Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
[ Member listing ]

High Speed

It's spring!  So much is going on!  Babies are here...we've got calves, lambs, and chicks, with lots more chicks to come, as well as turkey poults.  The garden is plowed, but there is much work to be done to get it ready for planting, and we're also looking to plow more and put in some field corn for next winter's animal feed.  I'm tending tiny tomato seedlings, with plenty more sprouts to start, and we've planted salad greens and spring onions in the greenhouse, and the garlic, oregano, chives and other perennial herbs are green and growing.  The pasture & hay fields are finally turning green, especially with the thunderstorms we've had recently.  

But here in Northwest Pennsylvania,  spring swings from glorious to snowy and back again more than once, so it's good to have plenty of indoor projects when it's too wet or cold to get much done outside.  While I never lack things to do, I'm really excited to have gotten a major project done in the past week, before the weather turns nice for good and my inside time dwindles.  

A few weeks ago, we were finally able to upgrade to a high speed internet connection.  Before that, I had been doing all my  blogging, website maintenance, everything, via a dial-up connection. High speed capability finally came down our road, and so I've been using the last indoor days to do quite a bit of work online.  It's so much easier now!  While we have had a small online store for a year or so now, I haven't been happy with it.  I used Etsy as a host, and truthfully, I think people go there more to look for ideas than to shop, but at the time seemed like a good choice.  I decided it was time, however, to move on, and have been working really hard the past week or so to open shop on our own website!

 I  am so very excited to announce our all-new, virtual farm stand is now open for business! We now offer some of our wonderful canned goods, as well as my handmade jewelry (some featuring feathers from our own peacocks) and the stained glass items I've been making recently, like suncatchers and candle holders. But I'm most excited about listing some of Dan's hand-forged metal work he does in the blacksmith shop.  I've been trying to convince him that his things are wonderful for a couple years now, but up to this point he always thought that he wasn't good enough to be selling his work.  I'm excited that he has sold a few things, and we now have listed things like gate latches & door handles, a cowboy-style dinner bell, and a beautiful wall-mounted pot rack, with more items to come as he makes them, and we'll also be featuring his work at the farm stand when we reopen.

We hope you'll take a look around our all-new store, at http://pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com/shop-online.html.  Payment is safe & secure through PayPal.  And please feel free to give us your feedback on the look & setup of the site, or things you'd like to see there!   

 
 

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. 

 
 

Being a Teamster

 When you hear the word teamster, what springs to mind?  Unions?  Jimmy Hoffa?  Big 18-wheeler trucks hauling freight down the interstate?  (And yes, I am going somewhere farm-related with this...)

Originally, a teamster was one who drove a team of horses.  Someone who made their living with a set of reins in hand.  Back before tractors and big rigs, there were big horses.  They were used to plow the fields and to pull wagons, loaded with goods, from town to town.  Interestingly enough, the word “teamster” stuck with the freight haulers, but not the farmers when hooves were replaced with steel.  So today, most Americans think of teamsters as truckers, but it is also a word proudly used by the small but dedicated group of people who choose to farm with horses, like Dan and I.  Being a teamster, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, is really a dying art, although it does seem to be making somewhat of a comeback with the increases in both interest in sustainable farming practices, and also the cost of diesel fuel.  Being an old-fashioned teamster AND a woman is rarer yet.  And while I certainly am no expert (I won't even think about working the horses if Dan isn't home, just in case), I do take great joy in helping to do some of the real work of the farm with those lines in my hand.

Two weeks ago, Dan spent a good part of the weekend walking behind the plow.  This weekend, we finished the rest of the soil prep.  So on Saturday, Dan harnessed up the horses and ran the disc and harrow.  Both of these machines break up the large clods turned over by the plow into smaller, more workable pieces.   Next comes the cultipacker.  It's like a big roller with a seat above.  You ride it, and it basically smashes the remaining small clods.  It is my absolute favorite piece of machinery to run.  Probably because it was the first piece I ever drove without Dan being right next to me.  That, and it's hard to mess up.  If you miss a spot, you can go back and catch it on the next pass.  If you go over the same spot twice, it's fine.  But of course, it's a point of pride to try and have those rows straight and even, and doing it efficiently means you spend less time doing it, which is important too, since there is never enough time in the day to get everything done on a farm, especially in spring.  Having grown up riding horses (I met my horse just before my 12th birthday), I'm quite used to a set of reins in my hands.  But there is something different when you're driving a team.  I'm not sure if it is because you're controlling them in a different way- using only voice and pressure from the lines as opposed to the subtle ways all your muscles communicate when astride- or if it's the size thing.  I love Dixie & Dolly, I often feed them, bring them inside the barn, clean their stalls...I'm very comfortable working around them.  But they are big.  Really big.  Their backs are at least as tall as the top of my head when I stand next to them, and at 5'4', I'm not terribly short.  Their feet are literally as big as dinner plates.  We estimate their weight to be somewhere between 1800-2000 pounds.  Each.  There is incredible power in those muscles, and especially as a novice teamster, I'm very aware of that when I take up the reins.  

But through generations of breeding and hours of training, the horses really do seem to understand, even enjoy, their job.  When we got to the end of a row, almost before I changed the pressure on the reins to tell them to turn, Dixie & Dolly were already moving to turn the cultipacker.  When it works, it is amazing...a feeling of two horses, a person, and some otherwise lifeless equipment, all moving as one through the field, with the smell of fresh spring soil everywhere.  It's almost magical.  There really is a sense that we are all taking pride in our work, all three of us.  Heads up, backs straight, we move together across the freshly turned earth, preparing it for another spring of new life, and another season of producing real food.  Using many of the simple, effective, and sustainable methods that American farmers used for generations, when small family farms were the norm, and not the exception.  Except for the neighbors driving by in cars and my purple plastic sunglasses, it could be a scene from 1912 as easily as 2012.   

But of course, as easy as it is to be charmed into that daydream by the creak of leather and the jingle of metal, I snap out of it soon enough, when Dixie tries biting Dolly again on another turn, or when the pair of them want to go too fast across the field.  Make no mistake, for all the idyllic splendor of the scene, it is real work.  But the kind of work that leaves you with both tired muscles and a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.  It makes me proud of what we do, and just as importantly, how we do it.

