North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Celebrity Farm

If you’re a fan of Public Television, maybe you’ve seen some of the eye-opening agribusiness documentaries like “Food Inc.” or “Supersize Me.”  Several of these include visits to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Virginia, where cattle graze on pasture, chickens slowly parade across the pasture in their tractors, and hogs amply express “their pigness.”

For Wisconsin Public Television, there are also programs like “Wisconsin Foodie” and “Around the Farm Table,” sharing stories of food, farming, and fun in our state.  For the first season of “Around the Farm Table” with Inga Witscher, hostings of film screenings were being held in each county last November.  Kevin Schessow of UW Extension contacted me that the program was interested is having a few local farmers present at the event to speak about the local agriculture scene and what they do on their farm.

Held at the Senior Center at the top of Hayward’s Main Street, it was an eager and curious group.  In the film, Inga was gathering ingredients for a traditional meal to celebrate the purchase of her dairy farm by visiting area dairy and grain farms, as well as ice fishing with friends and demonstrating artisan bread technique.

It was exciting to get to meet Inga and Joe, her husband and producer, and talk about the story of our homestead farm.  Of course, sheep’s milk gelato came up in the conversation, as well as my being a musician—Joe being a guitarist and songwriter as well.  “We’ll keep you in mind for next season,” Joe promised.  “You guys have such a great story.”

But then, nothing happened.  No peep.  No inquiry.  And then, last month, I was busy serving late lunches at Farmstead Creamery when the phone rang (a not uncommon occurrence).

“Farmstead Creamery, this is Laura.”

“Hey Laura, this is Joe from ‘Around the Farm Table.’  We’re in Hayward right now, how do we find you?”

After a few wrong turns and several more cell phone check-ins, Joe and his father-in-law Rick arrived at the farm.  After learning more about our story, touring the farm, and discussing all the different aspects of what we do, they concluded that there would be enough material, easily, for ten episodes…though that wasn’t practical.

“What an absolutely beautiful farm.  You guys are doing such an amazing job.  Rick and I talked about you all the way back home that evening.”

We set a date for the film shoot in June, which was just concluded yesterday.  The sun was shining, the sky a silvery blue specked with dramatic clouds from the oncoming evening storm.  We were first joined by a wild edibles expert from parts further north who led foraging scenes in our woods with Inga.  For this episode’s story, Inga is camping with Joe and is searching for wild Wisconsin foods for making dinner that evening.  After foraging, she becomes lost, and then…

“And then that’s where the harp comes in,” Joe explained as we worked through the outline of the program.  “She’s crashing through the woods and she hears this harp music.  Crawling out, she finds you playing in the pasture with the sheep and discovers your farm in the middle of the woods.”

So, while Kara and Ann coaxed the ewes closer to the edge of the fence, my duet partner Tom Draughon (on lute) and myself in performance regalia parked by the edge of the field to play the opening verses to the Robert Burns’ piece “Ca’ the Yowes” (call the ewes).

From there, the footage launches into touring the farm, meeting the crew, and learning about gelato and the Creamery.  We were all over the farm that day, taking footage of the aquaponics, the dairy plant, and all the different animals.  There were also countless retakes of interviews in front of the barn and the Creamery, trying to get in every important key point. 

“You guys are so patient,” Joe offered.  “One more time, and then we’ve got it.  After this, then it will be 300 hours of editing.”  We take the scene again, then Rick asks for a different camera angle for shooting the Creamery.  “I want to get it just right because it looks like a piece of art.”

“What an amazing farm you have,” Inga glows as we sit down to a chef salad lunch for 11 folk, including sound and camera crew.  “We know folks who do the different pieces that you have on your farm, but not all of them together.  This is pretty special.”

After all the takes and retakes, footage and photo shooting, entrances and exits, we were feeling pretty exhausted with a gusty storm still on the way.  As the crew pulled away down our lane, we had to switch from celebrity farm to hatch battening as the buffeting winds tore branches from trees in our yard, tried to fly off with the chicken tractors, and shook the greenhouse like an autumn leaf.  Enough for one day, weather, how about letting us just relax and celebrate our TV debut?

Oh well, farming has a way of keeping you humble.

If you’d like to watch the episode of “Around the Farm Table” that features our farm, it should be released this fall.  You can also check out the program at www.aroundthefarmtable.com.  And maybe, on the silver screen, we’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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Girl Power

“So…where are the men?” 

“So, on your husband’s farm…”

“So, there’s no men on the farm?”

Those awkward questions that start with “So…” are certain to lead to poking and prodding into some aspect of our farm that isn’t “normal,” or “usual,” or whatever you’d like to call it.

“So…it’s just you, your sister, and your mom?”

Yes, that’s right, and usually one or two summer college interns.  Sometimes we get neighbor help for a few of the big jobs (making hay, butchering chickens) but the bulk, the grunt, the everyday, and yes even driving tractor—that’s us.  Three women, all under 5’5”.

“So…you’re not married yet?”

I’ve been confronted with variations on the “So where are all the men?” question so frequently that I’m tempted to fib and say that we keep them in a closet and bring them out when we need them!  But that might seem a bit crude, so I just keep smiling and explain that this is a farm run by Girl Power.

Now, for us, Girl Power certainly doesn’t mean romping about the farm in short, frilly skirts with cowboy boots and a furry pink hat.  If you’ve run into us on a hard-working farm day (like Mondays), we’re usually be-mudded in the garden, tools in hand, or mucking the barn with our skid-steer and honeywagon.  It’s elbow grease, “Get-er-done,” stick-through-it bootstrapping.  Chase us around for a day on the farm, and maybe I won’t have to laugh off another comment like:

“So, how do you have all this food around and stay so thin?”

The truth is that Girl Power on the farm is nothing new.  Women have been an integral part of agriculture since its inception, participating in the domestication of plants and animals, the building of homesteads, and the development of the idea of “the farm.”  Why, then, does it seem odd today that ladies should be farmers? 

It gets really disparaging when I’m asked, “So, does that make you a farmerette?”

One of my favorite quotes was given to us by our contractor, Jon, after seeing it on his calendar.  It’s since faded and torn, the author unknown, but the phrase is still cherished.  “A woman who can drive tractor is someone to call in an emergency.”  Yes, that’s right, we can handle the bumps and hiccups, the sleepless nights lambing or hatching chicks, the chore nights in the rain and the wind and the cold, the mud and the grime and the cleaning…cleaning…cleaning.

“Women actually make the best beekeepers,” my mentor Mr. Rowe has remarked on several occasions.  “They’re less hurried and more gentle with the bees—careful—which makes a big difference to the queen.”

Someday, I’ll rejoice when the florescent-vested fellows at the fleet store refrain from, “So what kind of oil did he want?”  Please!  I know this is the Northwoods, but really?  They’ll catch on sometime.

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Skeeder Dance

Everyone coming into Farmstead Creamery lately has remarked on one thing in particular.  THE MOSQUITOS!!!!  In swarms, in herds, in droves, everywhere!  Some folks say they’ve been here for 35 years and have NEVER seen it this bad before.  The hum is everywhere, waiting for you just outside the door or the screen window.  Swarms attach even in the heat of the day.  And lately, not even the rain keeps them away!

All winter, I’ve been hoping that the endless days of deep snow and frigid cold could be traded for at least some sort of perk this summer—like fewer bugs.  But, apparently, such a winter is no deterrent for these winged little biters.  I should have known, considering Alaska’s reputation for mosquitoes driving moose into headlong plunging insanity, trying to escape.

“I feel like I’ll just start bleeding all over the floor, I’ve gotten to many pin pricks,” one dinner guest offered yesterday.  “They sure are big this year.” 

Yeah…pretty soon I’ll have given so much blood to the annual skeeder drive that I’ll simply dry up and blow away one of these mornings doing chores.  It’s about like what one might imagine during the days of the Oregon Trail and the fabled skeeder cakes.

Country Fresh Skeeder Cakes:

Flour

Water (or milk, if you have it)

Lard and Eggs (if you have them)

A hoe or shovel

A fire, or coals will do even better, if you can wait that long

Place dough onto handy implement in a dollup, hold over fire to cook.  You don’t even have to worry about collecting the skeeders—they naturally do this themselves, landing and sticking to the dough.  Flip once to cook the other side.  Enjoy the free protein.

***

Even as I write this story, one or two are pestering at my ears and elbows, hovering to find the tastiest place to fill their sack-like abdomens.  And yes, I know they’re expecting mothers and everything has a right to live…but please, mosquitoes, pick on someone your own size!  Don’t coat the dog, biting her tender belly, or pester the eyes of my chickens.  Your bites cause lumps and bumps that itch and prickle long after your lifecycle.  Really, ladies, do you want to be the cause of such cruel and unusual punishment?  I think that all your skeeders should learn to be vegan!  Let’s stop the animal (and human) cruelty right now!

