Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Turkey Time

Are you ready for Thanksgiving yet?  Me neither.  Although there are always lots of things keeping us busy here on the farm, right now seems especially hectic.  We have only 3 more days where the stand will be open- tomorrow and next Saturday, along with special Tuesday hours.  As the season is short and Thanksgiving is near, I have lots of orders to organize. Christmas hams are being picked up now. Also, our last day coincides with an influx of visitors to the area coming up for deer hunting season, and I've already got orders for that as well. Keeping track of who is picking what (and how much of it) when is more complicated right now than it has been all season long, but it's a good problem to have.  Thank goodness for post-it notes and colorful markers for color coding!  And somewhere amid all this madness, I also need to find the time to make the 4-hour drive to Harrisburg to see my own family for the holiday, including meeting my brother's baby boy for the very first time!

 We processed the first of our turkeys yesterday, with more to be done today & Monday.  Turkeys are not my favorite meat to process, and I'm thankful we only offer them once a year.  While the chickens start out just as cute and fluffy as the turkeys in the beginning, they quickly turn into mindless eating machines, and ones that will eat themselves into a heart attack or a broken leg if not properly cared for.  They have no personalities, unlike my other birds, and while it's never fun to kill anything, the chickens don't really bother me much anymore. I know they literally wouldn't survive into an old age. I do feel a bit bad about the turkeys- they are funny, adventurous, and beautiful.  The breeding stock is long-lived.  Unlike the hybrid meat chickens or the industrail turkeys most folks serve up, they can reproduce naturally. (The Cornish-rock chickens are industrial hybrids, and broad-breasted turkeys used by  Butterball and all the other industrial producers literally grow too much white meat to breed- every single egg must be artificially inseminated.)

But before I get too upset about these turkeys' fate, I remember that this is why we raise them.  I couldn't afford to feed the flock year-round only for their beauty.  And not only am I offering my customers healthy meat that's been raised on grass and forage, without hormones or antibiotics or chemicals to enhance growth, I'm also giving them a chance to support the comeback of a heritage breed, the Bourbon Red.  The paradox of endangered farm animal breeds is that they are in danger of extinction because they are no longer as valuable economically as some of the industrial creations.  To save these breeds, and the genetic diversity that they represent, they need to be more than just beautiful or intelligent or capable of rearing their own young...they also need to be of use financially to the farms that raise them.  Thus, we need to eat them to save them.  Hopefully, my customers will appreciate the flavor and history as a part of their holiday meals, and seek out heritage breeds again in the future.  

Although plucking turkeys by hand is a royal pain, I take pride in doing it well, knowing that I'm preparing something that will be the centerpiece of a feast devoted to friends, family, and thankfulness.  We'll be closing the farm stand next week because the cold makes it too hard to continue to offer much produce without drastically altering our farming methods, and it's nice to have our weekends back for a time.  But it's also a fitting end to our season, marking the end of another great year on the farm by offering turkeys, squash, potatoes, and other farm-fresh products to help make many Thanksgiving meals more healthy and sustainable for both the eaters and the environment.  While I don't take for granted the job of producing quality, wholesome food, it seems especially important when you know it's going to be a meal shared with many, the kind of day where food is not just eaten on the go, but savored.  A day where food shares the stage with family, friends, memories and thanks.  


We send out our warmest wishes to our friends, customers, and blog followers for a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!  


Turkeys & Other Madness

What a week! Our final week of the season has been our busiest by far. This was my first year to process turkeys for sale, and it's a daunting task. While our original plan in the spring was to raise Broad Breasted White birds and process a few Bourbon Reds as well, an error by the hatchery we were dealing with sent us Broad Breasted Bronze birds instead of the white ones we expected. While nearly identical in that both broad breasted varieties are quick growing, have lots of white meat, and are artificial breeds as they cannot reproduce without artificial insemination, the bronze birds are colored much like a wild turkey rather than having all white feathers. It does make for a more attractive pen of live birds, but it's impossible to clean them up as completely when plucking, as some of the colored pigment remains under the skin. It's much like an ink inside the feathers, which made processing a less than ideal job. I personally went over each bird three separate times, and they still didn't clean up as well as I had hoped. Sunday and Monday were completely consumed with turkeys, and yesterday I had a final cleanup before opening for a special Tuesday afternoon for turkey pickup. I simply let our customers know what they were seeing, and they understood that they were buying a farm-raised, hand-processed bird.

Nearly every customer was thrilled with their bird, and I was grateful that they were happy with the sizes available, as we don't have full control over that. We can feed them quality feed all year, but we don't have the option to choose toms or hens when we buy (or hatch) the babies, which greatly affects the final size of the bird. Too many toms and folks who are having dinner for two or four will be disappointed with a bird that's too big, and too many hens may mean you don't have enough super-sized ones to feed a dozen family members. This kind of lack of choice is the greatest issue with marketing to the general public; most folks are used to getting a bird that's exactly 17 pounds if that's what they want. This is because Butterball or other large industrial producers raise literally millions of birds and freeze them prior to Thanksgiving and other holidays. Out of a few million, there's bound to be hundreds of thousands harvested when they reach just the size you want. A small farm like ours may only be willing to hand pluck two or three dozen birds, and with a number that small, it's possible that not a single one is exactly the weight you originally sought, especially if you're picking up a fresh bird processed just a day or two before. However, a farm bird like the ones we raise will not be “enhanced” with a solution of salt water that can be as high as 20% of the weight you pay for, so going by pounds alone may not be the best way to compare our birds.