 

 
 

The Biggest Compliment

  In the past, I've had inquiries about turning my farm into a Bed & Breakfast- one of those kinds where you can stay, live a day on a real farm, "help" with the chores and meet the animals. I totally understand why this is becoming popular- most folks don't have a family member who farms, unlike previous generations, and to pack up the kids for a weekend of living the simple life sounds ideal. However, I'm really a private person, and the idea of having strangers paying to sleep in a bedroom upstairs, expecting to have me cook them breakfast and eat in my kitchen sounds like my worst nightmare.

However, there is one couple that is always welcome to take their vacation time and spend it here at the farm working around the vegetables & livestock. That would be my husband's parents, Tom and Betty. They came to visit us for the better part of last week, and were an amazing amount of help. Although they have moved on and are comfortable no longer being tied to the farm, there are still lots of things they miss, so it is fun for them to come and be a part of spring (or any time of the year, really) on the farm. The weather was warm & beautiful, and Tom had a great time harnessing the horses and getting the fields ready with the disc, harrow, and cultipacker. (The cultipacker is my absolute favorite piece of equipment to run, so I was a little jealous about that...but he was having so much fun I couldn't bring myself to ask for a turn! Besides, there is plenty more space in the garden to prep, so I'll have my own turn at it later this spring.) Betty followed, running the rototiller. With their help, the section of field was ready to plant in no time. Dan was away at work, but I knew where all our seed supplies are, so Tom, Betty & I planted many of our spring crops. We planted 4 varieties of potatoes, beets, 2 kinds of peas, 4 kinds of onion, radishes, plus a slew of greens; red and green lettuce, arugula, chard, spinach, bok choi and mustard greens. It was great to get our hands in the dirt and see the first wave of spring planting done. In fact, even though Dan was home relatively early in the afternoon, by that time we were relaxing with some cold drinks on the porch, while Tom & Betty shared stories of farming, and of the history of this farm with me.

I love to listen to them...I always learn so much. I love knowing more about the history of this place (I really want to make time to write down all they know about it someday), both of things that they experienced here, and history they learned by talking to folks who had previously lived here, some of whom have passed away now. Of course, I married their son, and they love to share cute stories of his childhood with me also. But they also share so much knowledge with me, so I try always to pay attention & soak up what they say. They have been farming for longer than I've been alive, and worked these very fields for over 20 years before I walked them, so they have so much knowledge that is a help to me. For instance, they complimented us on getting rid of much of the quack grass (a troublesome weed) in the garden, and then went into how the weed that you see are a reflection of what your soil needs...quack is more prominent when soils need lime. So if you see it, you can be nearly certain that your soil could use limed, even without taking a soil test. To me, that is amazing.

Another major task tackled last week was getting the sheep sheared. Tom spent many years shearing, and even was hired to do other farmer's flocks, so he's simply quicker and better at it than Dan. And since shearing isn't one of Dan's favorite tasks anyways, he was grateful for the help. So one evening, the men went to the barn while Betty and I decided to stay in the warm house. While Dan was helping Tom to hold unruly sheep not wanting to be clipped, we had a great time talking. I have stepped into her role as main selector of seed varieties and the starter of greenhouse seedlings. It is neat to have someone as a mentor who understands the joys & stresses of being a woman farmer. Someone who understands how greenhouse seedlings of tomatoes, peppers and such can feel strangely like children and the excitement of watching them grow. By the time the men were done, we had spread seed catalogs across the table. She wanted to check to see if seed for the tastiest melon ever grown on the farm was still available (it is...and is high on next year's list already). I was showing her a great lettuce I love to grow which we find does not get bitter in warmer weather, so it may be a good fit for her garden which is further south now.

It was truly a great visit. Tom and Betty were excited to see what we've been doing with their beloved farm, from turning a spare bedroom into a library and getting all the books out of the attic, to building the greenhouses. Also, we do things now that they never tackled, so they like to see that too. Hatching chicks with the incubator was not a part of the farm for them, but they enjoyed checking out the chicks, turkey poults and baby quail.  About the only thing they weren't crazy about was the bull, but having known farmers who have been killed by bulls, I understand their concern. (I like to think I'm alert & careful around all the animals.  Even a ram sheep can be deadly. But that also doesn't stop me from feeding any of them cookies.) 

But the best part for me was that they allow Dan and I to make the farm decisions, and even treat me like I know what I'm doing. I don't always feel like I know what I'm doing yet! As we were planting, Betty finished a row and asked “Hey Boss Lady! What next?” Who, me? The newbie as Boss Lady? Or when Tom found me in the greenhouse and asked if the peas had all been planted...I said no, then started to tell him how I just wanted to check the greenhouse seedlings so they didn't get too dried out, and that I'd be right back to finish my peas. I probably sounded like a kid making excuses for why her chores weren't done yet. Tom said “Oh no, I wasn't questioning you're judgment, Em. You're doing the right thing. Betty just likes to plant peas and will finish up the row while you're busy here.” Or that Betty wanted to buy some herb seedlings to take home with her. Betty, who has started literally thousands of seedlings at once, wanted a few of my plants because she thought they would look better than the ones she had started by the time she got home. I guess it's like a stamp of approval from experienced farmers whose opinion really matters to me. Being in business for yourself is always hard, and farming is even trickier as there is so much beyond your control. To have someone who has been down this road and succeeded, it's an amazing feeling to hear them say that you look like you're on the right path. And I treasure that, because I'd like to be right here, doing this, for many years to come.

 

Planting potatoes while Tom uses the rototiller to plow another row.  For once, I'm actually in the picture, as Betty was kind enough to use the camera for me!  Also pictured is one of our free-range chickens, a Delaware rooster, inspecting my work.

 

 
 

Crazy Busy

Today, the sprouts and I are staying inside. It's snowing or sleeting or something out there, which just seems cruel after the 70 and 80 degree weather of a few weeks ago. But truthfully, it IS still early April, and after all, the barn coat is a much more seasonal piece of clothing than the tank top this time of year in our part of the world. But today is one of those cloudy, grey days where the small greenhouse, our sprout house, just won't warm up much. Right now, at noon, it's only in the lower 60's, since it is barely 40 outside with no direct sun.

