North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Honoring the Team

It’s been quite a season down on the farm—no one can argue with that.  There was the PBS filming, the big storm, a huge hay crop, Pizza Farm Nights, and so much more.  And while you’ve had a chance to hear some of the stories from our summer and fall interns who have joined us in these endeavors on the farm, this year’s path has been intersected by many others who have extended themselves above and beyond the call of duty to lend a hand or fill a need to help keep the project going strong.

They come from an amazing variety of backgrounds and interests, from saw mill owners to musicians, grandparents to IT specialists and lake-home owners.  Each has found a kindred spirit with the mission of our farm and Farmstead Creamery, some as far back into the story as 2002, others within just this last summer.  These folks who offer to help during a busy event, hold down part of our patch-work delivery system, or pull us out of a pickle become part of the farm team, and all their efforts help make the fabric of this family farm strong and lasting. 

This last week, in honor of the Celtic New Year, we decided to throw a party for our team of volunteers, many of whom had never really met one another.  During a feast of fire-roasted leg of lamb, honey glazed squash, fall salad, potato dinner rolls, savory Brussel sprouts with crispy leeks, and an array of festive desserts, the crew shared stories of how they came to be involved with the farm and a favorite memory from the past season.  Here are some favorites from the evening.

Dave:  From milling the wood for our house and Farmstead Creamery to taking Kara water skiing on hot summer afternoons, Dave was also one of the first to head our way after the September storm hit, cutting trees off our lane and checking the culvert where the stream crosses under our road several times a day in case of a washout.  This winter there was the total breakdown of our farm truck right at the end of his driveway, where the back left wheel fell off and went gallivanting down the road without us!  Dave was able to use his “crawler” (a huge piece of equipment used at the mill) to lift the back end of the truck so the wheel could be replaced and we could limp home in the blizzard. 

Then, late this summer, our air conditioner began raining on the table below.  We pulled it apart, cleaned out the filters, and tried everything.  But within minutes of turning the unit back on, water would start drizzling inside once more.  Dave happened to stop by to check the culvert one more time and asked why we were scratching our heads at the air conditioner.  After all this putzing and reading the manual and feeling outwitted by the apparatus, Dave waltzed outside, grabbed the drain hose, and blew on it.  Immediately, the internal rain shower ceased and our air conditioner returned back to normal.  Some folks just know how to fix those kinds of things!

Tom:  From being the guy to help set up early and take down late for nearly all of our live music events to filling chicken waterers while staying over for recording projects, Tom has ruts in the road from our place to his!  He’s also been dubbed the lettuce man, since many of his return trips to Ashland include boxes full of fresh produce for the Chequamegon Food Co-op or Northland College. 

Wholesaling is an important outlet for the farm’s products during the quiet season, when tourism quiets down and farmer’s market season is over.  But there’s never an end of things that need doing on the farm, which can make it hard to get away for such deliveries.  I can remember a couple times last winter when I did manage to deliver the lettuce myself and the folks at the receiving end wondered who I was!  But Tom also lends a hand on the farm in many ways, like endless buckets of compost and mulch last fall to cover the asparagus and strawberries against the hard winter (a task that leaves room for telling stories while you work) or butchering chickens on an autumn day (not so high on his favorites list).  But even when those chicken waterers spill and soak his shoes or we’re hauling a sled-load of hay in 20-below weather, Tom always has a smile and a laugh to share.

Kelli:  From my co-pilot for farmer’s market to Hayward’s CSA delivery lady, Kelli’s involvement with the farm goes back to her part-time internship well before Farmstead Creamery ever opened.  We’ve shared storms and pig escapes, ladies luncheons and crazy attitude customers.  Kelli and I often cheer each other on during the often grueling farmer’s market season, keeping up the spirits as we share the tastes, smells, textures, and story of the farm.  Kelli takes pride in sharing that between the farm and the woods (her husband who built Farmstead Creamery and two sons are avid hunters), she hardly ever needs to use the grocery store.

Our CSA (farm shares program) began in 2007, with delivery days to Hayward on Mondays and Wednesdays.  This was later condensed to just Wednesdays at 1:00 pm., which worked just fine until the lunch-hour at Farmstead picked up.  Into our second year of being open, it became quite apparent that having one of the three of us away at deliveries just wasn’t working.  But the precedent of a specific date at a specific time and location also felt difficult to break, so it was a real blessing when Kelli was able to take over managing the pickup.  In a whirl of coolers and totes, boxes and bags, each Wednesday we pack up Kelli’s car, handing over a clip board of special notes about who ordered more eggs, who has a food allergy that requires substitutions, and who needs to pay for something.  It’s a lot to keep straight, but Kelli’s been a real team player in helping keep this important service going strong.

Shani:  From great brainstorming and networking to can-do help, Shani has a knack for stepping in when you’re in that crunch you weren’t sure you’d survive.  After the interns headed back for school, she helped with chores on mornings I was gone to farmer’s market as well as bussing wood-fired pizzas that evening during a concert, all while having her foot in a brace from a fall!  Shani also connected us with a CSA program in her area that was in need of some aquaponics produce to help them stretch the season, as well as many other new faces we’d been lucky to meet.

Steve:  From slaying the dreaded swamp monster (that was eating our internet projection to the rest of the farm) to throwing firewood, Steve originally found us by searching for a Wi-Fi café.  Since then he’s warned us about many an oncoming storm (sometimes right in the midst of a Pizza Farm Night), to the point where his appearance during the summer months warranted a worried, “What’s coming now Steve?”  Since then he’s helped with many complicated IT troubleshooting, as well as helping us get started in podcasting, which will be coming out soon!

And there are so many more stories, I could take all night!  There’s the day our beverage distributor stopped carrying Joia soda, right before the 4th of July and John and Gini’s diligence to drive over several cases to us from the company so we’d be covered until a new distributor could be arranged.  There’s helpers during butchering, special events, photography shoots, yardwork, and much more.  As we sat around the table that night, we felt so blessed and honored to have this supportive community who’s there to help things happen.  They’re part of the team here at the farm, and we want each and every one to know how much we appreciate them.  Maybe you’re one of those people too.  So thank you, and we look forward to seeing you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 

Making Wood

They say that those who make their own firewood are twice warmed.  Well, it’s been a pleasantly warm enough autumn not to have to worry about that too much, but everyone knows that winter is approaching, sooner or later, and with keeping those wood stoves and boilers going well into June, supplies are in dire need of replenishing.

Back in early September, Steve, a Moose Lake neighbor, stopped in the store and asked if we knew anyone who could help him fell a few trees on his property for firewood.  We did some calling together and sniffed out a few leads, but then the storm hit like a hurricane, and Steve found himself trapped at the cabin with maples across the driveway and pines laying across the dock.

“I had wood,” he chuckled.  “But I also couldn’t get out!”

Across the area, this story repeated itself, and for weeks the chainsaws have been roaring away.  While skylines (and sometimes rooflines) are drastically changed, everyone has wood to cut.  By the time we finally get everything sorted out, woodsheds should be full!

Steve calls it “making wood,” and it’s part of northwoods life, whether or not you’re even a full-timer to the area.  Someone usually has a fireplace or fire-ring by the lake.  For us, between a fireplace and a woodstove, there’s always a need for wood during the cold months.  Added to that demand, we now have the pizza oven, which uses aged oak and maple.

While maples are plentiful in the woods behind the barn, oaks are few and far between, and we like to keep the stand strong.  So Kara sent the word went out to the neighborhood in case anyone had more oak trees down than they could manage.  Pizzas would be in need of firewood next summer!

So this weekend, we made wood.  First, Kara had worked with Larry, one of the Fullington clan, cutting up trees that were down in the trails behind the barn.  Weaving the truck and trailer between the standing trunks, we hauled the massive to modest logs into the trailer bed.  In some places, the trail narrows to ATV size, which meant some serious jockeying back and forth to ease the rig through the space.

The pile in front of the woodshed had begun, stocked with a few logs from sawing up debris in the yard from the storm.  Here it would cure a bit before our legendary Christmas holiday family wood-splitting party (which every family member knows is part of the tradeoff for eating great farm food during their stay).  First a pile, then a hill, and hopefully a small mountain before it gets snowed in, this pile once split would cure in the shed for a couple of years before being pressed into service.  At least that is the general plan, so long as the stash lasts.

Then on Monday, we ventured off towards the lake to work on a huge oak that lay across a neighbor’s trail for pizza wood.  Down the sloping hill, crunching the wrinkled, dried leaves, we made our way with truck and trailer.  Steve was on board, as well as Tom, my musical partner in crime.  We had our work gloves, ear protection, and chaps in hand, as well as the chain saw, bar oil, gasoline, and all the rest.  We were ready to make wood!

It was a surprisingly warm, sunny day for late October, and the mosquitoes were hatching out of the exposed lakebed from opening the dam before winter.  They buzzed and bit and pestered us as we picked up some pre-sawn pieces and surveyed the situation.  Either an oak tree had Y’d at a very young age or two sibling trees had grown up so close together that their bases had almost fused.  While one was still standing with a few orange-brown leaves clinging to gnarly branch tips, the other had cracked off at the roots from the storm and toppled right across the trail and into the hillside.  The branches had been sawn off at this point, and what remained was a tapering trunk that was almost too wide at the base for me to step over.

Grandpa’s chainsaw can be a persnickety beast, and this day was no exception.  First, the bar oil wouldn’t come through the orifice to keep the chain lubricated, then the throttle wire would shake loose inside, then the chain would seize up or need sharpening again, and the process moved in fits and jerks of hurry up and wait.  The oak was solid, heavy as sin, and very dense, which made for slow cutting and smoking blade.  Soon we realized that our biggest priority was to cut the tree enough to pull it out of the trail so we could get back to the road, then focus on firewood lengths.

A cut nearer the base had Kara curious, and we each took guesses about the tree’s age as she counted rings.  Some were closely tight, others wider with faster growth, reflecting the different conditions the tree had faced over the years.  The wood was a lovely red with a golden edge and under other, non-pizza motivated hands, might have made beautiful furniture.  Then Kara offered up the count—at least 104 years old.  So sad to think that one mighty storm could wreck a century of growth.  This tree was but a sapling when the Fullingtons came north to carve our homestead from the stump-studded landscape. 

