Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
Hello LocalHarvest readers!
I know it's been quite awhile since you've heard from me. The truth is, after 200+ entries on this blog, I started to feel a bit burned out. I felt I was repeating myself and struggling to come up with topics that seemed worthy of writing about. As I was new to farming when I started the blog, it was easy to write about all the new things I was discovering. As time went by, the cycle on the farm means the same things happen year after year. It took some time off to get a feel for how I can make those things fresh again. Blogging also fell down the list of priorities because, although LocalHarvest provides this forum for free to any farmer who wants to take the time to blog, we don't get any compensation for the content we're providing. It began to feel like a job, and one that I wasn't paid for, so it was easy for me to adjust my priorities to things around the farm which actually provide income.
My background is in social work & education, and I've always had a love of reading and a gift for writing, and I've found that I missed sharing my experiences with an audience. So after much thought, I've decided to come back to the blog format to share my thoughts, to raise awareness about where your food comes from and why small farms matter, and share all the things that I'm passionate about. I'm also looking to tweak my format, just a bit. I love old cookbooks and cooking from scratch, so sharing more recipes seems like a fun fit, and something perhaps you can find useful. I'm also thinking that including thoughts and tips on green and/or self-sufficient living make sense. It's how I live and part of the farm's ethos, and again, I think something that may be of interest to folks who are excited to read stories about our farm. Plus photos, of course, because while words can paint a wonderful picture, I love sharing images from the farm, too. And this is a vision in progress, and I would love feedback, to create a forum where questions can be asked and answered, where alternate methods and great ideas can be shared.
Sound good? I hope so! I would sincerely love to have each and every one of you reading this to join this virtual community. All you need to do is follow me to my new online home at http://pleasantvalleyblog.weebly.com . I'm calling it "The Farmeress Blogs", and I'm working to make it someplace you'll want to visit more than once! Bear with me as we get it off the ground, but I do have some content up already, including a wonderful story about the birth of our latest Dexter cow and a chocolate cake recipe from 1943! I hope you'll join us, and let me know what you think of what you see!
Posted by Emily
@ 11:09 AM EDT
you miss me? Even my own mother asked recently about what
happened to my blog! The truth is simply that I've been busy,
and other things took priority. This year has been even busier, if
that is possible. A big part of this is that neither Dan or I have
off farm jobs for the first time.
It takes a lot of hard work to make this happen, and we are grateful
that we have been able to pull it off since January. However, it's a
bit nerve wracking heading into the winter- the farm stand is closed
until Memorial Day weekend 2014, neither of us are getting a steady
paycheck, or unemployment, or government money of any type. So, how
do we plan on making a living? We're trying to get by with internet
sales, and so far, it's working out. I find myself spending a lot of
time online these days, as I'm in charge of three separate internet
stores. I've built one from scratch on our farm's website, I've
reopened the farm's Etsy store, and we do some selling on eBay as
well. Besides shipping our jams & other canned products, I have
made lots of unique jewelry, including pendants made out of old seed
catalog pictures, stained glass items like sun catchers &
nightlights and other fun stuff like wall hangings and wreaths. But
the big sellers tend to be Dan's handiwork. I really admire the
effort he has put into his blacksmithing, and some of his creations
are simply amazing. The other day, he made a gorgeous pot rack which
hangs from the ceiling out of an old ladder and 20 hand-forged hooks
& brackets. We hung it in the kitchen so I could photograph it
to list it online. Normally, I'm happy and excited when we sell
things like this...but in this case I sort of hope it doesn't because
I will hate to give it up!
Even though the Christmas shopping
season is over, if you've got money to spend, whether it's a holiday
gift or an income tax return, consider spending it locally. You
probably know by now how much better food is when it's fresh, local,
and produced by your neighbors; the same is true about most other
things! We complain about cheap crap that comes from China; your
friends & neighbors make and sell things, and while they may cost
more, think of it as not only investing in quality and craftsmanship, but also
investing in your country and community. Shopping small keeps money
locally; money we earn from our sales is spent at the local mom &
pop gas station, the feed co-op, the general store where Dan buys his
metal and many more small businesses.
So if you've got money burning a hole in your pocket this time of year, consider checking out our online store at http://pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com. Or, if your holiday loot is in the form of an Etsy gift card, you can shop on over to https://www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa.
This year, our holidays consisted of homemade gifts, delicious food, and the true gifts of sharing time with family and friends. We hope yours brought the same, no matter what holiday you celebrate!
Posted by Emily
@ 11:41 AM EST
Most people these days have lost any real connection to farms & livestock. Years ago, most folks at least had extended family living on a homestead...perhaps not farmers, but Grandma or Uncle so-and-so had a garden, or a couple cows, or some chickens. It was a touchstone to where food really comes from that has by and large been lost for most Americans.
Our farm is located in Forest County, PA, which has the distinction of having the highest percentage of seasonal residences to permanent ones in the entire nation. That means there are more summer cottages and hunting camps than full-time homes. So, a good percentage of our visitors in the summer are “city folk”. For many of them, the main reason to come to the farm is for fresh tomatoes, or delicious sausage, or any of the other food we offer for sale. For many others, though, a big part of the draw is just setting foot on a farm. It's like a mini family field trip. They love that they can walk through the front yard and see the turkeys and chickens, or catch a glimpse of the horses and cows in the pasture.
Living here, it is easy to take for granted what we have. It is easy to see the same landscape, and instead of beauty, to see work. Manure that needs shoveled. Water to carry, and the twice-daily feedings that never take a day off. Sheep that need shearing. Weeding, mowing, picking, and all the other garden chores. Fences and roofs to fix and all the other realities of life on a farm. While it truly is a wonderful life, it is also a hard one. But to our visitors, these daily chores are moments of magic.
