Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Late Season Hay

We've had such lovely Indian summer weather lately! It's a refreshing change from the rain we've had for too long this fall. It has truly been an extreme growing season- either far too much rain, or not nearly enough. We were so excited to have the earliest-ever hay made this year- we had it dry and in the barn on June 1. The second cutting was looking great as of late August, but with rain in the forecast and falling every day or every other day, we had to wait. We needed 4 or 5 days of clear weather for the ground to dry, then cut and rake the hay, then load it up and get it into the barn. That clear weather finally arrived on Wednesday, and Dan cut the entire hay field. That is a massive undertaking for us and the horses, as we usually cut the field in 2-3 sections. This time, however, we didn't foresee any other possible time to get it in, plus delaying the cutting had allowed weeds to take over in places. We thought it best to cut the whole field, and even if we didn't use what was cut, it would at least mow the weeds away so part of the field wouldn't start out with a weed problem next year.

After cutting hay, we were fortunate that Dan and his brother spotted a rotary hay rake for sale nearby. They were able to bring it home Thursday. While by no means new, it's new to us and in much better condition than the one we would have been using. After greasing up the moving parts, Dan put it to good use on Friday and it worked great. Yesterday, the hay had finally dried and Dan and I were able to bring 3 large wagon loads into the barn, the equivalent of about half of the hay field. Although I love watching my Steeler football games, it was too pretty of a day to be inside and too important a job to skip out on. (I did have the game on the solar powered radio and my Hines Ward sparkly jersey on while driving the hay wagon and walking down the hay loads. I sometimes wonder if I'm the only person in the country that combines things like that- Steeler football and making hay with turn of the century methods & equipment.)

Making hay is the most important thing we do each year, even more important than spring planting. Hay is the staple that gets our livestock through the winter. It's what keeps our cattle growing and healthy through the winter, it feeds the sheep and goats and provides food & bedding for the pigs, and fuels our horses all winter & early spring, so they in turn can provide the pulling power to clean the barn or plow the fields. So seeing the mow fill up with hay is always a beautiful sight! It's always exciting to get hay into the barn without it getting rained upon. Dan finished up the final load alone on Sunday, and let me go off to do another important job, making dinner. Haymaking is hungry work!

By the time he came in, I already had a tasty potato salad (with our heirloom Mountain Rose potatoes and bacon) done, as well as a no-bake cheesecake type dessert I make with homemade blueberry butter and caramel. For the main course, I had T-bones from our grass-fed beef. Dan also talked me into making it surf-and-turf by cooking up some shrimp to go with it. Seafood is one thing we don't raise, but we do grow and process so much of our own stuff I don't feel bad about treating ourselves to some good seafood every so often, and this seemed like a perfect excuse! So as the shrimp were defrosting, I quickly headed outside to my secret chantrelle patch to see if I could scare up some late season mushrooms. Sadly, any I found were too old to be much good to eat, so I turned around and headed back to the house. On the way out of the woods, I spotted another kind of mushroom. It turned out to be an oyster mushroom, also very prized for eating. So I made shrimp with wild mushrooms, sauteed with a bit of garlic and my own champagne vinegar, making a wonderful sauce. I even had some curly parsley on the counter to dress up the plate, it really looked like a meal from some sort of 5-star restaurant. It's been crazy busy around here lately, so much of my cooking has been quick stuff, it was good to make a really nice meal. And I do get really excited when I can make something great by using a lot of what I've made here. Anymore I can just throw things together and it turns out great, I really don't follow a lot of recipes, unless I'm canning, and then consistency is very important.

Today, Dan and I along with Matt, got another 2 loads in the barn. Some of the hay is weedy, so Dan is out raking it to the edge of the field where it can smother some of the weeds along the fencerow. It doesn't really have enough edible stuff in places to make it worth the work of bringing it in. Then he'll rake the rest of the field once more, collecting all the bits that escaped the fork into one big row. We'll put that up, and that will be the end of the 2011 hay season. Ironically enough, although the first cutting was the earliest-ever, this will be the latest into the fall that we've ever successfully put up hay!

