Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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A Day in the Life of a Farmer

What is it like to be a farmer? Here's an example of a typical spring day. This is an actual journal of a real day, selected at random, in this case Monday, April 30, 2012.

Get up. As Dan checks on the large animals, I get up and check the incubator. Pull 13 chicks & 2 turkeys out and take them to the brooder pen, where food & water await under the heat lamp. When I open the pen, I sadly note a dead turkey poult- it looks like it drowned, as its head is still in the waterer. I never have understood how something 6” tall can drown in 1/2” of water, but it seems turkeys manage. The heritage breeds, like our Bourbons, are much smarter than the broad-breasted ones, but still, you lose one every once in awhile. Nature is not kind to the weak or dumb. Then I do the rest of my AM chores- making sure the rabbits, chicks, chickens & ducklings have food and water. Dan tells me to keep an eye on Finni, our Dexter cow- we let her and the new calf out of the barn yesterday, and although everything seems to have gone well so far, it looks like the calf got under the fence into another part of the pasture. If he can't find his way back, I'll have to take care of it.

Household stuff- take mail out to the box, grab newspaper, check email. While I'm online, I place a bulk order for pectin for my jelly & jam making. This should save money and keep my supply in stock for most, if not all, of the farm stand season, so I'm excited to have found a family-owned bulk supplier of the stuff. Head outside to get the load of jeans out of the washer & hang them up on the line outside (I don't have a dryer). As I'm hanging jeans, I'm relieved to see that the calf and Finni are together on the same side of the fence. He must have scooted back through whatever hole he went through in the first place. Before I take the hose away from the washer and take it back to the greenhouse, I decide to do another load, so I put in some sheets and towels. While that is going, I head downtown (to Tionesta, ~5 miles each way) to grab a few supplies. I get brown sugar and raisins at the grocery store, and more peat pots for the greenhouse at the hardware. While there, I talk to one of the owners- she asks what we've got growing in the greenhouse these days, comments about the snow last week pulling the trellis in the garden down, and asks what it's for- beans? No, peas, I reply, too early for beans yet, although we're both looking forward to the warmer weather coming this week. It's real small-town America- doing business and conversation with your neighbors, literally.

I get home and unload the car, then the washer. After the sheets are hung, I drag the hose up to the greenhouse and water any of the flats that look a bit dry. A few I hold off on- if I repot them this afternoon, it actually helps if they are a bit dry. The rhubarb is growing like crazy, and the groceries I picked up are for my Sweet & Tangy Rhubarb-B-Q sauce, so I pick enough to make up a batch. The stems pull out easily, and I have kitchen shears with me to cut off the leaves before I bring it inside- they are actually poisonous! I put on an apron and consult the recipe, then chop up 16 cups worth of rhubarb. Almost everything I do in the kitchen is by hand or with hand tools, and this is no exception. It's just me, the rhubarb, a cutting board, and a sharp knife. After the rhubarb, I chop an onion and then begin mixing the ingredients in the pot to begin cooking down.

Make some more coffee- that reminds me, I've got to talk to Dan about putting in a coffee order...we've got a new business partner, Happy Mug Coffee in Tidioute, and we need to get our order in so the coffee can be roasted, packaged & picked up before the opening day at the stand, which is less than a month away now! Stir the sauce, and then find a catalog for Welp's hatchery. I need to call and order the next batch of broiler meat chicks. All goes well, and I should have poultry in the mail next week. The canner begins to boil, so I add the pint jars I'll be using to sterilize them. Stir the sauce again so it doesn't scorch, them go out to get the mail. As I walk to the mailbox, I notice a turkey walking around the barnyard. The turkey hens have a funny walk just after laying an egg, and I see this, so I make a mental note to check the turkey nest in the bottom of the barn later, and if it is empty, to look around for a new one. As I get the mail, I see a white shape in the woods and hear a familiar yowling. It's Whitey the barn cat, whom I haven't seen for almost a week. Although my least favorite of the kitties (because of the constant yowling), I'm glad to see him. Cats are a favorite food of coyotes, and we've had plenty of kitties disappear without a trace, which always makes me sad. But, on the other hand, that means I can let the kittens hang around here. I have 3 kittens right now, I hear them on and off throughout the day as Little Girl thought that the best place to give birth would be in a cubbyhole under the clean towels in my bathroom. They're about 10 days old now, so before too long I'll relocate them somewhere more suitable once they get mobile. Mostly junk mail, but excited to see my renewal of National Geographic has come, and bundled with the newest issue is the back one (last month's) I missed! I had no idea they would send it when I renewed, but thank you, Amazon, I guess. This makes me excited, as we save them and keep them in our library upstairs (we have hundreds, literally) and now I won't have a missing one.