When hosting friends or family with kids, I often have given them a scoop of feed and let them feed the chickens and other poultry. It meant so much to the kids, and their parents as well, that I decided to incorporate it into the farm stand. So, I filled up some paper cups with feed with a handmade sign saying “Feed the birds! $.50 per cup. Chickens, ducks, turkeys & peacocks all love it!”. I have been somewhat amazed by the response. While it's very popular with families with children, it was a surprise that about 50% of the cups have been purchased by adults. (A side effect to this is that now the birds are eternally optimistic that any human may come bearing food, so they run up to just about everyone who gets out of a vehicle now. I've created an army of friendly feathered monsters!) It's easy to think I'm a business genius, that I'm getting people to pay for food the birds need anyways, and doing my chores for me to boot. But, I think, for many of these folks, it's literally pocket change for an experience that they will remember for a long time. The act of caring for creatures stirs something deep within us all. I can't tell you how many times so far someone has come back into the farm stand to return the paper cup so I can reuse it (unasked!) and to thank me for the opportunity.
Farm stand Saturdays are always long. This time of year, we are literally up with the sun picking and washing the veggies, grinding sausage, setting up shop, and then it's 6 hours of nonstop waiting on the public. By the time 4 PM rolls around, I'm eager to feed the critters and then eat a decent meal myself and relax for the rest of the evening. Yesterday, as I'm in the midst of evening chores, a truck pulls up. A woman I've never met before gets out and asks if her grandkids could get out and look at the birds. Part of me wanted to say no, come back when we're open, that I'm hungry and tired and want to get off my feet and just be done for the day. But I said sure, let them out, the birds are eating their dinner but the kids can come into the yard for a look. At that time, Dan had just let the horses out of the barn so they were close at hand as well. So, after I put fresh water in the bird pen, I walked over and grabbed Montana, our Paint riding horse. He loves attention, is very gentle, and is much less intimidating (size-wise) than the work horses. I called over to the group that if they walked over quietly, they could pet him.
Kids without farm experience generally want to run & scream in all this open space, but I'm always pleasantly surprised that just by telling the kids that running and being loud scares the animals and makes them run away, their behavior changes pretty much instantly. So the kids came over quietly, and I couldn't help but notice that the young woman with them was walking on two prosthetic legs. Not that her handicap made her any more deserving of my time, but it kind of helped to crystallize a concept for me. Today's kids (and many adults, too!) are farm handicapped. There has been research into what has been called “Nature Deficit Disorder”...the idea that as a society we're so tuned in to our TVs, our smartphones and iPads that we don't see nature, we no longer understand nature, and we don't value what we don't see or understand. I think the same is ultimately true with our food system. We don't see it, and we don't understand it, which has led to factory farms, high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, Monsanto, and all the other evils of the industrial food system. What will it take for real change to occur? I think it has to start one eater at a time, and it has to be something that is meaningful- something personally experienced. What will it take to take the happy out of a Happy Meal for our kids? I think it has to start with something they can relate to- a flurry of feathers as they feed some chickens, or soft equine breath on a hand as they pet a pony. I don't necessarily think that I'm changing the world a cup of chicken feed at a time, but hey, it's a start. So if you're in the neighborhood, stop by. Feed the birds and see for yourself. And if you're lucky, maybe you can meet Montana, or the Dexter calves, or one of the other friendly beasts that call our farm home. Just remember to speak softly and walk slowly...which, if you think about it, is pretty good advice, no matter where you are...
Posted by Emily
@ 02:11 PM EDT
I know, it's been quite awhile since my last post. While spring &
summer are always busy times, it seems this year has been even more
so. For the first time, neither Dan nor I have full-time jobs
away from the farm, so we've been able to undertake more ambitious
projects than in the past. One we are currently working on is
training our first team of oxen!
are simply cattle trained as draft animals, used for pulling carts,
farm equipment, or for logging. Traditionally, it refers to a
castrated male (steer), but any cow can be trained to be an ox. We
have decided to use a pair of girls for our team. It's hard to
justify the care and feed for a pair of steers we would only use on
occasion, but we had planned on keeping Maude and Belle anyways,
expanding our herd of registered Dexter brood cows to five. Oxen
can be any breed of cow as well, although few modern day breeds are
really selecting for these traits (as opposed to selecting for
maximum meat or milk production). It's one reason we really
liked Dexters- they are versatile and one of the best homesteading
cattle, because they are still considered to be “tri-purpose”-
good for milk, meat and draft work.
first step was to catch the two calves and put them into the barn.
Weaning them will make them easier to handle. They weren't very
happy or cooperative that night, but were so calm that by morning,
Dan was able to touch and brush them without any problem! Our next
step was to put halters and lead ropes on them and take them for a
little walk. It took just one lesson before they seemed to
understand what we were asking them to do. Dexters have a reputation
for being pretty intelligent cows, and while this means they are
quicker to figure out what you want them to do, it can also mean they
can figure out ways to avoid what you want them to do. But so far,
our girls have been willing and gentle. So willing and gentle, in
fact, that my sister was able to lead Belle from the barn to the
backyard while I led Maude in front of them. My sister has been
around horses and dogs, but never cattle. Belle was such a good
girl, Melanie remarked that it was easier than walking her dog, since
Belle didn't want to stop and sniff everything! My sister's reaction
to working with our girl was “I want a baby cow! Can you get me one
that will stay this size?”
next step is to introduce the yoke, so Dan carved one small enough to
fit our 3 month old Dexters. The trick is getting both cows to walk
at the same pace, in a straight line, and stop and go simultaneously.
You need them to function as a team, not two separate animals.
Again, they picked up on what they were asked to do in short time.
We're still working on basic teamwork, and haven't started actually
pulling anything around yet, but it won't be long. A good draft team
takes years, literally to train to its full potential. Although Dan
has trained many horses, working with cows as draft animals is
entirely new, although a longtime dream. I know not every lesson is
likely to go as smoothly as their first ones, but Maude & Belle
are off to what we feel is a great start!
Belle, front & Maude, rear.
Posted by Emily
@ 09:13 PM EDT
This is generally the time of year when I usually start to panic. As I write this, I only have 3 days left to prepare to open the farm stand for the year, and there is still so much to do! The grass needs mowing, I have 2 cows worth of beef to pick up and organize in the freezers, a pig to butcher and sausage to grind and package, and I'm roasting coffee tomorrow. A farmer gets used to never having a day off, but it's a lot, even for me!
