Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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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? 



 
 

The Great Quail Escape

We have had the pleasure of raising bobwhite quail for over a year now.  They are tiny little birds with big voices and toy-sized eggs which hatch into bumblebee-sized chicks.  They are kept in one of our portable "tractors," a fully enclosed pen which is moveable to put them on fresh grass as needed.  At least, it was fully enclosed.  As I am walking toward the house after a day at work, I hear more noise than usual coming from the forsythia bush in our yard. I'm used to a sparrow or two, but instead I find about 20 quail (which would be all of them!) in the leaves around the base.  I go inside, greet my husband, and tell him about the birds in the bush.  "that's not good..." he replies.  Upon inspection, it seemed one of the doors to their pen had come loose, and they had all escaped.  For chickens, bunnies, or the occasional other small escapee, we have a good sized net on a long pole.  While this usually works pretty well, quail can fly. Really fly, not just a few feet like a chicken or tame duck.  While we enjoy the bobwhites, we had talked about getting Cortunix quail in the spring if we want to market dressed quail or quail eggs.  So we had already decided the bobwhites were pleasant, but not economically profitable to raise.  Although not very common around our house, they are also a native species for our area.  And at best we'd only be able to net a few before the rest realized the power in thier small wings and flew out of reach.  So the decision was to let them be free, but leave the door open to the pen for them to come back if they need food or shelter.  The kitties were becoming very interested in the new yard birds, so we deliberately startled them, trying to spook them into the cornfield where they would be relativley safe. Of course, some went in to the cornfield, some across the road and into the woods, and stragglers ended up on the roof of the produce stand, the chickens' run, and my kitchen windowsill!  Until dark, we could heaar them calling to each other, regrouping their small covey.  And no quail appeared on the porch as cat food, so we are hoping they have retained enough of their wild instincts to fear predators and stay safe.  Although when I see them in the yard or the field, I'll be throwing a scoop of feed their way.  Because once they tasted freedom and space to put thier wings to the test, they don't seem too likely to take me up on my offer of the open cage door.

 

Female quail on my kitchen windowsill- she's hiding from the cats!

 
 

Not a bird, not a plane...

Recenly I've noticed a strange visitor to the flower garden in the back yard.  To me, it looks like what would happen if you crossed a ruby-throated hummingbird with a crayfish from a nearby creek, but there it was, flitting among my bee balm like a bee.  I called Dan over, as he has spent most of his life on this farm and is well aquainted with everything that lives here, but he was as surprised as I was.  After some research on the internet, I found a picture that looked like my little creature...it is called a Hummingbird Clearwing moth.  Among the food sources listed for this insect were bee balm, mint, butterfly buish, red clover and lilac, all of which all grow here on the farm, so I'm pretty sure I have a positive ID.  I know in recent years honeybees have become scarce, we have notice far more bumblebees acting as our pollinators, so my first guess was that these moths have moved in to take the bee's place since they are benificial pollinators too.    However, I was thrilled to notice that all the melons, squash and pumpkins were being pollinated by real honeybees this week.  I've seen limited amounts of the bees, mostly on the clover that grows in the yard, but not as much in the garden.  It makes me hopeful that maybe our space, free of chemicals, really is benifitting the local wildlife.  I'm not the only one noticing the moths though- a local gardner snapped a photo that ended up on the front page of our local newspaper just yesterday!

 

We are anticipating a busy weekend here at the farm stand.  Tionesta's Indian Festival ends this weekend with a big parade on Saturday.  If you're in town, we will have the stand open from 10-2 and our special this weekend is fresh sausage made right here at the farm.  We'll have our secret family recipe loose breakfast sausage, plus mild and  hot  Italian sausage links, perfect for cookouts!  We hope to see you Saturday!

 
 
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