material I found on discount at Wal-Mart along with a few clearance-priced buttons.  It sure beat the prices in the livestock supply catalogs, and they were custom fit.

We'll be weaning the piglets this weekend.  The sows are going a bit stir-crazy in thier pens. They both escaped out into the boar's run this weekend.  I would have loved to have seen the 450-lb sow climb over the 3 1/2 foot stall divider. Twice. Luckily, no pigs were hurt during this stunt.  The babies are also getting very good at pushing the hog house door open and escaping into the main barnyard and pasture if the door isn't shut VERY tightly.  A cinder block propped up on the outside works too.

  Dan is done with the plowing for the year.  There is still much fieldwork to be done before all the field corn is in, but everything is moving right along.  Tom, my father-in-law, is coming to help us out again this weekend so I'm hoping for clear skies! I am also hoping to work my horse a bit behind the harrow this weekend.  Dan has worked her a bit, but she's acting a bit barn sour and I think he's a little too easy on her when she starts to throw a fit.  But I am excited to get her used to her new harness.  We were at an auction and found a gorgeous show pony harness with both a collar and the ability to hook up to shafts for a buggy or sleigh for a price we could afford. When it was brought out, I was in love with it and was sure it would go too high, but it must have been meant to be!  It is beautiful and covered in metal dots which will be shiny once I find time to clean and oil it. When we tried it on Sara in the barn, it fit like it was custom made.  I only had to adjust one buckle on the whole thing! The leather is in fantastic shape, it's just got a good layer of dust accumulated on it.  It even came with an ornate piece of leather that fits over the hames and collar just for decoration.  I told her she'll look fancier than a Budwieser Clydesdale!  The only thing I was nervous about is that the bridle has blinders on it, which Sara has never worn.  However, Dan used the new bridle with the old harness last week and said she acted like she'd worn them all her life.  Now if I can just get her used to the straps around her hind end without a royal kicking fit...

 
 

Flowers & Fieldwork

Well my little Morgan, Sara, got her first taste of being a "work pony" this week.  Dan had her pulling a harrow through the garden and she did really well.  She's going to need some time getting used to the traces rubbing a bit when she turns, but overall it's going well.  I'm like a proud mama, she's been my baby for 17 years now.  I just think it's amazing that she's done so many different things in her life and now is working towards being a great field work horse.  Not bad for a little pony no one wanted whom I got through the Equine Rescue League.  It just shows the old Morgan bloodlines really are an all-purpose breed. 

 Everything is starting to turn green!  I swear when I looked at my flower bed on Sunday, there were just small buds and plants coming up, but last night my bleeding heart flower had not one but two blooms on it!  The rhubarb is really growing fast, if anyone is interested I have lots for sale!

We transplanted seedlings this weekend and I am always amazed at how fast they grow.  Everything we got from Seed Savers Exchange sprouted exceptionally well and I can't wait to taste the vegetables!  Our other seed orders are all in now, with the exception of some shallots I was hoping to plant but were sold out.  We're going to start the rest of the indoor seedlings this weekend and hopefully plant the rest of the potatoes.  We should have lots, we're planting 50# of Yukon Golds as well as reds and whites and I'm trying a heritage all-blue variety.

 
 
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