I tend to let myself get overly stressed this time of year, as I often feel like I won't have enough things to fill the tables. It's been a challenging spring for gardening, with lots of cool temperatures and dry spells. It snowed here and the overnight low was 24 degrees on May 12. We may even get another frost over the weekend. So, realistically, I won't have much produce outside of rhubarb, spring onions, and greens this first week, which seems like nothing. Although I always have a customer or two ask where the sweet corn or tomatoes are the first day, most folks are very understanding. I think more people have a better grasp on what seasonal eating means every year, which is wonderful!
But folks stop at our farm for more than vegetables. I actually think meats are a bigger draw, and while the broiler chickens just won't be big enough to process this week as we had hoped, I feel OK about one less major thing to do this week! We will have lots of steaks, roasts and ground beef, plus pork chops and our homemade sausages. And while I sold much of my inventory of canned goods at the Farm to Table conference, I do have a selection of things- 5 or 6 types of jam, 3 mustards, 2 barbecue sauces, an assortment of pickles and other things. There isn't a huge inventory of any (well, except things made with rhubarb...I've been busy canning that already) but there will be a nice selection to set out, probably 15-20 varieties. Plus I'll be roasting coffee tomorrow and we'll have a wonderful selection of that, and Dan is picking up 6 varieties of raw milk cheese (Smoked Cheddar, Longhorn, Havarti, Dill & Bacon, Italian and Garlic & Chive) from Whispering Brook Cheese Haus tomorrow. And this evening, one of our newest partners, Hummingbird Cafe of Tidioute, brought some of their delicious salad dressings for us to offer for sale as well! So there will be plenty of delicious, local edibles.
There will be other things as well...we've got chicks & turkey poults for sale, and they are always fun for everyone to check out when they visit. I've got some stained glass items and lots of jewelry, and there are also some things Dan has made in the blacksmith shop we'll have for sale. I've also been doing a little sewing, turning empty feed bags into cute recycled tote bags. In fact, once I started setting things up in the stand, I began to wonder where I'm going to put it all, which is the best problem to have! It really helps me to relax and feel like we will be ready by Saturday at 10 AM. But not too relaxed...there is still plenty to do before then!
Posted by Emily
@ 08:31 PM EDT
There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to heirlooms...one being that they are a culinary delight, and should be prized above all others, the other being that they are, as one farmer put it, “yesterday's favorites for a reason”. While praised for flavor, these varieties are also often criticized for their low productivity and susceptibility to pests & diseases. Horticulturists have been improving varieties every year, so why not take advantage of the newest, most productive and disease-resistant varieties available?
My completely biased opinion is that heirlooms are amazing. I love to think about the history, and stories behind each seed- where it came from, the hands that tended it and passed it down for future generations they would never meet. Many seeds came to America in the pockets of immigrants...for some it was the only thing of real value they brought with them to an unknown land. How important those seeds must have been- not only as food, but as a taste of a homeland you'd likely never again see. I got a bell pepper variety this year because the description stated it was one of the varieties Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello. History you can touch, grow...how cool is that? To be a part of the chain that keeps these varieties alive for future generations is literally a way of preserving history, and our country's heritage, and something that resonates deeply for me.
What about the bad rap as underachievers? First, there are plenty of heirlooms that are so common & productive, they are often not recognized as such- examples would be Provider green beans, Rutgers tomatoes, or Black Seeded Simpson lettuce. There is also an essential difference between commercial hybrids and heirlooms in terms of how they grow in different climates. Hybrids are grown to perform well in just about any part of the country. That's why you'll find the same varieties at the big box stores whether you're in Maine or Florida, even though the growing conditions are radically different. Heirlooms, however, were generally grown in a specific region and climate. Therefore, it's really important to find the variety that comes from a place that has weather similar to your garden. There are over 5,000 varieties of tomatoes alone available to members of Seed Savers Exchange. Many of these would do really poorly here at my farm, but others will shine. And by saving the seed from your own plants year after year, you can actually select for the plants that do best in your own garden!
An overlooked crisis in farming today is homogeneity. Nearly every commercial farm grows the same vegetable varieties, or raises the same kinds of livestock to get maximum production- be it bell peppers or beef. The problem with this way of farming is best illustrated by the Irish potato famine. When everyone plants the same thing, an entire nation's crop can be decimated by a new pest, disease or climate change. When you plant an assortment of varieties of a given vegetable, you spread out your risk. Each year, some kinds will do better than others given the weather and other factors.
When I came to the farm, Dan helped me order seeds because I had no idea how to grow much of anything, much less what kinds were best, and the choices can be overwhelming. As I've grown into my role as a farmer though, I've taken over the job of selecting our seeds each year, pouring over catalogs for literal hours each winter, and have been continually experimenting with new varieties, many of them heirlooms. It's a process that takes years. Some varieties are great, and immediately earn their spot in the garden on a permanent basis. For ones that don't thrive, I usually give it another shot the following year, since every year is different in terms of weather and such. I've found that Riesentraube cherry tomatoes are more productive (in outdoor conditions, anyway) than the hybrids I can get, and that they and an heirloom Roma I grew were the most resistant varieties to the late blight. But it doesn't always work out- I've loved the idea of having pink Brandywine tomatoes for a while now. But season after season, I get very few marketable tomatoes. The Brandywines are large tomatoes, so a plant produces fewer of them. But they are also prone to insect damage and cracking, which pretty much make them unmarketable, no matter how tasty they are. However, I sold some seedlings last year and my neighbors raved that they were the best tomatoes ever! I think this particular one just needs more TLC than I have time to give it, and may be best suited to home gardeners. That's OK. Selecting varieties is a trial-and-error process, not every variety (no matter how cool the back story or pretty the fruit) is going to work for every garden. I accept that there will be disappointments, and things I won't grow again, but for me, the fun is pouring over the seed catalog, finding something new that speaks to me in some way, and engaging in a yearlong experiment. Even the failures can teach me something. There are also trade-offs to consider. For instance, hybrid lettuce just grows more quickly & is ready to cut sooner. But lettuce, as it matures, gets bitter and inedible, and that happens quickly as well. I find that, even if my heirloom lettuces take a week longer to reach cutting size, they tend to last 2-3 weeks longer before getting bitter, even during hot weather. So, if I wait (or plant a week earlier), I end up with much more time where I can market and use that variety. Early or late, which is better? I don't think there is a right or wrong answer, just personal preference and business practices. However, lettuce is one crop I've transitioned pretty much exclusively to heirlooms already.