For about two weeks now, I've been carefully bringing the trays of sprouts inside each evening, so they don't suffer cold damage, and then lugging them back outside for a day of warmth & light. At first, it was a 5-minute chore, as I had 4 trays and only needed to make 2 trip outside to the sprout house. But those trays were seed starting trays, with 96 one-inch spaces for plants. Since then, the tomatoes, cukes, flowers and more have been transplanted into 3” peat pots, and I already have over a dozen trays to move each time. I have some more things to start as spring goes along, and more things in need of transplanting very soon. A plant will pretty much stop getting bigger if it doesn't have any more space for its roots- it's called being “rootbound”. After transplanting, I'm always amazed at how much a plant will grow in the next few days. You can literally notice a difference from morning to night!

While inside, I have some flats under fluorescent lighting up to help to make up for the lost daylight, not that they are missing out on much today. I have the rest near windows, soaking up the ambient light. I'm hesitant to have many more flats, as I'm quickly nearing the end of the available space to set them inside the house! But soon a few will be empties. Last Saturday, the construction on the main greenhouse was completed! Although the ends have been up, and Dan and I put up the 20' wide plastic for the roof the weekend before, we still needed to enclose the sides. We used more plastic, fastened to boards at the bottom for the sides. This way, during the heat of the summer, the sides can be rolled up and tied, providing for even more ventilation than the windows and doors at the ends could provide. We're very excited to have the greenhouse rennovations completed right on schedule. We've already planted onions, chard, lettuce and beets in the ground in the greenhouse, and we're looking forward to getting our greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants in the ground within the next 2 weeks. Although we know there will be some nights we'll have to heat the greenhouse, it's the only way to really get those crops to mature earlier. If all goes according to plan, we're optimistic that we'll be offering cucumbers as soon as we open this year.

It is spring, so of course we're crazy busy. Besides the greenhouse activity, Dan has already started plowing for the year, so it won't be too long before I'm working some of the machinery as well, which I really enjoy. Chick season is here and in full swing. Right now, we have baby chicks for sale. This year we will have Barred Rocks, and Easter Eggers, plus a few Delawares and Golden Phoenix chicks. Monday should bring our first turkey poults of the season. We're getting lots of inquiries about our Bourbon Red poults, and I do have a few folks who have already reserved poults. The quail have finally started to lay, and with only 18 days of incubation necessary (compared to 21 for a chicken or 24 for goose, duck, peacock or turkey) we'll have bumblebee-sized little quail in the brooder next week. The geese have been sitting on nests for a couple of weeks now, so I think we'll see goslings soon, too.

All our lambs are thriving on the good spring grass, and it's a joy to watch them run and play out in our fields. I'm also watching our Dexter cow Finni like a hawk right now. She is due any day now, and we're again looking forward to having a calf in our midst. We bought Finni to be our family milk cow, and we're once again anxious to have our own farm-fresh milk in the fridge. I'm looking forward to dabbling a bit in making some other dairy products, like butter, cheese and sour cream as well.  ...And speaking of cheese, as opening day approaches, we'll once again make the journey to Whispering Brook Cheese Haus so we can offer their raw milk cheese at he stand.  We've missed all the delicious flavors, too!

We don't have enough room in the incubator for all the eggs we're getting, so I've also been busy trying to use them up making a variety of handmade egg noodles here at the farm kitchen. Dan absolutely loves them, and I'm looking forward to listing on our Etsy store (www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa/) and having them available when we reopen at the end of next month. It won't be long now!

Be sure to check out our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Farm/121591150986 ...our album “Greenhouse” shows the whole building process!

 
 

The Wild Side

As I went out to start my morning round of chores on Friday, I heard an unfamiliar noise coming from the direction of the pond in the pasture. It sounded most similar to the call of our Coturnix quail, but a quick glance in the direction of the quail pen assured me that the door was still closed and I could see a good number of them hopping about in the grass. After taking water and food to the various pens of poultry and rabbits, I took a short walk to the pond to investigate. As I came close, I could see hundreds of black eyes starting back at me, floating on the surface of the water. Frogs. Not the itty little spring peepers, whose call is so loud it seems impossible for the frog's body size, but not big ol' bullfrogs, with their deep throaty calls, either. These were the mid-sized, shiny green frogs that the part of my brain which must have been paying attention in high school biology wants to call leopard frogs. The kind that leap to the water as you approach the bank of many small streams or ponds around here. The noise I was hearing was apparently the mating call of hundreds of these frogs, which had taken advantage of the summer-like weather to gather in our pond to lay eggs. I stood on the bank for a minute, admiring the sheer number of these little guys (and gals!), and watching the ripples dance across the pond from the places where some had gone under the surface of the water as I had approached. The little ripples expanded in ever-widening circles, reflecting the overcast sky like a living mirror. But, as always, spring days bring lots of things on the to-do list, so I didn't stay long.

As I closed the gate behind me, I heard the unmistakable honking cry of Canada geese. As I watched, a pair descended and came to a splashing landing in the pond. The frogs shut up ever so briefly. We are usually graced with a pair or a small flock of these birds on spring days. The pond seems to be a rest area on the northward migration, at least for some small groups. Often, a pair will stick around for a few days to a week or so. I always hope they'll build a nest, either by the edge of the pond, or a short distance further up in the pasture field where there is shelter provided by a few small trees and some brush. But, each year they move on. While we have barnyard geese, (Toulouses) who will hatch their own goslings and swim about the pond, I still like to think that maybe this year, their wild cousins will settle down here for the spring. They have such a grace and beauty to them, and I love looking out my kitchen window and seeing them outside.

Lunchtime came, and as I was inside fixing myself a sandwich, the turkeys began to gobble incessantly. They are loud this time of year, but this went on without pause for 10 minutes or so, which was unusual. Some of it seemed to sound like it was coming from across the road, but when I looked outside, I could see both gobblers near the turkey house, where they belonged. I have learned that sounds will bounce around here, off of buildings and the surrounding landscapes since we are in a valley. Often, something sounds like it is coming from the opposite direction than it actually is. So, I ate and then went back outside. I saw our Royal Palm hen on the road, obviously coming from the other side back to the farm. I went to see what she had been up to, as some of her sisters had used the brush pile across the street as a nestbox last year, and I wanted to discourage any notion of using it again this year. As I crossed the road, I saw something shiny and blue on the footpath ahead of me. It was the two yearling peacocks, who live a free-range existence with the turkey flock. So I started down the path to try and round up my birds, who were staring down the path, looking deeper into the forest. Then I saw a bronze shadow flitting between the trees, headed away from us. It was a wild turkey. A male, another gobbler, and as best as I could judge, bigger than our own Gobbles, and with a longer beard. (A turkey's beard is a hairy thing that hangs from the chest of the males. Longer = older bird.) It must have been he who got my domesticate birds so vocal...and why it sounded as though something was calling from across the road, because he was! It was like magic to watch him run down the path and out of sight. Although we live surrounded by the forest, we don't often see its wild inhabitants. They come by at night, leaving us to find footprints or signs of last night's dinner in the fields.

