Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Happy Fall to All!

Happy fall to everyone!  It has been so busy around here,  I feel as though I've been neglecting my blog.  So here is my attempt to get you caught up with our goings-on!

I've meant to mention that Finnbar has gone home to Muirstead Farm.  He was the Dexter bull we had on loan for the summer.  He is a beautiful example of the Dexter breed; well muscled, docile and compact.  Although I was nervous about having a bull here, as they can be dangerous animals, we had a wonderful experience with him.  I'm always grateful to breeders who value not just production, but temperament as well, and the Muirstead Dexters are joys to work around.  Having Finnbar around for a few months also gave me the confidence that if Dan and I ever expand our little Dexter herd enough to warrant keeping a bull around all year, that with proper care and handling it would be no more stressful than having the other intact males here, like Rambo the sheep or Wilbur the hog.  And speaking of expanding our Dexter herd, we did do just that.  In addition to the calf we'll expect from Finni early next summer, we purchased another cow.  Lil came on loan with Finnbar, so we could have a chance to milk a Dexter this year.  We liked her so much that we chose to purchase her.  She is a former show ring champ and has had quite a few beautiful Dexter babies.  The Muirs have enough of her lineage in the breeding herd they maintain, so they agreed to let us purchase her.  She'll also be due with a calf in late spring or early summer, so we are so very excited!

Today is the first day of fall.  The official first days of summer and winter always seem to arrive a bit after the season starts in my opinion, but fall is right on time.  The leaves are starting to change and the garden is transitioning as well.  Our tomatoes finally succumbed to the blight, but we had a wonderfully productive year anyway.  While we won't have fresh ones at the stand again this year, I have lots of packaged sun-dried tomatoes available and I'm working today on making some more Bruschetta in a Jar with the last of the Romas.   But as I say good-bye to the tomatoes of summer, I'm saying hello to our fall crops.  We've been digging onions and potatoes and last week were able to start picking some winter squash as well.  This week we'll be able to offer acorn, buttercup, butternut and sweet dumpling squash, plus a few pumpkins and a blue hubbard or two.  Later, I'll have some really neat looking gourds (a frost will really bring out their colors) as well as kabocha and giant pink banana squash.  We also tried planting a bit of Bloody Butcher corn, an heirloom deep red corn, this year, so once it dried I'll be excited to try grinding it for cornmeal and see what color we end up with.

As the season goes on, I have more and more neat things I've dried or processed.  Something new we'll have this week is dried sage from the herb garden.  I'm also finishing up processing some peaches into a recipe called zesty peach barbecue sauce.  It's more like a hot peach salsa, so I'm thinking about what name to put on the labels as the jars are bubbling away in the canner.  Either way, it's a favorite here at home, Dan especially loves it with ham so I think ham steaks are going to be dinner tonight! (it's great on chicken or pork chops too.)  Then it's on to making the  Bruschetta and possibly, if the rain lets off, I'll be digging some horseradish to prepare and sell.  I might make some horseradish mustard before the week is up too!

 I'll also be cleaning up the brooder pen in anticipation of our layer chicks which are due to arrive Friday. As the seasons change, I'm always realizing how farming truly is a year-round occupation.  While most of the produce arrives within a fairly small window of time, we're always planning and preparing.  In addition to the hens, we're also deciding what kind of garlic to plant now and what we need to do to keep our fields, buildings and livestock in good shape over the upcoming winter.  It's always a busy time here!

 
 

The Lack

Saturday at the stand, we had beets, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow zucchini, pattypan and crookneck squash, bell peppers, jalapeños, sweet banana & inferno banana peppers, Swiss chard, heirloom lettuce, red & white new potatoes and plum tomatoes.  We had fresh herbs- basil, Thai basil, mint, chamomile, chives and cilantro plus 4 kinds of herb seeds for growing at home, dried oregano, chamomile, and coriander.  I have personally canned and offered for sale my secret-recipe pickles in two sizes, extra hot pepper rings, 2 kinds of whole grain mustards (honey & ginger garlic), 3 flavored and one home fermented vinegar (blueberry basil, dried herb, mulled blackberry and champagne) and seven kinds of jelly (mint, hot pepper, black forest, carrot cake, cranberry-peach conserve, gingered pear and oriental rhubarb) and a sweet & hot dipping sauce.  We had free range eggs, pastured pork (bacon, ham, 4 varieties of homemade sausage, roasts, chops, ribs, ham steak & ham hock), whole farm-raised and -processed chickens, and our grass fed beef (ground beef, stew meat, sirloins, T-bones, round steaks, rib steaks, chuck roasts, R.B. roast, rolled rump roast, tip roast).  We also had (but do not make ourselves) six different flavors of raw milk cheese (cheddar, smoked cheddar, jalepeno, dill & bacon, horseradish and goat's milk) from a family-run farm & cheese house in Chambersburg, PA.  As I set up, things looked full and prosperous to me.  I feel that it is an amazing variety for a 50-acre farm worked by hand and by horse, with just 2 employees (Dan and myself- no hired help!) making sure everything gets done.