My garden lies half-completed.  Not only because the soils are still too cold for planting some crops, but also because those swarms and herds and droves simply drive me insane!  I spritz and spray, swat and buffet, wave my hand about…but to little avail.  There’s those tasty ankles, the gap between the shirt and the pants when I bend over, around my neck, and on my arms.  Mmmm…farm girls taste sooooo good!  Just add a little mustard, and the stringiness doesn’t bother you so much.

But chores, oh chores, you can’t put them off.  You can’t hurry them too much.  And you can’t simply stay inside and hope the chickens fill their own feeders and waterer.  Our supply of miss-match odds-and-ends bug spray was running low, so Kara and our intern Sam ran into town to snag some more—only to find the shelves barren.

“We could have gotten a ‘sensitive skin’ version with aloe,” Sam offered, explaining the wide bank of wiped-clean shelving, even at Walmart.  “But we figured it must not work as well, since that was the only option left.”

So here we are, doing the skeeder dance through chores on bug-spray-fumes (what’s left at the bottom of the spray can), with our heads wrapped in our anti-insect Buff scarves, hoodies tied tight.

You swat a skeeder here

You swat a skeeder there

You swat a skeeder here

Flying next to your ear

 

You do the skeeder teeter

And you turn yourself around

And that’s what summer’s all about!

And somehow those little tiny insects, with their little tiny brains, always know when your hands are occupied.  It might be at the water spigot, dragging a tarp full of fresh bedding into the barn, or transplanting a young broccoli.  So, invariably that chicken-scented water, or the curly bedding shavings, or the mud from the garden ends up on your clothes, in your hair, of across your face as you chase after the little buggers and try to squish them into oblivion.

But the chase continues into the night.  Just when you’ve settled down after a long day’s yard work…it comes as if from afar.

Neeeeeeeeeee.

You hear it waver, slowly coming forward like some dreaded night wanderer.

Neeeeeeeeeee.

Now it’s lightly touching your ear with its legs, tweaking past a strand of hair.

Neeeeeeeeeee.

But when you reach out to catch it…it’s gone.  This can go on for hours!  Sometimes I simply give up and bury under the covers, which is our little Bichon dog Sophie’s modus operandi.  But when the house refuses to cool down below 80 degrees on warm summer nights, this quickly turns into an infernal sauna experience.

At that point, my mind grapples between what’s worse—more itchy, incessant bites, or slowly roasting to death under smothering blankets?  Do these insect actually find some sort of twisted pleasure in torturing us? 

The typical two-week delay to the dragonfly hatch can’t come soon enough!  If someone really wanted to make a good business, they could breed early-hatch dragonflies to sell in packages to homeowners.  Imagine, have a mosquito problem?  No problem, just mail-order these dragonflies, release in your yard, and watch them eat your troubles away!  What if you could even have a pet dragonfly that stayed near your hat and ate every mosquito that came near.  Now, to me, that sounds like a creative proposal to the situation, rather than more spray.

Folks sure are getting desperate, though.  I just received an email from a friend that spraying Listerine could blow the mosquito blues away.  I don’t know if it works or not, but I’m getting pretty desperate and might just give it a try.  For now, I’ll just have to keep up with as many layers of clothing as I can stand and do the skeeder dance.   Ok dragonflies, we’re counting on you, so get to work!  I’ve got the rest of the garden to put in!  See you down (swat) on the (swat) farm (swat) sometime.

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

 
 

Everyday Aesthetics

Farms are certainly places of function—growing food to feed the family, the neighbors, and some to sell to help keep the place running—but often in family-run, small-scale farms, there is also attention to other details that are not just for form or convenience.  Flower gardens by the house do attract wild pollinators and provide habitat for hummingbirds and butterflies, but they are also pleasing to the senses of the people who live and visit the space.

Over the centuries, we can see the pride in craftsmanship that has been built into farms (especially barns) from a time when the pace of work moved slower and ethnic styles in architecture leant a noticeable flavor to homesteads.  While they meet the need (sheltering livestock, grain, and hay), they also command a presence and serve as the visual crown of the barnyard.  Many times, the barn went up on a farm (with the help of neighbors and family) before the house!

But attentions to detail, to form, and to visual appeal can be found all over the historically connected farm—from quilts to baskets to rugs to wagons.  One of the definitions of art is “to make special,” and these small but significant acts of making ordinary objects and work spaces unique and pleasing is part of the everyday aesthetics of homestead living.  As an artist of many mediums, those moments of everyday aesthetics—whether planting marigolds and sunflowers this morning in the flowerbeds or weaving a colorful rag rug—are sparks of joy and creativity amongst the often long and hard work of farming.

Just today, we were visited by the film crew from Wisconsin Public Television’s “Around the Farm Table” series to discuss a shooting in June.  We were strolling around the barnyard, meeting the sheep and turkeys, checking out the parlor, and laughing at humorous pigs.

“Wow,” one of the producers kept remarking.  “You have such a pretty farm, so clean and tidy.  You guys have really taken care of this place.”

Pride of place and the value of caring for a piece of our precious earth not only shows in the lack of junk piles and sagging buildings but also in the striking barn quilt, the cheery red-and-white poultry coops, and the border of tulips popping up through fresh bark mulch.  Even Laura Ingalls’ mother found meaning in “making things pretty” in the various homesteads the family owned across the country during the pioneer days.  Taking time to “make special” our environment is a way to show respect for the space as well as kindle that special beauty inside ourselves as well.

So often, farming is a matter of making order out of chaos, each and every day.  The strawberry bed was overwrought with weeds, so I spent days with a garden claw, ripping out the quack grass, dandelions, sorrel, and daisies—turning the damp, cool spring soil while being careful not to disturb the strawberry roots as much as possible.  I tamp in new plants in the bare patches, mulch lightly with bedding straw to help suppress weed seeds, and lay down chips in the walkways.  It’s tedious work, and I have to take breaks when my back wears out, but with only one bed left needing weeding attention, the seven-bed patch of June-bearing strawberries not only should be more productive this year, but it’s also a very pleasing view out the farmhouse picture window. 

Here’s another example.  This last winter wreaked havoc with the front stoop at Farmstead Creamery (as you may have noticed if you came to visit during those months…didn’t everyone have problems with something this year…).  With all the frost heaving, at one point the front door wasn’t even openable and folks had to make their way in through the kitchen door!  Despite the cold, Jon Sorensen of Venison Creek Construction (who built the creamery) came to jack-hammer out enough of the slab to accommodate the door.  It was a long and grueling process (not to mention dusty!), but he held in there for us.

All winter, we’ve been vacillating about what to do with the stoop.  Obviously, it couldn’t stay.  So this last week, Jon came with a saw and cut the beasts into pieces we could haul away.  The last vestige refused to break up, so Jon bent the rebar, hooked it to his truck, and drug it out!  There, take that you nasty concrete!!!  Away with thee!

With the new attempt at a stoop, Jon buried heat tapes and foam to help keep heaving at bay.  But instead of repouring a cement slab, we decided to try pavers.  Now, some folks might have just picked up whatever and thrown something together so visitors didn’t have to spend even more time entering through the back, but Jon also has a cultivated sense of everyday aesthetic.  Like building a barn or planning a flower garden, he worked with the limited materials at hand, in the space required, to create a stoop that not only serves the form and function needed to meet ADA standards and ease of access, but it also holds its own visual appeal in keeping with the aesthetic theme that makes Farmstead Creamery special.

Creating pieces of everyday aesthetic takes times, thought, and care.  Our new stoop certainly outshines the former, practical-only one (hole busted through or no), and we wonder why we didn’t think of this lovely idea in the first place.  It fits in so well with the visual theme of timbers and fieldstone that some of the people who’ve stopped since the installation haven’t noticed there was a change at all.

Now, I know that some folks won’t notice just because they don’t—they’re in a hurry or they’re distracted by something else.  Alternately, others may be inspired to think differently about their own stoop or patio space.  Either way, the little things do make a difference in the homestead environment to bring meaning and appreciation to the often dirty and thankless work of livestock and crop tending.  In our tech-infused society, where instant gratification and speed are the driving desires, it’s important to cultivate time and appreciation for an everyday aesthetic—to build a place that pleases the eye and soothes the mind.

This week, take time to cultivate your own space with simple but pleasing aesthetics, whether in the garden, the home, or beyond.  Maybe it’s time to bring order to the chaos of the garage or add an attractive bird bath to the front flower beds.  Whatever way works for you, springtime is a great space for “making special” in our everyday environments.  I’ll keep working on those strawberry beds.  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

Picking up the Birds and the Bees

There are so many things happening all at once on a farm in springtime—lambs are being born, the rubble of autumn’s garden is being transformed into new green life, chicks are hatching in the incubator or arriving at the post office, and new colonies of bees are being hived up for summer pollination.  The lambs on our farm come from our own ewes, and the chicks hatching in the incubator come from our own hens, but the other additions have to be brought in from elsewhere, and this is where the drama starts.