But everything has its purpose, and though this tree would no longer grow beside its twin, people would be warmed and fed by its gift of timber.  Attaching a strap to the front of the farm truck, we were able to pull the massive stump out of the trail, scraping the top few inches of earth with the tremendous weight.  The saw behaved itself long enough to fill the trailer, and we headed back along the winding road to the farm before dusk settled.

The chickens don’t have quite the same view to the east now that the wood mountain in front of the shed is growing.  Though maybe, if you’re a chicken, the thought of all the bugs to peck and scratch make a woodpile more interesting than the view of the sunrise.  But either way, our wood-making adventures are making progress.  Once the chainsaw is back in order, we’ll have at that grand old oak again.  Those seasoned logs someday are going to make some mighty tasty wood-fired pizzas or fire-roasted leg of lamb, I’d say.  And like the squirrels, we spend these autumn days piling it away while we can before snow flies.

Have you been out making wood today?  Just be sure everyone out there is staying safe with those chainsaws.  Halloween is for makeup folks, not the emergency room, so we’re thinking about the folks out in the woods and hoping everyone stays safe while working to stay warm.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

Greenhouse Day

If you’ve ever visited Farmstead Creamery, you probably noticed the long, white plastic-film greenhouse lightly humming away next door.  Some folks don’t, asking, “what greenhouse?” even though it’s bigger than the creamery.  But if you’ve driven down Moose Lake Road on a winter’s evening, you’ve probably seen the golden glow of the grow lights and wondered what on earth those crazy ladies at the farm were up to.

Growing vegetables and tilapia fish, that’s what!  The symbiotic relationship, in tandem with beneficial bacteria that processes the fish waste into nutrients the plants use to grow, is called aquaponics.  The roots of the plants filter the water so that it returns fresh and clean to the fish, and so the cycle begins again.

Our beloved kale salad and mixed greens all come from the aquaponics, which needs tending multiple times a day.  But some days the system needs more of an overhaul, which is what occupied this last Monday (rather than barn muckin’ chicken pluckin’ or hay balin’).  This Monday was a greenhouse day.

First, there was the usual fish feeding and plant watering.  Mom harvested that day’s round of fodder (sprouted grains for supplemental animal feed) while I poked lettuce seeds into growing medium.  In a week or two, the cheery seedlings will be ready to plant in the system, waving their eager green and red-flecked leaves towards the sun.

In our aquaponics systems, there are three main types of growing systems:  two large rafts with floating rigid-foam panels that have holes drilled in them for the plant roots to reach through to the water below; NFT (nutrient film technology) trays like long rain gutters with lids that also have holes for the plants that access a thin ribbon of moving water at the bottom of the tray; and media beds filled with baked clay marbles that offer structural support for plant roots.  Each system works best for different types of plants.  The rafts are great for lettuces but also kale, Swiss chard, and bok choy.  The NFT works best for smaller plants like cut-and-come lettuce, endive, young basil, and brazing greens.  The media beds serve the needs of root crops like carrots, beets, and radishes, as well as offer a stronger footing for longer-term crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers.

Last fall, we expanded the media bed system by adding Dutch buckets (individual square, black pails for growing long-term crops) along the west wall.  A year later, eggplant bushes tower higher than me and tomato vines stretch across the ground.  It was a little tricky to work out the kinks, with the occasional bucket overflow and finessing the draining system.  Surely, there must be enough PVC pipe in the greenhouse to serve at least five homes!

This fall, we are expanding the media bed system again but with flood-and-drain beds.  Instead of a continuous inflow of trickling water with a continuous outflow through a drain pipe back to the sump tank, a flood-and-drain system is watered heavily but periodically and then allowed to drain.  It also allows us to place beds farther away from the water source (sump tank) and in places inaccessible for water return.

In short, any bare floor space that has more room than is needed for walking, washing, or care of plants is up for grabs for additional growing space.  That means yet another phone call to our rep Zack at Farmtek to order supplies.

“Can we use this 100-gallon reservoir as a flood-and-drain grow bed?” Mom asks.  We walk through the concept that involves a slotted PVC pipe at the base to collect excess water and draw it out through a bulkhead fitting to the drain.

“That should work,” Zach consents.  “If the plastic walls bow out too far, you could make a reinforcement structure from wood or metal, but it’s already built to hold the pressure from the water.  Let me know if this works!”

It used to be a huge grumbling scene with the delivery semi-trucks, but now that we’ve expanded the parking lot at Farmstead, turning around is much easier for them.  Still, when that ship ticket comes in, they probably draw straws for whose turn it is to roll down that gravel lane to drop off the next odd item we’ve purchased.  This time, three large white water reservoir tanks, 30 bags of the clay media (which likely weight 40 to 50 pounds each), and a few odds-and-ends fittings was the stack with our name on it.

“You got that greenhouse full yet?  What are you going to do with all those plants?”

“Eat them,” we grinned.  I already had baby cauliflower plants ready to go in, along with kohlrabis.  We lugged in the white tubs, over two feet wide and nearly seven feet long, and hauled in the bags of media.  The day was cloudy and cool, perfect for a long work-day in the greenhouse with heavy lifting.  Keeps you warm!

It took a little troubleshooting to get the white tank-turned-media-bed up on enough rigid foam to drain into a shorter blue bed for growing cut-and-come greens (hopefully including spinach!) before heading to the drain.  This system allows two rounds of plants to pull nutrients from the water before it’s returned to the earth. 

After finishing all the PVC hookups, we piled in the clay media pebbles.  Seven bags each in the big white tanks, a bag and a half each in the smaller blue tubs.  I also had seven Dutch buckets to refurbish, pulling out old pepper or tomato plants, washing up the tubs, sifting out the roots and debris, then refilling the tubs with a mix of old and fresh media, and planting new cherry tomato plants.  In the washing process, I’d pour off the rich, brown water from collected fish nutrient and pour that over the new media beds as an inoculant to give them a jump start.

Between the hauling, the washing, the sorting, the filling, the fitting, and at long last the planting, I smelled of clay dust, was soaked from the knees and elbows down, and had a few fresh scrapes on my knuckles.  But five new beds were ready to start growing great foods all winter—baby greens, zucchinis, cauliflowers, beets, radishes, and more.  It’s one step closer to personal and community food security during the long winter months by increasing the farm’s ability to grow its own. 

In just a few weeks, the brown clay pebbles will be lush with little green leaves—a testament to hard work on a greenhouse Monday.  I’ll bet that first bite will taste sublime!  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

Building Connections

Some folks think that farming is for the asocial, with lots of time alone on the tractor.  It’s a job for folks who like animals better than people or who just want to grow things and not deal with marketing.  But for the small-scale, farm-to-table producer, getting to know the people who intersect your path is an integral part of the process.

It only takes a generation or two to change cultural understanding.  100 years ago, most people were connected with the land in one way or another, whether through agriculture or trade.  Today, agriculture is constantly seeking to teach kids “where food comes from,” lamenting the social disconnect between milk in the grocery store and cows in the pasture, chicken tenders and the feathered bird.

You can pour all the money you want into promotional campaigning or school programming, colorful little pamphlets or TV time, but nothing is the same as actually spending time on a farm with a food producer.  Skip the rhetoric and illustrations and just get to know your farmers.  They have a story of struggle and joy to share, experiences that rebuild our connections with the land.

Building these connections is part of the work every day at Farmstead Creamery.  “Where is the farm from here?”  “What do you ladies raise?” and “How long have you been farming?” are common starter questions folks have about our farm.  Conversations that start with any of these simple questions sometimes stay there and other times delve into the throws of honeybee biology and the plight of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or how Belle the guard donkey protects the sheep in the field.

Each encounter chips away at feeling that food-production has become the other, run by machines and migrant labor.  While this is certainly the case in many places, it’s not the story everywhere.  Sustainably-minded small farms push back against agribusiness’ alienation of food-growing practices.  Here, we still stick seeds in the ground by hand and feed the chickens with a pail of grains you can recognize.  It’s a breath of fresh air, a refuge for folks who see the lack of ethics and care for the individual in the mainstream food system.

The draw to reconnect and learn from growers on the frontline of the sustainable food systems initiative is also why we’ve had students from across the country seek to spend time on the farm.  Earlier this month, Natalie, a Waldorf high school student from Sacramento, California, came for a five-day intensive internship as part of her senior curriculum.  Her brother Elliot had taken our “Sustainable Foodie” class through Northland College and recommended us as a neat experience.

It was early on a sunny Monday morning when Natalie arrived.  As always, we start with a hug and “Have you eaten?”

“Well, I had some fruit and yogurt this morning.”

“Oh no, that won’t get you through chores!” and off we go to make our signature multi-grain pancakes with sausages and strong tea. 

Appropriately fortified, we jump into the day with the final milking of the sheep for the season; checking the survivor beehive and preparing it for moving into the aquaponics greenhouse; harvesting the tomatoes, broccoli, and cucumbers; pulling out the hay wagon before the impending rain and harvesting all the winter squash (including tromping through old pig pens to discover the interesting hybrids they’d planted); moving all the chicken and duck paddocks, with feeding and watering; and finally making chocolate milk and a yummy dinner of pork chops with one of the squashes and some of the broccoli we’d harvested that day.

By 9:30 pm, Natalie was wiped—but that was just 9:30 for us, with more to do!  But she needed time to write in her journal.

“So, my teacher told me not to write about what I did.  I’m supposed to be writing about personal growth.  But I’m going to start with a list of what I did anyway so I don’t forget!  This was an awesome day, and talk about totally amazing food.”

Throughout her time on the farm, Natalie helped make gelato, bake bread, make soup, process sheep’s milk soaps for sale, do chores, make meals, buss tables, work in the aquaponics, help with a Jewish harvest dinner we were hosting, and even run wildly in the snow.  Every day brought in some things that were the same and many that were different, which is part of what keeps all of us going in the cyclical journey of agrarian life.