Stir the rhubarb again and clean up the kitchen, doing dishes. (nope, don't have a dishwasher either. On days when I'm canning a lot, I may do 4-5 sinkfuls by hand.) Eventually, the sauce is thick enough to be ladled into the hot jars and put in the canner for processing. Now I can relax a tad and have lunch. As I'm heating up some leftovers, I see the calf by himself, so I walk out into the pasture to see where his mother is. Turns out, she was just hidden from my sight by some trees, and looks at me as if to say “What are you worrying for? I have this under control!” But as I'm walking back, I feel a few sprinkles, so I take the laundry in. Luckily, most is dry already. I decide to eat first, then fold & put away. I eat quickly (I don't even take enough time to finish reading the paper), then fold the laundry. Next is taking the hot jars out of the canner to cool and seal. As I'm doing the second round of dishes, Dan stops in; he'd come to get a chainsaw & trailer for the next job of the day and dropped off the zip ties I'd asked him for.

After he leaves, I head to the barn, zip ties in hand. The net roof of the peafowl pen is sagging, and it is catching the males' tails as they show off. By bunching up the net at the edges, I can tighten it with the zip ties. I've been meaning to get to this forever, so I figured now was as good a time as any. The peafowl are the wildest of the creatures we raise- they go out of the barn if I come into their pen to feed, unlike everything else around here which pretty much runs up to anyone holding a feed scoop. But they are magnificently beautiful birds. I really don't spend as much time just looking at them, admiring them, as I maybe should. It's easy to take things for granted when you see them every day, even things of great beauty. I really try not to do that. After I finish up with the net, I see the water pan is empty, so I grab a bucket and head to the hydrant.

Another task down, and I need to decide whether to clean the chicken coop or transplant seedlings in the greenhouse. I love greenhouse work, but cleaning bird pens is pretty much my absolute least favorite farm activity. I decided to clean the coop, mainly so I could not dread it tomorrow. Manure happens on a farm. I'll clean stalls all day without complaint. Manure powers our farm- it's how the pastures stay so green, and how we can grow amazing amounts of garden produce without chemical fertilizers. I have a deep appreciation for the stuff and its place in the circle of life. It's just poultry manure I find so unpleasant. I don't think that's unreasonable though, as it is either thick, heavy, and with an overpowering, gagging reek of ammonia, or dry and like a fine powder that becomes airborne when shoveled, coating your hair, skin, the inside of your nose. When I clean the pens, it's about a 50/50 mix of both types. I'd cleaned the peafowl & turkey pens yesterday, so if I just suck it up I'll be all done, I tell myself. The other downside to cleaning these pens is that it's pretty much impossible to get the horse-drawn manure spreader close enough. The best way, unfortunately, is for me to shovel it into a plastic bushel basket with handles, then carry the basket to the spreader and dump it in. Between the two pens yesterday, I carried 15 basketfuls, each weighing about 50 lbs, maybe more. Today's job will be a little bit bigger yet.