I try and look for the signs of life all around, and for that I was rewarded one more time that day. As I began my evening chores, something orange caught my eye. A small orange & black butterfly floated past our woodshed. While not unusual to see on a summer's day at the farm, it is still the middle of March.   

I've always been proud of how, on our farm, we work as much with nature as we can. Of course, farming is always linked to nature with cycles of seasons, weather, creatures being born and dying. But there is something to be said about working with the larger ecosystem to the greatest degree possible. This does not mean that we will happily allow the local predators a free pass to dining on our poultry, nor do we want to see groundhogs building ever-larger holes in the hayfield. (These holes can break a horse's leg if stepped in. Since we make hay with the horses, this is a concern.)

But the stream that runs through our pasture, that supplies our livestock with water, supports a breeding population of native trout downstream, a fish that is very sensitive to pollution and water quality. Dan and I have planted a crooked row in the garden so as not to disturb the nest of a killdeer. She and her babies do us a valuable service, as  they dine on insects that would otherwise dine on our crops.  Avoiding a small nest in the garden costs us nothing, but we are rewarded many times over by her insect hunting services. I think about how chemical fertilizers and pesticides would silence the frogs' song coming from the pond, how so many bird populations suffered the effects of DDT over the years, how so few people will ever know the excitement of unexpectedly seeing a wild turkey crossing their path. I know how lucky I am to have these wild encounters on a daily basis, and I try not to ignore them, nor take them for granted. It reinforces my commitment to farming the way we do, caring for the soil and water in a responsible way.  It reminds me that I do this not just for me, or my family, or my customers' families.  It's for them too- the bees and the bears, the whitetails and the warblers, the turkeys and the trout.  And also for the ash tree, the lady's slipper flower, even the skunk cabbage.  It's good for all of us.  And really, isn't that the kind of place you wanted your food to be coming from anyways? 



 
 

What IS That Sound??


This time of year, a strange sound comes from my large kitchen pantry.  A beep...beep...beep...beep sound.  One that always seems to make friends and family look around as if there is either something on fire or about to blow up.  But for me, it's one of the wonderful sounds of spring.  So what machine is lurking in the pantry, making ominous beeping noises?  It's the incubator!  

A few years ago, Dan & I invested in a large cabinet incubator.  It has three trays, each capable of holding 66 chicken, turkey, peafowl or duck eggs.  (Quail eggs, being much smaller, mean we can use smaller trays which hold many more.) We generally set one tray each week.  This works really well, as chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch, so we can have a continuous supply of adorable chicks all spring.  It is fully automated, with a digital thermostat for keeping a steady 100 degree temperature, a five gallon bucket that feeds into the machine's tray for steady humidity, and an automatic turner. This turner is necessary so that chicks do not develop lopsided and sickly.  A real mother hen shifts on her nest, turning the eggs during incubation, and this fills that function and saves me from turning them by hand multiple times each day.  The incubator beeps each time the trays turn, which happens every couple of hours.  After a day or two, it becomes a background noise to me, just like the roosters crowing, one that means everything is going just fine. (But a noise that sounds suspiciously like a fire alarm or bomb to visitors!)  

I'm excited to have chicks again.  As always, we'll be saving some of the laying breeds (our Barred Rocks and Delawares) and keeping some hen chicks to replenish our own laying flock.  Others we offer for sale to those looking to start their own flocks.  We're looking forward to adding turkey and, hopefully, quail eggs to the mix in the next few weeks, and peafowl eggs later in the spring, probably May sometime.  But most of all, I look forward to the day when I can pull out the hatching tray and pull out the first few downy chicks to move to the brooder pen.  Because even though I've pulled literally thousands of chicks out of the incubator so far, it's still exciting every time.  Seeing new life never gets old.

 
 

Baby Time Returns

It's a gloomy, soggy way to end February today.  I'm kind of surprised there are not ducks swimming in the backyard today, as there is enough standing water there (and I've seen them do it before!).  But grey days like this always seem a bit cheerier when there are babies about, and we've gotten the spring baby season underway!

 

Nutmeg was the first mama of the year, and she had this healthy ram lamb.  Her twin sister, Rosa had the most recent lamb, this one a girl.

 

 For some reason, even though they are twin sisters, and both black themselves, Nutmeg virtually always has white lambs, and Rosa's are almost always colorful.  Never all black, quite a few have had white on their head like this girl.  She even had a speckled brown and white lamb one year!  Baby lambs are just about the most adorable  things you'll ever see.  Once they get steady on their feet, they jump and twirl around their mamas in the lambing pens.  (We keep them inside for the first week or two to watch both mama and baby for any health issues, and to keep the lambs out of the cold or wet weather.)

And it's not just the sheep who are multiplying around here, we also have baby rabbits!  Murphette had a litter yesterday.  They are snug and warm in the nest she made from hay and her own fur.  I knew the big day had come when I saw the fluff moving ever so slightly inside her pen.  It's not quite picture time for the bunnies yet...they are born with their eyes closed and are nearly bald, so we'll wait a week or two for their photo shoot! 

We're also beginning to save chicken eggs to set in the incubator this week.  We'll set the eggs at the end of the week, and three weeks later we anticipate chicks! Our Bourbon Red tom turkeys are gobbling and strutting pretty much continuously now, and the hens are starting to pay attention, so turkey breeding season is upon us as well.  I expect to begin getting eggs from the turkeys in 2 weeks or so, and the poults will hatch four weeks later.  The geese are squawking and fighting now as well, but we'll let them make their own nests and hatch the goslings.  Experience has taught us that it is very hard to hatch the goose eggs in the incubator successfully because of the high humidity requirements, so we'll just let nature take its course.