Now back in Sacramento, Natalie will be presenting her internship (along with the rest of the senior class) to the entire school.  We both took pictures from the adventure, and I recently uploaded mine to Facebook for easy access for Natalie, though you’re welcome to logon and see them too—snapshots of a brief but intensive stay on our diversified homestead farm.  Perhaps someday she’ll be back for a summer internship, building on the connections begun this fall.

But you don’t have to live on the farm to be actively connected.  Some folks connect through farm tours, through volunteering, or through engaged conversation.  By reading this story, you’re engaging with our farm as well, even if you’ve never stepped onto the property.  As much as we may not like to think about it, ignorance is what protects the sins of the mainstream food system.  Building connections with responsible small farmers breaks apart that barrier and empowers all of us to make informed food decisions throughout our lives wherever we go.

Who knows where Natalie will take her new experience or how it will impact her life and the people around her.  So, far from being a place for the asocial, commonplace encounters on our farm are meaningful moments for building connections with the land, stewardship, and the story of those who live it every day.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

Nobody's Safe

September’s storm was a poignant illustration that no one is safe when it comes to severe weather.  Anything can happen at any time, and a placid cabin on the lake can instantly be transformed to a war zone.  Homes are damaged, the residents terrified, and the landscape changed for generations.

Unfortunately, this same scenario is true for the big issues facing agrarians right now as well.  Just as cabins in the Northwoods seem safe from earthquakes and hurricanes, so did our farm nestled within the borders of the Chequamegon National Forest seem sheltered from the tumults of big ag pressures that are destroying small farms across the nation.

But that isn’t true, and these last couple of weeks have been especially illustrative of that point.

Some of the creatures we tend on our farm are honeybees.  Since 2003, these eager little furry insects have been the pollination task force at the farm, as well as providing delicious honey from local nectars.  When still in undergraduate studies, I remember once checking the hive in September before heading off to a week-long residency in Vermont. The hives were vigorous, full of busy bees, and the honey flow was strong.

But when I returned, the hives were ominously quiet.  No winged bodies hurrying in and out of the entrance…nothing.  Inside, brood (baby bees) had been abandoned, the honey left to raiders (wasps and hornets), and no one was at home.  These are the classic symptoms of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), which had been a plague to beekeepers across the country and led to the nation’s honeybee population’s decline by at least 60%.  While the cause of CCD is still under scrutiny, the chemical industry has come under heavy fire with regards to insecticides that kill bees.

I hadn’t sprayed anything, so what had happened?  Then, years later but only a month ago, we were hit by two raging storms.  The first is the one folks still talk about when stopping in at Farmstead—the hail, the rain, the winds, the trees down everywhere.  I knew better than to check my bees after a hail storm because in their fury; they often blindly sting their beekeeper, sending some to the hospital.

But then there came the second storm, one day short of a week later, with strong north winds that tore up the Lake Superior shore, sent more trees toppling, and pelted rain sideways across the pasture.  It was after this storm that we noticed there weren’t any more honeybees searching the battered beans and zucchinis in the garden.  For that matter, there weren’t any bumble bees or butterflies either.  What had happened?

Mom and I were cleaning up from butchering chickens the Monday afterwards when she happened to pass by the hives.  “Laura, come quick!  This doesn’t look good!”  There were the three vibrant hives, still standing, but the entrances were crammed full of dead bees.

I suited up quick and began the desperate process of looking for survivors, trying to decipher what had happened.  First one hive, then the next were simply dead at the bottom of the hive, like finding a colony in the spring froze out from the cold.  But we hadn’t had the type of cold that should kill a strong colony of honeybees by any means.  Again, brood lay dead and abandoned in the frames, but the rest were simply dead.  One small handful of bees with one queen survived in the largest of the hives, barely enough to even count.

I asked my 90-year-old beekeeping mentor that Saturday at farmer’s market about the incident, still shaken and feeling that I had somehow been neglectful or that there must have been something I could have done to save them.  “It’s almost like someone came and sprayed them with pesticide,” I explained.

Mr. Rowe shook his head with the knowing that comes with age.  “You know, with all the silly things that people do these days, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.  With that strong wind you had, anything could have blown in.”

It’s called drift, and increasingly it’s becoming a huge problem in agriculture for the folks who don’t use chemical practices.  Drift from broadleaf herbicides is killing milkweed even in protected areas, destroying butterfly habitat.  Chemical drift is disqualifing certified organic farmers who live too close to conventional growers.  And every year, fieldworkers’ health is destroyed by exposure to chemical drift.  My bees were just another victim of big ag’s dependence on chemicals to soothe its self-inflicted ailments.

But the second part of the story was, at the same market, learning from another vendor who raises hogs in the Mason area that a CAFO (Confinement Animal Feeding Operation) is talking of opening a 6000 sow/piglet farrowing unit near the corner of HWY 63 and 2.  Right here, in the middle of the pristine Northwoods, where farms are small and concerned about the land, the animals, and the community, they want to plop in one of the huge systems that have infected the southern part of the state and dot the Iowan landscape.  No!  Not with all the horrible hog diseases going around these days.

I expressed this concern with an environmental lawyer who is looking into the issue.  He hadn’t yet heard about the disease side of the argument (PEDv), so this is what I shared with him.

Key issues of PEDv (Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus):

·         This is essentially Ebola for pigs, it’s extremely easy to transmit through body fluids, body parts (via feed), manure, and water.  It can be spread via feed, feed trucks, boots, moving animals, etc.

·         It is extremely fatal.  For young piglets, the death rate in infected facilities is 100% (it really doesn’t get higher than that).  Older pigs can carry the disease but tend not to succumb to the symptoms, which are vomiting and diarrhea, which leads to very fast dehydration then death.

·         Once PEDv has infected an area, you can’t get rid of it.  It’s been in the country less than a year, so studies are just beginning.  One study indicates that the virus can live at least 28 days in the soil without a host.

·         At least 8 million piglets nation-wide have died, with cases in at least 23 states.  There are now 9 confirmed cases on Wisconsin.

·         As yet, there is no proven vaccine and no cure.  Prevention and biosecurity are the only methods currently available to keep PEDv from spreading.

Northern Wisconsin is lucky to be a PEDv-free region, and we need to keep it that way.  With continued losses of stock nation-wide, PEDv-free places are going to be one of the few refuges to replenish the population.  By the nature of a CAFO (confinement animal feeding operation), with overcrowding, the massive moving of stock, and hauling of large quantities of feed, and the fact that fecal matter is everywhere (not to mention that pigs are routinely fed back to pigs in these operations), there is NO WAY for a CAFO to honestly promise to stay PEDv-free, even if they bring in disease-free stock. 

The proposed operation that wants to move in says that they will be bringing in stock that is not from the area for farrowing (birthing piglets).  The piglets will be raised until they are big enough to withstand the virus, then be shipped back to Iowa (a disease endemic area for PEDv).  In essence, they want to take advantage of our area’s PEDv clean status, until it catches up with them, and then they’ll pull out and go somewhere else.  By that time, the area will be contaminated because the roads will be contaminated, the soil, the tires on the feed trucks that supply everyone else as well, and the local producers who have been so vigilant to keep their stock safe will be the collateral damage.  This is big-ag using the little guy as a shield from its own problems only to abandon the front lines when the demons eventually catch up with them, leaving everyone else to clean it up, which is likely not possible.

As an area heritage pig breeder, this is very scary for us, as well as the other small producers who have worked so hard to build healthy herds.  I hope that this information can add some ammunition against the big-ag invasion.  Thanks! ~Laura

***

There are two things that we can do in the face of the destructive nature of big ag practices:  we can go on living our lives and pretend it doesn’t affect us, or we can step out and work to make a difference, to push back.  This could be anything from letting your representatives know your opinion to voting with your fork to letting others know what is happening.  Please stand with your local, sustainably minded farmer, or the system will simply squeeze them out of existence, one battle at a time. 

But at least for now, with my chin still up, I will defiantly say that I’ll still be persevering in order to see you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

Grass Farmer

You may boast of your amber waves of grain, but today’s progressive livestock owner is really a grass farmer.  And, of course, we’re talking much more than lawns!

There’s the old-school playpen method to pasturing, where animals are given a large area to roam at will, returning to the same space day after day.  What happens with this method is that the animals pick through the spacious pasture, eating all the “candy” and leaving the “spinach.”  Eventually, the candy is overgrazed, the spinach all goes to seed, and the pasture is overtaken by the spinach, leaving it unpalatable for the livestock.  Clumps of grass grow tall where manure piles, which they won’t eat either because of the smell, and invasives like spotted knapweed and burdock move in.  After a while, that lovely playpen is a real mess!  (And the farmer ends up having to feed hay all year because there’s no forage nutrition in the pasture).

Ruminants like sheep and cows and goats are meant to eat grasses as their main dietary source—that’s why they have that complex four-stomach system.  Even other livestock like horses and poultry and pigs benefit greatly from the nutrition in fresh green forage.  So, what are some ways we can defeat the playpen syndrome and build strong, viable pastures?

First, we have to overcome the spinach/candy problem.  This doesn’t mean eradicating the spinach (though you have to pull out those invasives) because we all know that spinach is packed with important nutrition, even if it isn’t everyone’s favorite.  In essence, the livestock need a balanced nutrition that includes eating the candy AND the spinach.  This can be accomplished through mob grazing, which mimics the tendencies of wild herds of bison or elk.  The group sticks together on a relatively small space per animal (which offers safety from predators), eats down everything in that section, spreads their manure, and then moves onto the next plot.

All the forages have been trimmed evenly, hoof activity stimulates the root system, and the free fertilizer spikes the nitrogen.  The animals are moved the next day to a new section of the pasture, and the cycle begins again.  Topsoil is regenerated and the balance of forages is maintained.  On our farm, the sheep are excited every morning to head out to a new paddock, formed of flexible Electronet fencing that can be pulled out and rearranged into new shapes by hand.  In the spring, paddocks are small given the intense lushness of the forage, whereas by autumn, each pen is larger as the forages thin and overgrazing before winter must be avoided.

