Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Diversity is a word we often hear, frequently it is in relation to race, gender, religion or politics. That word takes on a whole new meaning here at the farm. We are a diverse farm in many ways. We don't rely on a single crop for our income, nor do we raise just one kind of animal. Our garden is constantly in rotation depending on the season. Early spring brings peas, rhubarb and lettuce, mid summer has peppers, corn and tomatoes and in late fall we'll be harvesting pumpkins, winter squash, onions and potatoes. Planting a wide variety of crops (many more than on the short list above!) not only gives us an income throughout a much greater part of the year, it is also a safety net for when weather or pests hit a crop. For instance, last year, we got virtually no tomatoes due to late blight that arrived fairly early in the season. While we weren't able to make much of a profit on them, it was fine because we had other things to offer. I also preserve what I can and am able to offer lots of pickled vegetables or jellies, and I'm having a lot of fun experimenting with making my own vinegar and mustards. It all helps to make a well-rounded assortment of home-produced goods for our customers! Another benefit to many varieties of plants is that we nearly always have something blooming, which is great for attracting beneficial insects, especially pollinators. A colony of wild honeybees is much more likely to take up residence near a field with a variety of plants that blooms from May through October than a monocrop field of acres of potatoes or soybean which is only in bloom for a few weeks out of the whole year. The bees, butterflies and other insects benefit from us, and we in turn reap the benefits of natural pollination without any input in time or money. It's a natural cycle that works beautifully.
Having a variety of animals also contributes to the diversity of our products: we sell pork, beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, eggs to eat and in the spring we can offer fertile hatching eggs, baby geese, ducks and chicks as well. Right now I have peachicks (baby peacocks) for sale as well as another batch of baby rabbits that will be ready to go in another month or so. Not only is a variety of animals good for our market, it's good for our fields. Cows have favorite plants in the pasture, as do horses, but they are not the same ones. Sheep eat plants down close to the ground while the goats prefer the taller brush and thorns. When a variety of pasture plants are eaten, none get overgrazed and it reduces the need, as well as the expense, of reseeding the pasture. Still, the pastures are important parts of the farm and do require periodic maintenance. I had noticed a corner of the pasture near the house had grown up in thistle. Now goats will eat this, but too much can overtake the pasture so I had every intention of going out and cutting them down to encourage the grass to grow. But, as so often happens on a farm, you get busy with other tasks and before I knew it the thistles were tall and blooming. As I went to feed my rabbits one evening, a spot of yellow caught my eye among the purple. My mother is an avid birdwatcher and I knew from years of seeing her feed them that this little drop of sunshine was a goldfinch, and that their preferred food is thistle seed. As I looked, three of them were carefully pulling the fluff from the flowers and eating the seeds. Nature loves diversity and everything, even plants we humans don't fully appreciate on "our" land, have a place and a purpose. Although I will cut the thistle down, it's nice to know when it reappears somewhere else (and it will!) that even something thorny and unpleasant to the touch can still bring such beauty and grace close by.
Posted by Emily
@ 10:05 AM EDT
For weeks now, the temperatures have been summer-like and the entire landscape has been turning green. So although it may seem strange that we haven't been letting all the critters out to bask in the spring sun, until this week only the sheep were outside full time. This is how we overwintered our farm, and although the fields were starting to turn green, it wasn't quite time. While it may seem like a no-brainer to let the animals out as soon as there is something green out there to eat, if you do that you will run out of pasture quickly. While we love to let the horses, cows and goats roam free and relieve ourselves of the stall cleaning, pasture takes maintenance too.
