North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Makin' Hay

In farming, there are seldom any certainties, though a few things hold true—like baby animals in the springtime; frost in the fall; and a hot, dry, sunny stretch in early July that signals it’s time for making hay.  This is not a task just for fun or fancy.  Having enough grasses stored away for the winter is necessary for keeping our livestock fed during the snowy months.

Now, some folks have new, fancy equipment with GPS mapping in their air-conditioned tractor cab as they zip through the fields cutting and raking the heavy swards of grass.  Others churn away with the cage-like round balers that swing open to release the giant marshmallow of packed hay.  With these high-input systems, it takes one person to do what used to take a whole community.

Grandpa remembers the days when the threshing machine went from farm to farm, separating the grain from the chaff.  His job as a teenager was to guide the horses as sheaves were brought in from the field to the steaming monster of a contraption.  As the wagons filled with straw, he’d hup-hup the team to the barn, where the loose material was blown into the mow for safekeeping for winter animal bedding. 

“The worst job of all was the guys up there in the mow using pitch forks to even-out the load, with their collars turned up, their hats pulled low, and a kerchief tied around their mouth and nose,” Grandpa remembers.  “The blower pipe with the straw would shift back and forth, to distribute the material in the mow, and you’d see the guys hunch up their shoulders as the dusty stuff blew over them.  In Central Illinois, those days were hot, and everyone was covered in sweat.”

A few hearty souls can remember the ancient art of stacking loose hay in mounds outside—neatly arranged to shed both rain and snow.  A haystack was not only a building-less storage of hay, it could also be an important shelter for livestock or people during severe winter weather, as well as a play-space for children.

Our farm’s practices lie somewhere in the middle of these disparate traditions.  With a mix of equipment that came with the purchase of the farm in 1968 and bits and pieces acquired at auctions, we’re a put-put, square bale, no kicker, 1940’s to 50’s-era hay baling operation.  Grab your sunhat and a sturdy pair of gloves—it’s time to throw some bales up on the hay rack!

First, there is the chuga-chuga of our light green Owatonna haybine, as it whirs the sharp cutting teeth of the sickle bar back and forth, leaving a six-foot swath in the waving grasses.  Cutting the hay is a practice in patience and strategy because the machine cannot be maneuvered too tightly with its spinning power take-off shaft attached to the back end of the Allis D-15.  Usually, Grandpa takes several passes around the perimeter of the field, guided by Mom on the 4-wheeler watching for the dead furrow, fallen trees, or baby cranes.  Then the plot is shaved down the middle and broken into two sections, allowing for large figure-eight maneuvers instead of creating a tight circle in the middle.

The haybine rattles all day and sometimes into the encroaching darkness to get the job done.  This last week, in good old get-it-done German fashion, Mom refused to quit until the field was cut.  “No sense hauling it back out there for that one little patch!” she said determinedly.  So the last few swatches were cut by the headlights of the golf cart, as I warded off swarms of mosquitoes from the edge of the field.

“Really, can’t we call it quits!?”  But being miserable doesn’t get the hay in, and as they say, you have to make hay while the sun shines.  This was Wednesday, and rain was predicted on Saturday.  The hay would need Thursday to dry, followed by a mad rush of raking and baling on Friday before to dew settled in for the evening.

Some years, our “bigger” tractors are tied up cutting or baling, and we have to pull out the little Allis B to pull the gangly red rake (which dwarfs the antique tractor).  Known as a “side delivery,” the rake rolls the hay to the side, allowing several smaller rows of cutting to be glumped together, while turning the wet underside up to the sun for proper drying.  Too much moisture is the bane of baling hay.  Pack wet hay into a bale and the decomposition process will turn the grass dangerously hot—even to the point of spontaneously combusting and burning your barn to the ground!

Ok, so the hay is good and dry and ready to bale—it’s time to call in the troops!  Mom studiously aims the John Deere square baler over the wind row of raked hay.  Click-a, click-a, click-a, WHUMP.  Metal teeth pick up the hay and feed it into the auger.  Fang-like tines pull it into the chute, where the heavy plunger pounds it into place.  As the bale steadily grows, a counter measures the length, then Carunk!  Needles thrust upwards to the knotter, securing the compressed hay in two tight lengths of twine, and the bale is pushed up the exit chute towards the waiting hands on the hayrack.  Click-a, Click-a, Click-a, the next bale is begun.

That is, if everything is working properly.  Baling time is always fraught with mishaps, sheared pins, and breakdowns.  You know you’re in for an adventure when the baler comes with a tool box bolted to the top!  Optimists, aren’t they!  One year, I had to make a mad dash into town to buy a whole box of shear pins just to make it through that day’s baling before the rains came.  The hardware people simply chuckled knowingly.  “Ah, one of those kinds of days, isn’t it.”