Belle, the guard donkey, follows in paddocks immediately left by the sheep, clipping any stalky bits left behind.  If given lush pasture, she could founder or become obese, so the scarcity is good for her overall health and keeps her near the flock she is protecting from predators.

The poultry pull up the rear, devouring bugs, scratching up the manure, and enjoying clovers and grasses with surprising voracity.  They too spread their nitrogen-rich manure, leaving dense, green patches after a few rains marking where they had grazed in their chicken tractors.  For stubbornly unproductive patches in the pasture, we’ve even used the pigs to build new topsoil, disking and replanting after their tenure.

Really, the best thing for the farm is the animals, and the best thing for the animals is the grass.  Together, they’ve strengthened the pastures and our ability to graze more sheep on the same acreage.  But we’re certainly still learning.

Last week, Woody Lane, who is a nutritionalist and grazing specialist from the state of Oregon, joined us with a number of UW Extension agents and other livestock producers for a pasture walk on our farm.  The group looked at the different species growing in the field and sword (leaf) density.  They pulled out chucks of sod to look at the nitrogen-fixing nodules on clover roots.  The value of grazing multiple species and the start of our silvopasture project were also key points of interest.

Our next hurtle on the farm will be balancing the pH and potassium levels, both of which are low and cannot be regained just through grazing technique.  Woody Lane was able to give us some helpful pointers with regards on what to spread, when, and how it will help improve the pastures.  This is especially true of our southern hayfield, which is in dire need of revitalization attention and is next on the pasture project list (along with continuing the development of the silvopasture).

But having pasture walks with nationally known guest speakers like Woody Lane or Joel Salatin also helps affirm that we are on the right path with intensive, rotational grazing of multiple species.  It is certainly more labor intensive that freestall barn loafing and feeding pre-processed TMR (Total Mixed Ration) that is meant to “bypass the rumen”—what?  Let them go and pick their own food today.  It’s much healthier, and they want to do it! 

If you were a sheep or cow, would you rather have pulverized fermented grain, brewer’s waste, and chicken manure?  Or would you rather be out in the sunny pasture munching on mixed salad?  Well, it wouldn’t take me long to decide that I’d rather live with a grass farmer.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

Not a Sexy Topic?

Everybody’s gotta eat.  I’m sure somewhere, someone has it figured out how much time the average person spends buying, preparing, and consuming food, not to mention all the hours boasted by the food service industry, which makes food for us when we opt out of “from-scratch” in the home kitchen.  Certainly, it’s not nearly the amount of time our great grandmothers spent bending over the woodstove (or corncob-heated summer kitchen in my ancestors’ case), but three meals a day is still a considerable part of our human experience.

But how much time or thought do we put into the choices we make about those three daily meals, beyond our impulses over what we do or don’t “feel” like eating at the moment.  Do we really know the story behind our food, where it comes from, who grew or prepared it, or what types of ethics were behind the choices being made by those whose lives are interweaved into our food chain?

That’s why people like me, who spend nearly every moment of every day growing, raising, and preparing sustainably minded foods, have to take each opportunity to share our story.  Hi, my name is Laura.  My mom and my sister and I run a farm in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.  This is the food we grow, and this is why we care.  We want to spread the opportunity to access healthy, wholesome, local foods, so this is why you should care.

Add in all the details, our passion for the work, and our commitment to community, and our local food story is off to a start.  But it’s not always an easy sell.  Many folks are motivated entirely by price, which means that some of them are merely deaf ears to our efforts.  Others will only want what they want, which is usually something we don’t happen to have at that time because spinach is already several weeks out of season and the potatoes aren’t anywhere near being ready to dig yet.

Sometimes, what seems like a receptive audience for our farm-to-table story can throw a curveball we didn’t see coming.  Back in May, I was asked to present at a state homemaker’s convention that was many months off.  The coordinator said that members had expressed an interest in learning more about local foods and women entrepreneurs in agriculture.  Sure, I thought, it would be a neat way to make an impact through telling our story.

Well, that conference was this last week, only five days after the catastrophic storm that rocked the region.  After busting through chores and grabbing my laptop with a carefully prepared PowerPoint slideshow and a basket full of yarns from our sheep, I hurried off to Lakewoods for the gig.  The parking lot was FULL, with ladies bustling about everywhere.  A flustered registration officer scrambled to find my nametag and directed that my room was downstairs at the end of the hall on the right.

Down the stairs I scurried, thinking the elevators should be reserved for the elderly who needed them more than I, and found the hallway jammed with talkative ladies (and a few token gents) just letting out from the previous lineup of presentations.  The narrow hall was a din of chatter, colorful sweaters, and permed hair.

“Excuse me!” I squeaked, trying to hold my basket up high while guarding the laptop bag with my other arm.  “I’m a presenter trying to reach my room!”  Few were listening, so instead I got to taste a bit of life as a salmon at spawning…minus the water.  “Excuse me!”

The double-wide doors along the hall each supported an owl-themed plaque with the name of the next presentation being offered.  I glanced at each one, with a, “well, not mine” thought, then kept swimming.  Finally, I made it to the last room on the right, only to discover a massive quilt show.  Oh dear, I don’t think I was going to be offering a PowerPoint presentation with quilts for a backdrop…might do something to the colors.

Eventually, I learned that ladies wearing owl pins were in some shape or form directing the event, and one was able to indicate that I needed to go even further down the hall.  Really?  It didn’t look like there were any more room.  But then, taking a crook to the left, past some non-aesthetic shelving units, there was one last door.  Just a plain, single door, with no window and no owl-guarded plaque. 

Inside, the space was dim, lit by one bare light bulb in the ceiling.  Made of cinder block without a single window, it was shaped like a wedge with humming raw ductwork along the wall and ceiling.  I had the distinct feeling that I was in a storage room, where extra chairs and tables might be kept.  But there, in little rows, were stark, black, metal folding chairs and one little table.  This, apparently, was my palette.

But there was no projector for the slideshow, no extension cord, and no hostess.  As I wrestled with the portable projection screen, which looked like it probably dated back to the ‘60’s, I implored several owl-pinned ladies to find a projector--PLEASE.  In the end, one was discovered at the front desk, and we balanced the beast on top of some books I’d brought to share to gain a reasonable projection angle.  Turning off the one token light bulb allowed for clear visibility of the screen, but setup was further complicated by the confusion over presentation locations.  It appears that others were as baffled as I over this mysterious room at the end of the hallway!

“Is this where they’re talking about human trafficking?” 

“Sorry, this is the presentation by North Star Homestead Farms about local foods.”

“Oh,” she glances around the dark little cell of a room and vanishes around the corner.

Hmm, well, guess what my little farm story was up against!  Out of a building full of homemakers, 13 had signed up to attend my discussion.  About nine of them actually found my room.  Not that these are unworthy numbers—the ladies I shared the morning with were blown away by the plethora and diversity of things happening on our farm and the history behind it all.  Our discussions at the end were animated about the hidden costs of cheap food, the ripple effect of supporting small-scale, local farmers, and the influence of each consumer to vote with her dollar.  The ladies were enthusiastic and empowered, which I can only hope will carry through to their experiences beyond the conference.

As I picked up my room and returned the projector, again the halls were filled with the bumping babble of attendees.  I couldn’t help but think about which would have directly impacted their lives more (learning the value of local foods vs. some sort of discussion on human trafficking), well, it seems apparent to me.  So, what’s the issue with appeal?

If you were to ask Joel Salatin, as he discussed in the documentary “Farmageddon,” he might offer that “It’s beautiful! Good food production should be aesthetically and aromatically, sensually romantic.”  But does it make the mainstream news that way like…human trafficking?

Food is such a central part of the human experience.  Why shouldn’t talking about farming be its own form of sexy?  Maybe if I’d given the talk in a bikini that would have made a difference.  But then, the room was dark so we could see the pictures of hard working folks on the farm; I could have been wearing a Halloween costume for all it mattered.  Oh well, we’ll try again next time.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

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Carnage

Most of the time, rain is welcome on the farm.  Maybe not during haying season, and maybe not too much during the spring thaw, but drought is always a specter to fear and avoid.  But this year, drought hasn’t been the problem.  If you weren’t up at the cabin last Thursday, count yourself lucky.  If you came up to the cabin but didn’t lose anything, count yourself very lucky.  Out here in Moose Lake Country, it looks like Hurricane Sandy barreled through, and some folks won’t get their electricity restored for another week!

It started all dim and foggy that morning, nothing unusual for early September.  Mom was listening to NPR when that tell-tale series of beeps and buzzes broke through the news story, and the tin can voice proclaimed the oncoming doom:

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HAS ISSUED A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING FOR SAWYER COUNTY.  HIGH WINDS, HEAVY RAIN, AND PING-PONG-SIDED HAIL IS LIKELY.  GET YOURSELF AND YOUR ANIMALS INTO SHELTER IMMEDIATELY.

Mom flipped on the Weather Channel radar and saw not just green or yellow or orange coming, but red surrounding an angry magenta ball hurling our way.

“Girls, get up, hurry!  It’s coming!”

We each grabbed the nearest available pants and shirts, threw on the chore boots, and tore out into the fog.  There was nothing visual to warn against the storm except for a black line on the western horizon, just visible over the tops of the trees.  We each tore in separate ways, driving tractors into sheds, pulling sliding doors closed and latching them tight, picking up random items in the yard and stuffing them into the garage.  The air was thick and quiet, ill foreboding of things to come.

I had chicken tractors out in the field, way out in the field.  The black line was growing thicker, taller, and I knew there would be no time to pull those chickens into the yard.  They were going to have to weather the storm, where they were.  So I grabbed the trusty fence post pounder, an armload of well-loved metal T-posts, a mound of baling twine from the barn, and headed out bravely with the golf cart.

The grass was wet and the ground still soft from the Wednesday afternoon rain.  The chickens and turkeys were eagerly lined up along the front of their tractor, thinking that breakfast sounded good to them.  I pulled them forward to fresh ground, feeding and watering so fast my hands were shaking and a little spilled here and there.  Who knew when I would be back?