The first chicks we ordered came from a rare breed hatchery in Iowa, with a minimum shipping quantity of 25 day-old chicks.  Now, it might seem a terrifying proposition to send a tiny little chick through the jostle and jolt of the postal service, but this is possible because of a special feature of poultry biology.  Just before chicks hatch, they absorb the yolk into their abdomen, which gives the chicks enough energy to live for a few days without food and water.  This ability, when raised by a mother hen, allows time for their slightly younger nest mates to hatch out before the oldest ones require nutrients. 

So, box up enough little birds together, with comfy bedding and holes for ventilation, and they can be sent to their new home via USPS.  But wait too many days, and it can be stressful for the little loves.  The Iowa hatchery has the odd policy to ship on Fridays…which meant that it wouldn’t arrive in the Hayward Office until Monday, which is a pretty long ride for chicks.  But once we learned that the parcel of peepers spent the evening at the sorting facility in Spooner, we were able to speak to the manager there to CALL US (no matter what the hour) when the birds arrived and we would drive the hour to pick them up.

Day-old chicks need a warm, cozy environment—about 85 degrees.  When they’re hen-raised, this is under mom’s downy feathers.  But when you’ve received a box of 100 of them through the postal system that means your car needs to be at the ready.  So here we are with chick season, the call comes in at 1:00 in the morning, we’re up, dressed, and ready to go by 1:15.  It takes a good deal of radio and attempts at constant talking to stay awake all the way to Spooner.  Once we reach the sorting station, there’s only a few lights on, and all the doors are locked.  The buzzer has been broken and taped over, so that’s no help.  I pound on the glass door, wave my arms, jump up and down—anything to catch a bit of attention from the folks bustling about as they pass by the doorway to the next room.

I’m sure the guys standing outside the bar across the street must think I’m a nutcase.  But at last, I’m noticed, and the cheeping boxful of fuzzballs is ready for us to take home.  The car is roasting, my feet in my rubber muckboots are wet with sweat, and it’s a long, loooooooong roasting ride home trying desperately to stay awake!

Lately, I’ve been using a hatchery from Beaver Dam, WI, which ships out on a Monday, and I receive the chicks either Tuesday or Wednesday.  This week, the call came at 5:23 in the morning, with a hesitant, “And does an Ann live there as well?”

“Yes, that’s my Mom.”

“Well, we have a package for her…and it’s bees.”

Most post offices are accustomed to baby chicks coming through the mail (though not all of them know to help keep the little ones warm…one year we had a “helpful” person keep the box next to the air conditioner!!!), but there have been other postal adventures that have been less well received.

One spring, we were eager to branch into vermaculture—growing worms to turn food scraps into humus compost.  This could be beneficial for the garden and building top soils.  After considerable online research, we settled on the vigorous redworms instead of local night crawlers and placed an order through a reputable vermaculture site.  We clicked “submit” and waited eagerly for our composting crawlers to arrive.

Just like with the chicks, we received a call upon their arrival, though it was far from cheery spring fever or the “get these bleeping peepers out of here.”  It was something closer to, “Um, did you guys order some worms?  I think you’d better come and get them.”

So we dutifully took the drive into town, climbed the steps, and walked up to the counter.  A petite, sandy-haired lady was holding down the desk, but when we mentioned that we have come to fetch the worms, her eyes grew round and wary.  Without saying a word, she placed the “use next window” marker on her counter and seemed to fade away into the backdrop of boxes, carts, and letters.  After a pregnant and silent pause, another worker came half-snickering out of the back with one of those big, plastic post office crates.  “Here,” he offered.  “Just bring it back cleaned up when you’re done with it.”

Down in the bottom of that crate was our little box of worms, a corner half torn and a few stray wrigglers poking about on the floor.  Apparently, the desk lady had picked up the box and one had waved its little face in the air, which was apparently too much for her.  It became a running joke for years afterwards that one day we’d be ordering alligators through the mail!

But this week, we expanded to shipping bees.  Not by choice, but things do happen.  Traditionally, we’ve ordered packages of bees through our area’s beekeeper’s association, which pools resources to order packages by the trailer load from bee breeders in southern states.  On arrival date, all the beekeepers who ordered new packages descend upon the drop site to take their share home to hive up.  But this year, with the growing national honeybee shortages due to Colony Collapse Disorder, I wasn’t able to source any packages through the group.

So I went searching for another option, which meant joining a different buying group out of Baldwin.  So early one Thursday, intern Jacob and I hit the road at 6:00 in the morning to trek down HWY 63 to pick up a 2-pound package of Italian/Buckfast cross honeybees.  I hadn't been to this honey farm before, and we trekked up and down Baldwin searching for the “Honey” sign. 

Finally, I ducked into a farm implement store to ask directions.  The man at the front desk immediately picked up the phone and wasn’t interested in talking to me between show lawn tractors, as did a manager fellow in the room next door.  The folks at the parts counter faded into the background, and no one else seemed to be around.  Goodness, what did I look like, farmzilla?  Finally, I found a couple of poof-haired ladies in a room marked “bookkeeping,” who offered these bizarre instruction.

“Oh yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about.  As you go through Baldwin, on the right (she extended her left hand) is the Dollar General, and right there on the left (she extended her right hand) is the bee place.”

Feeling a bit more confused, we tried driving through town again.  On the left, we found the Dollar General (yes, it was actually on the left), but to the right was a dairy farm.  About a half mile further (mm-hmmm, just across the street I’m sure…) we finally came to the honey farm on the right, successfully picked up the package of bees and brought them home.

But to my great sorrow, upon opening the package to introduce to the hive, the queen was curled up dead in her cage!  Panic!  A hive is dead without a queen to lay eggs, and no other bee can take her place.  My overwintered hive, upon further scrutiny, had also lost its queen, so I was doubly queenless with no on-farm replacements.  Thankfully, the honey farm made amends by delivering a new, live queen a few days later, but in the heat of the moment, I ordered two Carniolan queens from Ohio via overnight delivery.

Well, if you’ve lived up here long enough, you know that nothing overnights to the Northwoods, no matter how much you pay for shipping.  This meant that, when neither the chicks nor the bees arrived on Tuesday, that Wednesday was going to be quite the day.  This returns us to the 5:23 a.m. phone conversation, with, “It looks like they’re bees.

Oh great, I thought, here we go again.  Those folks at the post office won’t want to talk to me EVER!  “Yes,” I replied calmly, “We can pick that up with the chicks too.”

The sandy-haired lady must have been feeling brave that morning (or was offsetting the insect issue with the cuteness of the chicks), because she brought them both to me at the back door (which does have a working buzzer).  The bees in their express package, though, were duly strapped into a miniature plastic postal crate.  I didn’t say anything, but I’m assuming that I’m also supposed to bring that one back, cleaned, when I’m done with it.  At least the bees were kept safe in their queen cages, ready to meet their new hives.

We cranked up the heat and trekked back to the farm with our box of chicks and our strapped-in package of queens.  “Looks like we just picked up the Birds and the Bees this morning,” we joked on the way home.  “No alligators yet, but we’re getting closer.”  Amidst all the cheep-cheep and the buzz-buzz on that warm morning drive, we also couldn’t help but feel like spring was truly here.  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

 
 

When the Snow Clears

Springtime archaeology is in full swing.  Removed is the white blanket of snow, leaving behind the dog droppings, fallen branches, spilled chicken bedding, and the skeleton of last year’s garden.  Jacob (one of our summer interns this year who is staying with us for a week to see the farm in springtime) arrived just the other day, and we’ve set to work attacking the archeological mess.

First it was the branches—bits and pieces from the old spreading maples in the yard that were already a mature stand in an old farm picture from the 1940’s.  There’s the blown-off dark chocolate twigs from the silver maple by the bird feeder to collect, the barren sticks from “instant habitat” harvested for last year’s escapist pheasants to be thrown from the hen yard, and then there’s the great limbs ripped from the red pine next to the barn from the November ice storm to drag away.

So we’re bending and picking, bobbing like ducks in puddles as we load the back end of the golf cart we call “the Blueberry” and haul them to a pile near the compost bin.  Last year because of hay shortages, we had to buy quite a bit to get the sheep through the hard winter, which means that this spring there won’t be any old hay laying around for mulching.  So what, as organic-style gardeners, are we going to do?

Well, we’ll have to try using something else.  Last year, with so much of our time needed at Farmstead Creamery, there just wasn’t enough hours to get all the weeding done.  We’ll be experimenting with some plastic mulches this year (a reversible black-on-one-side and white-on-the-other to customize for warm or cool-loving crops).  But there’s still all the walkways and more to cover.  How about running these branches through our chipper and making our own mulch?  But the little pile from yard waste wasn’t going to go very far, so it was time to tackle some other spring projects to add to the horde.

