Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Happy Mug

Ah, December. Although this means the farm stand closes for the season, it's still a hectic, busy time for us, just like everyone else. It's seemed especially busy recently, as I've been working away from the farm a bit.

Working away is an unfortunate fact of life on most family farms. I feel very blessed that I've been able to be home, full time, for about two and a half years now (wow!). And although money is always tighter both around the holidays and winter in general, I have some ideas to expand winter sales and have been working hard to set the online store up, so I wasn't actively looking to do anything else. Instead, it was more a matter of helping out a fellow local food provider, and a chance to learn a lot.

Awhile back, in one of the group, monthly emails from Happy Mug coffee, Matt Shay (owner) asked if anyone would be interested in helping him out a bit. I let him know that I'd love to learn more about his coffee, since I sell it but am not really very knowledgeable, and I was genuinely curious about the process. He replied he basically jut needed someone local to help run to the post office and such, but I told him to keep me in mind if things changed. It's been a busy December for him, and last week it worked out that he needed some help, and my schedule was clear.

A lot of what I was there to do was pretty routine stuff for any business...printing labels, packaging the product, boxing up some holiday gift assortments, and helping to send online orders out by mail. But up until this point, Happy Mug Coffee has been a one-man show. Even as I was doing things like weighing green coffee and putting it into a bag, or putting labels on bags of coffee, Matt would be close by, and he is absolutely a wealth of knowledge. He's also passionate about responsibly grown and traded coffees and freely shares his knowledge about the coffee trade in general, and the respective farms and coops behind particular varieties of coffee he sells. We also drank, not surprisingly, a LOT of different kinds of coffee together. If he tried a new variation on the roasting process of a bean, we'd try it. Or we would try a couple in succession so he could help illustrate differences about what he does. In many regards, it was like a wine tasting, where you are trying to pick out certain notes. While it was no surprise to me to learn that beans that grow in different places can taste differently, by tasting it was amazing to be able to sample for myself how the area of the world a bean is grown in profoundly affects the flavor. Coffee grown on Pacific islands, in places like New Guinea, have low acidity because of the volcanic rock in the soil. Coffee grown in Asia (places like India or Yemen) tends to be bitter and have lots of undertones of herbs and spices, possibly because they are grown in close proximity. African coffees often have notes of citrus or blueberry, but absolutely not in the way a flavored coffee does.

I also learned about the roasting process, and even roasted a batch or two myself! This is not nearly as impressive as it sounds, because Matt has a state-of-the-art roaster that has an amazing digital panel. He can set up profiles of things he roasts often, so it can be set to operate itself! The temperatures are digitally controlled, so if it is a standard coffee, you just measure out the amount you want, pick the matching profile on the screen, pour the coffee in the hopper, pull the lever to send it to the roasting chamber, and make sure the lever goes back and starts the timer. Then, it will roast and dump the finished coffee, you don't have to do anything else! The part that takes knowledge (and taste testing!) is setting up the profiles in the first place. Many roasters aren't nearly this automated. In most places, it is actually roasted by ear to an extent, because the beans make popping sounds (like Rice Krispies or popcorn) at certain, key times of the roast. He even talked me through an entire roast, just so I could see, hear and smell just what was going on. It was fascinating and I'm very thankful to have been asked.

I was amazed at how committed to freshness Matt is. If you walk upstairs to where Happy Mug is (above King's Building Supply in Tidioute), you can't just grab a bag of coffee. There are no prepackaged bags laying about, just small bins with freshly roasted coffees (I would be shocked if any contain coffees roasted more than a week prior). Coffee is roasted in small batches, often just a few pounds at a time, to order. In Matt's opinion, if your coffee is more than about three weeks old, it's time to replace it with something fresh!

I was also amazed at how much business he does selling green (unroasted) coffee beans. I know that homebrewing your own beer or wine is becoming increasingly popular, but I was simply unaware of the homeroasting trend. Apparently, there aren't a lot of places where you can order just a pound or two of green coffee beans (it is imported in sack weighing over 100 lbs), and even fewer who sell organic, fair trade beans to boot, so Happy Mug ships all over the nation. It was really neat to check out all the different bulap bags, from many countries all over the world. Sometimes it was just easiest for Matt to tell me to look for something (a purple stripe or a picture of a cow) rather than trying to decipher the foreign language on the bag.