We've got the sprout house completed, and back up fluorescent lighting in the house for the seedlings  in case of cold or gloomy weather.  We've already got flats of tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, eggplant, and a wide variety of herbs planted, and I will be starting more flats of other veggies next week.  We also started dismantling the large greenhouse frames yesterday.  I am so excited to set up our new one!  The old greenhouses were a bit of an eyesore, so I'm happy to get them down at last and recycle the frames into a new 65' growing space for earlier tomatoes, peppers and such.  Between babies and seedlings, it is really starting to feel like spring is here!

 
 

The Sprout House

 

A big projet has been crossed off of our spring to-do list.  The greenhouse we use for starting seeds was really showing its age.  The plastic was in tatters, the inside was filled with skeletons of last year's overgrown weeds, and with all the rain we've seen, you had to walk through a real muddy mess to get to the door.   

 

 

This is what it looked like. Not a friendly space to work or grow.  So, we cleaned up the inside, removed the workbenches, and stripped it down to the wooden frame, which was in great shape due to being built with treated lumber.

 

Halfway there! (As you can see by the snow, this was not a one-day project!)

Once down to the frame, Dan and I moved it about the length of the building and placed it closer to the processing pavilion (in rear of photo). This area is just slightly higher, and therefore drier.  Once the frame was level and in place, we put a floor of underlayment fabric down.  This should shade the weeds and prevent them from taking over every summer!  Then we put new plastic over the frame, inside and out, then replaced the worktables.  This time, we put them slightly lower so they are easier for me to work with.

 

 

I love the new sprout house! It's so much more inviting now. Dan boxed in a corner to use as a raised bed, and after the cold snap over the weekend, we are hoping to direct seed some frost tolerant veggies like radish, lettuce, chard and spinach.  I've also got flats of seed trays here in the house.  I've already started tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant for our big greenhouse.  This is another project we hope to complete soon.  We'll be taking down the metal frames out in the garden, using the ones in the best shape, and making a 65' greenhouse.  We'll plant these vegetables right in the soil, but we'll be able to do it much earlier and so will be able to offer our customers these veggies earlier and for a longer time during our market season.  I've also started a few flats of herbs, including basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley, catnip and echinecea (purple coneflower) so far.  I hope to have a nice variety of potted herbs for sale when we reopen this year, a new venture for me!  The trays are here in the warm kitchen until the seeds germinate, then we'll be taking them out to the sprouthouse for lots of sun and an early start on the season.  It's good to be growing again!

 

 
 

Rain Delay

April showers are still falling here at the farm, making it hard to get much done outside these days. I've been so excited to spend my first spring on the farm full time and have been anxiously awaiting conditions outside to dry out so we can begin the spring field work prep with the horses. Last year, I have photos of Dan plowing on April 15, with a trail of dust behind him because of the dry weather. This year, it's hard to even take the plants out into the greenhouse without losing a boot in the mud and slop. But such are the realities of farming; I honestly can't think of a job that requires more patience or that is more weather-dependent.  I just keep my fingers crossed that the sun will find its way back, the soil will dry out, and we'll be able to get plowing.  I'm looking forward to trying my hand at more of the machinery this season.

Even though we have yet to plow a round, though, doesn't mean things here have been slow! April is always a busy month. Lil's calf continues to grow, and we've let the pair out in the pasture to join the rest of the herd. He loves the freedom and runs and plays- it's so cute I often find myself stopping what I'm doing just to watch. While we had discussed milking Lil, we decided not to. She's an older cow at 13 years old, and we felt it was best not to tax her body too much with milk production. Most Holsteins have a productive life of just 3-4 years, so this shows what a difference using heritage breeds such as Dexters can make, as this is likely Lil's 10th or 11th calf! However, we still have plans to try milking, as our other Dexter cow, Finni, is very close to calving. So close, in fact, that we penned her up in the barn last night. While I'm sure she would rather be out in the pasture, we don't want to take any chances. It will be her first calf, and we want to make sure it's born in a safe, clean, dry place. It's also easier to keep an eye on her there to watch for any problems. We're optimistic that everything will go smoothly, but it's always best to be prepared to give assistance if necessary.

In addition to calves, we've had other babies born lately too.  There are fluffy, moving nests of rabbit fur with tiny bunnies inside. Also, the incubator is a busy place this time of year! We've hatched out a variety of fuzzy chicks as well as our first few Pekin ducklings of the year. We also had another batch of Bourbon Red turkey eggs ready this past weekend, and every single one hatched. We're so thrilled with how this has gone. While we definitely wanted to be sure of hatching enough turkeys to supply our farm's Thanksgiving bird orders, we would also like to see if our hens will hatch out poults naturally. One hen has been sitting on eggs for a couple of weeks now, but as I had been collecting all the turkey eggs at that time, I'm quite sure she is not sitting on her own eggs. If the hatch is successful, I'm pretty certain she will be the proud surrogate mother to a nest of goslings! The other hens have been laying in some crazy places, and most of the nests I collect to discourage them from using. I do not want a turkey attempting to hatch eggs on my front porch furniture. Likewise, I don't want them sitting across the road. They found a brush pile which has been heavily used for nesting, but I don't like them crossing the road. It's also in the woods, and the other day, when getting the morning paper, I noticed gobs of white feathers all around. They were unmistakably from one of the Royal Palm hens, and my heart sank. It was a lot of feathers, pulled out in hunks, the kind of evidence of a predator attack. Eggshells were also scattered around and licked clean. I went into detective mode, trying to figure out what had befallen my bird, but I couldn't find blood or body parts (like a wing) nor could I find any animal tracks in the leaf litter. Discouraged, I went to check on the birds near the turkey pen to get a head count. At first, I thought I counted all my Palm hens, but that couldn't be...I thought I must be mistaking an escaped Delaware hen (also white with a bit of black markings). But there they all were, with one looking a bit scruffy from missing feathers. No blood or signs of injury though, and she is doing well. So I definitely don't want a hen sitting for a month in that spot! However, the hens have finally made a nest I'm ok with...it's right next to the house in a secluded spot that should be safe. I hope one of them sits on it. They must all be using it to lay, as I counted 17 eggs in it last night! I removed some of them as it was too many for a single bird to cover, but I'll just try to keep the number reasonable and see what happens.  