It is my hope, and a long-term goal, to transition more towards heirlooms. I love the idea of improving our self-sufficiency by saving our seeds, which in turn reduces our yearly expenses. Saving more seed than I need could also lead to sales of seed packets in the spring, or even offering hard-to-find heirloom seedlings to our customers. I also think it's just a natural extension of what we're already doing- preserving the historic buildings here, utilizing antique machinery in the fields...it isn't much of a leap to choose historic varieties of plants & livestock, either. I think it adds to the beauty of what we do here, and I look forward to my heirloom experiments for years to come!
Posted by Emily
@ 03:22 PM EDT
If you've ever been to the farm, you've seen the (really) free range critters here. The front yard is usually graced by a combination of chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, kitties and a pair of peafowl. We like letting them run loose, as long as they stay on the farm. The poultry do a great job of eliminating insects from the yard and garden if given a chance! We pen things up when they get too comfortable playing in the road, or when we have issues with predators.
Most of our peafowl are in a pen with a net roof, as they are good fliers. This shocked me at first, with those long tails, but it's true! However, when we hatch peachicks, we keep them with other baby poultry, like turkeys, because they are similar in size and eat the same things, and the less pens that need checked, fed, and cleaned, the lighter our workload will be. So, we have two males that have lived all their lives with our turkeys, and generally wander the farm and sleep high in the pine trees at night. But, they do have an adventurous side! The have been spotted all over our neighborhood, and although the neighbors seem to get a kick out of their antics, Dan and I have thought that we should pen them up for some time. This became more urgent this spring, when "the boys" took off and would be seen hanging out with wild turkeys, but somehow, we just never got around to it. Then, they stopped coming home. This worried us, because there are plenty of coyotes, dogs and cars around, not to mention the possibility that someone would shoot them just for sport.
We heard occasional reports of them being sighted on Muzette road, miles from the farm. Mostly, we always seemed to be away when the phone call would come, but last weekend I wasn't. So, after getting an approximate location (nothing says country living like directions "they're out by the new gas well on Muzette"...and knowing where that is!) I headed out, armed with my peacock hunting equipment. This consisted of a bucket of chicken food (aka bait), a fishing net on a long pole, and some feed sacks to transport them home in the car. I realized that, as I was driving slowly looking in the woods, if an officer was behind me I'd probably be taken in to the mental hospital when I replied that I wasn't looking at the road because I was peacock hunting! But the only critter I spotted was a porcupine, so I came home empty-handed. Amazingly enough, the very next night, as some friends were heading out to their car after a visit, they called up to the house that I had peacocks loose & walking down the road. Sure enough, the lost boys had returned! I imagine they took to the woods looking for ladies, and when they didn't find any of their own species, they came home. They stayed in the yard for the next few days, and then, at chore time, I saw they had entered the chicken coop. I excitedly shut the door the chickens use to access the run, and captured the wanderers.
While I love looking out my window and seeing a peacock, in all its brilliantly colored glory, strutting in the front yard or perching on the porch railing, I can't in good conscience set them back loose. I can't put them in the main pen. There are already 4 males, and I'm sure putting two more in without enlarging the enclosure would just lead to fights. Plus, we hatched these two here, so putting them back in to breed with the mothers isn't the greatest idea either. So reluctantly, we've decided to sell them. I can't imagine splitting them up, so I'm only offering them as a pair. They don't have the full, impressive tail yet, as peacocks take a full 3 years to mature, and the boys are only 2, but they are still beautiful. they would also need to go to a home with an enclosed pen, but they do play well with chickens and turkeys. We are asking $150 for both, and if you're interested, please leave a comment or send us an email!
The boys left for their new home today. As sad as I was to see them go, they are going to live with a lovely family, who up until this point, has 2 peahens (female peacocks) but no boys. It's wonderful the way things work out sometimes!!
Posted by Emily
@ 03:46 PM EDT
About a week ago, I got a tough phone call. My college roommate's father called to pass along the sad news that my friend Gabi had passed away. Though deeply saddened, it didn't come as a surprise. It also has led me to some soul-searching thoughts as I think about my friend, dead at just 34. Her father asked me if I ever thought I'd go back to social work, as Gabi and I went through the Master's of Social Work program together at Pitt. Although I spent quite a bit of time & energy attaining that degree, my reply was no. I really feel that what I do here on the farm is what I was put here on Earth to do, and that I am blessed to have found something that I love and that makes me happy, but is meaningful. I think that's why I went into social work, because I wanted to do something meaningful for others, but I found it was not what made me happy. Farming is bigger than yourself; it is life and death. Beauty and heartache. Though my heart was heavy, I still had chores to do, animals who depend on me to feed and care for them. I had baby chicks to pull out of the incubator, their tiny lives just starting. There is a special kind of peace you get inside when you find what you're meant to do, the place in life you were meant to be...it's the answering of a calling. And it makes me sad that my friend never found the place that she was always supposed to be, because I think if she had, she might still be with us today.
My siblings called to offer condolences, and we talked about happier times, shared memories. My sister Laurel made my day by buying flowers and putting them by the house Gabi & I shared in college. As I looked at the photos Laurel sent, I cried a little, laughed a little. There, in the background, was the weedy patch of gravelly dirt you'd expect on a city street known more for keg parties than local food. But, oddly enough, it was the site of my first garden. While we had flowers planted around my family home, my parents gave up gardening when I was very small, so I don't remember tending anything but flowers. Gabi always had a garden, and missed it, so the two of us got a couple of tomato and cucumber plants and plopped them right in our little yard. I added some marigolds and mint I dug up from my Dad's property. Our plants grew, the soil was so bad the weeding was minimal, and when the tomatoes needed staking, we found some old white metal curtain rods in the basement. We put them in the dirt and tied up the tomatoes with baler twine I brought from home. We laughed at our little "ghetto garden", but we had fresh veggies for our salads that summer!
So to honor Gabi's memory, and that first little garden...I'd like to "pay it forward", to you. Send me an email (send to pleasantvalleyfarmpa at yahoo dot com) and I will send you a packet of seeds, for free. I'll need your address, and I'd like you to share something with me. Let me know if you're an expert gardener, or if this spring is your first try. Or why you garden, or where you find your peace. Share a homesteading dream. Anything at all, really...let's just make it a little more personal than a blank email with your address, OK? I'll send out seeds until I run out of packets I can part with.