Along the lane up to the farmhouse, Grandpa had planted black spruce and a few odds-and-ends pine volunteers to serve as a living wind and snow barrier.  Before, drifts would pile across our private road, making winter excursions to the homestead rather difficult.  These trees have now grown considerably, though several times smaller than the towering maples.

Our first trimming of the roadside pine stand came after a young and exuberant Lena (our sheepdog) chased a wayward rabbit into the thicket and poked her eye!  It did heal, with treatment, but all the branches up to Lena height had to go.  Last summer, I pastured our new flock of ducks beneath the trees, which offered both shade and protection from flying predators.  But the crouch-height branches made for intricate zig-zagging of electric mesh fence to keep from grounding out and face-poking late night duck chases to convince the white feathered beasts to go to bed!

Hence, in our search for chipping material for mulch and in an effort to clear more fence and headspace for shaded duck pasture, Jacob and I broke out the hand saws and went to work at the half-dead lower limbs.  The breeze was brisk from the northwest, encouraging us to stand upwind of our endeavors or risk a faceful of wood shavings—eyes, nose, teeth gritty with bits of bark and pulp.  We drug the severed limbs into the lane, creating a hedge of tree parts.  A chainsaw probably would have speeded the process, but such powerful and dangerous machinery is not my forte.

After clearing the way (and the view into the sheep pasture beyond, which was an added bonus), we piled the branches onto the dump bed of the Blueberry.  Some awkward specimens caught the wind and pulled us around or spread wide so as to make stacking a stable pile quite a feat.  In the end, Jacob walked behind as “spotter” while I drove slowly to our pile, backed up, and we used the release lever on the dump bed to push the whole mess onto the chipping pile.  Nine or ten loads later, we had the project cleared out.

Today, however, was busy as ever at Farmstead Creamery.  With the previous snow dump, various booked events had been postponed…all to the same day.  We also had our first major delivery of aquaponics lettuce to the area hospital and CSA shares to prep and send off for pickup, as well as a meeting with a drinks purveyor.  Jacob was going to be on his own for springtime farmwork for the day as the rest of us held down a DNR fisheries meeting, the lunch crew, and deliveries with our helper Kelli.

So we scoped out the bones of last year’s raised-bed garden.  Armed with empty feed sacks to collected the battered remains for anti-cutworm cups (made from former yogurt, soda, and milk containers from dumpster diving) and a couple styles of rakes for removing old vines and dead weeds, there was plenty of ground to be covered.  Last year, we had spent weeks of time forming wide raised-bed rows (at least two to three times as wide as our previous formations), with in-ground soaker hose still in place. 

This year, instead of tilling the whole project over and pulling out and reburying all that irrigation, we’re trying a top-dressing compost method, covered with the plastic mulch where we can.  In the walkways, we’ll split our paper feed sacks that have been piling up from all winter so that they unfold flat the long way, lay them down in the walkways, and cover them with our chipped mulch.  In the end, our hope is to have a seriously lessened weed load so we can focus on our real passions—growing great local foods—instead of constantly waging war on the things we’d rather not be growing.

But first, we have to make order of the chaos of autumn’s remains.  With eagerness and tenacity, Jacob attacked the garden, filling bags upon bags with cutworm cups and heaping piles of debris onto either far end of the garden to be hauled away.  By lunchtime, half the space was cleared.  And by 5:00 in the afternoon, only the last few rows remained.  We were pretty impressed, Jacob was pretty hungry, and we were all feeling great about the progress made these last few days.

Of course, you still don’t want to see my springtime to-do list, but at least we’re making progress on all those things that need attention when the snow clears.  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

The Great Kunekune Mixup

You know the feeling when you meet an acquaintance at a social gathering and accidentally call them by the wrong name?  Reddened face, apologies, laughs, and “please excuse me” usually ensue.  People-to-people, however, your friend can correct you as to their real name with a, “Remember, we met last year at the Heart of the Farm conference.” 

“Oh yes, that’s right, you were just getting started with dairy goats—now I remember.  How has that been going for you?”

In the world of livestock, however, the problem of mistaken identity is not so easily remedied.  A sheep cannot speak up and say, “Wait, I’m not Coconut, I’m Peppermint!”  Using numbered ear-tags (paired with accurate recordkeeping) is a well-used system for keeping track of who’s who for livestock of all types…at least the types with ears.  They have yet to perfect ear tags for chickens.

For breeding purposes, the “who’s who” game can be very crucial when tracing genetic lines and making certain that a breeding program isn’t mixing parents with children and other too-close-for-comfort combinations, leading to problems inherent in inbreeding.  Kara keeps a thick book of records tracing all her ewes and rams, which makes for complicated but accurate sorting during the breeding season.  We want all our little ones to be healthy and vigorous.

As we embarked on our own on-farm Kunekune pig breeding program, we purchased sows from the Jenny/MahiaLove and Rona/MahiaLove lines, and a boar from the Tutaki bloodline to build a diversified genetic start for our future piglets.  The ladies (Agatha, Christi, Deloris, and Tilly) came from the renowned Black Valley Farm in Pennsylvania, while Mr. Handsome (Hathaway) came from At Witsend Farm in Michigan.  With our special “starter pack bundle,” we were off on our heritage breed porcine adventure.

Deloris (black with white marbling) and Tilly (all cream with dark eye shadow) are younger and smaller than the rest of the crew, so they’ve been hanging out in their own pen while the three larger lovebirds have enjoyed tussling over their share of fodder and aquaponics lettuce scraps.  All are quite friendly, eager, and unassuming—belying the mystery mix-up story that unfolded this last week.

Even on the best of farms, oopsies can happen.  Like our first set of lambs this year coming a month ahead of schedule because one of those naughty teenaged boy lambs jumped the fence at night…guess she was just too cute.  Or there can be times when one of the hens from the younger batch of layers sneaks in greedily with the older batch because THEY GOT FED FIRST, followed by a scramble and “was it you?” game to sort out the mischief.

But I wasn’t expecting a phone message from Kara while running errands in town the other day saying, “Oh Laura, just found out we have a Grand Champion Sow!”  A what?  Where did this come from?  Here’s how the great Kunekune mix-up came about.

Alana, the owner of the farm in Pennsylvania who sold us our gilts (young sows) had entered a promising pig “Meadow” in the 2nd Annual Eastern Show and Sale last year and the little darling had won Grand Champion.  Well, this one was for keeps!  But pigs as social animals like sheep and chickens cannot live alone, so she was romping with a look-alike cousin. 

As the two grew, it became increasingly difficult to tell them apart, and when one of the pair unfortunately died (accidents do sometimes happen on farms), Alana was certain she had lost her dear Meadow.  When our order came through for the starter set of Kunekunes, Alana included the look-alike cousin…or so she thought.

The American Kunekune Society has a records system to keep track of registered breeding stock for this special heritage pig.  The paperwork for Agatha and Christi had processed fine, but for some reason the registration for Deloris was being held up.  The DNA matches just weren’t coming out.  “Are you sure you have the right parents listed for this pig?” the officers would ask Alana.

Again, records were checked, until it finally came to light that this mystery DNA pig was not the look-alike cousin at all, but Meadow (now Deloris) herself!  Alana was all chuckles as she relayed the news to Kara about this Grand Champion-in-hiding.  “Guess I should send you the ribbon!”

“I’ll be sure to let Deloris know at chores tonight,” Kara replied.  “So long as it doesn’t get to her head.”

News quickly spread on Facebook about our new celebrity sow.  “That’s some pig,” one Kunekune raiser commented.  If Deloris had started talking and herding sheep, we probably would have had the film crews from Babe the Pig on our hands!

Deloris certainly hasn’t minded the extra attention, though I can’t say she understands why.  Perhaps in her own little speckled pig way she does, but it hasn’t hurt her friendship with little Miss Tilly.  Both are just as eager for breakfast, dinner, back scratches, and fodder.  And as we look forward to our first batches of piglets later this spring, we’ve already ordered our own supply of customized ear tags.  Deloris-Meadow has had quite her own share of Kunekune mix-ups!  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

 
 

Mud Season

In Wisconsin, they say we have four seasons—Summer, Winter, Deer Season, and Mud Season.  This year has seen a good-old-fashioned kind of winter, with plenty of snow, lingering bouts of cold, and little reprieve until lately.  Everyone is wishing for spring, with warm, sunny days, green, flowers, and an end to shoveling all that white stuff that won’t stop falling from the sky.

But somehow in our poetic waxings of springtime weather, we forget the less-than-elegant part that comes with it:  Mud Season.  It starts when the snow begins drip-dripping off the roofs.  You know it’s coming for sure when you have to start shoveling water out the front door of the barn.  And Mud Season is in earnest when you have to ask the milk delivery truck to stop in the front parking lot rather than at the service entrance—so the axels of her truck don’t sink out of sight in the softened gravel.