We did have a day or so of nice weather last week, and Dan and I took advantage. I got some necessary pruning done on the blueberry bushes, and Dan finished up work early and we did get out into the garden. Although we haven't worked up the soil, there was a stretch that had been covered by landscape fabric over the winter which was weed-free. After a single pass with the tiller, we had a nice stretch of bed to plant. It's pushing the season a bit, but we were excited to get some seeds in the ground. Some garden plants can tolerate a light frost, which is still very likely, so we planted beets, carrots, radishes, peas, chard, lettuce and a variety of other salad greens. We also put in onion sets and some seed potatoes. It was great to get our hands in the soil, if only for an afternoon! We also tilled up a small spot in my herb garden and planted a few strawberry crowns. While I don't anticipate growing enough berries to sell by the pint or quart at the stand, it's something I want for myself. Dan though it was a great idea, so we picked up crowns of Ozark Beauties, an everbearing variety. Most strawberries are June bearers, meaning you need to wait a year for the plants to establish themselves before you can harvest any fruit. But because these are everbearers, with a little luck, I may even have a few berries by the end of summer. I'm excited to see how this goes and decide if I want to put more berries in the garden in the future...perhaps someday I'll even be able to offer strawberry jam!

 
 

Ready, Set, Get Busy!

It's getting busy here! First of all, next weekend is the Farm to Table conference, so it's time to put the finishing touches on my presentation about Heritage Livestock breeds and the slideshow full of pictures I have to go along with it. I'm also making sure I have brochures, jams, signs, and everything else I'll need to make my table look nice and full with homemade goodies for sale and information about the farm. I'm so excited to be a part of this, I think as farmers, we really need to do a good job of informing the general public about how food is grown and where it comes from, especially when you are trying to convince them that it truly is better to buy from a family farm. So I'm excited to be the “expert” speaker about Heritage Livestock, I think lots of people would support the efforts to save them and use them on family farms, but most folks just don't know that they exist. I'm hoping to change that, just a little! I'm also really excited about my table in the exhibit hall. Of course, the opportunity to make some extra money is nice, but I'm really looking forward to talking with people about our farm and how & why we do what we do. So if you're in the Pittsburgh area, or already planning on going to the convention center and taking in the event, please stop by and say hello! (For more info & tickets, visit www.farmtotablepa.com)

I was also excited to attend a grazing conference last week. While you might think that there is nothing difficult about animals eating grass in a field, there actually is much more to know than that. What species of grasses or legumes will work best for the animals you want to raise is important. So is management, like how many animals are in a field and how long they are there- anywhere from rotating small pastures every 12 hours to just letting them roam a large area all summer can be done. There are advantages and challenges to each and I was glad I went because I learned so much. It was also really exciting to listen to Dr. Temple Grandin and what she had to say, both about handling animals in a humane way and also about animal welfare issues and how as farms, we need to be sharing what we do with the public, since most folks are generations removed from farms. And she encouraged the farmers in attendance to think about the practices we use- if we wouldn't want the public knowing we handled our animals in a certain manner, shouldn't we be doing something differently?

The past few days have certainly felt like spring is in the air here at the farm. Almost all the snow and ice has melted, leaving the usual muddy mess behind. Inspections of the garden plots revealed ruby red rhubarb poking through the soil, along with herbs- I spotted chives, oregano, sage and lemon balm with new growth. The seedlings I started in flats are also progressing nicely. Each day I take them out to the greenhouse for some sun, then bring them back inside to avoid any cold temperatures overnight. I've also been spending a fair amount of time on egg hunts. I was elated to find a turkey egg on the floor of the turkey house on day this week. Doing a project in the backyard later that evening, I went into the woodshed to get something for Dan, which was good as I found a turkey nest with 6 eggs in it! I would have been more vigilant, but as this is the first year we've raised a breeding flock of turkeys, we weren't entirely sure when they would begin to lay- we had thought it would be a bit later in the spring. So now I'm always keeping an eye out for those crazy birds and where the next stash may be. I've set up a nice, comfy nest box on the floor of their turkey coop, which they happily ignore in favor of the open floor, the back of the greenhouse, the middle of the yard, or (my personal favorite) the one that laid an egg on the couch that sits on the front porch. When you live on a free range farm, egg hunts aren't just for Easter! The pullets are also laying better each day, and I expect to be setting a few of their eggs when we next put eggs in the incubator. Besides the turkey eggs, we're also getting duck eggs, and also eggs from the Phoenix & Cochin hens. I saw the first goose nest of the season as well, but I'll probably leave those eggs alone. Goose eggs need so much humidity, they are tricky to do in the incubator, especially if you're hatching chicken eggs too, which we will be. The geese do a good job of sitting on their eggs, so we'll just let nature take its course.

 
 

Springing Ahead

Did you remember to set your clocks ahead this weekend?  Another welcome sign that spring's coming, but I hate it.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy having more daylight in the evenings, but I hate the out of sync feeling you have for a few days.  It also makes the evening chores weird- this time of year we start about 4:30 PM, which gives us enough time to feed everything as well as take care of any unexpected tasks- think fixing the French drain that iced over and caused water to leak into the barn again or fixing the electric fence because Wilbur the boar hog is trying to get loose.  So the critters are used to eating about 4:30-5:00.  They have their own routines, and instinctively know it's time to eat.  The horses will whinny from inside the barn when they hear footsteps (somehow they can tell human from cow, goat, etc!)  The cows return from the far reaches of the pasture to wait by the barn for their hay.  So for them, we bump chores "back" by an hour after the change, which means that in reality they are eating just when they expect, but it always throws me off for a few days. 

Tomorrow I'm going to DuBois, PA for a grazing conference.  One of the nice things about not working, besides all the wonderful stuff I get to do here, is that I can now go to some of the seminars and workshops to see how other folks farm and how I might improve what we do here.  This grazing workshop is really the first one I'll be going to, and I'm excited.  While grazing may not be the most engaging topic ever, it's so important to what we do.  That being said, I'll admit that my main reason for going is the keynote speaker, Temple Grandin.   For those who've never heard of her, Temple is an autistic woman who also has a doctorate in Animal Science.  She's renown for her ability to understand animals and has been instrumental in reshaping slaughterhouses across the country to make the handling of the animals there more humane and less stressful.  In my "previous life" before farming, I earned a Master's in Social Work and did work with autistic kids.  I also loved animals and one day came across Ms. Grandin's book called Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.  It was fascinating and a wonderful read, even for those with little knowledge of livestock or autism.  It gives a lot of insight into animal intelligence, and even why dogs do what they do.  In the meantime, I've heard hers is such a remarkable story that there's even a movie about her out now!  So I'm really excited to go and listen and learn tomorrow.