I dig in and got to work. By basket #12 I need a short rest and something to drink, so I go up to the house. The calf is up and about, but again, Finni is just out of sight. I begin to suspect the calf is stuck, sort of- he's in a small patch of pasture bordered by fence on one side & the creek on the other. It's where he's been all day. The creek there is small- just about 3” deep by 6” wide in most spots right now. But, I guess, scary enough when you're only 8 days old. I walk out with the idea to either shoo him or pick him up and set him down on the other side. He first runs up to me, then turns and starts running up the fence line toward mama. If he stops at the creek, I figure I'll just scoop him up (well, as much as you can scoop up anything weighing 80 lbs) and set him on the other side. Finni looks up and sees the scene playing out. Her maternal instinct must have kicked in, as she starts running in our direction. This is not funny or cute; this is about 1,000 lbs of mama cow, complete with a set of horns which are plenty big and pointy enough to impale a human. I wasn't close enough to see the look in her eye, but I wasn't taking any chance that she just wanted a cookie. I run for the patch of scrubby trees, the closest thing I could get to. She stops about 20 yards away from me, hollers at her kid, eyes me, and moseys back. Although she didn't come any further than the calf, I figured the only critter in potential danger was me, so I leave the calf to figure out the solution on his own and go back to the coop, where it is still stinky, but safe. Basket #19 is the last, whoo hoo! I walk down to the barn and get some pelletized lime to sprinkle on the floorboards, which helps to absorb the ammonia smell. I go upstairs to the hay mow to fill my basket one last time, this time with sweet, clean hay for bedding. I spy something white streak out of the barn as I startle it by opening the door. It's either Whitey again, or else Itty Bit, my prized mouser. I return to the coop and spread the lime & bedding, then grab the waterer. While the feed can wait another hour or two until I do PM chores, it's never good to leave the waterer empty. I put the waterer back, full, and open the coop doors. The chickens pop in from their outdoor runs, both for a drink and for the fun of scratching around in the new bedding.

By now, it's 3 PM. I'm sweaty and feel rather disgusting. All I want is a shower, but I look up at the thermometer for the greenhouse and see that it is 105 degrees, meaning I should really go open the other door for more ventilation. That done, it's shower time! Yay! Once I get out, I spy the lone cupcake left on the kitchen table from last week (I made some for a friend's birthday). I figure 19 bushels of manure x 50 lbs or more each = about half a ton of manure moved by hand today. That's certainly enough calories burned to earn a cupcake!

I hear Dan & Matt pull in; their workday is over. Dan is super excited because he's got a log splitting machine in tow behind the van. They got it at work, and it looks to be old and homemade.  It makes the models for sale in front of places like Tractor Supply look small in comparison.  The engine has a crank start, and looks a lot like the Wisconsin engine Dan rebuilt a few winters back. We could sure use a splitter since we heat the farmhouse with wood, and although the engine didn't fire right away, it seems as though it's moved to the top of Dan's project list.

I go inside and return a call to the man who runs Whispering Brook Cheese Haus in Chambersburg. We've been playing phone tag for a few days, so it's good to hear him answer. I finalize our order for raw milk cheese so we'll have it on hand opening day for the stand. We'll go pick it up in about 2 weeks, which works well...if we plan it right, we'll be able to take both our moms out for a meal for Mother's Day. Dan and I also discuss what we think will work for our new partnership with a local coffee roaster, Happy Mug Coffee of Tidioute. Dan and I are on the same page about what we think our first order should look like, but we both have questions, so I'll email the coffee guy tonight or tomorrow and go from there.

PM chore time comes next. Check the incubator again, a few more chicks & another poult. Time to carry feed for the rabbits and chickens, each in a 50 lb bag that must be moved from the stand. My arms scream in protest at the thought, but Dan takes pity on me and carries them for me tonight. Rabbits fed & watered, ditto for the quail, ducks, chickens, peafowl and turkeys. As I feed the rabbits, I notice Finni & the calf are with the rest of the cows, by the pond. He's made the creek crossing, so that's one less thing to worry about. Eggs are collected now too. I don't have as many chicken eggs as normal, but that is OK. I figured shutting them out of the coop for a couple hours this afternoon would have that effect. Next I go across the street, to the woods to check turkey nests. My heart sinks as I see the feathers. We've already lost two hens to nighttime predators this year. I try to be diligent about counting heads in the evenings, and this one wasn't sitting on the nest the last I checked yesterday, but there weren't tail feathers everywhere the last time, either. Back I go, to see if by some chance she escaped. I'm only counting 5 hens...one is missing. But the hen perched on the fence by the gate has about 5 tail feathers left. Bingo! We have a broody hen...and she's alive. I walk up and grab her by the ankle. I carry her off to the backyard and put her in a chicken tractor, one we usually use for meat birds. It was empty, so now it will be a sort of turkey jail. I'll keep her there a few days to a week, until she stops sitting across the road. I feed her and walk away. She clucks unhappily, but she's alive. As I walk away, I see another turkey hen, returning from a nest just beyond the blacksmith shop, so all turkeys are now present & accounted for.