The pat-a-pat of rain outside the window is a sure sign of spring flooding.  We scramble about the garage, picking up our bits and pieces of winter carelessness—empty feed sacks, cardboard boxes, wayward buckets, and anything that’s worth saving from the creeping tide of snowmelt that seeks every crack and crevice to seep inside.

 

Winter boots trade out for high-topped rubber muck boots (otherwise known as Wellies), and it’s an on-again-off-again relationship with Yak Tracks…followed by a half-hour search for that one you must have lost somewhere while doing chores.  The snow is crystalline, chunky, and slowly revealing the lost bits and pieces buried in all the winter storms.  There’s where you must have spilled a little feed or where that mysterious hammer went off to.  The melt-off makes its own form of springtime archaeology.

The gathering mud sucks at my boots, drags at my sled filled with fodder and feed, and pulls our little car around on the twisting, soft lane.  Snowbanks slump and settle like piles of disappearing quicksand, and our sheepdog Lena can hardly bound across the yard without falling through the crust and floundering about with a strange mix of panic and glee.

My first robin, spotted alongside the road yesterday, pokes and pries for any bit of food.  White swans honk as they fly overhead.  I glance up to find them in the gray skies, misstep, slip, and land in a puddle.  Mud Season offers that funny parody of “oh good” and “oh dear.” 

One year, the frost was deep in the ground, despite plenty of snow.  And then it rained, and rained, and rained.  Our turkey coop, which sits in a low spot in the barnyard, was soon encircled by a moat.  More rain, and the water continued to rise.  When the tide began to seep into the front door of the coop, we knew we had to act.  Running to town in the truck (there was no way we’d make it out the half-mile driveway in the car), we dashed to the rental center in town to pick up a trash pump and several lengths of fire-fighter hose.

With shovels and hoes, we dug a low spot in the crusty snow below the water for the pump to set.  Chunks of bobbing snow, like gathering mini icebergs, bumped against our rubber boots as we stretched the hose out towards the hill beyond the yard that slopes down to the marshland.  But when we plugged in the well-battered beast, it pulled the water so hard that all the ice collected and choked the system.  So we bared our teeth against our freezing feet, standing nearly knee-deep in the frigid mess, armed with canoe paddles to keep the icebergs away.  Plumped hoses carried gushing water past the woodshed to blast down the hill in a torrent that washed away channels of sod beneath the snow. 

It continued to rain, and for two more days we had to extend our rent, wade the tide, and keep our canoe-paddle vigil.  We’ve since made some landscaping adjustment, but a turkey coop moat is still an annual spring occurrence.  The turkeys hardly seem to mind, so long as their house is dry.  Guess that’s what those long legs are for! 

The ducks are absolutely thrilled with the warming weather, and I’m sure they were out dancing in today’s drizzle.  Water!  They burrow their bills in the crystalline snow, prancing back and forth.  Oh for the day when they can take a bath in their kiddie pool again!  And mud?  Bring it on!  One of these nights, I’ll come in to the coop to find a flock of brown ducks.  Oh dear, well, at least they’re enjoying themselves.

But despite the flooding, the mess, the slipping and sliding, and all the rest, Mud Season reminds us that spring is on its way.  There may still be a few more snows before we’re through with winter’s grasp, but the sun stands stronger in the sky, the banks are receding, and someday eager blades of grass will poke through the mud, followed by crocuses with their cheerful purple faces.

Just recently, our first pair of lambs were born—a sure sign of the spring season.  My chick order is in to the hatchery, we’re planning the garden, and every day new smells greet me during chores.  Nature stretches, yawns, and slowly begins to move forward in the cycle of life from the cold depths of winter.

Keep your spirits up, watch for puddles, and enjoy those quirky moments that are all a part of Mud Season in the Northwoods.  I’ll be shoveling water out of the barn again tonight, for sure, but it’s all part of the process.  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.nort
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Gym Time

Just this last weekend, area fitness leaders held a gathering event to help the public get motivated about taking care of their bodies and connecting with folks in the area who specialize in fitness training, supplements, personal care, and more.  Kelli (our first farm intern and continued supporter) and I were representing the farm with an interactive booth—promoting the idea that real health includes local, nutritious foods directly from their place of production.  With fresh greens from the aquaponics system, foods made with ancient grains, pantry goods from local fruits, and grassfed meats, eggs, and local cheeses, it was a great way for attendants to taste the flavor of the farm, learn more about what we do, and meet the people on the front lines of the local foods scene.

Held at the Middle School gymnasium, the chatter of eager voices hoping for spring mixed with the BOOM-BOOM of the bass drum from the CD player at the front of the room.  Instructors were giving demonstrations of Zumba, kickboxing, piloxing, and more, working up a sweat in their tight black-and-pink outfits.  Attendants of the event could join the open floor space at any time, punching the air, stretching, and moving in sync with the relentless rhythm.

“You know,” I turned to Kelli with an insuppressible grin.  “They should just come help with chores.  They’d get a workout and get something done at the same time.”

Kelli laughed as we watched red-faced competitors executing burpees at another stand.  She kept her voice low, though the room was so loud it hardly mattered.  “Yes, I challenge anyone here to work a summer at the farm, and see if they can make it without quitting!”

Oh yes, I thought, how about that third day of making hay in 90 degrees, stacking on the wagon and then into the barn.  How might that compare to a workout plan?  I wonder, instead of paying a fitness center to use their equipment for a couple hours a day, how about a farm chores fitness plan—what would that look like?  Let’s start with yesterday’s activities on our farm as an example.

March Monday Farm Workout Plan (Morning):

  • Fill and haul five-gallon water buckets from the indoor sink, up the hill to the pigs.  Pound the ice out of the pig water dishes, then refill.  Haul two 50-pound feed sacks across the yard and over the pig fence to fill the feeders. (agility with weights and lifting, balance)
  • Load another feed sack, plus five trays of fodder and a bucket of apples onto the sled and pull the load over to the barnyard, filling feeders and waterers for the poultry.  (resistance walking, weights)
  • Wrestle amidst pushy sheep to lay down feed troughs, scoop feed, toss hay, haul water buckets, and climb up the ladder to the haymow to throw down more bales of hay.  (remember that you’re waring 17 pounds of clothing too, so more agility with weights and lifting)
  • Perform 18 squats while hauling water to plants in the aquaponics, lifting and haling seed for fodder sprouting, bending and stretching for harvesting lettuce.  (stretch routine, muscle conditioning, balance, and some yoga)
  • Unpack the load of 100 bales of straw we picked up yesterday in the stock trailer and restack in the Red Barn (resistance training, weight lifting, and sustained heart rate)

I’m in the stock trailer, sinking the claw of my hay hook into the end of a bale crammed up against the trailer’s ceiling on the top of the stack.  Bracing my legs against the golden bales below, I’m pulling and tugging until the Velcro-tight friction between the packed bales gives way.  I drag the specimen to the end of the trailer, weasel my awkwardly gloved fingers under the two strands of twine, and give the bale a good heave out to the mounting pile in front of the barn. 

Kara then lugs the bales from my pile over to where Mom is stacking them on the pallets beside Belle the donkey’s pen.  Belle thinks this is pretty nice entertainment on a lazy, early-spring morning.  It might only be 16 degrees out, but we’ve shed our coats and hats, leaving our workpants and gloves as protection against chafing.

“So,” Mom can’t help but comment.  “I’m lifting 40 pounds of bale plus 17 pounds of clothing gear—that’s half my 106-pound bodyweight, easy.”  She gives a bale a heave up onto the stack, “And then I’m climbing stair steps with it.  And they’re bale-sized steps, not regular ones.”

“I don’t know,” I huff, throwing bales up to her for a while until the stack lessens and I’ll climb back into the trailer again.  “I think we’ll have to go to the gym later today.”  It’s our running joke on the farm after a tough chore or job.  Yup, no exercise around here…surely we need some time at a gym…haha.

“Yeah,” she laughs.  “I think I need to do some burpees.” 

Once the trailer is unloaded and driven up to the pig pen, we break for lunch before heading into the afternoon’s endeavors.

March Monday Farm Workout Plan (Afternoon):

  • Load hogs—haul fencing out of snowbanks, build catch pen, back trailer, and herd hogs inside. (remember, 9 hogs 300 pounds each).  Two neighbor friends came to help, so they got a workout too!
  • Tear catch pen apart and haul fencing away.  Feed and water hogs in the trailer and spread bedding.  Reattach trailer to truck, so it’s ready to go in the morning.  (aerobics, lifting, and teamwork)
  • Pack lettuce order for Northland College and the food co-op in Ashland.  Kara stays home to fill baking orders while Mom and I deliver the large boxes of lettuce, run a few errands, and return for chores. (stooping, lifting, brisk walking)
  • More squats and hauling water in the greenhouse, harvesting heavy fodder trays, and then back to filling pig water buckets and a general repeat of the morning chores for sheep and poultry.
  • Return to the house, at last, and collapse.