There is also an art to stacking.  The sometimes slippery surface of the wagon deck rumbles and bounces beneath you as you lean precariously forward, reaching for the bale.  The first layer is fairly straightforward—five bales wide in a brick-like pattern that helps lock each row in place.  We do our best to keep the stack neat and square, so it stays on the wagon despite bumps and curves.  One year of riding on top of a pile of bales as they tumbled off the side of the hay wagon was more than enough adventure for me!

As the stacks get higher, they can work as an overgrown set of stairs for a while, until the front person simply has to throw the 40-pound bales up to the person waiting on top.  Towering five or six levels high, the wagon is unhitched and hauled to the barn then replaced by the next empty rack.  Then the bales need to be individually loaded onto the “elevator”—a rattly conveying system that drags the bales up into the mow.  Usually, Grandpa and I are loading the elevator, while Mom and Kara scramble high up in the baking loft, catching and stacking the bales in place as they tumble off the top of the elevator.  Covered in chaff and debris, we’re all ready for a cold drink and a much-needed shower.

There’s no way around it—haying is a hot and dusty job.  With enough rain, sun, and a bit of luck, we’ll be out making the highly nutritious second crop hay in September.  Have you ever made hay?  Maybe this week you’ll spy someone put-putting on their baler or come across a field dotted with round bales.  It’s that time of year, for sure.  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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Sassy Pigs

It’s one of those days.  You’ve been invited to chill at a neighbor’s bonfire, the chores still need to be done, it’s been a busy day at Farmstead, and you would really just like to sit down and put your feet up…when the pigs decide it’s the best time to escape.

Not really an all out run away escape—this is the let’s tear down some fence and make some mischief kind of escapade.  You know you’ve been meaning to move the hogs to a new pen, but this new behavior triggered by procine boredom is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  It’s time to build the new pig pen and move them onto fresh grass NOW before real havoc begins (like the pigs taking themselves on a tour of the farm, terrorizing the garden and the ducklings in the process).

Kara and the interns worked most of the afternoon, pounding fence posts, stringing wire, moving feeders, and getting the new lush spot with succulent lamb’s quarter as tall as me ready for the new hog playpen.  It looked like paradise for a pig—lots of places to explore, new roots to dig up, a lovely shade shelter, and more space for romping.  But the pigs were not impressed.

In fact, they were even less than not impressed.  Those little buggers changed their minds and decided they were no longer interested in leaving their old pens!  Wait a minute, just a moment ago you wanted out, and now you won’t go???  That’s a pig for you!

“You sassy pigs,” our intern Sanora scolds.  “Shoo!  Come on piggies, the fence is open, just GO!”  The white mischievous one with long wispy lashes looks at us out of the corner of her beady eye.  She rocks from side to side, looking for a way to escape to the far corner of the rutted up old pen.

“Fee-fi-fo-fum, I am scary!”  Clara, our other intern, spreads her arms wide as we walk slowly in a semi-circle around the pig, trying to convince her to move on to the next paddock.  We stomp our feet, clap our hands, and holler “Hup, hup!”  If this were any other situation, folks might think we were more than just a little bit strange…or crazy.

The pig is not convinced and darts past my left leg towards the safety of her old three-sided house, then doubles back to hide in their muddy whaller by the water spigot.  She knows it’s a safe spot because the mud is so deep we don’t dare enter—boots or more could simply disappear in the unstable muck, and then you’d be little more than a pig chew-toy!

“Laura,” my sister cries, “Get some goodies from the Café!”  I hurry back on our ever-trusty blue utility golf cart to Farmstead Creamery and snatch up the liner from the bin where we save kitchen scraps for the pigs and chickens.  A whir of wheels, and I’m back at the pen.  Tossing one at a time, we try bating the obstinate pigs with bits of bread, banana peals, and egg shells.

“Come on you guys, move it!” 

A few have become brave explorers, happy to trounce through the tall weeds and explore the contents of the moved feeders.  Their jowly lips smack noisily as they devour the kitchen slop, rooting it around in search of the tastiest morsels.  The bait helps, but a few pigs are still staying stubborn.

There is always one.  Usually, it’s a smart little black pig that seems to be able to read your mind.  This time, it’s the sassy white one, determined not to cooperate with us, even though we’re just trying to help her.  “Life will be better on the other side of the fence!” we explain, but English doesn’t always work on a pig.

Then, it starts to drizzle.  I can feel the warm mugginess of it slowly plastering the T-shirt I’m wearing to my back.  The dim darkness is settling in on the farm, and I still haven’t even started on evening chores.  The chickens are going to express their displeasure with extra vigor tonight—where have you been, dinner is late! 

Mom drives up from finishing tending the aquaponics greenhouse.  “Hurry!” Kara implores.  “Come help us!”