Next, dinner time for us. I'm making a favorite recipe of Dan's, pork chops with caramelized onions. I sear the chops (home-raised, of course) in a cast-iron skillet, and caramelize an onion in another. Then I put the chops in an ovenproof dish and top with a bit of butter, some sage (homegrown) and the onion, then put in the oven for about 45 minutes. Then I slice a few potatoes into wedges and toss with butter, Parmesan cheese and some seasonings. I place those on a baking sheet, and into the oven they go as well. As it cooks, I do dishes. Again.

After we eat dinner together, more business. It's time to sit down with the mushroom spawn catalog and figure out an order. We're very interested in adding edible mushrooms, like shiitake and oyster, to our market lineup. This will be a new process, but it seems low-maintenance, with the possibility of fruitings over several years after the initial investment. Dan has some fresh logs that will be suitable, so we're eager to get this project underway. We talk about what to feature for the May newsletter, which I need to finish and send out in the next day or so. I mention ordering strawberry plants as well, and Dan shows me a part he took off the log splitter motor which will need taken out for repairs tomorrow. By now, it's about 9 PM. Time for bed.

While this day had more completed projects than most, it's really not unusual for us to do so much in a day. Doing as many different things as we do, you have to work hard, but also smart, or you'll never get it all done. And it's always necessary to pay attention to the critters, the plants, and what is going on. It becomes second nature to be alert, as it is often far easier to prevent a problem than to fix it, whether it is an invasion of cucumber beetles in the garden or an issue with the animals. In plenty of cases, like the broody turkey, you can't fix it after the fact. One she becomes something's dinner, there is no undoing. And yes, I do cook from scratch pretty much every night. While it is so easy to say, “I don't have time,” I'm pretty sure I'm just as busy as you. In fact, I know I'm busier than when I worked away from the farm. If I can do it, you can too, it just comes down to a matter of importance- is it more important to be quick & easy, or healthy and sustainable? It's a question everyone has to answer for themselves. Anyways, I hoped you enjoyed a detailed look into what really goes into being a farmer.  It's so much more than just being outstanding in your field.

 
 

All Natural

Another busy week here on the farm!  Last week was full of excitement. As I began the early Saturday garden rounds, I heard a soft noise coming from the turkey nest by the old greenhouse.  I knew that the Royal Palm hen had been sitting on a few eggs, but since she was nestled on top of some of the wire onion drying racks and not a hard surface, I wasn't holding out much hope that she'd actually hatch anything.  However, this was the last nest standing, because we've had some trouble with raccoons and such lately, having lost a couple of hens and the eggs in the turkey nests were raided as well.  But as I was getting ready to cut lettuce for sale at the stand, I saw that there was a fuzzy poult with the Palm hen.  She ended up hatching 2 of the 3 eggs she was sitting on! While turkeys would normally sit on a larger clutch than that, because of the location, I took most of the eggs and put them in the incubator.  