It's my hope that these seeds will arrive like a special present in the mail, and you will plant them, watch them grow, and reap the benefits. Gabi shared the magic of gardening with me, and I would like to pass it to some new friends as a way to honor her memory and her kind heart. I think she'd like this idea.
I hope you smile like this when you get them.
Posted by Emily
@ 01:09 PM EDT
It's spring! So much is going on! Babies are here...we've got calves, lambs, and chicks, with lots more chicks to come, as well as turkey poults. The garden is plowed, but there is much work to be done to get it ready for planting, and we're also looking to plow more and put in some field corn for next winter's animal feed. I'm tending tiny tomato seedlings, with plenty more sprouts to start, and we've planted salad greens and spring onions in the greenhouse, and the garlic, oregano, chives and other perennial herbs are green and growing. The pasture & hay fields are finally turning green, especially with the thunderstorms we've had recently.
But here in Northwest Pennsylvania, spring swings from glorious to snowy and back again more than once, so it's good to have plenty of indoor projects when it's too wet or cold to get much done outside. While I never lack things to do, I'm really excited to have gotten a major project done in the past week, before the weather turns nice for good and my inside time dwindles.
A few weeks ago, we were finally able to upgrade to a high speed internet connection. Before that, I had been doing all my blogging, website maintenance, everything, via a dial-up connection. High speed capability finally came down our road, and so I've been using the last indoor days to do quite a bit of work online. It's so much easier now! While we have had a small online store for a year or so now, I haven't been happy with it. I used Etsy as a host, and truthfully, I think people go there more to look for ideas than to shop, but at the time seemed like a good choice. I decided it was time, however, to move on, and have been working really hard the past week or so to open shop on our own website!
I am so very excited to announce our all-new, virtual farm stand is now open for business! We now offer some of our wonderful canned goods, as well as my handmade jewelry (some featuring feathers from our own peacocks) and the stained glass items I've been making recently, like suncatchers and candle holders. But I'm most excited about listing some of Dan's hand-forged metal work he does in the blacksmith shop. I've been trying to convince him that his things are wonderful for a couple years now, but up to this point he always thought that he wasn't good enough to be selling his work. I'm excited that he has sold a few things, and we now have listed things like gate latches & door handles, a cowboy-style dinner bell, and a beautiful wall-mounted pot rack, with more items to come as he makes them, and we'll also be featuring his work at the farm stand when we reopen.
We hope you'll take a look around our all-new store, at http://pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com/shop-online.html. Payment is safe & secure through PayPal. And please feel free to give us your feedback on the look & setup of the site, or things you'd like to see there!
Posted by Emily
@ 11:30 AM EDT
Once again, I took the farm on the road to Pittsburgh's Farm to Table conference. This year's event was last weekend. As in past years, not only did I have a table in the exhibit hall, but I was one of the featured presenters as well.
Our table was loaded with good stuff!
The theme this year was "do it yourself" so I spoke on home canning. I called it "Home Canning 101" and put it together for folks who may have been interested in the idea of canning, but really didn't understand the process. It's hard to believe, but not too many years ago, that was where I was at. I didn't grow up with any relatives who put up their own food, so the process was a mystery to me. It's intimidating when you aren't familiar with the process, and haven't seen it done, and it's easy to make discouraging mistakes. As I shared in my talk, my husband & mother-in-law encouraged me to learn, but my first time was full of mistakes. Betty was in Florida and told me I was free to borrow her equipment, but I didn't exactly know what I was looking for. After the jars were processed in the boiling water, I had a devil of a time getting them out of the canner, and burnt my fingers a bit. It was enough to really discourage me. When Dan came home from work and I told him all about it, he asked why I didn't grab the jar lifters, too! Having someone explain the basics and show me the necessary tools would have been a great help, so that's what I aimed to do in my presentation. I was amazed at the attendance, for a Friday morning when lots of folks are working or at school, the room was quite full! I really hope I took some of the scariness out of the process and that some of the attendees will try it for themselves this summer!
As in past years, I had my vehicle fill to the brim with yummy stuff to sell. I'm pretty sure I'm known to plenty of repeat attendees as the "Carrot Cake Jam Lady", so I had lots of that on hand, plus other jams, mustards, pickles and other goodies. I had some new things this year, too. I had lots of Happy Mug coffee with me, and made the whole area around the table smell amazing, since it was roasted only 2 days before the conference began! I also brought plenty of handmade jewelry, which was well received. People really seemed to like the items that had glass pendants I made using stained glass scraps and old seed catalogs! ( I like to call them the "Wear Your Veggies" collection) I also brought a vase full of peacock feathers, since they are so eye-catching. But I had no idea they would be a big hit, or I would have brought more! I think just about every child that came on Saturday left with one, at least until I sold out!
Again, the conference seemed bigger than the year before. It's truly wonderful to see more & more people really motivated to eat better, and eat local. As Liz Kanche (one of the organizers) said to me before my presentation "Who knew, a couple years ago, that local food would be sexy?" and I do think we're getting there. It's a trend that gets bigger and more popular all the time. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could get to the point where it wasn't just a trend, or a movement, but simply the way things are done?
Some thanks are in order: to Liz & Erin for another great event: to everyone who attended my presentation- I hope you give canning a shot!: to everyone who stopped by our table in the exhibit hall- we appreciate your business and hope you'll come see us this summer; and finally to my mom, Robin Shea, for manning the table with me both days. I couldn't have done it without you!
And if you missed the event, or are already out of Carrot Cake Jam and need more, our online store is always open!
Posted by Emily
@ 05:32 PM EDT
It sure looks like a winter wonderland
outside my windows today! We've had over a foot of snow fall since
the beginning of the weekend, erasing most of the signs of spring
around the farm. Last Monday was a different story, though!
The pasture fields were showing the first blushes of spring green,
and the sheep & cows were venturing out away from the barn to
taste those first green blades.