Surprisingly, the Bourbon Reds, while still having pigmented feathers, cleaned up much nicer and with less work. Dan and I are discussing the option of offering only the Bourbons in future years. While we'll likely have less birds to process next year if we don't buy poults, I can't say I love doing turkeys enough to be upset about it, and I love the idea of using only heritage birds. Although they were a month or so older than the Bronzes, the Bourbons who did not get to join next year's breeding flock dressed out lighter. However, the heritage turkeys got the same rations as the laying hens, while the meat turkeys got a special turkey grower feed that had a much higher protein content. It will be interesting to me to see how the Bourbons will perform next year on the higher, weight-gaining ration.



Our Bourbon Tom


So all the turkeys have been processed and picked up, but the hectic pace won't slow down yet. Today's agenda includes going to the processor and picking up a pig and a cow. I'll need to sort out the frozen cuts of beef for freezer beef orders that will be picked up Saturday. The pig, as usual, will be cut here, so tonight will include spicing the meat that will become sausage and wrapping roasts, chops and ribs. During a normal week, this would be done on Thursday, but Hirsch's will be closed tomorrow. Friday we'll grind and package sausage as usual, and Saturday we'll finish out the year for our farm stand. When the doors close for the year, all the unsold products will need to be sorted. Canned goods & vinegars will keep, but will need to be moved to the pantry or basement where they will be kept from freezing or direct sunlight. Storage vegetables that we'll use to feed ourselves over the winter will get the same treatment. Extra vegetables will be used to supplement the pig's rations. We'll try to condense all the unsold meats into one freezer so we'll be able to unplug the one in the stand ASAP, and that will be our meals for the months to come. Nothing goes to waste!

Oh yes, in the midst of this madness there's a holiday thrown in too! Since we've got so much going on, we won't be traveling for the big meal. I'm cooking dinner for Dan and I plus Dan's brother Matt. While I'm a master of roasting a whole chicken, this will be the first time in my life that I've single-handedly tried to manage a turkey and all the trimmings. It's also a known fact that I'm no baker, but I hope to have a delicious surprise or two for them. I'm excited, and my guys are the least picky eaters ever, so I'm very optimistic that our dinner will be a success. With sustainably raised ingredients and ones I love sharing the table, how could it not be?

From our farm to your family, we wish you safe travels and good times with family, friends, and (sustainable!) food. HAPPY THANKSGIVING!


Turkeys Behaving Badly

If you've been to the farm recently, you've probably seen our flock of (very) free-range turkeys.  Most of them are Bourbon Reds, but we also have a few black-and-white Royal Palms too.   There is even a big white Broad Breasted turkey, due to a mix-up when we got the poults. (he was supposed to be a Palm, oops!)  While we've tried to pen them up, they jump and fly to roost in the pine trees above the run each night and unfailingly jump down on the free-range side of the fence each morning.  When I walk across the yard to get the paper or the mail each morning, I have a trail of turkeys crossing the road with me.  They were content to just roam the front yard until recently.  Now, I can't go outside without being swarmed by them.  They make friendly little turkey noises and strut in front of me, hoping to impress me enough for and extra helping of food.  I can deal with that, but we're about to clip wings 'cause my birdie buddies are spending too much time near the road.  I don't want any harm to come to them, and they simply don't herd well.  Not to mention I look like a fool, waving my arms, yelling "turkeys get away from the road!"

The other place they love to be is my front porch.  They actually jump up on to the back of the porch swing.  They will raise and lower their turkey tails in order to balance as the swing rocks, which has the unique result of actually pumping the swing, just as you did with your legs when you were a kid.  It would be a neat trick I would encourage but a) everywhere is an OK place to do your business if you're a bird (ewww!) and b) company does not like to be startled by a 15 lb bird jumping up behind them when you're trying to visit. So as you can imagine, I have lots of daily interactions with the turkeys.  I'm so glad that we'll be keeping some as a breeding flock, I would truly miss them if they all were processed for Thanksgiving dinners.  Bourbons & Palms are both considered endangered breeds of livestock, brought to the brink of extinction by the dominance of the Broad Breasted White and the consolidation of turkey raising, which now occurs almost exclusively in factory-farm conditions.  

Last week, I was taking a short break from the oppressive heat of the canning kitchen, relaxing on the cooler front porch with a nice glass of ice water.  Of course, a few of the turkey came up to see what I was doing.  As I was shooing one back to the yard (he was looking at my painted toenails as if it were a bull's-eye begging to be pecked), that really hit me.  These are ENDANGERED, and I have the good fortune to care for them.  Many, many people never get closer to an endangered creature than the glass enclosure of the zoo, yet here I am doing a small part to make sure that these lovely birds don't disappear from the earth forever.  It was a pretty cool moment.   But I still made the birds get back into the yard...endangered or not, I still am not a fan of poop on my porch!

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