 

Imagine my frustrations then, when about 1/4 of our visitors asked variations on the question "Don't you have much of anything today?" Our sweet corn will be ready this coming weekend, as will lots more tomatoes, including the big beefsteaks.  For a quarter of my customers this past weekend, apparently that is all that is worth going to a local farm for.  Some folks were just disappointed that they had to alter the weekend's menu. For others,  "We'll have it next week"  was greeted by "but I want it this week!"  It sounded like a preschooler's tantrum, minus the foot-stomping, and was immediately followed by demands for directions to another farm that might be more cooperative. It was also a slower day, and that made it easy to feel a bit discouraged.  While I realize that as farmers, part of our responsibility to our customers is to help them understand what local and seasonal really mean, not everyone is going to be interested in that lesson, especially if it means they can't have exactly what they want whenever they want it.

 It reminded me of a speech I heard a while back at a forum on dealing with folks in poverty...the speaker addressed "the lack."  Her use of it was basically if someone is poor, they are often seen as lacking anything to contribute, but if you truly look at the person they often have non-monetary things in their favor- creativity, compassion, a good work ethic, etc.  God-given gifts that as humans we often fail to see.  I saw my farm that way this weekend; some of my folks couldn't see the bounty for the lack of corn.  I understand the seasons here and know we did everything in our power to get the corn and tomatoes to ripen (organically!!!) as soon as possible.  But I also know what an amazing meal I had last night using things that were on the table over the weekend- a ham with a glaze made from mulled blackberry vinegar, with sautéed julienned zucchini smothered in cheese and fresh herbs.  Certainly we didn't fell any lack at the table last night, other than a lack of restraint when it came to second helpings!  My beautiful plum tomatoes, which were soundly rejected as being "too meaty" by a customer looking for tomatoes, perfumed my living room as I turned them into sun dried tomatoes in my dehydrator.  So this weekend, as you patronize your favorite farm, try not to be too disappointed if you get there and don't see the product you initially came looking for.  Instead of lamenting the lack, try to celebrate the possibilities!

 
 

Why Save Seeds?

Just like the stores seem to pull out the Christmas stuff earlier each year, the seed companies seem to be in a race to get the catalogs for the coming growing season out far earlier than necessary.  We haven’t even finished picking corn, and already I’ve received two! In case I misplace then during the holiday season, I’m sure duplicates will come my way in January or February.  While I love looking through them on a cold winter evening, with temperatures still rising to near 60 every day this week, I’m still outside, finishing up this year’s garden!  Dan put the rhubarb to bed for the year…our secret to a bountiful crop that produces clear into fall is blanketing it each winter with a thick layer of horse manure, which is never in short supply here.  It keeps the crowns of the plant safe from winter’s bitter cold, and as the manure breaks down gradually over the coming months, it not only provides a bit of warmth, but also valuable fertilizer. We’re also closer every day to having all of the corn in the corncrib.  Once that happens we’ll take some to a mill to have our own feed mixed, and some will be fed to the animals still on the cob.  And I’m picking the last of this year’s beans.  They are no longer green anywhere, but have produced hard dry beans inside the edible part.  These can be soaked and used in any bean dish, but can also be used to plant next year’s crop, as long as you have not planted a hybrid variety.  (While hybrid seeds will sprout, the fruit of the plants has no guarantees…it most likely won’t taste anything like what you enjoyed the year before.)

So although I haven’t even opened the catalogs, I’m busy planning my garden next year and saving seed.  I have my colored corn, giant sunflowers, squash, pumpkins, and several types of beans.  I also did some herbs earlier before the seeds dropped and supplied next year’s sprouts themselves!  You might wonder, if a bunch of mail-order catalogs featuring every plant under the sun are coming right to my door, why would I spend my time letting plants go to seed, picking the seeds and preparing them to keep through the winter?  Farmers are always short on time, but saving seed is worth the time in my opinion.  I’m helping to preserve the biodiversity of agriculture by not relying on the newest super-seed Monsanto or some other heartless corporation is pushing, and saving money to boot. Also, if you save the best seeds from the best plants in your garden for a few years, you will end up with a plant that is most ideally suited to the climate conditions of your particular farm.  You can also help save a piece of history.  Grandpa Admire’s lettuce, which we bought seeds from Seed Savers Exchange to plant this year, has been saved and replanted since the Civil War.  While it didn’t keep at all once picked, and therefore would never be an option at the supermarket, it was a beautiful combination of red and green leaves, had a fabulous taste, and never got bitter, even on those hot summer days.  It would be a shame to let this piece of American food heritage go by the wayside just because it doesn't appear in the big catalogs or on the racks of seed packets at Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

 