 
 

Hot Weather Means Making Hay

July is here, bringing hot weather and a number of rain-free days in a row.  That means it's hay making time!  For us. it's as much a normal part of July 4th weekends as picnics and fireworks. We've been fortunate to have a stretch of dry weather, so we have been able to spread the work out over several days.  At this point, we've filled one side of the barn up and are working on filling the other mow.  Although the weather is 90 + degrees today, we're going to try and push to get the rest of the field in.  Even though there is only a slight chance of rain, the longer the hay lies in the field, the more it gets bleached by the sun.  So we're in for a long hot day, but hay making is one of the most crucial farm activities for us.  The amount and quality of the hay we put in determines how many animals we are able to support over the winter months.  Doing it ourselves is not only a significant cost saver over buying hay, we also know what quality we're feeding and that the hay is organically grown.  We are also able to complete the entire process with our horses, using no tractors or motorized equipment.  We use the horses to cut hay, rake it, and pull the wagon across the fields to pick it up. Instead of running a baler, we put it away loose.   Dan uses a pitchfork to load it while I walk back and forth packing it down for a nicely balanced load.  Both jobs are physically demanding.  Unloading is the easy part, as we have a hay claw on a trolley that lifts large amounts of hay, that carries it along a track and drops it in the mow.  If you'd like to see more, we have pictures and descriptions on our website at http://pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com/hay-making.html.  This picture shows our mares, Dolly & Dixie, with a nearly full wagon load of loose hay.

  

Although this stretch of dry weather means we need to irrigate the garden and the creek is running low, it did give us the rare opportunity to take a day off yesterday and enjoy a rare summer holiday.  Since we were confident that the mowed hay wouldn't be rained on, we had time to relax and have a cookout here.  July 4th is all about freedom and independence, and without our farmers, this country wouldn't be self sufficient.  So it made me smile as we sat down to our meal, to see how much of it we'd produced ourselves.  The steaks were grass fed beef from a cow who was standing in our pasture just a week or two ago.  The potato salad made great use of new potatoes dug from the garden just hours before, and was flavored with homemade mustard and dill from the herb garden.  I made deviled eggs as well with eggs I'd hand collected from my chickens.  A truly enjoyable meal, and I feel so fortunate that eating fresh from the garden isn't an isolated experience.  I'm frequently able to make an entire meal using just what we make or grow ourselves.

We hope you & your family had a safe and enjoyable holiday weekend too!

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Putting the Mother to Work

I'm finally in the process of making vinegar.  One of my Christmas presents was a vinegar cask, a large, pear shaped container with a spigot on the bottom.  It is used to ferment the vinegar, with the final product being heavier and sinking to the bottom.  The spigot lets you remove some without disturbing the "mother." The mother is a whitish, jelly-like substance that floats on the top of the liquid and converts the alcohol in wine, hard cider, beer or any other alcoholic beverage into an acid, which make vinegar.  It functions much like yeast does in home beer or wine making- it's best to buy a good starter so you can be confident your end product is going to be what it is supposed to be.  It was also a treasured possession years ago, much like a good starter for sourdough bread.

 The first step was deciding what kind of vinegar I wanted to make.  The season is past for buying good, local, unpasteurized apple cider, plus I would need to ferment it into alcohol before starting the vinegar making process, so I figured that could wait until next fall. I don't use a whole lot of red wine vinegar in my cooking, so I though a nice white wine vinegar would be a good choice.  However, Dan and I have really developed a taste for a champagne-dill mustard lately, and I just can't seem to re-create it here at home.  I'm thinking that I need champagne vinegar, and I simply can't buy it locally.  So, it just seemed logical to try and make some of my own!

The next step was to buy the champagne.  Since I live in Pennsylvania, the only place to buy it is at the state-controlled liquor store.  When I walked in, I was the only customer in the store, so the gentleman working there came over to try and help me find what I was looking for.  I was just comparing prices, because I'm not going to buy really expensive champagne to turn into vinegar, a moderate priced one seemed like a much better idea.  When I explained what I was doing, the man got a very puzzled look, and suggested which brands were drier and might be more like vinegar.  I tried to explain that it was a process of refermenting the alcohol, which seemed to totally lose him.  I'm sure I'm the only person who has walked into the Tionesta liquor store lately for vinegar making supplies!

After I made my purchase, I brought it home and poured the champagne into the cask, added some water, and dumped in the mother of vinegar culture I had purchased through the LocalHarvest online store. I covered the opening loosely with cheesecloth to keep out dust and kitty hair, and put it under the sewing machine in the living room.  It needs to be near the wood stove, as the mother works best when the temperature is near 80 degrees.  In a few months, I'll be sampling my own vinegar!

 

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