Kara joined me in the field with the truck as we tied down the plastic tarp sides.  I took up the pounder and began the tell-tale clang-clang of ramming steel into earth at outward angles to each corner of the tractors.  Kara took fistfuls of baling twine and lashed the PVC supports to the posts, like a serious camping ten staking.  By now, the rumble of the thunder was quite distinct, and lightning flashes visible.  Surely, pounding metal posts in the middle of a pasture was not the wisest activity at the moment, but it had to be done!

Staking accomplished, I wished the birds the best of luck and flew back to the barnyard.  A few drops of rain spat in distaste against the roof of the golf cart, stinging my face.  This was an angry storm even on the leading edge.

The ducklings had been pasturing beneath the great maple trees in the yard for shade, and the last minute Mom and I grabbed their shelter (with them walking along inside) and carried the worried quackers away from the already waving limbs and towards the hedge, which would shelter them from northern winds. 

“The high tunnel!” Mom hollered, and she flew off that way to close down the sides while I secured a tarp on a turkey hutch.  “Let’s get the car in the garage!”  It was growing darker and darker out, but the chicken coop lights wouldn’t turn on, and the barnyard lamp wasn’t lit.  “I think the power’s out!”

The rain was coming in earnest as I turned up the driveway with the trusty golf cart towards the garage.  If I pulled right up to the chest freezer, the car could squeeze in behind.  My pants were soaked, my sweatshirt was soaked, my hair was soaked.  Kara brought in the car as Mom waited just outside with the old farm truck.  Just then a wall of wind and water struck like a fist with a roar, and you couldn’t see hardly anything.  It took us pulling on the outside of the door and Mom pushing from the inside to be able to climb into the truck, soaked, panting.

Then the hail started.  Bang-bang on the truck and bouncing off the ground.  We backed up blindly, turned around, and crawled our way to Farmstead Creamery.  The hail pounded and pummeled, the winds whipped and the rain hurled in sheets.  We had to make sure that the generator was running or the tilapia fish in the aquaponics greenhouse would die without their airstones bubbling. 

Again, wrench the truck door open and dash inside.  If I thought I had been wet before, I was much wetter now, and that hail stung hard.  Inside, beneath the metal roof of the Creamery, it was a cacophonous din.  And then everything outside grew so dark you couldn’t tell what was happening at all…except for the sound.

But the generator was working.  We pulled out the pans of gelato from the display and tucked them into the back freezers, which are connected to the generator.  No sense in having the Café open today—no power meant no ability to cook.  We huddled around a battery-powered light, shakily nibbled on some cereal and muffins, and waited for the storm to subside.  Our one corded phone on the property rang often as neighbors and friends as far away as Rochester and Ashland called to see if we were alright.  At this point, the fate of the farm was uncertain.

As soon as the sky lightened a little and the hail subsided, Mom and I dashed out to the aquaponics greenhouse, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.  Inside, the rain was deafeningly amplified by the plastic roof, which had amazingly withstood the pelting hail.  The fish were terrified, the flashing and the booming vibrating against their tanks, and they hid at the bottom without interest in food. 

We went about our chores, flinching at the flashes and listening to the winds change from westerly to easterly.  Against the side of the greenhouse were shredded bits of leaves stuck like decoupage along the west wall.  Another blast of storm rolled through, and we waited amongst the plants and fish before venturing back to the Creamery.

Luckily, the DSL modem was also connected to the generator, so we could watch the radar as the bulk of the angry system skirted just south of the farm.  As we gradually emerged from the building, branches and leaves littered everywhere.  Neighbors immediately descended with chainsaws to clear the seven trees down on Fullington Road, all crashed from west to east.

The angry clouds were still close to the east as we walked back to the farm to assess the damages.  Between Wednesday’s rains and the new five inches in two hours, the creek that runs under the lane was swollen within inches of overtaking the road, roaring out the culvert like a freight train.  In the yard, a towering balsam tree (which had loosed one of its tops toward our intern Sam’s window in June) had broken off at 20 feet, smashing part of the garden and potato crates.  Had it snapped in the other direction, however, it would have crashed right through the farmhouse.

The garden lay limp, pummeled by the hail.  The second crop beans, which had all been in full bloom, lay shattered and flattened.  Zucchini stood half-shredded and beaten, though the high tunnel survived unscaved.    Where the ducklings has been beneath the maples, huge branches had fallen.  The chickens and turkeys in their tractor were soaked but all alive, and those baling twine strings lashing them to the steaks were tight enough to play music on the west side and drooping loose on the east, but they had held.  The power remained out for 11 ½ hours, but really, we had to count ourselves lucky.

All week, folks have been cutting their way out of the woods and venturing to Farmstead Creamery for a chance to eat something hot, collect water, check their email, or charge their phone.  Often they arrive with sawdust from the chainsaws still clinging to their clothing.  Truly, this storm was epic for the area.  When folks asked that Saturday at the farmer’s market the usual, “How are you today?,” I couldn’t help but reply, “Happy to still have a farm.”

Five miles to the north, folks got rain but no hail.  Five miles to the south, hail came in snowdrifts.  The garden is battered, but all the animals survived.  Our buildings were ok, and so were our neighbors, though many had suffered downed trees and some damages.  As we stood around by our trucks in the lane like war refugees after a bombing, we marveled at the sheer power of nature and our luckiness to all be alive.  It’s certainly a storm to remember, and I’m glad that I can still say that I’ll see you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

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Change in the Air

There’s something about the shift to September that shakes away the muggy summer air and brings crisp coolness in the morning.  Flowers shift from clovers and daisies to wild asters and golden rod, and the breeze even smells different as it tugs at your hair.  A change of season is coming, whether we’re ready for it or not.

The Saturday morning drive to farmer’s market is always an indicator.  Each week I watch for changes as a splash of red or a thrust of orange or yellow appears like teasers of what’s to come.  Already, one of the old spreading maples in the barnyard is showing ever so slightly a hint of hue, while the others stubbornly hold on to green as long as they can.

In the garden, the zucchinis and cucumbers seem to know that the end is coming—sending forth their fruits faster than can be picked.  One inch today, one foot tomorrow!  But the pigs don’t mind the occasional garden shark as a crunchy snack.  The potato plants are withering, done with their task of growing red and gold nuggets underground for the year.  And even the winter squashes are spreading their leaves wide, allowing the sun to penetrate to their orbed labors below for aid in ripening.  Really, there won’t be much time left before harvest.

Elsewhere, there are also signs of change.  Fewer and fewer hummingbirds appear at the feeders each morning, with only a couple teenaged stragglers left before migration.  We keep the feeders full, though, hoping that a passer-by from parts further north will still find a safe place to tank up for the long flight south.

The call of Canada Geese haunts the morning sky, along with the Sandhill Cranes.  At first, we were afraid that they had lost their chick this summer, as the wailing and flying from pasture to pasture seemed to last for an entire week in July.  But then in August, here came the family with not one but two tall fuzzies in toe!  Now those fuzzies are almost as big as their parents, and this last weekend on the farm tour, we watched as the foursome all ascended from the pasture, with the sunlight glinting off their broad wings.

The teenaged turkeys love this time of year, in large part because it’s grasshopper season.  They line up at the front of their tractor pen, ready to devour them ALL as I tug and pull it forward to their next patch of clovers and grasses.  The crickets fare no better, nor the occasional frog.  Hop away fellows, or face the consequences!

The chickens are grumpy and frumpy as they execute their late summer molt.  Feathers are strewn everywhere, while their necks or backs sport prickly pins like hedgehogs.  As the nights grow chilly, they puff up their pins and short growing feathers in protest, but it seems to do little good.  But there are smug faces indeed from the ladies who had an early start, all sleek and shining with their new feather coats, roosting placidly, clucking to themselves.

Perhaps the hardest part of the change to autumn is the reduction in daylight.  In a couple of weeks, we’ll be passing the Equinox.  Each farmer’s market morning, the sky is dimmer and dimmer, which doesn’t help the bright-eye, bushy-tail index.  By end of season, Kelli (my farmer’s market co-pilot) and I will be packing in the dark with coats and hats and gloves.  One year, we even packed for the end-of-September market in a skiff of snow!  Let’s hope we can skip that experience this year.

There’s always waaaaay too much to do in September on the farm than can ever be accomplished.  All the harvesting, wishing we had time to go pick the blackberries in the woods, washing chicken dishes and putting away equipment for the winter, cleaning up the piles and finishing projects.  There’s barn mucking, chicken plucking, and if there’s a second crop, even hay baling to squeeze in as well, let alone mulching and ripping out the garden.  It’s a bugger the interns have to leave us this time of year.  Just look at all the vegetables coming out of the garden right now they could enjoy!

On the flip side, the reward is the slackening of the onslaught of biting insects, the crisp air in the morning that brings its own sense of vitality, the kaleidoscopic change of colors all around, and the bountiful harvest of yumminess from the garden.  I just hope that my tomatoes pick up the pace and get around to ripening!  I mean, really, 150 plants worth of fried green tomatoes sounds a bit intense, even if I do try putting them on a wood-fired pizza.

The kids are heading back to school, which means that the nights of family crowds with half-pints running freely in the parking lot are coming to a close.  Already, one of the nearby campsites has closed down for the season.  Our Labor Day Saturday Pizza Farm Night with Duck for the Oyster playing old time fiddle and dance was really the last hurrah to summer.  With over 100 folks to join us that night, it was quite a hurrah indeed! 

I’m hoping for a long, enjoyable fall, with the frosts waiting until the bitter end.  The squashes need ripening, the apples fattening, and there’s still plenty of potatoes to dig.  With this year’s late and cold spring, we’re owed a lovely fall, though Mother Nature will surely do whatever it is she plans to do, regardless of our hopefulness.  Still, seeing the cranes fly together in the evening and the last hummingbirds buzz the feeder in the morning, watching the twinge of reds and gold appear on the trees and waking to the cool, crispness in the air, we all know that the changes are coming.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

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Butchering Day

In case you hadn’t heard, Farmstead Creamery & Café is closed on Mondays.  We call it the “barn muckin’ chicken pluckin’ hay-balin’ day.”  Well, today was one of those days in the chicken pluckin’ department—aka, chores reduction day.