Another sure sign of spring is farm
babies, and we had been watching one of our Dexter cows, Finni,
closely that day. She was standing about, all alone, tail straight
out. Her udder had been steadily getting bigger for the past week
as well, so we were pretty sure labor was imminent. It was a nice
day, T-shirt weather, and I was keeping watch on her each time I
stepped outside. I hung a load of laundry out on the line and noted she was off
in the far corner of the pasture by herself, standing quietly. I did
another load of clothes and returned outside less than 30 minutes
later. First, I noticed Pixie, Finni's 2-year-old daughter, was up
there, too. Then I noticed a small, wobbly little black shape. I
looked again, just to be sure, but it certainly was the unmistakable
outline of a newborn calf up there! I had not even seen Finni lay
down to give birth, and yet mama and baby were both already on their
feet. Nature is truly amazing!
When feeding time came in the evening,
Finni and the newborn made their way down to the barn. We separated
them from the herd and locked them in one of the outbuildings,. We
call it the Sheep House, since that's where we put the ewes when
lambing season arrives. While the other cows, including the bull,
are generally protective toward any new arrivals, we like to give
them a couple weeks inside this time of year. With the wild swings
in weather, keeping baby inside gives our new arrivals the best start
possible. There is also a sizable coyote population around as well,
so it's also not a bad idea to keep the babies safe until they are a
bit more steady on their feet.
This is Finni's third calf, and it's a
girl. Each time, Finni has delivered quickly and without problems
and has been a great mother. Many of the larger cattle breeds
(especially Holstiens, the big milk cows) require help during
delivery, which is not fun for man or beast. It's just one of the
many qualities we love about our Dexters. The Dexter is an Irish
breed, and was developed to be a family cow. Small, docile,
producing enough milk for a family (but not too much), and muscular
enough to raise calves for beef, and do great on a grass-based diet.
Like many breeds of livestock, they are considered endangered,
because all the qualities that make them great cows for the homestead
do not make them great in our industrial food production systems.
Without small farms and breeders, breeds like these cows would go
extinct. So, every time we have a calf born (or a turkey poult or
chick hatch), it's reason to celebrate!
Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, the
most Irish of all holidays, and Pixie had her first calf (also a
heifer, or baby girl!) in the wee hours of the morning, before we got
up to do our chores. Dan found them in the morning, near the barn,
both mother and baby doing fine. Since Pixie & Finni get along
very well, and there is plenty of room in the Sheep House, we put
them both together in there. Once Pixie's calf gets a few days
older and figures how to use those legs, I'm thinking they will be
quite the adorable twosome, bouncing and playing together.
Pixie's calf is especially exciting,
not only because she's healthy and Pixie is stepping up to be a great
mother, but because she is our first calf born to Dexters we've bred
and raised. Our first calves born here were two years ago, when
Finni had Pixie and Lil had a boy now known as Bullwinkle.
Bullwinkle is the father to both of this spring's calves, and Pixie's
calf marks the first calf here to be a second-generation Pleasant
Valley Farm Dexter. We're overjoyed at out little Irish blessings,
and hope these girls will be part of a long line of Dexters here for
many years to come!
Pixie's calf is front and center, with Finni and her calf looking on.
Posted by Emily
@ 12:03 PM EDT
If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you've probably picked up on the fact that we treasure old things here- heirloom plant varieties, heritage livestock breeds, antique farm implements, traditional ways of working the land. As a general rule, I'm happier with vintage anything than brand-new. There is a wonderful feeling in bringing home something old and putting it back into real use, in rescuing it from oblivion.
I also love to cook, and collect cookbooks to the point where Dan thinks it may be a problem. Used, new, cooking magazines, I love them all. But with these, too, I have a special place for the old stuff as well. So many of our modern recipes call for pre-packaged, pre-chopped, pre-wrapped, pre-cooked whatever, so we can eat in 30 minutes or less. But convenience and REAL food seldom go hand-in-hand, so it's wonderful to have recipes that utilize whole foods and emphasize using the whole thing (like making soup from the carcass the day after your roast chicken dinner).
This is the way our grandparents and great-grandparents cooked, and since I have a pantry that is stocked more like it's out of the 1910's than the 2010's, these are the recipes I often treasure most. And, like so many other things, I think our family recipes, our personal food traditions, are too often being lost as well. So I am always extremely grateful when such treasures find their way to me. Last summer, an older gentleman who lives nearby offered me his wife's recipe for bread & butter pickles. This was something I had already hoped to add to the farm stand lineup, so I was very excited. I was touched, however, when he handed me not a copy, but a yellowed piece of notebook paper written in his deceased wife's hand. I was honored when, after giving him a jar in thanks, he reported that they tasted just the same, except mine were sliced a bit thinner.
This past month, my grandmother passed away just a few weeks shy of her 95th birthday. At the viewing, we were blessed with baked goods from friends & family. The next morning, I had the most delicious zucchini bread I have ever tasted. Turns out, it was baked (with love, of course!) by my grandmother's older sister. Aunt Kay is 96, still lives alone in a multi-story home, and still does the polka in her living room when it comes on the radio on Sundays "as long as no one moves my furniture"! So I asked this incredible lady if she would share the recipe with me. I was very excited when, a week or so later, a small, handwritten envelope appeared in my mailbox. Inside was her recipe, hand written, of course. She had dated it and signed "Good Luck and enjoy! Aunt Kay."
It is now tucked safely in my recipe box, and I'm anxiously awaiting the summer day when I've got zucchini on hand and see if I can make it taste as good as she does. These things are truly heirlooms, like family jewels, to be treasured and passed on. I encourage everyone to ask their relatives for the secrets to treasured family flavors; too often, our elders are only too willing to share, but no one asks, and that is how jewels get lost forever.
Posted by Emily
@ 10:58 AM EST
Around our house, we don't really make
a big deal of Valentine's Day. But this time of the year, Dan is at
home more, and we had a lovely day together. So, what do a pair of
farmers do to celebrate? In our case, we made cheese. We've seen
that our eldest Dexter cow, Lil, has been losing some weight, so we
decided to wean the calf and put her in the barn so she could get
some extra feed. And since we're going through all that trouble, we
decided she should pay us back in milk. Dan milks her twice a day,
by hand. Being a Dexter, she doesn't produce gallons like the big
black & white Holstiens many dairies use, but it's been more than
enough for the two of us.