The biggest drawback to the heirloom vegetables which you can save seeds from is that they may not have the high disease resistance that hybrids are known for.  The only crop that we really had trouble with this year was tomatoes, the late blight hit hard and earlier than usual in our area this year.  Whole crops were lost whether you sprayed chemicals or not, and no matter what varieties were planted.  We were fortunate to get some tomatoes, and neither Dan nor I saw any real difference in the disease resistance of the various varieties, as none of the plants survived and all the tomatoes were spotted or rotten after a time.  I may have been overly optomistic, but the heritage Riesentraube cherry tomatoes seemed to have had more useable ones than any other plant.  It may have been the sheer number produced by these prolific plants though, as a small percent of each tomato variety were salvagable, but 20 cherries may have been comprable to 1 beefsteak.  I'm not sure they won if you looked at percentages.  While I was disappointed I really wasn’t able to save seeds from them this year, we both agreed that we’re not giving up on heirloom tomatoes.  So when the snow starts flying and I get into real garden planning mode, I’ll be ordering them again.  Hopefully, it is the last time I pay for tomato seeds, at least until I find another variety that sounds too good not to try!

 
 

Saving the Harvest

On a grey day like this morning, I'm reminded that dreary days in fall and winter won't be far behind.  It gives me extra incentive to put up what I can for those cold months when growing anything that won't fit on a windowsill is impossible.  So the dehydrator is humming in the background this morning as I type.  I've sliced tomatoes thinly, and they will keep forever if they dry thoroughly.  I love to put them on homemade pizza or in pasta salad.  I love them so much, but I'll probably sacrifice a few to sell a the stand.  We are most likely done having fresh tomatoes for sale, the blight has pretty much wiped out our plants.  It seemed so sad to me, the bucket full of blighted tomatoes filled up so much quicker than the one for the useable/sellable tomatoes.  Dan told me not to get down, however, because many, many people got no tomatoes at all.  And our pigs love to eat the less than perfect vegetables, so they weren't going to waste.  Still, I love to make my own sauces- spaghetti sauce, salsa, chili sauce- and that isn't going to happen this year unless I buy tomatoes from somewhere else.  So it was hard to feel lucky just then.    

 With temperatures reaching down into the 40's, it's time to start planning for the first frost too.  So I dry herbs or freeze them depending on my plans for them.  The ones that are best fresh I'll try to keep on the window sill during the winter, but I dry a lot of sage for one of our sausage recipes.  I've also been saving seed to sell, give away or use myself.  I have chive and parsley seed already, I'm sure dill isn't far off either.  I also have lots of  cilantro seed, which is the spice coriander if you crush it in a pepper mill.

Our corn has done pretty well, except the raccoons (or possibly the black bear that's been sighted in the neighborhood) found the ripe sweet corn the night before market.  They seem to have an uncanny ability to sense when the corn is at the peak of flavor, and then it's hard to keep them out.  Luckily we had plenty, and what is left over I'm going to freeze.  Last year I bought a vaccuum sealer and tried freezing corn on the cob.  It was the most amazing treat duing the long winter, like a little taste of summer.  Of course, it loses a little texture, but  we were happy with it and plan to do a lot more in the next few days for this coming winter.  I always freeze bags of whole corn as well, it's great to have on hand when making chili or winter soups, or just by itself!

  

 
 

Hoping for Heritage Tomato Time

The weather just has not cooperated for us this summer, and it seems like a month since I've been able to garden or make hay.  The plants seem to be loving it though, and I'm just hoping for a bit more sun so all these green tomatoes and ears of corn will hurry up and ripen!  I've got lots of plans for them, and LOTS of people in this part of Pennsylvania have been experiencing tomato blight early this year.  It's a scary thing, by the time the leaves start to turn yellow, there is nothing you can do to save your plants but pull up and burn the affected ones. The only preventitive is to hose the plants down with fungicide weekly, but being organic that's not an option for us anyway.  But I'm crossing my fingers and hoping.  I planted 3 heirloom varieties which I bought as seeds from Seed Savers Exchange- a grape, a Brandywine and a Roma.  They seem to have just as many blooms coming on as the hybrid varieties, I'm really curious about comparing them.  I'd like to switch to more heirloom varieties in the coming years.  Many people don't realize it, but there are hundreds of varieties of plants and livestock that are endangered of becoming extinct.  Agribusiness only cares about the bottom lines of production and storage for transport, so unique, tasty and valuable strains die out because they don't grow fast enough or ship without wilting before they get to Wal-Mart.  Aniamls such as chickens or pigs that can't handle the confinement of factory farms suffer the same fate. So I'm very excited about the success we've had this year, we have a wonderful lettuce called Grandpa Admire's and the squash and other gourds seem to be growing like wildfire.  My goal is to find varieties that will grow well on the farm and help us pay the bills, but also to find ones with history and heritage, because that just fits our horse powed farm.  And watching an heirloom seedling sprout, or seeing an endangered chick hatch makes you realize that you don't have to go to the North Pole or the Amazon to save an endangered species...it really is possible right here at home. 

 
 
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