I was somewhat conflicted this spring, because I wanted to have lots of turkey poults, both to sell and to raise for our own Thanksgiving offerings, but I also wanted to see if the hens have enough mothering instinct to actually rear their own young. With poultry, eggs are taken away to incubators, and breeding stock is selected for characteristics such as egg production, weight gain, feather coloration, etc.  Mothering instinct is actually selected against in many cases, because if the hen defends her nest from humans, then it's harder to collect the eggs to sell for consumption.  Most chickens lay an egg, but never think to do anything further than that.  This is not as true with the heritage breeds, as we have seen Phoenix and Cochin hens successfully hatch chicks, which is just the first step.  We had a Pekin duck hatch out a few ducklings this spring too.  While that was exciting, she just kept on at her normal pace, wandering all around the farm with the drakes, and in a few days the ducklings were gone.  She just didn't call to them and keep them close and warm, and when left to sort of fend for themselves it was not a success.  But our turkey is doing very well.  It's been 10 days now, and both poults are growing and thriving.  She stays mostly in the backyard, away from the other birds, and calls to the little ones to keep them close as they forage around.  At night or during a rain shower, she hunkers down and collects them between her wing and body, keeping them warm and dry.  To me, it's amazing to watch.  She was just a poult herself last spring, one raised in a brooder pen with a heat lamp instead of a mother.  She has never seen this modeled by other birds, yet she knows.

 

Just a day after Father's Day, Pixie's father returned to the farm as well.  The Muirs of Muirstead farm were willing to lend us one of their bulls, Finnbar, again this year.  This is another instance where we do things the all natural way.  Many farms that breed cattle never have a bull set foot on the premises, instead relying on Artificial Insemination to produce calves.  The advantages to using AI are that you don't have to deal with a bull, and they can be very dangerous to work around.  You can also breed your cow to the best bull, basing your decision on any quality you are looking for- milk production, breed show champion, weigh gain for beef, etc.  And doing it this way means one bull can produce many, many more calves than he would be able to otherwise.  As long as the semen is properly stored, it can last for years so you can even breed to a bull that's dead!  The downside to this is that everyone wants to breed to the best, and by doing so the breed as a whole can tend to become very inbred.  The Holstein cow is the worst example of this, as 2 bulls born in the 1960's actually make up 30% of the genetics found in the breed today.  When that happens, it means that if that bloodline is particularly sensitive to a new parasite or disease, it could go a long way towards wiping out the breed.  Inbreeding can also have a lot of other nasty side effects, like genetic deformities, low reproductive rates and shorter lifespans.  

Beef cattle to some extent rely less on AI.  Heritage breeds are also more likely to use the tried and true method of turning the bull out to pasture with the cows and letting nature take its course.   We were thrilled to have Finnbar come again, not only is Pixie a beautiful baby, but he was a pleasure to have around.  The biggest concern last year was that a bull would be nasty, and that we would have to be watching over our shoulder as we went about our routines in the barnyard.  This was not the case at all!  Finnbar isn't aggressive, and while I always keep my eye on the livestock, I don't feel the need to take any more precautions around him than I do the other males, like Rambo the sheep.  And it seems Finnbar had a good time here last year as well.  As the trailer was backing up, he had his head up and ears forward in anticipation of getting out.  When the door was opened, he calmly stepped off and began heading out to the herd.  Our Finni was just coming out of heat, so he was a bit more interested in her, but it just amazed me how calm everyone was- no chasing or headbutting, just some sniffing and then back to grazing.  He settled in almost instantly.  So he will be with us for a couple of summer months before returning to his farm, and we will anxiously await more lovely Dexter babies in the spring!

 

 What a good looking bull!

 
 

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!

 
 

Poults & Plastic

April sure has been a roller coaster, weather-wise, so far!  We're not even 2 weeks into the month and we've had everything from snow to thunderstorms to 80+ degree temps!  We're hoping things will even out and dry up a bit soon so we can get serious about preparing our fields for planting.  Getting the horses harnessed up and making the first few rounds with the plow says spring more than anything else here!