It starts to become a joke as to how many people it takes to move a pig.  Here’s Mom, Kara, and I, as well as Clara and Sanora, all in our tall rubber farm boots, arms outstretched, trying to move a sassy pig into a new pen.  No wonder some folks think we’re more than a little nuts.

Pigs are too compact and muscular to wrestle into where you want them to go.  They won’t lead like a sheep or donkey, and you can’t just pick them and carry them like a chicken or a duck—at least not when they weigh close to 200 pounds.  A pig requires convincing in order to move, which is just as much psychological as anything else.

If the pigs had been trying to escape because they were either hungry or thirsty, then the move into the new pen would have been much simpler.  Open the fence, offer the desired item on the other side, and at least most of them would have willingly walked through.  But since the cause of the problem was porcine boredom, the cure was not as convincing.  Little Miss Sassy was probably more concerned that the biting electric fence was going to get her than she was curious about the new pen.  “I’m not going!” you could see those little eyes say.  “No sir-ee.”

Finally, it was time to use some force.  Lashing a hog panel to a wooden post, we formed a chute into the new pen.  A few times of walking and clapping our hands, and the secured swing panel convinced most of the hogs to saunter through.  But not Miss Sassy white one.  Slowly, slowly, we crept up behind her until she entered the corral, then swiftly bowed the hog panel into a large U, so she could not escape back to the old pen.

She gave it a good tussle, trying to push through or lift the fence with her muscular nose, but we held on tight.  A few seconds of real struggle, and then she seemed to just shrug and walk in like it wasn’t even a problem at all.  Sassy pig.  Really?  Did the simple task of moving into a new pen really have to be this difficult for you?

We shake our heads, scrape the well-pigged mud off our boots, and have a good laugh at the little adventures agrarian life throws you once in a while.  Then, it’s off to do evening chores.  Guess we’ll have to enjoy a bonfire another night.  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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Internship Opportunity

We are losing one of our interns for health reasons, so if you or someone you know is interested in living and learning more about sustainable agriculture and entrepreneurship, please let them know that an internship opportunity is available!  We're looking for youthful character (though at least 18 years of age), willing hands, and a positive attitude.  Thanks!

Laura, Kara, Ann

North Star Homestead Farms, LLC 

yourfarmer@northstarhomestead.com

715-462-3453 

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Independence on the Homestead

This week, as we mark the anniversary of signing our nation’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain (though I believe King George didn’t get to read it until three weeks later due to the 18th Century lack of email and texting), I am reminded of the many ways in which an independent spirit manifests in the life and practices of homesteaders past and present. 

In 1776, the majority of the American population devoted itself to agriculture, and the agrarian ethos wove its way into the founding paradigms of the upstart compilation of states.  Good old do-it-yourself was part of the bootstrapping courage that gave these former colonists the chutzpa to bid the Mother Country adieu and then fight for that decision.  The independent spirit of this bygone era continues today through the contemporary homesteading tradition.

Growing and preserving your own foods is a crucial pillar in a homesteader’s independence.  Vegetable gardens, orchards, herb patches, and wild edibles in the woods filled pantries, larders, root cellars, and attics in the fall.  People dried, salted, pickled, fermented, and canned foods to help them last through the winter and the lean times in the spring as the new crops were put in the ground. 

Smoking meats increased their longevity, though today freezing is also an important source of preserving all manner of foods.  It’s hard to imagine a modern homesteader without a chest freezer…or two or three.  Vacuum packaging and controlled dehydrators are other more recent inventions to help the independent food preserver stock up and seal in home-grown goodness.

On many historic homesteads, enough food was put by for a year or two, to help through a tough season of drought or flood, wind or hale.  In most modern cities, if the ability to ship foods suddenly ceased, the residents would be able to eat for three days—then the supplies would simply run out.  That’s it folks, three days of food.  Relying on a trucking system that uses fossil fuels is not food independence.  Joel Salatin offers an apt explanation of true food independence in his book Folks, This Ain’t Normal:

“Food security is not in the supermarket.  It’s not in the government.  It’s not at the emergency services division.  True food security is the historical normalcy of packing it in during the abundant times, building that in-house larder, and resting easy knowing that our little ones are not dependent on next week’s farmer’s market or the electronic cashier at the supermarket.”

Independence on the homestead also comes with diversity.  When the chickens nourish the garden with their manure, which nourishes the farmer with fresh produce, which nourishes the pigs with garden and kitchen scraps, which nourishes the ground for next year’s garden, it makes sense how diversity keeps the cycles of production and regeneration going all on the same plot of land. 

With diversification also comes the safety net that if one aspect goes awry this year, the other pieces in the farm’s orchestration can pick up the slack.  The flea beetles might have eaten the arugula, but the potato crop was bumper—it all works out in the end.  I was once asked by a fellow farmer what I do for crop insurance.  My answer was, “diversification.”