Dan started out by making some
farmhouse cheddar. To make cheese, you need to heat the milk to a
pretty exact temperature, and hold it for a certain length of time
before introducing a starter culture. I am still amazed that a few
minutes or degrees more or less can turn your cheddar into colby. The
recipes for many cheeses, for the most part, are very similar. (exceptions are things like Swiss or blue, which require some special cultures.) After we strained
the curds, which are the solids that will form our cheese, we had a
quantity of liquid left, called the whey. I decided that, rather
than just feeding the whey to the pigs or chickens, we should make
ricotta. Ricotta is traditionally a way to make a second batch of
cheese from the whey. We did add a bit more whole milk just to get a
bit more yield in the end. This time, we heated the milk and then added
some vinegar. Again, we strained it, and got ricotta!
After the cheeses drain out through the
cheesecloth, there is still more work to do. We mixed in a bit of
cheese salt, and then for the cheddar, we put it, wrapped in
cheesecloth, into a press. The press uses a spring to put pressure
on the cheese, which is in a cheese mold that has plenty of small
holes. This way, it presses out the last of the liquid to give you
a firmer, harder cheese, which will continue to firm up over the next
60 days as we age it. (This is a food safety requirement for cheeses
made from unpasteurized milk.) The ricotta, however, is ready to eat
the same day. I mixed in a tiny bit of salt and then crushed up some
basil I had dried last summer.
This also solved my problem of what to
cook for our Valentine's Day dinner. I decided to make homemade
calzones. While calzones may not sound all that special, when they
are made of lots of homegrown ingredients, they really can be! (And,
for the record, there is no thing as delivery in Tionesta...we
literally cannot call any restaurant, not even a pizza shop, and have
them bring it to us!) I made pizza dough and crushed up some more
basil and oregano. Fresh ricotta and canned tomato sauce went inside, as
did the onions we have been keeping since the stand closed, as well
as some homemade pepperoni. I added a bit of grated Italian cheese
(the kind with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic & basil we offer from
Whispering Brook Cheese Haus), sealed them up, and put them into the
oven on my preheated pizza stone. They came out crispy &
delicious, and I firmly believe everything is better when you use
ingredients you've grown and/or prepared yourselves. The only downside to this delicious feast was the mess in the kitchen. However my kitchen is almost never cleaned up completely, because I spend so much of my time cooking there, or washing dishes by hand.
...and for those of you inclined to kitchen adventures, ricotta is really easy to make, and can be made with pasteurized milk from the store. All you need in some cheesecloth & vinegar or lemon juice. There are plenty of recipes online, and I even noticed it's included in March's edition of the Food Network Magazine. I encourage anyone curious to give it a try!
Posted by Emily
@ 11:23 AM EST
The other day, I was joking with Dan that he should feel free to buy me jewelry or flowers, since Valentine's Day is coming up. He replied that he is permanently off the hook as far as buying jewelry goes, since I now make my own. And he's absolutely right. I would rather he get me jewelry making supplies, so I can wear something I made myself, and I'd rather get flower bulbs or seeds over cut blossoms any day.
I got into jewelry making some time ago as a way to use the beautiful feathers produced by our peacocks. I found it fun and enjoyable, and have since expanded into beaded things as well. It's a great way to pass dreary winter days, and I set up an online store to feature these items (and as a source of off-season income).
I was grateful Dan gave me some space in our new blacksmith shop building so I could set up another crafty hobby, stained glass. The only downside is that it's an unheated outbuilding, so I can't do quite as much of it on cold winter days as I might like. But it's been another fun hobby, and I'm excited about the things I'm able to create. I've always loved art projects (I even got a minor in Studio Arts in college) and I'm very blessed to be able to spend my time having fun like this!
I really enjoy making small stained glass jewelry boxes, like this one!
Over Christmas, I got a book that showed how to combine glass art and jewelry making, which I hadn't thought of before. The book used clip art, photos & vintage-looking ephemera. I didn't have any of that handy, but one thing a farmer has in spades is seed catalogs. I came up with the idea to use photos of herbs, flowers & veggies sandwiched between scraps of stained glass. These have turned out to be so cool! For me, the hardest part is not keeping them all! My favorite right now is a necklace I made that features chives in bloom, and I have another with a lovely photo of a pink rose. But I've also made creations with flowers, Swiss Chard, hot peppers and more...I think they would be such cool gifts for gardeners or folks who love local food!
Scrap stained glass & old seed catalog photos...in this case, lettuce! Isn't it pretty?
As I was tearing up old seed catalogs, I found one in particular that had some beautiful full page reprints of covers from years ago. I liked how the jewelry turned out, so I thought about what I could do with these full or half pages. While sandwiching them between sheets of glass would be cool, I don't have a big assortment of stained glass both big enough & translucent enough. But...what I do have lots of are old farmhouse windows. So, in a fun recycling project, I've been carefully removing panes of glass from their wooden frames. Then comes the hardest part- cleaning them up! I have been leaving any streaks of old paint though, I think it really adds some vintage charm to the panels. Then I take the picture I like and mount it on some scrapbooking paper, sometimes using fancy scissors to make a decorative edge. Then I solder the panes together and add hardware to attach a chain or ribbon and suddenly, I have something beautiful made almost entirely out of what most people would throw out.
I'm really enjoying letting my creativity shine during some of winter's gloomy days. Making beautiful things really helps me to beat those winter blues, and I can do it while basking in the woodstove's heat, unlike a lot of other farm projects!
If you like the looks of these, please check out the other creations I have at www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa/ I ship nationwide, so you just might find the perfect, handmade something to treat yourself or a loved one!
Posted by Emily
@ 12:03 PM EST
Right-click, copy link and paste into your newsfeed reader
As promised, this time I'm sharing the
story of Puff & Little Puff. Hopefully, it's one you'll enjoy,
but you may end up thinking I'm a nut. Either way, here it is...