The started sprouts have been getting some good greenhouse time, and I see new growth daily.  I'm getting ready to start some more things that we'll want to plant as seedlings, but in the garden rather than the greenhouse.  This will include some of our open-pollinated and heirloom tomatoes and peppers as well as things like zucchini and squash that just don't need greenhouse space, but that we want to get a jump on in preparation for our sales season.  We are also hoping, if the weather cooperates, to get in some serious work on the greenhouses this weekend.  We plan on putting up plastic on one of the metal frames for our tomatoes, cukes & peppers.  We may also tear down one of the frames that is not in good shape.  There is also some repair work to be done on the small one I'm currently using for seedlings.  The back end of that greenhouse was made of untreated wood and is in rough shape.  The recent winds went a long way towards removing the plastic on that part, so we'll work on that and tearing down the lumber supports.  We've tossed out ideas for what we'll do with that space next- it could be anything from an asparagus bed to a new pavilion for poultry processing. 

But the most exciting event of the recent past was definitely on Sunday.   We have been hatching chicks for the past few years, and have over a thousand healthy chicks under our belt, so while it is exciting and fun, it's also not groundbreaking when the first fuzzy chicks of the season hatch.  Our incubator has also brought other birds to life, in the past few years we've had good luck with ducklings, quail and even peachicks.  We've also tried goslings, but they seem to require such high humidity that they don't hatch well, especially if we need to balance it with the needs of the chicken eggs in the incubator at the same time.  So we just let the geese do their thing, it works much better.  Our hope this year was that the Bourbon Red turkeys we bought last year would lay eggs and we would, for the first time ever, be able to hatch our own poults.  We've found eggs everywhere, it seems.  The hens have rejected my cardboard nest box in the safety of the turkey coop.  Instead, I've collected eggs from the yard, the woodshed, the bad part of the greenhouse, my front porch furniture, and the most popular spot, the neighbor's brush pile across the road.

 Since this is their first year to breed, so many things could go wrong.  Are they fertile?  Will the first eggs be viable? (often the first eggs laid by a chicken don't have as good of a hatching rate as ones from a slightly more mature hen.)  Did I find the hiding spot before the eggs got too cold?  Will we have any luck at all???  We set our eggs weekly, so that they don't get too old & lose viability.  The first time I set turkey eggs, I had a total of seven.  They take 28 days to mature (chickens take 21) so this weekend was the time to find out what, if anything, was going on inside them!  I had hoped that at least a few of the first eggs would hatch.  I was optimistic we wouldn't fail totally, but  was prepared to call even two poults a success.  I pulled out the hatching tray Sunday morning after hearing telltale peeping.  We had chickens in there too, so I saw a rainbow of adorable fuzzies...Barred Rocks, Cochins, Phoenix chicks...and two little turkeys! SUCCESS!  I removed all the dry birds to the brooder pen.  Then I snuck a look and noted that other eggs were also pipped (showing the first cracks as the bird works its way out).  More chickens and also more turkey eggs.  In the end, we had what we considered a monumentally successful hatch with 6 of 7 eggs producing a healthy baby turkey!

 We are looking forward to more hatching this weekend, including a bunch of Mille Fleur bantams from purchased eggs, more of our own variety of chicks, lots more turkeys and possibly a few ducklings as well.  I'm confident we'll have success, but as the saying goes, you really can't count your chicks (or poults) before they hatch...

 
 

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! 

 
 

The End of Meat Season

The last major farm task for the year is over now.  This weekend we filled our freezer pork orders, and everything is cut, wrapped and frozen,  We're just waiting on the hams & bacons now, as the smoking process takes about a week longer.  Between the whole and half hogs ordered this time, we had 4 total hogs to do over the weekend.  Each time in the past, Dan's father has come up to lend a hand and offer his expertise when we have more than one to do.  However, he lives about 4 hours away and the forecast was for a couple inches of ice topped with a foot or so of snow.   In the interest of safety, we told him to come visit another time and tackled the big project ourselves.  In the past this would have completely overwhelmed me, but since Dan and I have done so many over the course of the season for the stand (although one at a time!)  we pretty much have it down to a two person routine; he cuts and I wrap and label.  I can even tell by looking now the different roasts we offer (shoulder, loin end & Boston butt) whereas a few years ago, I couldn't have told you the different names, much less what they looked like or how to cook them!