It was really neat to be able to sample a ton of different coffees. He gets in some amazing stuff...one bag was such a special, hand-picked coffee, that the name of the owner of the estate was on the bag, and only six bags of it exist in the whole world. I wish I could tell you I loved it, but although a tomato-like taste is supposed to be the sign of a great coffee, I just couldn't really appreciate it. Not my favorite at all! I also got to sample some Blue Mountain, which is apparently the BMW of all coffee...a highly recognizable, upper echelon brand name (after the region in which it grows). And costs something ridiculous like $30 per pound. Most Blue Mountain coffee is a blend, so it is more affordable, but those blends are actually 90%  of cheaper coffee and only 10% good stuff, making it pretty impossible to pick out the flavor of the actual Blue Mountain. I was fortunate to be sipping a cup of 100% Blue Mountain, and that was a coffee I'd gladly have another cup of!

At the end of the day, I also got home to bring home a bag of something. I woke up last week with the Morning Blend, which I've been told all the cool kids are drinking because it's Happy Mug's coffee of the month. Dan's new favorite is the Extroverted Tanzania, which I enjoy as well.

It seems Happy Mug's Christmas rush is over, so I'm home baking cookies to go with all this great coffee. I'm looking forward to going back sometime in the not-too-distant future as well, as we've talked about my managing the business if Matt wants to get out of town for a few days. It's a huge responsibility to be trusted with something like that, but I'm hoping I'm up to it. And so thankful to have had the wonderful experiences of roasting and tasting and, most importantly, learning more about great local food!



You can visit Happy Mug online at www.happymugcoffee.com...but please be patient if you're ordering as the website is being completely redone and will hopefully be fully functional in the very near future.

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What Now?

It's early December, so for us that means the farm stand season has finally come to a close.  We're so thankful to everyone who stopped by the farm and supported us over the past season...without folks like you who believe in what we do, we wouldn't be able to do what we love!  

One question I get frequently as the season winds down is "...so, what are you going to do all winter while you're closed?"  It truly amazes me how many folks think I'm going to have a leisurely winter holiday in Florida or somewhere warm.  (Well, maybe the Keys...if some relatives would be kind enough to move back so we have a reason to visit!)  The truth is much less glamorous.  Dan and I spend the winter doing lots of things, but soaking up sun generally isn't one of them.  There are more animal chores this time of year than any other, as the horses, cows, sheep and goats need to be fed hay while the pastures lie dormant.  The horses spend a lot more time in the barn, so there is more manure to move.  Keeping fresh water in all the pens of birds, bunnies and other critters is extremely important, and when it's bitterly cold, something that may have to be done 3-4 times per day.  

There are, of course, lots of "inside" projects, too...this is the part of the year where we can paint a room in the house or take up a new hobby.  For all the things we do here, we're always looking towards learning more to make ourselves more self-sufficient.  This winter, Dan & I hope to get started in leather crafting a bit.  I'm also hoping to play with some of his newer woodworking tools and make some signs & other decorations around the farm.  I haven't really mentioned him in the blog, but we got a young horse, Montana, earlier this year, and I hope to work more with him now than I did in the summer.  It's also a time to review what worked over the past year, what didn't, and what we want to do in the coming year.  The seed catalogs starting arriving before Thanksgiving, and after the holidays I'll devote quite a bit of time inventorying what seed I have, what I want, and then trimming that down to what we can afford, both in terms of money and garden & greenhouse space.

It's also a time to do more of the hobbies we already have...Dan looks forward to more blacksmithing, while I'm excited to have more time to devote to stained glass and jewelry.  The farm stand is closed for the year (tomorrow will actually be my first Saturday off since May 19, and I have to say that's pretty exciting!) but I am trying to make more of a go of our online store.  This week it's been a major project to upload lots of new items to the store.  I have a selection of some of the more popular canned items, plus a couple gift baskets, and now I've got a nice selection of listings of my handmade jewelry, and I've even got a few stained glass items up!  All handmade by me here at the farm, of course.   

I am extremely fortunate to be able to pick and choose what I do each day (at least after the animals are taken care of!) and this time of year means far more leeway in what HAS to be done on a given day vs. what I FEEL like doing.  It's a luxury that makes all the hard work of being self-employed worth it.   On this gloomy, damp day I'm making room in the freezer by making spaghetti sauce from the tomatoes I ran through the food mill & froze, when I had more canning to do than time to do it, earlier in the garden season.  I don't mind having the stove on for hours today, and it's pretty amazing to me that the only store-bought ingredients going into the pot today are salt, sugar, and vinegar. (Although I make vinegar, too, it's not tested for acidity and therefore not safe for canning.)  Everything is boiling now, and in the next few hours when I just need to stir every so often, I'm working on more jewelry plus a new decorative hop vine wreath idea I have...if I get ambitious, I'll list some more items online.  It's great fun to be making things like jewelry and stained glass, and I'm really hoping to have more of a supplemental income this winter from it as well.  The hardest part so far seems to be resisting the urge to keep most of it for myself!