It really starts the day before, when you skip feeding the tractor (movable pasture pen/shelter) of chickens that have grown to maturity, which usually leads to a grumpy reception from the plump, white bodies with bobbing, red heads.  “Excuse me, chores-ster, didn’t you forget something?”

Skipping feeding for the day isn’t about me being stingy with the grain.  There’s still plenty of grass and clover with the twice-daily chicken tractor move, as well as bugs to chase and catch.  Withholding feed is the poultry version of GoLightly treatment before a colonoscopy.  It helps get everything cleaned out, which means much less messiness on their big day.

That evening, the lightning flashes, the thunder crashes, and even the National Weather Service calls our house to warn about the storms that rage in a ragged band across the state in a line that reaches all the way down to Texas.  Of course, always, right when you first introduce those four-week-old chickens to life in the tractor (vs life in a more protective coop), something happens with the weather—like the raging wind storm that whipped out of nowhere right after the PBS filming that tried to blow away the chicken tractors.  But now, here we were one night away from butchering, facing the grips of another storm.

Fortunately, the cooling effects of the Chequamegon National Forest sliced a window of green in the radar rainbow of yellows and reds, and we passed unharmed.  No trees snapped in two and no power outages to keep us up all night.  The chickens by morning were still eager, dry…and hungry.  Sorry about that part kiddos.

The preparation is almost the biggest part of butchering day.  There’s the hoses to round up, and the extension cords.  There’s the scouring and placement of tub sinks, prep tables, and buckets.  There’s putting up the canopy and tacking drum liners into place.  And then there’s the cantankerous scalder.

Now, our chicken butchering methods have taken great leaps and bounds from 15 years ago, when we butchered the first 27 Cornish Cross meat chickens.  Back then, we had a hatchet, a stump with two nails, a large pot of water boiling over an open fire, and our fingers.  These days, we have a cone system (like Joel Salatin uses in the documentary “Food Inc.”), a propane scalder shared with another farmer, a drum plucker, and a lot more experience.  If you’re feeling a little lost in all this jargon, don’t worry, Spellcheck has no idea what most of these words are either!

Let’s walk through the butcher station system in a friendly way.  We actually encourage folks who order chickens from us to come and see the operation and learn how it’s done. Most who are brave enough to take us up on the idea whip out their cameras, pull the kids out of the back seat of the car, and wonder at the humanity and science of the affair in comparison with the nightmarish trauma of commercial poultry processing.  It’s important to take ownership of where our food comes from and how it is produced.  If you’re not ready for this story, though, I’ll see you next week.

First, there’s the catch pen.  This is where, after taking a ride in the back of my utility golf cart, the chickens lounge about in the shade of a balsam, pecking at the grass or watching for bugs.  At this point, life is still pretty nice in the land of chicken.  If they do understand what is happening beyond the world of their catch pen, they don’t exhibit any signs of distress or anxiety.

I catch a chicken, place it head-first into the upside-down road cone, and Grandpa removed the head with a knife.  No running around headless, since the bird is confined within the cone like a tight hug.  This also prevents bruising of the meat.  After the bird has been sufficiently bleed out, it’s time for a hot bubble bath.  This is where that renowned scalder comes into play.

Here’s the science part.  Feathers don’t want to come off a chicken—they’re there to protect the feathered beastie from cold, heat, wet, and dry.  If you’ve ever tried to pluck a bird without any treatment after death, you’ll know it’s not easy!  Therefore, to get that nice, clean, creamy-colored skin everyone likes to see on their chicken, it’s necessary to shock the pores of the bird’s skin.  This is accomplished by dunking them in hot, soapy water (about 145 degrees F) for close to 50 seconds, followed by plunging the chickens in a bucket of cold water.  The soap cuts the oils on the chicken’s feathers, allowing the hot water to penetrate (scalding), while the quick change from hot to cold prevents the skin from cooking.  Now the feathers will pull out easily.

But if the water is not hot enough, the feathers won’t come out, and if it’s too hot for too long, the skin will start to cook and tear easily.  Trying to maintain a standard temperature over an open fire proved to be near impossible and more liable to melt the toes of our shoes as we leaned precariously over the pot to dunk soggy chickens.  It’s amazing how much they weigh when soaked in soapy water!  This is why a thermostat-regulated propane scalding tank works considerably better. 

Getting the poultry jacuzzi to light can sometimes be an interesting ordeal, laying on the ground with a lighter while holding the magic (though very hidden) red plastic button to ignite the pilot light.  But once it gets going and regulated (even if that means wrapping the scalder in insulation on freezing butcher days), the scalder is one of the most important tools in the process.

The next phase is the plucker.  That used to be us.  Originally, it was optimistic to do four to five chickens an hour when everything was by hand.  Tail and wing feathers are the worst and must be tackled first before the bird cools too far.  But today, with the drum plucker Grandpa made from a Whizbang kit, we finished 50 birds in a couple hours.  Two birds at a time are placed inside a half-barrel lined with rubber fingers.  The bottom disk spins on a motor, and the chickens bounce around inside.  The rubber fingers pull at the feathers and the centripetal force flings them out the bottom between the rotating disk and the side walls.  When the scalding is just right, there’s only a few pin feathers and a little on the tail that needs hand picking.  It’s amazing!

Mom and Kara are experts at the leg and neck trimming as well as evisceration.  Knives whirl, hoses spray, and the hearts and livers are saved for the giblet bags.  Then we all chip in on pin feathers (quality control), while the birds chill in tubs of cold water.  Then they’re bagged, weighed, labeled, and tucked in the fridge while the whole system is scoured and put away for another day.  The catch pen is empty, but in its place are 50 beautiful, clean frying or roasting chickens for folks to enjoy at their table—real food from a real farm where the chickens had real chicken lives.

So, if you really did make it to the end of the article and didn’t “chicken out” at the title, here’s a pat on the back for you.  For those of us who choose to eat meat, being knowledgeable and responsible about how it is raised and prepared should be part of the “noblis oblige” of life as an omnivore.  When we own and respect it, then there is dignity.  When we ignore or divorce ourselves from it, that dignity is lost, and we can easily become pray to corporate manipulation.  When was the last time Tyson invited you to their butchering day?  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

Holes

Let’s be honest, holes happen on farms.  I always get holes in my jeans from making hay—throwing bales, stacking, climbing, crawling.  There’s a sand-strewn hole just under the garage foundation where the thirteen-lined ground squirrels have taken up residence.  And there are all the quirky knotholes in the walls of the barn, where the light shines in and casts speckles and streaks in the morning.

There are holes in my chore boots, right where they fold when I walk, that lets in the morning dew and splattering rain, dampening the tops of my socks.  So much for keeping me warm and dry…but I still haven’t taken the time to replace them.  Seems like you just get something broke in when the holes start appearing.

Our intern Sam found the hole in the pair of thick, blue, rubber gloves used for dunking the chickens in the scalding tank during butchering.  Now and then, she’d have to pour out the hot water that had collected inside.  And, of course, there’s always the holes worn into garden gloves from weeding and transplanting, with sandy grit impacted under my fingernails or the sticky greenness from handling tomato plants. 

Yup, it seems that some things have trouble holding up to farm work.  Last summer, a particularly pointy rock managed to put two holes in one of the truck tires.  At first, it looked like a nail, but the fix-it garage saved the dagger-shaped stone after extraction for us to see.  What luck it was indeed to run over such a treasure wrong-side-up.  We actually kept the little bugger, to show when telling the story to family, but also to quarantine it from reappearing on the driveway!

Every Saturday during farmer’s market season, I load up the car with bakery, jams, produce, gelato, and other farm goodies.  The fold-up canopy rests on top, along with the tables and bakery bins.  Our first canopy, which lasted 10 years of active duty, had a pretty forest green and white striped top with a center peak.  The case that slipped over the top was equally striped, like a big Cat-in-the-Hat chapeau, minus the brim.  Well, as the 10 years were getting on, the case first wrinkled, then wore out at the corners, then tore down the seam, then simply disintegrated. 

Holes worn at the corner intersections of the canopy began to leak, so the poor thing was demoted from farmer’s market duty to chicken butchering shelter.  A few more years of limping the well-loved structure along, and UV degradation left the top with little pin-holes everywhere that dripped rain like a fine sieve.  But still, being thrifty, we kept the thing until at last all the aluminum bracing broke at the hinges and the canopy refused to open anymore.  That doesn’t make the structure terribly useful.

The newer, white canopy has since passed the “death of the case” phase, and lately I’ve noticed a few holes where the corners rub in packing.  So we start the saga again!

If there’s a hole in your bug net hat, the skeeders and the gnats will find it.  Please don’t tell me there’s a hole in my beekeeping suit!  If there’s a tear in your rain jacket, the water will seep in.  If there’s a hole in the fence, the pigs know about it, and if there’s a hollowed out hole in your winter squash, the voles got there first!  Holes, holes, holes, where do they all come from!?

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza dear Liza

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza a hole.

Almost all of Kara’s favorite farm shirts have holes in them somewhere.  One of my sweatshirts has some interesting holes from being in the compost pile for nearly a year.  It must have been laying in the bed of the utility golf cart when someone piled a bunch of weeds on top without noticing, dumping the whole load.  I looked everywhere for that blue sweatshirt!  Then, one day in spring, there it was on the pile, with the quack grass punching up through.  It cleaned up alright, though bleached in wavy streaks by the sun, with all the new holes.  Battle worn, perhaps, is an apt description.

But some holes aren’t funny at all.  I remember one day back when we were first restoring the farm, and I was just a little bean pole of a pre-teen.  Historically, it was customary for farmer’s to simply throw unwanted items into piles just outside the barnyard.  We’ve found three such piles on the farm, which we’ve cleaned up and hauled away over the years.  One was filled with old wheels, medicine bottles, a toy pistol, the sole of a shoe, and bent sickle bars, but the one where our first chicken coop was going was the old boards, rusty nails, bent shingles, and broken glass type.