These is so much going on here at the farm as well!  We're seeing signs of new growth all over the place.  The rhubarb is pushing tiny crimson buds through the soil, and there are deep purple, fern-like shoots in the horseradish patch.  The herb garden perennials are coming back to life as well- an inspection this weekend revealed new leaves on the sage, oregano, and lemon balm, as well as new shoots of chives, already 2" tall!  Inside, I've got cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and herbs sprouting in the flats I planted, and so I now watch the outdoor temperatures to see when it's safe to set them out in the greenhouse for some good spring sunshine.  The pullets have begun to lay in earnest and we're beginning to save their eggs for hatching.  In fact, this time next week I hope to have chicks hatch!  

But possibly the most exciting news for me is that we have another lamb.  Now, once lambing season kicks off, it's not quite as exciting since you've been watching the woolly bundles of joy leap and play for some time now.  But this one is kind of special.  After the whole Sheepie tragedy I watched my other ewes for signs of anything amiss.  Unfortunately, another one of my young ewes seemed a little off within a week after Sheepie's death.  So we brought her in, caught it early, and seemed to get everything straight.  (At least that's what I thought. Dan wasn't entirely convinced that she was ill, but agreed that we should treat her anyway, as the medicine that treats is also used as a preventative.  Better safe than sorry and all that.)  I didn't blog about it, as it was just too hard emotionally to get so many notes of support, then lose the fight anyway the first time around.  However, this has a happy ending, as this ewe, Lisa, has been fine for a month now, but you never know about the baby.  This morning, before Dan left for work, he let me know that she'd lambed unassisted.  Just a single, but alive and healthy and both mom and baby were doing fine in a lambing jug in the barn.  I'm still out of whack, sleep-wise, and forgot to ask if it was a ewe or ram or if it was any color but white.  I went down to the barn to check on them later and found her to be pretty wary of me, although she did take a treat from me.  So I didn't bother to inspect the little one, as it seemed to be doing just fine, resting in the back corner of the lambing jug, and I hate to interfere with the bonding, especially with the younger ewes. Lisa is Rosa's daughter, and Rosa always seems to throw uniquely colored lambs.  Rosa is black, and has had lambs that were all black, black with white markings (esp. on the face & head), and last year the one I called "Speckles" because he was brown and white speckled all over (I so wanted him to be a ewe, so I could keep it instead of processing it in the fall!).  Lisa herself is black with a touch of white on the face, but Rosa's ewe lambs this year are both pure white. (Still adorable, but I do love the fun colored ones!)  So I was about in shock to see this little one...not white, or black, or even brown, but what seems to be a charcoal gray with white all over, which Dan totally failed to mention.  I'll be interested to see what it looks like when it's been dry for a few days, but really an eye-catching sheep.  And I hope it's a girl, since males don't stay nearly as long on the farm, but we'll just see...   

 
 

Almost There...

March always makes me feel like we've made it through winter's worst. Although I know we'll still get some snowstorms, ice, sleet and all that wintry mix, on other days the snow begins melting and, for the first time in months, we can see the fields instead of just a blanket of white. The days are getting longer, birds are returning from their southern winter hangouts, and it's easy to feel spring coming on.

It's hard though, because as much as I want to dig into the soil and get things underway, I know we aren't safe from frost here until June. Yes, really. Two seasons ago our last frost was June 3. It's a hard balance to strike between getting an early jump on crops and not losing whole fields of plants that can't handle a cold snap. One exciting project this year is returning a greenhouse or two into operational growing space. The plastic has been off of them for several years, and we had considered tearing down the metal frames since they aren't really all that attractive if not in use. One is still slated for being torn down, as it's pretty beat up, but we're excited to have plans to recover another one or two in plastic and put them back into production. This will allow us to put plants out earlier and to have things like tomatoes and peppers earlier in the season. The greenhouse veggies will have all the flavor of our field grown ones, because we still plant them right in the soil, not in pots or hydroponically. The structure is just used to get the soil up to planting temperature earlier, and to keep the plants warm during the inevitable spring cold snaps. Since we'll be able to transplant the seedlings outside earlier, that means starting the seeds earlier too, so I've got trays planted with tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and herbs. The hardest part was resisting the temptation to start everything right now, but we'll hold off on crops, especially the vining ones like squash & pumpkins for a few more weeks, otherwise they will get too big for their pots before we're able to successfully transplant them outdoors. But it is good to have trays full of seeds, I hope to see sprouts very shortly!

Another exciting sign of spring is eggs. Birds don't usually lay eggs in the winter, because it's not a good time to raise chicks. Generations of selective breeding have made chickens lay more eggs over a longer period of the year, but there is always at least a bit of slowdown in the winter. The days are getting noticeably longer, and it's signaling the birds to begin laying in earnest again. We're also beginning to get eggs from our layers which hatched last September. We've gotten eggs from some of the Barred Rock and Delaware hens, and it's certain that we'll soon be seeing blue eggs from our Ameracauna girls, too. While it's wonderful to have plenty of eggs to cook and bake with, this time of year I get most excited about hatching chicks. The quiet hum of the incubator, along with the periodic beeps letting us know the eggs are being turned, have become a sign linked in my mind with the arrival of spring over the past few years. There is nothing like opening the door to the incubator and pulling out a tray of downy chicks where just eggs were the day before. We set eggs for the first time this season yesterday, and we will be hatching our first few babies in about three weeks. We'll be hatching every week after that until sometime in late May, when we'll be collecting eggs to sell at the stand again. I'm also on the lookout for duck eggs, and I have a feeling it won't be long before the large eggs of our Toulouse gees begin appearing around the barnyard as well!   

 
 

Are You OK?