 If you're shopping online this year, we'd love it if you took a look around our virtual store.  I ship nationwide! Visit our online store at: www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa/.  We wish you happy holidays and stress-free shopping!

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Being a Teamster

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
 

Seedling Trauma and Stunt Pigs

Well, last Friday we planted a few seedlings in the garden.  Some of the heritage zucchini, squahes and melons were getting a bit crowded on the kitchen window sill.  We put down black fabric to cut down on weeding and put the plants in.  A gentle rain fell all night and the temperature stayed in the mid 60's.  Sounds like a great start...until the wind started on Saturday.  The black cloth ended up wrapped around the moveable rabbit pen at the edge of the garden.  I'm not sure how or if we'll get it back where it should be.  Plus last night was the 3rd night in a row we had to cover everything with floating row cover because of frost.  Happily, more than half of the seedlings appear to have survived their traumatic transplanting!! My flower bed and herbs seem to have weathered through well. Some of the potatoes got nipped a bit by the frost, but they'll be ok, and the rhubarb seems to be indestructible at this point.  It's beautiful but I just don't have enough time right now to be making anything with it.

Alicia, our only ewe born last year, had a little ram lamb on Monday.  She's a dedicated mother and he seems to be doing just fine. She was born last year the day after Mother's Day, and had her own baby the day after Mother's Day this year! It's been cold the past few nights, so I put a little fleece blanket on him.  I think it makes me feel better than the baby, but it surely isn't causing any harm.  I started making the "lammy jammies" this February when most of the lambs were born out of scraps of fleece material I found on discount at Wal-Mart along with a few clearance-priced buttons.  It sure beat the prices in the livestock supply catalogs, and they were custom fit.

We'll be weaning the piglets this weekend.  The sows are going a bit stir-crazy in thier pens. They both escaped out into the boar's run this weekend.  I would have loved to have seen the 450-lb sow climb over the 3 1/2 foot stall divider. Twice. Luckily, no pigs were hurt during this stunt.  The babies are also getting very good at pushing the hog house door open and escaping into the main barnyard and pasture if the door isn't shut VERY tightly.  A cinder block propped up on the outside works too.

  Dan is done with the plowing for the year.  There is still much fieldwork to be done before all the field corn is in, but everything is moving right along.  Tom, my father-in-law, is coming to help us out again this weekend so I'm hoping for clear skies! I am also hoping to work my horse a bit behind the harrow this weekend.  Dan has worked her a bit, but she's acting a bit barn sour and I think he's a little too easy on her when she starts to throw a fit.  But I am excited to get her used to her new harness.  We were at an auction and found a gorgeous show pony harness with both a collar and the ability to hook up to shafts for a buggy or sleigh for a price we could afford. When it was brought out, I was in love with it and was sure it would go too high, but it must have been meant to be!  It is beautiful and covered in metal dots which will be shiny once I find time to clean and oil it. When we tried it on Sara in the barn, it fit like it was custom made.  I only had to adjust one buckle on the whole thing! The leather is in fantastic shape, it's just got a good layer of dust accumulated on it.  It even came with an ornate piece of leather that fits over the hames and collar just for decoration.  I told her she'll look fancier than a Budwieser Clydesdale!  The only thing I was nervous about is that the bridle has blinders on it, which Sara has never worn.  However, Dan used the new bridle with the old harness last week and said she acted like she'd worn them all her life.  Now if I can just get her used to the straps around her hind end without a royal kicking fit...

 
 

Flowers & Fieldwork

Well my little Morgan, Sara, got her first taste of being a "work pony" this week.  Dan had her pulling a harrow through the garden and she did really well.  She's going to need some time getting used to the traces rubbing a bit when she turns, but overall it's going well.  I'm like a proud mama, she's been my baby for 17 years now.  I just think it's amazing that she's done so many different things in her life and now is working towards being a great field work horse.  Not bad for a little pony no one wanted whom I got through the Equine Rescue League.  It just shows the old Morgan bloodlines really are an all-purpose breed. 

 Everything is starting to turn green!  I swear when I looked at my flower bed on Sunday, there were just small buds and plants coming up, but last night my bleeding heart flower had not one but two blooms on it!  The rhubarb is really growing fast, if anyone is interested I have lots for sale!

We transplanted seedlings this weekend and I am always amazed at how fast they grow.  Everything we got from Seed Savers Exchange sprouted exceptionally well and I can't wait to taste the vegetables!  Our other seed orders are all in now, with the exception of some shallots I was hoping to plant but were sold out.  We're going to start the rest of the indoor seedlings this weekend and hopefully plant the rest of the potatoes.  We should have lots, we're planting 50# of Yukon Golds as well as reds and whites and I'm trying a heritage all-blue variety.

 
 
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