We threw the big pieces onto the red trailer by hand and scooped up the small bits with shovels and rakes.  I remember picking nails and picking nails from the dirt, and even still the chickens continue to scratch up odd objects to this day—remnants of trash heap archaeology.  But at last, we were fully loaded and heading off to the dump.

I can’t tell you how many times I was warned to be careful about the broken glass.  Again, we had thrown off the big chunks and scooped away at the small pieces, but there weren’t enough shovels to go around, so Grandpa was kicking at the pile to help it along.  He didn’t say anything, but when we got home, he calmly asked Mom to look at his foot.  A piece of glass had sliced through his leather boot, right into the side of his foot!  And he had driven home that way!  It was a messy cleanup job to take care of that hole, so be warned.

But perhaps the happiest holes on the farm involve food.  There’s the hole sliced in the top of a pie crust, to let out the steam and watch for bubbly doneness.  There’s the hole made in the top of the mashed potatoes on your plate to hold the butter or homemade gravy.  And there’s the hole in the middle of the bagel or fresh pretzel, which I guess is there just to be there.  So yes, while most holes are bothersome, a few on the farm are just for fun.  Watch out for holes!  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

Summer on the Farm

It takes a brave soul to decide to spend an entire summer on a farm out in the middle of the Chequamegon National Forest that’s run by three (possibly eccentric) ladies.  Of course, there’ll be plenty to do (!!!), lots of great fresh food (another !!!, especially since that includes gelato), and fresh air.  But it’s still a brave proposition and an adventure that young folks who intern on our farm have chosen to plunge into like taking a cannonball splash into Lake Superior.

Immersion learning is another name for it, right here in the living laboratory of our diversified homestead farm.

This year, our intern adventurers are Jacob Schultz from Northland College in Ashland, WI and Sam Harrington from Green Mountain College in Vermont—both sustainable ag majors.  Jake jumped in during spring break in April, returning in June just after the PBS filming.  Sam arrived earlier in June, just in time for piglets.  Both, alas and alack, are leaving us this week to return to their lives and coursework.

Last night around the dinner table after a day of butchering chickens, we were sharing stories and laughing over the summer’s accomplishments and moments of havoc.  Here are some of the memorable points Sam and Jake recalled:

Jake:  The day the lamb Junco was born, since he had both hypothermia and hypoglycemia.  We worked on him for five hours, warming on the block heater and giving electrolyte shots and enemas.  We were so exhausted, but Junco pulled through.  He had to be a bottle lamb because he was away from his mother too long after birth, but now you can’t hardly pick him out from the crowd. 

Sam:  Holding down the chicken tractors in the sudden storm that whipped up the evening after the PBS filming until Laura could pound in the T-posts to stake them down.  Then it was the treetops ripping off and landing right next to my bedroom window, ach!

Jake:  The long drive to pick up the colony of honeybees, only to come back and find out the queen was dead!  Then later having the chance to work the hives and see the colonies established and progressing.  Also, knowing that the bees liked me much better than some of the previous interns.

Sam:  Getting to be there when the piglets were born and sitting with Agatha when she was so friendly right before farrowing.  Then there was the one piglet I had to birth myself because Kara stepped away for a moment. 

Jake:  Being dragged off to splash in the mud puddles with Sam.  And the snakes.

Sam:  Ach, the snakes in the hay bales!  [Sam doesn’t like snakes…that’s an understatement]  I had to look at every side of every bale because it seemed like nearly half of them had snakes stuck in them, and then Jake had to pull them out.

Jake:  Yup, at least the chickens liked to eat them.  Throw the snake in the pen, and it was gone.

Sam:  And of course you got to make beer [one of Sam’s talents, which she shared with us this summer].  I kept telling you I make the best beer in the world.  And now you know for real.

Jake:  And seeing the aquaponics was really cool.  Everything from catching and filleting the big fish to introducing the new shipment of little fish.  And planting and harvesting in the greenhouse was awesome…way better than all the weed pulling in the garden.

Sam:  Ooh, but don’t forget tie-dye!  I really wanted to tie-dye Jake’s socks, but I resisted.  We still have to get our tie-dye Tuesday picture together, to go along with “chicken dish Tuesday.”

Jake:  Yeah, there’s been a lot of dishes, and a lot of great food too.  I’ve really loved the food, and the gelato.  That peanut butter gelato is awesome.

Sam:  I never ate so many pancakes in my life, or pizza!  Or pigeon either, never had pigeon before.  I’m still proud that I got it, though.

Jake:  How about the maggots in the back end of the truck, after we got rid of the garbage that one hot day.  At first we thought it was saw dust, but it wasn’t.  It was tons and tons of maggots.  I had to get them out with the power washer, and I was hunched over in the back, spraying, and there was no getting around it by to spray in an arc and get splashed with them.  I went as fast as I could, but it was no use.  The maggots went flying everywhere.

Sam:  Kara and I were the midnight milkers.  But Kara kept falling asleep, so she needed me to keep talking to her.  No matter what we did, we always got stuck milking late, and I’d still be there, cleaning up.  But then, I don’t think I’ve ever met a farmer that got enough sleep.

You can hear more of our interns’ stories this Thursday the 14th at our Annual Intern Scholarship Dinner (in tandem with Pizza Farm Night from 5:00 to 8:00 pm).  We’ll be joined by Tom Draughon and the South Shore Mountain Boys (bluegrass), a slideshow of images from the summer, and more!  All proceeds go towards scholarships for Sam and Jake, and it’s our way to celebrate the dedication and accomplishments of these fine young people who chose to spend their summer on the farm.

Are memories of summertime on a friend or relative’s farm part of your storybag?  It’s high season in the garden, the pizza oven is fired up, and maybe we’ll see you down on the farm before our handy helpers head off to school.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

Unwanted guests

It happens.  No matter how harmoniously you try to farm with nature, some critters have it in for you.  If it’s not ravens running off with baby chickens, it’s the bobcat slaughtering your ducks.  If it’s not the rabbits in the pea patch, it’s the voles climbing the tomato plants to eat three times their body weight every day.  If it’s not the robins gorging in the raspberry patch, it’s the tent caterpillars in your apple tree.

Each year has its own challenges with pesky critters.  One year, the voles may be driving you crazy—running off with your mousetraps, escaping the dog, digging tunnels everywhere, hollowing out your melons and squashes.  The next year, you’ll hardly see a vole but the ground squirrels seem to be everywhere—tunneling under the garage, marauding the chicken feed, and shredding everything related to paper.

And then there’s woodchucks digging caverns under the barn, juvenile Bald Eagles terrorizing the chickens in their tractor pens, or coyotes howling in the night, spooking the newly-weaned lambs.  Goodness, you might even find a snapping turtle caught in the pig pen!

Sometimes, we do our best to live with/around the critters.  We’ve certainly raised a good crop of robins this year with the raspberries because the patch is too sprawled to cover with bird netting anymore.  But sometimes these unwanted guests on the farm call for an all-out-war.  I’m sorry if it doesn’t seem neighborly, but this is not a wildlife farm.  Go live in the woods, be merry, and prosper.  But if you start messing with my farm, watch out!

For years, back when we were mostly just visiting the farm as a getaway, woodchucks lived in the barn.  One particular fat and sassy fellow (or lady, I can’t be sure) perched on an open door in the hay loft, basking in the morning sun, surveying the realm.  Yet, while woodchucks have their own sort of charm (I suppose), their damages to the property outweighed their quaintness. 

While Grandpa took care of the woodchuck population after they collapsed the original hand-dug well in the pump house, restoring the north wing of the barn back to a working dairy shone a new light on the plunder.  Punching through the old stone-infused cement to see that the footings were solid, giant caverns were exposed that had to be filled, lest the whole wing should crack and cave in.  Wouldn’t that be an unpleasant experience in the middle of milking!  A considerable amount of concrete (and funds) went into those holes to make amends from the reign of the farm’s woodchucks.

So, when a teenaged woodchuck decided to move into the red barn early this summer, this was no laughing matter.  We’d been woodchuck-free for at least ten years.  This invader was certainly not welcome!  After finding his hole and watching the little nose pop in and out from under pallets of hay, we made a plan to catch “Charlie” the woodchuck.

Using cement blocks to form a chute outside the hole, we baited a rabbit live trap with peanut butter.  But we were concerned that, since Charlie had more length than a rabbit, he’d be able to get out after triggering the trap.  So we threaded a stick through at the very back and smeared the peanut butter on that.  This was set at the opening of the cement block chute.  And then we left Charlie alone.

“I don’t think we’re going to catch it,” our intern Jake mused.  “I don’t even know if woodchucks like peanut butter.”

But the next morning, when Jake peered around the corner of the barn and called in excitement, “We’ve got him!” it appeared that peanut butter was the right answer.  In fact, Charlie seemed to like it so much that he’d eaten well into the stick as well.  Later, Grandpa took Charlie for a ride out into the forest.

But the latest unwanted guest on the farm was a pigeon.  Over the years, we’ve worked hard to keep the farm pigeon-free, since they are renowned carriers of diseases for livestock.  Pigeons like farms, there’s usually feed to be found somewhere, and barns offer adequate protection from predators.  But take a stroll at any feed mill or in a city, and you can see that there isn’t any threat to the global pigeon population.

Usually, we try scare tactics first, involving rocks, the dog, screaming, and chasing.  Sometimes this is enough to convince the pigeon in question that our farm is no place to stay.  Other times, it isn’t.

About two weeks ago, a white-headed pigeon began appearing on the farm, mostly ranging for spilled chicken feed behind the tractors.  We’d chase after it, but the next day it would be back.  We’d throw sticks and rocks, and still it came back.  Lena would chase it for hours, but the little bugger just wasn’t learning.  It was a pretty thing, for a pigeon, but it was going to have to go.  No thank you fowl cholera, coccidiosis, or avian flu.