Our farm is only 50 acres, including woodlands, house, barnyard, hog yard, hayfields, gardens and pastures. That doesn't leave all that much pasture for 4 horses, 4 cows, 15 sheep and a half dozen goats, plus the pastured poultry and pigs. So we need to manage our pasture according to how many animals we have if we want it to last the whole summer long and into the fall. The first step is by not turning everything out as soon as possible. We need to let the plants get a bit of a head start so they have enough energy to keep going. We will also close off parts of the pasture at different times during the growing year, allowing one part to be eaten down while the other part grows lush again. Another benefit is that we have a diverse herd. Goats love the brushy stuff-scrubby trees, multiflora rose and other browse the rest of the animals won't touch. The horses select the plants they like, such as clover or alfalfa first, as do the cows. Sheep eat all the soft grasses down nearly to the roots. Each has its own preferred food, and when you graze all of them together, it grazes the field down in a nearly even manner. If you had only one species grazing a spot at a time, it is easy for them to eat their favorite plants up until they were no longer present in the field. Like any of nature's environments, the pasture thrives on balance.
So how do we know it is time? For starters, when we let the horses and cows out in the evenings, they refuse to come back in! The lawn needs mowed already, and in some ways, the pasture is the same; the more you cut it, the more it grows back. So we let the goats out to play last night too. We've gotten away from the goat breeding business, but have 4 favorite adults and twin kids here still.
What happens if we're wrong? Maybe it is too early, but we'll monitor the pasture growth by walking through the fields. If the grasses are being eaten down too much, we can always restrict the fields that the animals are allowed into, or put then back in the barn for a week or two. It's a fairly forgiving system as long as you keep a close eye on what's going on. The other side of the coin is that if you don't let the animals out until the grass is tall and lush, they go and gorge like a kid with a basket full of Easter candy. While the child will likely suffer no more than a bellyache, for our livestock, the bellyache can result in digestive upsets (colic in horses, bloat on the others) which can actually kill the animal if not treated properly. So the wise farmer strives for a balance between letting the grass get a good start, but not so much that the animals are knee deep in food they haven't seen in months.
It's a busy weekend here, as the first weekend of trout fishing weekend means lots of our seasonal residents are here. If you're one of them, feel free to slow down when you pass the farm. There's lots to see in the fields these days!
Posted by Emily
@ 08:19 PM EDT
The fields and garden are nearly planted. The only major planting task left is to finish planting the last of the field corn. However, with the rain we've had over the last few days that may have to wait until the weekend, the field is too wet to be worked right now. But the corn that is in the ground has sprouted; we can see faint green rows across the fields getting a little taller every day. It is amazing what warm weather and rain can do! The transplants that survived frosting and the ones we set out this past weekend are thriving. There are blooms on the peppers and beans, lettuce and peas sprouting, so produce will be coming soon. I will keep everyone posted on what is available.
The animals are loving the lush pasture this time of year. I love it too, it means so much less manure to move! We have 6 little goslings following the proud parents around the pond and fields. They did better than we did in the incubator! The little ones grow so fast, I joke that they will only be cute for another 24 hours or so. All the little lambs are doing fantastic on pasture too, and the bottle baby calves we are raising are chewing thier cud more every day. Pretty soon we won't need to be mixing up milk replacer every 12 hours.
Even the hogs are getting out on grass! We have been pleasantly surprised how easy it has been to put our boar and two sows on a rotational pasture. Believe it or not, a single strand of electric fence about 8" off of the ground is enough to keep a 6oo lb animal where you want them. If only goats were so easy! But the hogs seem to enjoy the new space and have been grazing and not rooting it up too much. Most of the piglets are gone, we sold the ones we needed to last night at the auction. We kept 5 to raise and they have moved out of the hog house into the pig tractor. The tractor is a 16' x 8' pen with no floor. We will be moving it onto fresh grass as needed. It has all the comforts of home: sides and a roof over about half the area, a nipple waterer so they can drink fresh from the garden hose and a feeder full of piggie chow. So far it's working well, and soon we plan on doing some major renovations to the hog house, so we're glad that the pigs are happy on pasture.
The chickens are getting plenty of sunlight and grass as well and are laying beautifully. We're not incubating much besides duck and quail eggs at the moment, so we have eggs for sale.
It is a beautiful time of year to just take in the view of the farm from our back porch in the evening while we're grilling dinner. It's my favorite activity this time of year.
Posted by Emily
@ 10:30 AM EDT
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