On our farm, because of the Farmstead Creamery schedule, Mondays are often filled with big farm projects, such as unloading straw and loading hogs.  But any other day consists of three hours of chores, at least, split between morning and evening.  Add in cleaning chicken coops, shoveling enough snow for three traditional driveways, and chopping ice, and it’s no wonder we find the thought of gym time rather humorous.  We’ve got our own right here, all the time, with no extra fees!

And rather than walking on a treadmill or lifting weights, we’ve actually gotten something done.  There’s clean straw stacked in the barn for lambing, the finished hogs are in the trailer for the morning’s run, the lettuce has been delivered to hungry northern eaters, and the animals are fed, watered, and happy.  And goodness, am I tired!  Guess that’s what’s supposed to happen at a real workout, even if it’s farmer style.  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

 

 
 

April Newsletter

  

(if the above image doesn't open, click the link below to view our monthly newsletter, thanks!) 

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Germ Concerns

We all know the winter holiday routine well.  Starting at Thanksgiving and continuing well into January, kids come home from school, families and relatives travel and visit, airlines are busy, and viruses have a heyday.  Sniffle, cough, sneeze, we’re all miserable with colds and the flu.  These germs rely on the movement and congregation of people to spread and multiply during a season when we’re primarily stuck indoors with each other due to inclement weather.

The same is true for the care of livestock.  Taking animals to the state or county fair is an easy place to pick up a not-so-friendly bug from another farmer’s place, with animals mingling in the show ring and little children petting first one animal and then the next.  Sale barns, feed lots, and other crowded, high-animal-volume spaces are ripe for spreading diseases.  But one of the worst offenders is the practice of CAFOs (Confinement Animal Feeding Operations).

In the name of efficiency and keeping consumer prices low, long polebarn structures crammed with caged hogs, chickens, turkeys, and others factory produce the bulk of supermarket meats.  The animals living inside are under continual stress from overcrowded and cramped conditions, which leaves them vulnerable to illness.  The meat industry has combated this issue by including antibiotics in feed rations.  Yet, while this “maintenance” level of antibiotics may be helping to prevent some diseases in CAFOs and increase weight gain by 3%, it has also spawned an outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria that plagues the livestock and the human healthcare system.

But all the antibiotics in the world cannot make a dent in a virus outbreak, since viruses are not actually living organisms.  Most of these lethal viruses have been spreading globally from Asia, where cramped and comingled quarters for raising large numbers of pigs and chickens together have been common practice for centuries.  Avian flu, pig flu, and others have been news-breaking viruses that have affected the lives of people as well as livestock.

The latest superbug to come from the Asian continent is PEDv (Porcine Endemic Diarrhea virus), which is currently devastating the pork industry.  Easily carried via manure on shoes, coats, and trucks, its virility can take over a porcine CAFO very quickly.  Especially harmful to young piglets, the virus causes the little creatures to vomit and have diarrhea resulting in dehydration with a 100% mortality rate.  Currently, somewhere between four and six million piglets in America and Canada have been lost to PEDv, which has now been deemed a “mandatory reportable” disease, with outbreaks noted in 23 states.

Wisconsin already has reports of 8 outbreaks of PEDv, causing the state veterinarian to cancel all hog weigh-ins and all showing of hogs at fairs except for “terminal shows” (hogs being shown that will go directly to the butcher and not return to the farm).  Instructions for sanitizing loading trucks and feed trucks have been mailed to all registered Wisconsin farms listed as raising pigs.

Yet another germ vector leading to the spread of PEDv has been detected, which is the use of animal protein byproducts in feed.  There are strict rules because of the threat of Mad Cow Disease (in cattle) and Scrapies (in sheep) that byproducts of ruminants cannot be fed back to ruminants, but there is no such legislature that prevents porcine byproducts from being fed back to pigs.  Dried hog plasma, collected from the cleanup of the kill floor in slaughter houses, is a common dietary supplement for piglets in factory farms.  While the connection hasn’t been firmly established, the link between piglet outbreaks and this potentially contaminated protein addition is being examined.

While a vaccine is being fast-tracked by industry and university scientists, there still is no cure or prevention other than biosecurity measures.  In desperation to try to build herd immunity, some veterinarians are instructing their clients to grind the dead piglets and feed them back to the mothers, despite the illegal state of this practice.  The situation, on a whole, has become quite desperate, with expected shortages of fall pigs and rising market prices.

But what the agricultural newspapers are not sharing with their readers is that super-bug diseases like PEDv are directly correlated with the faults in our livestock system.  Pigs, in their natural state, are meant to live outside, in small groups, with plenty of space to roam and forage.  Their diet should be diverse, but feeding ground or dried body parts or fluids from their own species is simply asking for trouble.  Cramming animals together in environments where, should the electricity to the high-powered fans be interrupted, the creatures suffocate in their own ammonia in less than an hour—this is not responsible, naturalistic practice. 

If we want to make a difference in the germ concerns that plague our food industry, legislating riparian areas as potential contaminant sources from wildlife is not going to make a difference.  And the conglomerate corporations that control CAFO production across the country are too big and powerful for most legislative bodies to condemn.  It will therefore be up to the public to make an impact on the system by actively choosing where their food comes from by voting with their dollar. 

If enough people choose to buy pork from small, outdoor, sustainably minded hog farmers, then there will be increasingly less demand for confinement pork.  Those operations are entirely run with profit and tax breaks in mind, and if they can’t make it, then they will see no reason to expand their reign of animal terror.  Likewise, by knowing your farmer and her practices, you can have greater confidence in the health and wholesomeness of what you’re eating, as well as its environmental impacts. 

While outbreaks like PEDv might not hit the headlines outside of the world of agriculture (sometimes they just don’t want the public to know these things), it’s important as enlightened eaters to know the dark underbelly of the agribusiness system.  This is real, and it’s very scary.  And it’s our job to be informed and proactive in our response.  Do you know where your pork comes from?  I’m glad that I get to know mine every day, out behind my own house.  This, to me, is real food security.  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

 

 
 

They're Alive!

Sometimes farming can throw you little surprises to brighten a day of drudgery tasks.  With the latest thaw, the paths and lanes have been reduced to slush, the grainy snow sliding in rumbling, crumbling sheets off metal roofs (just after you walked by), and the coops are turned to boggy sogginess.  The start of mud season has begun.

After chores were finished, Mom and I tackled the ever-so-lovely task of cleaning out the turkey coop amidst cabin-fever turkey hens and toms.  Since they would be under our watchful supervision, I let the turks out into their snow-laden pen (with its mesh still buried underneath somewhere), and they climbed and clamored like eager school children at recess. 

Scoop the buckets full, load them on the sled, and slop-slop our way to the dump pile for spring spreading.  Then it’s drag them back again and scoop some more.  The sun is shining, and it’s really quite warm out.  We’ve both shed our coats and hats, and a light breeze teases our frizzing hair.

“Ach,” Mom cries, waving her hand by her head as we dump another load of filled buckets onto the pile.  “A fly!  Not a fly already!”

But it was a little bit later as we were back working at the turkey coop, I noticed, “Mom, that’s not a fly.  I think you heard a honey bee, and it’s still in your hair!”

We tease the little, furry creature from her salt-and-pepper tangle, and it crawls about on my finger.  A honeybee!  With all these endless and long spells of twenty-below temperatures, I had written off the colony as frozen solid.  Having kept bees on the farm since 2003, only mild winters had seen colony survival, despite insulating the hive and other precautions.

This last fall, though, our one surviving colony (we lost the second one early in the season due to a bummer queen), had entered the winter strong, full of honey and as much concentrated sugar water as the bees would take as extra feed.  With one deep hive body and two shallows, they had plenty of room to pack it in—and barely enough room to fit all the bees. 

On top of the hive, we place a moisture-reducing system made by Smarter Bee that is built into a shallow hive body.  With a cloth and screen barrier between the hive and the moisture reducer (so the bees are kept safely below), a convex piece of thin metal sheeting acts to collect moisture from the hive that rises through the cloth barrier.  The drips condense in small troughs on each side and then exit the hive through poly tubing.  Holding too much moisture in a hive can lead to an array of diseases and chilling as the water drips back onto the bees, but the moisture reducer helps to alleviate these problems all winter.

We then wrapped the whole kit in pink house insulation, like a big marshmallow, then wrapped that in tar paper (as a wind and moisture barrier as well as the blackness helps capture solar warmth) like a pudgy Christmas package with a notch cut out at the hive entrance.  We wished the bees well, then watched the snow pile high on top and around the back sides.  The sunny days this winter helped keep the south and eastern sides free of snow and the entrance open.