So we scrounged up Grandpa’s old 22 and waited for the bird’s imminent return. 

“There he is, on the roof!”  We had just finished picking the black currant bushes by our house when Jake noticed the speckled bird eyeing us from the top of our chalet.  Then came the pursuit, off the roof, out in the field, back to the roof, back to the field, over the barnyard.

It was our intern Sam who caught a wing-shot, and they brought the captive home.  And there came the end of the pigeon’s story, though we did eat its breast in a stir fry for dinner since no one had the heart to waste it.  None of us really wanted to kill the bird if we didn’t have to, but prevention is the first line of defense in maintaining livestock health, which is much more important than entertaining an unwanted guest.

But now chores have returned to normal, with a watchful eye for the marauding creatures that know when you’re not looking.  Hopefully, we’ll keep them at bay for another season.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

A Night Out

“How come we don’t see you around town very much anymore?” is a not uncommon question.  “Don’t you girls get out and have fun?”

The honest answer is that, between the chores, the shop, the market, the garden, running a business, and all the other dimensions to what we do, it’s crash late at night and get back up early.  Something is always needing attention, and while one or two persons might be able to sneak away for a while (usually to run errands around town like a whirlwind), the chance for everyone to take a break and get off the farm is a very rare treat.

Rare, as in once a year…perhaps.

Most of our getaways are thwarted by farm happenings.  An invitation to a wedding reception has to be passed by because our first sow is farrowing, and our presence is needed for the birth of the piglets.  An evening waterskiing with neighbors is called off for much needed barn cleaning, chicken butchering, or CSA harvesting.  Just when you think you might have a moment, a storm blows in, and everyone’s out scrambling to bring in the animals and stuff loose items into sheds.

But at some point, you HAVE TO get away and have a little fun for your soul.  This last Sunday, Tom Draughon (who plays duet with me at the concerts at Farmstead Creamery) was performing as part of the Big Top Chautauqua show “Shanties and Shipwrecks.”  It was the debut performance, a non-pizza farm night, and the sheep had just transitioned to an 18-hour milking schedule.  If we timed everything right and there weren’t any disasters, maybe…just maybe…we could sneak off the farm for a night out.

This wasn’t a trip to see Willie Nelson or Trampled by Turtles.  This was local folks taking a trek to support other local folks making music and telling stories.  While on a much grander scale than our Locally Grown Summer Music Series, the Blue Canvass Orchestra shows at Big Top Chautauqua offer space for the creatives who call this area home to entertain, inform, and inspire.

Sunday was a hectic day at the creamery, with many seats full, a gelato case scooping near to empty, and the menu finally switched to all breakfast because we ran out of the lunch options!  Everyone in our crew was dragging after the long week and the drizzly morning that pushed folks off the lakes and into the cozy shelter of Farmstead Creamery. 

But then, in a last-minute lull in the hustle and bustle, we loaded the seats into the little red PT Cruiser (customarily emptied for hauling farmer’s market), locked the little chickens and sheep safely inside, grabbed the cooler we’d packed with food for the two-hour trip, hung out the closed sign, and hit the road.

It almost felt somehow dangerous, driving away with Mom, Kara, myself, and the two interns.  Would the farm be alright without us?  But the skies were clear, though it was chilly, and everything seemed settled enough.  Brave Mom was quickly left to drive solo as we all fell asleep on the humming, swaying drive.  That’s what happens when homestead farmers stop moving, you instantly conk out!

The sun glowed golden on the top of the trees circling the shimmering Lake Superior.  Orange-vested volunteers waved us into our parking space, and we marched the short climb up past the ski lift on the hill to the blue and gray striped canvass theater.  Admittedly, it felt almost off-kilter to be at an event we weren’t hosting, enjoying life on the other side of the front counter.  We chuckled together in line at inside jokes, let the wind catch our hair, and genuinely savored being “off duty” for the evening.

The lights came up with the band in sea-voyaging regalia, bursting with songs of voyages and shipwrecks throughout the ages.  The big-screen behind the action shared historical photos, paintings, and even an early video of life on a sailing vessel.  After curtain, I had a chance to chat with the crew, help Tom load instruments away in his car, and shared a picnic in the darkened parking lot, where we were the only cars remaining.  While the herd of listeners made their way down the hill, we toasted our night out, Tom’s opening night of the show, and our intern Jake’s birthday all-in-one.

And then there was the long, dark drive home, the last stragglers of chores like locking in hens and rams, and we collapsed into bed.  Next day’s plan was butchering chickens, though the dawn came far too early.  But the scramble to get out the door, the long haul north and back, and yet another shortened night—they all were definitely worth it for a delightful night out, away from the farm.

We did get the butchering done, and the shop is back open, so if you’re looking for someplace tucked away for an enjoyable “night out” from your place, maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.  Our next concert night is August 9th, in tandem with the Art Crawl!

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

Sudden Storms

The day even started hot, muggy, clingy.  A steady breeze helped keep the climbing heat from being entirely unbearable, but this was going to be one of those days where just keeping the animals alive and in the shade would be the major accomplishment of the day. 

We threw on sunhats and drug what felt like miles of electric fencing beneath the barnyard maples, red pines, and the spruces along the lane so that ducks, lambs, and ewes could have some shaded reprieve.  Less-than-pleased teenaged turkeys were marched into sheltered, shaded nooks by the chokecherry bushes, and we even spread a rug over the penthouse for the celebrity chickens at Farmstead Creamery to cast a bit more shadow.

And then we filled water buckets and filled waterers and filled kiddy pools, hosing off the pigs.  The heat and humidity was absolutely relentless, with heat indexes in the 100’s of degrees.  Finally, by 6:00 p.m., we had crested the wave of nature’s convection oven and celebrated by heading to the lake for a swim and a picnic supper.

Yet despite these relaxing moments, part of us still knew that such heat and energy meant that storms would be coming.  Just rain, we hoped, no drama…but that wasn’t likely.  The evening was still muggy and close, so it was impossible to batten down anything tight.  A cloud bank was encroaching on the sunset, which left us hoping that something would break the weather for a better northwoods day tomorrow.

It was about 2:00 in the morning when the first wave of rain hit.  Just rain, gentle, lapping at the south side of the house.  But behind the sprinkle, the sky was lit with strobe lights, flashes beating everywhere to the north and west—streaking in all directions.  I trundled down the dark stairs to grab our trusty IPod-touch for monitoring the aquaponics and keeping tabs on the weather.  Who cares what the predictions and hourly guesses might be, I wanted to see the radar!

In a great arch, sweeping from Minnesota to Canada, a thick band of yellow, orange, and red was headed our way.  The warning issued included penny-sized hail and 60-mile-an-hour wind gusts.  After surviving the last major wind event the evening of the PBS filming, which had tried to run off with the chicken tractors and tore pieces out of trees, this didn’t sound like something we’d want to find ourselves caught in way out in the pasture.

It was dark, no moon, and still thick with heat and humidity.  We threw on pants and shoes and began the mad hatch-battening that precedes dangerous storms on the farm.  Snagging the trusty old farm truck, we pulled up to the wood shed and began throwing T-posts into the back, the infernally heavy fence post driver, and a wad of baling twine. 

Pat-Pat, the first few raindrops splatted against my glasses.  I dashed through the lamb pen to turn off the fence energizer while Mom rounded the corner from behind with the truck.  Out in the middle of the pasture, the strobe light lightning was flashing everywhere, blinking with blinding brightness our frenzied work. 

In the back of my mind, I could hear the NOA weather radio voice saying, “Remember, lightening can kill.  If you can hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck by lightning.”

“I don’t like it out here!” was Mom’s version of the situation.  “Where is my string?”  I grabbed another T-post and began pounding it at an angle to one of the corners of the chicken tractors so they could be cross-tied and anchored.

The pre-storm gust hadn’t quite reached us yet as we lashed layers of baling twine from tractor to post, threw our gear into the back end of the pickup, and hurtled over the bumpy terrain back to the barnyard.  Kara was there, closing the sides on the lamb barn.  It was a mad dash to throw anything loose into a building, wedge the new people door on the farmhouse garage (with no latch yet) shut, roll down the sides of the high tunnel, and stuff any lightweight lawn furniture or precious garden art objects into safe nooks and crannies.

“Come on Speckles,” I chided while Mom was cranking down the sides of the aquaponics greenhouse.  Little miss chicken thought we’d camp outside in the penthouse that night, but that wasn’t going to be a good idea with the oncoming storm.  With little ceremony, I opened the hutch, grabbed the sleepy hen, and stuffed her into the sheltered room above.  And then we also grabbed the rug before it became a veritable sponge.

With the threat of hale, we tried our best to squeeze as many vehicles into shelters as the rain began to pour.  Others, we moved away from the trees, remembering the limb-throwing events of the last storm.  Again, the NOA weather radio voice reappeared, “Damaging wind and hail.  Take immediate shelter in a central room in the lowest level of your home.”  Yes, I know, but how many farmers actually get to do this?

As the downpour instantly soaked my hair and shirt just running from the garage to the house, I was feeling quite relieved to have started with tying down the chicken tractors first when we did.  Huddled together back at our house, damp and panting, hoping we had everything tied down or squirreled away, we watched the radar.  A deep red finger had dipped down into the Chequamegon National Forest, heading our way.  But in that finger was a small gap, like an exclamation point—a gap which neatly drifted right over the farm.

I did hear hail on the skylight, but it didn’t last more than a few seconds.  Torrential rains followed, and some winds.  This morning, the air feels refreshed and the dry soils moistened.  Hopefully, we won’t find any damages to the farm or livestock this morning, making our two-in-the-morning scramble worth the effort and risk. 

Sudden storms can pop up at any time on the farm.  We’ve seen them head straight north in the middle of butchering chicken, watched frightful soup-green banks pelt in from the west while making hay, fled deep-blue banks from the north, and survived tempests blown in from the east.  But whichever way they come, angry summer storms can wreak terrible damages on homestead farms.  This round, we responded in time…and got lucky.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 
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