12 years ago, I had yet to meet Dan. I
kept my horse Sara on a piece of property my father owned, and we had
kitties there. I can remember holding a pregnant Shadow and feeling
the unborn kittens moving around. She would have four of them, on
the Fourth of July, 2001. Unfortunately, Shadow was hit & killed
on the highway when the kittens were only 3 weeks old. I was home
from college for the summer; I found Shadow and buried her, then
brought the kittens home to care for. My younger sisters loved
having kittens in the house, but although fun to play with, none of
the girls wanted to feed the kitties at midnight or 3 AM. That was
my job. All four survived, and the fluffy tan one would be known as
Puff. My sisters used to dress him up in doll clothes and push him
around in a doll carriage. He learned that resistance was futile,
and for the rest of his life, he would allow just about anyone to pet
or pick him up.
He was a special (and spoiled) pet of
my sister Laurel, but when our father died, I took custody of Puff,
as Mom moved too close to a main road for comfort and I was living on
my own nearby and rented a place with a nice backyard and woods for
him to prowl. Shortly after, I met Dan and would take Puff to the
farm when I moved there. He loved the farm. He would follow me
around and supervise whatever was going on; building the greenhouse,
weeding the garden, whatever. He also appointed himself farm stand
mascot and would greet customers. Many kids who may not have had
pets of their own were delighted to pet him, and Puff patiently
soaked up the attention.
This past summer, he disappeared. I
looked for him, calling and listening. I put up “Lost Cat”
posters and talked to the neighbors. My neighbor Heidi gave me the
answer I was afraid of...she had found a bunch of Puff-colored hair
and a claw in the woods, as though there had been a fight of some
kind. It was apparent that Puff has lost, to something with teeth.
We never found his body.
In October, an acquaintance asked me
if I would take in a couple of cats, as barn cats. Her son had found
them in the woods, but since they had 3 large dogs, they couldn't
keep the cats, who were currently locked in the garage. Although
usually our response is that we have plenty of cats around already,
this time I said yes, I would take them. They were about 12 weeks
old, and there were 2, that was all I knew. The next day she arrived
with a bag of cat food and the kitties. “They're Halloween
kitties, one is black and one is orange,” she said as she opened
the door to the dog crate in the back of the vehicle. One was black
with white paws and chest, and the other...was the spitting image of
Puff. Same markings, same hair length. The only difference was his
(yes, also a boy!) eyes- the new kitty has copper-colored eyes, while
Puff's had been yellow with a green ring around the pupil. I was
dumbfounded at the coincidence, but took them down to the barn and
fed them there, hoping to train them that the barn was their home,
and not the house. When Dan came home, he told me he gave it 12
hours before they came into the house. We walked down to the shop,
and saw the kitties had found their way outside. They were sitting
on the rocks between the barn and the shop. Although I had told Dan
that one looked like Puff, I think it startled him, too, when he saw
for himself. “I've missed that cat.” he said to me...and Dan is
by no means a cat person. When he came back up to the house later,
the little Puff-colored one followed him right into the house as
though he owned the place (Dan was way off...it only took 3 hours!).
Dan started calling him Puff immediately. I protested, that it
wasn't fair either to Puff's memory or to the new cat. I tried to
call him LP, for Little Puff, but the only thing that seemed to
stick was Puff. Again.
Now I am aware that I probably showered
more affection on this cat, since he looked so much like my furry
little buddy, and that can have an effect on the way he would behave
towards me. But I swear this cat loved me right from the start, and
wanted to be petted and be near all the time. I've never met a cat
that enjoys being picked up and held so much. I tried writing it
off, because really, the idea that the cat could be reincarnated and
find me again was just too much. It's just a crazy coincidence that
it is a friendly little cat who looks like the one I lost. But then
He seemed to learn his name was Puff in
no time at all. From the time he arrived, he would come to the farm
stand and supervise, even letting a small child pick him up the very
first market day. One of my regular customers was shocked at the
resemblance. Little Puff also picked out the exact same places to
nap. While the computer chair and the back of the couch are kitty
hot spots that all cats seem to gravitate towards, there are others
that were really Puff's alone, and Little Puff would eerily be found
in the same spots. For instance, in one of the spare bedrooms
upstairs, Puff loved to sleep between the pillows on the turned-down
sheet. I think it was so he could get more cat hair on things, but
he was always there. One day, I went into the room putting things
away, and there was Little Puff. It didn't even register, I was so
used to seeing a cat that color (and that color alone) in that spot.
Then I remembered that it's not the same cat!
When my Mom came for Thanksgiving, she
walked in the door, and before she even took her coat off, she said "Oh my goodness! It's Puff!” I reminded her that I told her
about the cat that looked like him, and she replied that it didn't
just look like Puff, it was Puff. Little Puff also
seemed oddly at ease with Pepper, my mother's dog, with whom Puff
lived for years. Strange. Talking to my neighbor Heidi about it,
she told me that among those who believe in reincarnation, it's very
common to believe the same dog will find you again, and considering
how close I was to Puff, it didn't seem like much of a stretch to
think the same could be true of a cat. But, I protested, given the
age of the kittens, they would have been born at pretty much the
exact time Puff disappeared. Heidi's thoughts were that since he
left so unexpectedly, and he knew I would be worried, maybe he made
it a point to come right back. Talking about him at Christmas with my
family, my sister Laurel told me to drop the “Little” and just
call him Puff, because I should accept that he came back. And then,
when I came home after my family get together, Dan said he had slept
very poorly because the cats kept him up. Puff had always had the
most horribly annoying trick to get me to open the door and let him
in at night. He would get on the couch on the front porch and claw
at the sheet of plastic we used to weatherproof the bedroom window. It makes
a terribly annoying noise, so you have to get up out of bed to let
him in. None of the other cats ever picked up on that trick, even
though I'm sure they had watched Puff use it to his advantage many
times. While I was gone that night, Little Puff got up on the porch
couch and began clawing the plastic until Dan got out of bed and let
him in. The odds of that being coincidence are just too much to
So, this spring, when we reopen, I'm
confident I will have a fluffy farm stand mascot once again. Stop by
and see for yourself, but by now there is enough evidence that I'm
positive that the cat came back.
Little Puff and his brother, 8-Track.
**After writing this yesterday, I was reading a book when (Little) Puff jumped up beside me. When he looked up, I noticed an unmistakable ring of green around the pupils of his eyes that simply wasn't there when he came to me. Spooky, isn't it? **
Posted by Emily
@ 10:50 AM EST