Usually, I make a habit of traipsing out to the hive nearly every week during the winter.  But with all the cold (meaning I didn’t want to have to stay out any longer than necessary due to threat of frost bite) and the deep snow (out there I really would have sunk out of sight), it just didn’t happen.  But when that one little honey bee flew into Mom’s hair, we both knew we had to get out to the hive and see what was happening.

Another beekeeping friend from town had reported his hive had died of the cold way back in January.  I certainly hadn’t any expectations that my one lone hive in the snowbank was going to pull through.  But as we waded through the hip-deep mashed-potato snow to the apiary, our thoughts bounced from hope to dread.  There is no fun and glory in cleaning out a dead hive in the spring, crusted with shattered bee parts and white furry mold growing in the corners.

The bottom entrance had crusted over, and as I worked it free with a twig, there was no activity.  And yet, a few more bees were hovering about.  Where were they coming from?  We scooped away the snow from the top of the hive, pried off the frozen bricks and lid, and then began unwrapping the package.  Beneath the tar paper were all kinds of bees, searching for a way out.  Lifting off the insulation, we found that the snowload had shifted the moisture reducer towards the back just enough for the bees to chew a hole in the front corner of the fabric barrier and climb out the top of the hive.  As we unearthed their home, delighted bees were buzzing everywhere, taking wing after a protracted and cramped winter.

They’re alive!  I couldn’t believe it, just couldn’t.  But if the colony was still alive, they were likely very short on food supplies.  Our last honey harvest in the fall right before preparing the bees for winter had come at a crazy busy time on the farm.  The tub with the honey-laden frames just kept getting shifted from this part of the farm to that, hoping for a moment to extract the liquid gold within.  But that time never materialized.

Now, with bees in need of food, we raced to find that bin, which was exactly enough to fill a super body.  It was also likely that the bees had packed away pollen in the corners of the frames, which is an important part of “bee bread” that is fed to the developing larva.  As we approach the equinox, the queen in the hive will be ramping up her egg laying to build a strong workforce for the first nectar flows.

Of course, you can buy “pollen patties” that are a pollen-colored substitute, and you can also purchase in-hive bee feeders for corn syrup or sugar water, but saving work that the bees had put away of their real and natural foods is by far the best.  And those bees could smell us coming with their honey—offering us a personal, hovering escort.

I took a quick check through the top hive body, and each frame was loaded with bees.  The queen, however, must have been hiding below, but I was concerned about chilling the hive with too much poking and prodding.  On the next really warm day, I will come back for a “peek-a-boo.”  For now, I’m satisfied just knowing that the hive is alive and stocked up with good food.  Hurray for those hearty little bees!  Hopefully, we can make it through to spring.  With all the trails of diseases, mites, and colony collapse that honeybees have been facing, it’s heartening to know that these special creatures on our farm shoulder forward with resilience yet.  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

Horse Apple Holler

The livestock are hungry this morning—always hungry.  The chickens line up at the door, the sheep crowd the gate, the tilapia splash at the surface of their tanks, and the pigs squeal and grunt in complaint.  Obviously, we’re taking too long to feed them, lugging 50-pound sacks from our stash in the garage on the trusty orange sled.  And then there’s at least three bales of hay to lug in the mornings as well, with wooly pushing and shoving, and Belle the guard donkey is more than a little vocal about wanting her share.

The 120 or so laying hens plus 11 ducks snug in the coop eat a bag of feed every day.  Just them!  Through these really cold snaps, the sheep have even eaten their straw bedding, so more must be drug in and scattered.  And then there’s all the water to be hauled about for thirsty lips and beaks and snoots.  Ah for a day when I can convince the animals to haul water for themselves!  But alas, I doubt that’s coming anytime soon.

But all this feed and bedding and water isn’t a one-way trip on the farm.  Oh no, it has to mount to something.  So our menagerie of two and four-legged composting units have been doing their best to make great gardening material for spring.  Ah yes, some folks make a study of wildlife scat, tracing the tracks of bobcat and raccoon, but here are some musings on the qualities of barnyard manures.  Given it’s March, let’s try them in limericks.

It was down in horse apple holler,

Much too cold to have any waller.

The donkey did bray,

For she wanted more hay,

To make her pack rise even taller.

 

The farmer went in with the scoop,

For to shovel out some of the poop.

It rolled and it tumbled,

And the farmer she mumbled,

For it threw her back for a loop.

 

The sheep were all bunched like a herd,

They‘re so good at making their turds.

The dog thinks they’re kibbles,

She loved to get nibbles,

But the goat says that that’s for the birds.

 

The chickens are known for their droppings,

It coats all the bedding like toppings.

Please watch your head,

Or you’ll grimace with dread,

When you hear that next sound of ploppings.

 

The ducks they just love to make messes,

With icicles stuck to their tresses.

They can make you a lake,

With just one ducky shake,

And leave the technique to your guesses.

 

The pigs wander out with a totter,

They really would like some more fodder.

But their pile is so high,

They’ll look you in the eye,

And it steams away since it’s hotter.

 

We’ve a pile outside of the barn,

We thought it would do much less harm.

But the fragrance is clear,

If you’re anywhere near,

Though the garden will think it’s a charm.

 

And it’s down in horse apple holler,

I’ll lead the way, you can foller.

As the bedding piles deep,

Mucking work is a heap,

And the volume makes you feel much smaller!

Well, guess I’ll have to wrap this up somewhere and bundle up for chores.  Our little friendly manure makers are going to be hungry and thirsty again.  If you’re on a farm (or grew up on one), I suspect you remember those mucking days well!  It’s certainly nobody’s favorite, though a clean coop filled with fresh wood shavings is a lovely sight (and smell, in comparison with what came before).

And how do we notice the first signs of spring on the farm?  Well, the bedding pack thawing out is a good one, and the barnyard becoming a slippery, muddy mess.  But for now, let’s hope it stays frozen just a little longer.  I’ve got snow to shovel first!  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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Extreme Chores

Bundled in 17 pounds of boots, insulated pants, down coat, hat, gloves, and face scarf, my glasses iced over by steamy breath, facing winter chores can become daunting even before leaving the back door.

External faucets are frozen closed, so we fill five-gallon buckets in the utility sink with warm water for the pigs, lifting them high over the lip of the sink, then trundling them out to the orange sled waiting outside.  That hearty, toboggan-long sled sure does get a workout in wintertime, hauling water, hay, feed, fodder, and wood this way and that along our paths and trails across the barnyard.

These paths are packed tightly where we’ve trodden them down for months, but should a stray foot wander off—poof—you’ve sunk in above your knee.  This is especially hazardous when the trails have drifted over and it’s hard to know exactly where that curve in the path used to be.  It is equally obvious when you’ve guessed incorrectly.

Shoveling has been a daily practice for chores this winter.  As rigorous as it can be, I wonder that some form of shoveling isn’t featured at the Olympics.  The bend, the scoop, the throw…and then the tamping and scraping for the sticky snow that won’t let go of the shovel.  There’s the deck, the paths, the stoops in front of the garages, and a long stretch in front of the barn to keep the banks at bay.  Either the land has risen or the barn was always built on land a little downhill from parts of the barnyard, and spring flooding can be a real issue.  Every year, we hope for a slow melt that will allow the snows to sink gracefully into the aquifer rather than running in a torrent down the gravel road, washing out the culvert, or pooling like a lake inside the barn.  While I’m not quite ready for spring and its mounting workload, a little break from the snow and bitter cold would be welcome.

Shovel, shovel, shovel.  The high tunnel where we raise vining tomato plants in the summer is half buried in a drift.  I can only see the top portion of the door.  But with the huge pre-Birkie storm on the way, we had to make room for the new snow to be able to slide off the top and not continue to crush the arching structure.  Just wading out to the high tunnel was hip-deep in places, past the row of wind-breaking spruces sheltering mounds of dismembered pinecone tidbits that the squirrels have left.

It’s tricky shoveling out a plastic-film sided greenhouse.  Dig along the sides and the snow still lingering on the top slips and slides and flops down in your trench, so you get to shovel it out again.  And it’s soooooo easy to poke a hole in the side with the corner of the scoop, just as you hit a chunk of ice that refuses to give way.  We’ll have a few nicks to patch in the spring, but at least the snow has a place to go, rather than collapsing our precious growing structure.

Drifts on rooftops have grown dangerously heavy—two feet deep in places!  In the news are featured stories of barn and outbuildings collapsing under the tremendous weight.  Borrowing a roof rake from a neighbor, we take turns chopping and scraping, trying to make a dent in the snowload.  The long and rambling woodshed (originally used to store horse-drawn farm machinery because it was easy to back into) was the first on the list. 