When an animal suddenly has a change in its behavior, it's always something to take note of.  Frequently, it's your first or only warning of sickness.  It also can indicate when things aren't right in the environment or that a baby is imminent.  A week or so ago I noticed one of my hen Bourbon Red turkeys looking kind of droopy, laying on the ground with her wings spread slightly.  I thought perhaps she had something, like baler twine, wrapped around her leg, so I walked over.  She let me pick her right up, but there was no sign of injury or anything amiss.  Still, turkeys don't normally allow humans to touch them, so I was concerned.  But when I turned back from the feed barrel with the scoop in hand, all turkeys were bright, alert, and ready to eat.  I couldn't tell which was "droopy hen".  I was a bit relieved, since appetite is usually the first thing to go when critters get sick.  The next day, the "droop" had spread.  Two hens were down.  Again, they would let me touch them without getting up and running away, but acted fine a few minutes later.  I mentioned it to Dan, and he replied that he too had seen this going on.  

As I did chores, I kept thinking about my hens.  What could be wrong?  Then I remembered a suspiciously similar story, involving the very same breed of turkey, in one of my favorite books- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She too, had seen this...just before the birds started to breed.  Her description of toms that strutted continually since fall mirrored my own Gobbles, who struts to impress the mail lady, feed buckets, and any & everything else.  The hens hadn't really shown any interest in this display, and now seemed more likely to show their own mating behavior when humans are around.  Guess both sexes have imprinted on us somewhat, since we've provided them with food and cared for them since hatching.  But spring is coming, the days are lengthening, and although I wasn't sure when turkeys would begin to lay eggs, the timing is definitely right.  So I stopped worrying and hoped for the best.  The turkeys have started to figure it out.  Gobbles is taking an interest in the ladies instead of whatever might be laying in the yard.  When one of the hens flew down from the roost in the pine tree into the chicken run, she and Gobbles seemed so frustrated that they were separated by the woven wire fence. It was as though they were star crossed lovebirds and he had eyes for no other hens, at least for a little while  They are making somewhat awkward attempts to breed, and I'm optimistic that we'll have fertile eggs this spring.  

This is hugely exciting, since we'll be hatching our own poults for the very first time.  99% of the turkeys raised in the US are the broad-breasted variety, which grow so much white meat that they physically can't even reproduce on their own.  They are more of a variety that a true breed, since they cannot mate naturally.  Each and every egg has to be artificially inseminated. So our biggest dilemma now is to decide if we'll take the eggs from the Bourbon Red hens to put in our incubator or let them try to sit on them naturally.  I'd like to perpetuate turkeys that have a good maternal instinct, which has been bred out of so much domestic poultry, but at the same time there is a possibility the hen will give up halfway through sitting and we won't have any babies.  Which might not be a huge deal to a hobby farmer or someone looking to raise their own food, but we've set our hearts on offering only heritage breed turkeys for sale here at the farm from now on.  Incubated eggs would still be 100% farm-raised and another thing we would be able to do sustainably.  It would cut out a cost (of purchasing poults), which is always a good thing for a business, and avoid the huge hassle it turned into when dealing with a certain mail order hatchery last year.  Most likely, in the end, we'll compromise and take most of the eggs at first, then leave some to the hens and see what happens.  Like the geese and peafowl, turkeys only lay enough eggs for one brood per season/year.  If you take a few eggs and put them in the incubator, the hen will lay a few more, until she thinks she has enough to make it worth her while to sit on.  Once she begins sitting ("going broody") she stops laying.  That's it.  No more eggs til next year.  So snatching a few at first actually has a reasonable chance of extending the laying season and the total number of eggs.

But it is the season to begin watching for eggs of all kinds, and I can't wait to turn on the incubator and start Hatching Season 2011.  Dan spotted a duck egg in the creek today, so the Pekins are beginning to lay.  But I'm hoping they pick a less waterlogged spot soon, so we can collect & hatch the eggs.  We didn't have ducklings last year because our male was killed by predators over the winter.  We got some new ducks late last year and should be good to go.  Duckings are so cute!  We've also had a nearly complete lack of chicken eggs as we got rid of our unproductive older hens before winter set in.   While I had replacement chicks in September, it takes about 6 months for a chicken to mature and begin laying, so I'm anxiously awaiting Barred Rock, Delaware & Ameracauna eggs to start soon.  The other hens we have are more showy and not known for laying as well through the winter. Those would be our Blue Cochins & Golden Phoenixes.  These birds will go broody and hatch their own chicks during the warmer months, which is fun, but we hatch out plenty in the early spring in the incubator.  The longer days are a signal to start laying and I've found a few Phoenix eggs in the past few days so we'll be setting soon. (Yes, I really can tell what breed of chicken laid the egg by the shape, size & color!)  So we'll be hearing the soft peep of downy chicks in another month or so, which is always amazing! 

 
 

Thinking Spring

Despite the fact that it's still bone-chillingly cold here, there are signs of spring on the way.  Perhaps that groundhog was on to something!  The days are steadily getting longer, giving us a slightly longer window of time to get evening chores done without flashlights.  I have been hearing many more wild birds calling from the trees, and while I haven't seen a robin yet, I doubt it will be too much longer now.  Our mail ordered seeds are steadily arriving in the mailbox, which make me anxious for the ground to thaw.  At the end of the year, I'm ready for the end of the garden season; it's a welcome break from weeding, planting, harvesting, and canning/drying/storing.   At this point of winter, though, I long for something fresh and green.  I miss planting, harvesting, eating, canning, and yes, even weeding. Of course, in my mind the new garden will have less weeds, less bugs, and more produce than ever before.  (Reality has yet to set in!)  But I do miss it and I look forward to the time when at least I can get the indoor seedlings started (tomatoes, peppers, and such).  I'm trying to get better at it each year, because there are just so many more interesting varieties possible when you don't need to rely on what the local garden centers are carrying!  I also try to get more comfortable with working the horses each year, so I'm looking forward to using some machinery this spring that I haven't in the past.  (Check out www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com/field-work.html to see photos of Dan & I, our horses, and equipment!)

The last sure sign of spring around here is, of course, farm babies.  I've mentioned the heartbreak of the ones we lost, and there is nothing to do now but move on.  We noticed that another one of our ewes, Nutmeg, seemed to be very close, and even though it's a week or so early for her, we put her in the barn.  A healthy lamb greeted us this morning as we did chores.  I'll check on her soon to  make sure all is well and to see if there are two babies, as she normally has twins.  

 


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