Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Taking Inventory

The first real winter storm has hit the farm.  It's cold out, the wind is blowing and I can barely see the woods line from where I type, meaning visibility is not good at all.  It's a good day to take on indoor tasks, and after I finished sweeping up the mud on the kitchen floor again, I needed another project for the day.  Strangely enough, seeing all this blowing snow gets me excited to start thinking about the 2012 garden.  I enjoy sitting on the couch or near the woodburner, perusing the seed catalogs with a highlighter and a pen and notebook to begin creating a wish list of plants I'd like to grow, plus lots of price & volume comparisons.  It's a major undertaking, but it's always enjoyable.  

But before I start planning our seed purchases, I need to find out what is still here, meaning an afternoon of sorting through seed packets which have been stored away since planting stopped.  I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the types of seeds I have, both what vegetable and what variety, plus the quantity on hand and when it was purchased or harvested.  I've been trying to do better at saving seed from our own garden plants, which is only possible with older, heirloom plants, not the modern hybrids.   We do use some of the modern varieties for disease resistance or productivity, but we've been steadily incorporating more heirlooms each year.  So in addition to seeing how many small white packets of commercial seed are in the box, I also have an assortment of envelopes and brown bags, each carefully labelled "Chives"  or "Christmas Lima" or "Pink Banana Squash".  It's exciting to see how much of our own seed we can preserve, which in the end results not just in a smaller bill come spring planting, but also should produce plants that are most suited to our particular climate and location.  

Once all the packets have been inspected and inventoried, I'll put the boxes back in their cool, dry space in the pantry.  Then I'll get out the highlighter and notepad and the gorgeous assortment of seed catalogs that have arrived and start dreaming of the possibilities of spring! 


Taking Care of Business

Winter has definitely set in for the season here. We've had quite a few inches of snow fall since the beginning of the year, and today's temperatures are only in the teens, with a wind chill closer to zero. I know it's cold out when the rabbits prefer to stay in the hutch instead of spending a good part of the day in the outdoor run (which I can see from the warmth of my kitchen counter!) While we do have plenty of animal chores to keep us busy, especially breaking up ice to insure everything has access to water, it is probably the slowest time of the year on the farm. No butchering in sight, months to go until field prep begins, no garden bounty to preserve, and I've already finished putting together the seed orders for our 2011 garden. (I'm already watching my mailbox for them to arrive!)

So, what do we do with all this free time? All the things we've put off until we have time for “winter projects”! I've done some interior painting around the house, and plan on repainting our roadside signs in the next week or two. Dan repaired the back door to the produce shed and did some winterizing by putting up batten strips in the rear, making it more weatherproof for the feed and other things that always end up getting stored there during the months we're not open. But, depending on the weather, not every day can be spent outdoors. I spend a lot of time on the business end of things now, meaning lots of computer time. The start of the new year means I'm starting out new records for everything from feed records to finances, and I'm still mastering the art of spreadsheets. We're also reviewing when to expect babies, and how soon we need to adjust where the moms-to-be are being kept and how they are fed. (We will be expecting our 2011 crop of farm babies to start arriving as early as next month, with lambs, rabbits and piglets coming due!) We will likely begin to hatch chicks in March, so I'm already planning when and how I'll separate the breeding flocks. Also, since I do all the advertising, it's a good time to review any online listings of the farm for accuracy and work on any new pages I'd like to get online on the website before spring. Other yearly business tasks include reviewing our business cards and brochures, seeing if changes need to be made, and deciding if/when to have more printed. It's also the time of year when association memberships are up for renewal, so it's a good time to look critically at the organizations your business partners with, both to determine if it makes good financial sense to be a part of them, but also to make sure the values you hold are the same as what the organization is promoting. There is so much to running a farm; you need to stay on top of all the things a regular business does, like finances and inventory and the like, but also so much more since you're in the business of raising living things. It seems as though I've fallen behind when I'm not actively planning 6 or 12 months down the road. While that may seem like an exaggeration, it takes 18-24 months for a cow to reach butchering weight (plus nearly a year gestation if you're breeding them), or 6-7 months before a chicken will lay a single egg. This all has to be taken into account well before you plan on offering a product, be it spaghetti squash or homemade sausage. So taking a month or more to review what works, what hasn't, and planning what needs to be done, how you intend to do it, and what tools, seeds, materials or livestock you'll need is a necessary part of the process.

It's also time to spend on ourselves. Dan has been excited to make progress in the forge, and I love to help him. It's fascinating to watch, in my opinion! I've also been catching up on some reading and working on research for a presentation I'll be doing in March. I also find winter to be a wonderful time to spend in the kitchen. I love being around a warm stove on a cold winter's day, so I've been pursuing my goal of making a decent loaf of bread, as well as slow simmered soups and other goodies.



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 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.



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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