There was no chance at a sudden rush of releasing snow as happens on the south side of the barn roof—rumbling and thundering and smashing in an avalanche against the side of the machine shed beside it.  So it was chop, chop and chop, chop at the drift above, wading through the snow.  The stacking pile below now leaves but a modest gap between the roofline and the ground!  The woodshed is very nearly just a tunnel!  Seriously, it’s looking rather like a polar expedition around here, rather than a farm.

My other running joke lately is that we’re farming in the trenches.  Veritable high-sided louge tracks for the sled are guarded by great mounds of snow banks.  Sometimes it’s hard to know where Mom or Kara are in the farmyard because you can’t see over the sides of the trenches, even though the packed trails raise my shoulders higher than the top of the five-foot woven wire chicken fence.

Just a few days ago, chores turned into an experience of quicksand.  It was evening and quite dark except for the brilliant pin-pricks of stars above.  I entered the frosty-sided chicken coop to sadly find that one of my ladies had died (likely in a fight with another hen over nesting box territory…sometimes freaky things can happen with chickens).  I carefully wrapped her in a feed sack and endeavored to take her out to the old pump house for safe keeping until we could dispose of her properly.

The pump house still has the old hand pump in it but the hand-dug well collapsed years ago thanks to a raucous population of woodchucks.  Long past its days as a milk house, we use the shed to store garden tools, bins, extra boxes, and odds and ends (there always seems to be an endless supply of odds and ends on a farm!).  With my poor deceased chicken wrapped in a feed sack in hand, I faced the silver-sided pump house.  Between me and my destination lay the cliff of snow shoveled away from the front of the barn.  It seemed like rock climbing gear might be necessary, but I bravely embarked up the face, over the edge, and then sank nearly out of sight into the soft drift on the other side.

Hollering for help was to no avail, for the rest of the crew was well off at the Red Barn with belloring rams and the donkey.  Would they hear my snow-muffled cries?  Nope.  So now what?  My left leg twisted behind me, my right leg straight down to the waist in fluff, my arms holding the chicken, this was feeling like a predicament.  I tried to push with one hand against the snow, but it was so soft it too only sunk deep without resistance.  What if I simply disappeared without a trace?  How long would it take someone to find me?

I set the chicken aside with a poof of white, icy fluff and tried rolling on my back, then from side to side, in an effort to pack down some of the snow.  What I really needed was a set of snowshoes, but those were quite a ways away…all the way back at the house.  So, my mind raced, how could I make instant snowshoes to get out of this drowning mess?  It’s amazing the odd, scary, and funny things you mind can think up when you’re completely stuck in a snowbank.

Managing to pull one knee underneath me, I braced all of my left lower leg and foot into one long knee-to-toe “foot,” then drug my right knee out of the drift.  One bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken, the next bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken.  The process was awkward, to say the least, but I managed to reach the shed (thankfully the door opened inward), deposit my package, and wade back to the safety of the shoveled walk, plopping down panting.

Mom and Kara rounded the bend with a sled full of hay bales, their water buckets clanging.  “What has been taking you so long?”

Well, I tell you, this has sure been a winter for extreme chores.  And yes, Farmstead Creamery is shoveled out too, so you can always come on over for fresh greens, eggs, pastured meats, delicious bakery goods, and more.  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

Sprouting New Projects

Up in the frozen tundra of this year’s Wisconsin winter, there’s a micro-climate of lush and green, sheltered beneath arches of steel supporting strong but delicate plastic film—a flexing skin that allows the light to enter but holds back the snow and cold.  The land of aquaponics flourishing below, with tilapia swimming in their tanks and fresh greens reaching for the sun, is now well into its second year of production on our farm.

The clank of the door latch in the morning excites the first tank of fish, which glide to the surface and splash playfully.  “Breakfast, we want breakfast!”  The morning sunshine is sparkling on the water, and the air is moist and rich with oxygen—a stark change from the cold, snappy-dry environment outside.

Lately, we’ve been spending considerable time in the aquaponics greenhouse, tending to fish and plants, yes, but also because of building and starting new projects within the protective plastic walls as well.  Investing in such a heated space to allow for local, natural, and bio-secure foods to be grown right here all year has been a major financial leap for us, which means that every corner and cranny is ripe with the possibility for adding something that will grow more food.

Clay pots neatly tucked under the edge of the table-high NFT (Nutrient Film Technology) channels sport vigorous bushes of thyme, parsley, sage, lavender, cilantro, and edible violas.  Other pots commanding sunny locations hold thick-stemmed tomato plants that have grown chest-high.   Several times each day, I get to play “honey bee” with a vibrating pollination wand that shakes the clusters of canary-yellow blossoms.  Already the labors are showing there merit as a few little green tomatoes are beginning to form!  This is February—somebody pinch me!

Starting last summer, our Media Bed System (which utilizes the solid nutrients from the fish) began sludging up with too much material, flooding the beds and pulling down their side walls in a cascade of water and clay BBs that rushed across the cement floor towards the drain.  After a few relapses of this catastrophe, we knew that this piece of the system required an overhaul.

Following weeks and weeks of washing the clay pebbles by the colander-fulls and stocking the nutrient rich water in five-gallon jugs for the garden in spring, we were able to modify the side walls of the media beds, return the washed pebbles, and begin growing crunchy radishes, peppery arugula, and juicy beets again.

But it was apparent that the reservoir of solid-rich fish water siphoned for the media beds could serve a much larger growing area.  Eager to expand the winter tomato, pepper, and brassica production, we applied creative engineering with PVC pipe and hanging-basket brackets to rig a platform and irrigation structure for a new Dutch Bucket system along the east wall walkway.  Customarily used in hydroponic production (which employs chemical fertilizers rather than our tilapia friends), Dutch Buckets are a series of square, black pails filled with growing media.  Water drips in from above and then exits through a pipe below, allowing excess water to return to the reservoir to be recycled. 

With 30 new mini-pots to plant, we’re trying heirloom tomatoes, broccoli raab, Napa cabbage, kale, green and red peppers, and trellising cucumbers.  After a few hiccups (overflowing buckets, plugged drain spigots, fish scales in the water line), our new system holds vigorous and healthy plants eager to outdo their potted neighbors.  At times it seems you can watch them grow!  While the project is still in its experimental phase, already we are looking around our space, wondering where to expand with another length of Dutch Buckets.  Maybe over here would be a great spot for kohlrabi!

Our fodder-growing system has also been a happy success.  Sprouting wheatgrass from spring wheat for the chickens, ducks, and turkeys not only augmented their diets all year but also improved their behavior and health.  During butchering last year, we noticed phenomenally fewer heart and liver problems amongst the Cornish-cross chickens and standard white turkeys (both of which, because they are bred to grow fast, can often suffer in these areas).  Their skin was healthy and well-colored, there was more uniformity of size, and their insides smelled sweet and fresh—like fodder.

This has spurred us to increase our fodder-growing operation so that our fun new Kunekune pigs as well as our beloved sheep can enjoy this nutrient-dense feed all year as well.  Again using creative engineering, a good deal of PVC glue, and a mobile wire shelving system, we’re growing from our original 12 trays to an additional 30.  Stacked in levels of five trays across, the little spring wheat shoots reach for the sky, happy to turn water and sunlight into tasty, homegrown feed for healthy, happy livestock.

Sprouts are also delicious and healthy for people as well, which bring us to our third major new project in the greenhouse this winter.  Eventually, we can consign some of the fodder trays for sprouting, but for starters we’re learning the trade in a couple of seedling trays with a light layer of crunchy, white vermiculite.  To start the adventure, we chose the dwarf gray sugar pea.

The instructions said that a standard seedling tray would require two cups of seed (yes, sprouting does require quite a volume of seed), soaked in water overnight before planting.  Well, those seeds loved their water bath, and they swelled…and swelled…and swelled to bursting.  They puffed up so much that there was no way two cups were going to fit into one tray!  We grabbed a second tray and some more vermiculite and split the bucket’s worth in half.  There’s always a learning curve in farming.

Diligently misting with the sprayer hose, I watched over two weeks as white tendrils reached down into the medium, pushing the peas upwards.  Then from the same exit, little white nubbins began to reach upwards.  Slowly, the nubbins turned to green, then to leaves, then to leaves with stems, and then the addition of mini curling tendrils.  They smell fresh and sweet, like a springtime garden.  Now five-and-a-half inches tall, they’re just perfect for harvesting for this week’s CSA shares.  And they taste just like pea pods, perfect for salads, sandwiches, stir fries, and more!

It’s deliciously exciting in the aquaponics greenhouse this year, planting, harvesting, tending to the fish, but also expanding the operation in new and exciting ways.  Missing fresh greens from your garden this winter?  Come on over to Farmstead Creamery to pick up a tasty piece of the new project we’ve been sprouting in the greenhouse.  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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