It is good to be done with the butchering until next May.   I don't cry over each pig or chicken, as I know why we raise them and know we give them the best life possible.  I do get a little more choked up over my turkeys and cows, as I interact with them for a longer period of time, and to some extent you do get attached.  The cows are here for at least a year usually and are the only meat animals I name. But again, I know why they are here.  Even though we send the pigs to a USDA-inspected facility for slaughter, we still cut them up and make our secret recipe sausages here at the farm.  Pork and poultry are lots of work!  It's a big job to coordinate bulk meat orders and have a variety of cuts available each week at the stand, so it's nice to get a break form that for a bit. I also think that taking a break is good mentally...it keeps you from taking an animal's life too lightly.  I think the world would be a more humane place, and that consumers would be much less tolerant of factory farming, if everyone who eats meat out there had to raise an animal once in their life and then eat it.  Five years ago, I wouldn't even have considered myself capable of such a thing either, but I see now how pretending that meat just magically appears on a Styrofoam tray in the grocery store meat cooler is not good.    It's not good for the animals, who suffer in horribly crowded conditions, some never seeing the light of day, being force fed antibiotics and chemicals to get them big and tender quickly without regard to the animals' comfort or health. It's not good for us, because we have no idea where our food comes from or who is producing it, and the end result of that is bad food.  We've seen it time and again with the recalls of meat, eggs, and so many other products.  Recalls prompted by people getting sick and even dying just because of what they ate.  I'm proud to be a part of the movement to change that; I won't sell anything I don't feed my own family, and raising healthy animals is good for them and good for us too.

On a completely different (and lighter!) note: I believe I invented a completely new sentence in the English language yesterday.   Finally, I've had time to put up my tree and do some holiday decorating.  Despite the fact that it was about 15 (without considering the wind chill) I was out on the porch hanging up my lights and putting some tinsel around the porch columns.  Some of the animals were still happily free ranging despite the weather, and about half of my Bourbon Red turkeys came over to see what in the world I was doing.  My tinsel is iridescent white with little foil snowmen on it, and as I was finishing winding it around the column, I laughed when I heard myself say:

"Shoo, turkeys! It's tinsel, not turkey food!"

 

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Turkey Miracle

A few days ago, we moved our heritage turkey poults to an outdoor pen.  This has an open bottom for access to fresh grass and a small ramp leading to an enclosed, raised floor where it is always sheltered and dry.  We’d been carefully watching our little birds for the first few days, making sure that they came inside towards dusk and if it looked like rain. 

Baby turkeys, at least the commercial broad breasted whites, are noted for their stupidity; it is not uncommon for them to drown in less than an inch of water or starve to death even when the feeders are full!  The solution is to put a few healthy chicken chicks in with them until they get the hang of the basics.  Although they did start out with chicks for companions, our heritage poults seemed pretty bright, and not only figured out food and water quickly, but were using the ramp in no time once moved out by themselves.  After checking on them often the first two days, they seemed perfectly capable and we let our guard down a bit.  We had fairly severe thunderstorms yesterday, and when the rain finally quit and I began evening chores, I saw what looked like multiple wet, dead turkeys piled in the lowest corner of the outdoor run.  Devastated, I called across the field to Dan that half our poults were dead before rushing off to turn on the heat lamp in the brooder to dry the survivors.  I was thankful that I had cleaned out the brooder and only needed to plug in the heat lamp and add some shavings to create a warm, dry environment.  Grabbing a shoebox, I rushed back outside.  Some of the poor little things were drenched but standing upright, obviously chilled.  I scooped them up and put them in the box.  One was laying on its back, legs twitching as if in the final stages of death.  It wasn’t dead yet, so I figured there was no harm in picking him up, too.  (I’m a softie, and have a hard time admitting when a baby is a lost cause!)  The ones in the soggy pile of dead-looking birds were in terrible shape, but none had actually expired, so they went in the box too.  The rest ran from me back upstairs, so I let them go as they seemed ok.  (My guess is that they were smart enough to get in out of the rain in the first place.) 

Under the heat lamp, it looked like life was quickly returning to about half of the eight birds I rescued.  The other four were at least laying on their bellies instead of their backs, heads upright, so it was an improvement, but they were wet and cold to the touch.  Like any reasonable person, I decided I needed to do more to get them warm and dry ASAP.  I decided to grab the soggiest, sickest looking one and take it inside the house to try and blow-dry it. When Dan came in the house, I was in the bathroom, hair dryer running on warm, turkey poult on the bathroom counter.  Actually, it worked so well, I was drying the second turkey by the time Dan was done feeding the pigs.  I love that he doesn’t question my slightly eccentric ideas; he just poked his head into the bathroom to ask how the “turkey makeover” was going.  The little things would stretch out their wings in the warm breeze, and were dry and nearly fluffy in just a few minutes.  I blow-dried three in all, by then the rest were upright in the 100-degree brooder.  They were quickly dry and active, so I unplugged the heat lamp and placed fresh food and water in the pen.  It seemed to be a miraculous comeback, but I hesitated to get my hopes up too high.  The common wisdom with raising turkeys is that a “chilled poult is a dead poult” so I was still expecting losses. We also locked the rest of the turkeys in the dry upstairs portion of the outdoor pen, hoping they’ll remember that as their home and run to it the next time it pours!   

This morning came and, despite my dire initial assessment, we did not lose a single baby.  Not one.  I am just amazed that you would never know the birds were on death’s door 12 hours before.  Had I been 5 minutes later in finding them, I don’t think I’d be able to say the same, so I think I’ll be extra watchful when we let them back outside!

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Turkey Poults & Vinegar Bottles

I'll be watching the mail carefully, as we've got some exciting packages scheduled to arrive this week!

If all goes according to plan, I'll have my new vinegar bottles and herb jars delivered tomorrow.  I've got a new batch of Blueberry-Basil Vinegar to package, but I've been waiting on our new containers.  I think these salad dressing-style bottles will be easier to use than small canning jars.  I'm also very excited to finally package some of the champagne vinegar.  The mother of vinegar has been working for the past few months, and it's finally ready!  I'm excited to try it in some of my favorite recipes. If you've enjoyed any of our flavored vinegars before (we also sell Dried Herb and Mulled Blackberry) be sure to look for them in the new containers as well.  Once the herb garden gets going, I hope to have some new varieties this year too!

The oregano is growing rapidly, thanks to the warm temperatures and the gentle rain we got this weekend, and I'll be putting some in the dehydrator this week.  I'm hoping to expand our line of dried herbs from the organic coriander and dried basil we offered last year, and oregano seems like a great place to start.

I'm really excited about Friday though, because that's when our turkey poults will be arriving!  Dan and I have talked for the past year or two about getting a starter flock of heirloom turkeys.   While we have raised the regular broad-breasted white before, and will have some again this year,  they are a completely artificial breed.  To satisfy the American taste for white meat, the breasts on these birds grow so large, they cannot even mate naturally.  All eggs are fertilized via artificial insemination.  While I like to think I know my birds quite well, that's more up close and personal than I'm willing to get with a turkey!  Happily, there are a variety of heirloom breeds of turkeys.  While not as fast growing or large breasted, they have the ability to breed naturally, they have the "motherly instinct" to sit on a nest until the eggs hatch, do well in free range & pasture based systems like ours, and are an intelligent, beautiful bird.  The hardest part was deciding which breed to raise.  I quickly decided on the Bourbon Red.  A native of the Kentucky area, this breed is a beautiful reddish brown with edges of white on its wings and tail.  Dan, however knew from the beginning that he wanted the Royal Palm, which has a stunning black and white pattern.  What to do?  Since we just couldn't agree, we decided to order some of both.    Our broiler chicks are now three weeks old and have gone to an outdoor pen, so the indoor one will be cleaned and ready for our little turkeys when we get the phone call form the post office telling us to come pick them up!

 
 
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