Knowing how to make things yourself is also a pivotal part of a homesteader’s independence.  It might be as simple as inventing roll-down sides for your chicken tractor from pieces of blue tarp to help the birds better shelter from the rain, or as complex as welding your own milking parlor stanchions.  An understanding of carpentry, metalworking, and even textiles can help a homesteader with Yankee ingenuity.  Why buy a braided mesh to string on your trellis for snap peas when you’ve got a mountain of baling twine in the barn and can weave your own?  In the end, you’ll have greater pride in your own work than what you might purchase from a commercial industry.

Knowing how to fix things is the tandem virtue to making them.  On the farm, with our antique equipment, something is liable to break down at any given time—especially in the middle of haying.  A bit of wire, some baling twine, or duct tape and zip ties can help for a variety of problems, but other issues require a cultivated knowledge of machinery maintenance. 

My sister Kara is the grease monkey in the family, and she and Grandpa have spent many hours crawling beneath a tractor or a baler with a “humph” and a “could you hand me a—.”  We’re not experts—but you gotta do what you gotta do to keep the farm rolling.  Waiting for someone else to fix it in the field can be the difference between stacking the hay in the barn that night or losing it to a rain storm.

The independent homesteader also comes with at least a wee dose of stubbornness.  Tax the tea?  Heavens!  Tell me what to do?  I’m gonna figure it out my way!  So long as the stubbornness doesn’t run away with you, it’s a good tool for making you get up in the morning and pull every last weed in the garden, pound in the last fence posts even though your shoulders ache, and finish mucking the barn even when the sun sets and turns the sky a dusky gray.  A healthy dose of independent stubbornness keeps you going to get the job done—all the way, the best you can, every time.  It’s part of the farming bootstrap ethos, that extra nudge from inside for those days when you’re feeling low that you never give up. 

This Independence Day, take time to share stories of how your family has struggled for its own independence—whether through growing food, immigrating to start a new life, or rebuilding after the ashes of tragedy.  Keep that stubborn willingness to do your best, no matter what, and see the bright promise of this summer’s 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

 

 
 

Life as a Duckling

You might remember our story about the tragic demise of all but three of my breeder flock of White Pekin ducks this past winter during a frenzied attack by bobcats.  But despite tragic setbacks, farmers are resilient “next year” folks, and this spring we ordered two new batches of ducklings to start the process once again.

From the day of their arrival on our farm, ducklings show their uniqueness—they squeak instead of peep, have no qualms about learning what water is for, and slap-slap their webbed feet on the bedding as they waddle as a massed group from one side of their stock tank pen to the other.  Those little golden fuzzy heads tilt to one side, aiming a beady black eye upwards to stare at you as if to say, “I’m a duckling and I got you in my sight, so watch out!”

There isn’t much to be scared about a duckling though.  They might splash you with water, nibble your finger, or mob you when a refilled feeder returns.  Oh boy, more food and water, here we come!  Being crowded by small, fuzzy bodies is entirely terrifying, to be sure.

While chickens and turkeys like to do their own thing, explore their own corners, or have their own little adventures, that’s not in style for ducklings.  Plagued with anxiety, the little fuzzballs stay close together.  When the leader decides to go this way, everyone goes with.  If one climbs into the tub, they all try to follow, even if it’s not big enough to hold everyone at once.  They don’t ask questions—the rule is just don’t leave me alone, I’m coming too!

Here are a few other rules of thumb for life as a duckling:

  • Water is good.  Water is always good.  The more, the better.  Get it all over yourself.  Get it all over everything!  Dip it up over your eyes, gurgle it in your nose, splash it over your back.  You might end up turning your bedding into a swamp, but it’s the humans’ problem to clean up after you.  Just squeak loudly that you’re unhappy with the damp arrangement and immediately proceed to get everything wet again.
  • Avoid anything you think you don’t like.  Avoidance is easier than challenging something when you can’t fly very well and don’t have a sharp beak or large claws.  Waddle, flap, or swim away as quickly as possible.  Quack loudly as you go to show your indignation at being disturbed.  You were only minding your own business, why did the dog have to come pester you?!
  • Mob anything you know you like.  This could be a vessel for holding water, the food bucket, leaves of lettuce tossed in for you, slugs, or even the hand that usually feeds you.  Pushing and shoving is totally permissible.  Quacking while you stuff your face is also perfectly acceptable.  A duckling should show joy with abandon when she feels it.  The fact that crowding instead of taking turns and being patient makes it harder for everyone to get their share is terribly irrelevant.  I want mine!
  • If it’s in the way, run it over.  This could be a sleepy companion, the food bowl, a log, or someone’s boot.  Just get those little orange feet going and bowl right over the top.  They should have known better than to get in your way!  If it’s too tall, you might have to go around it, especially if you can’t just push it over (like the three-gallon waterer).  You can always apologize later, if it occurs to you to do so.
  • Taste everything.  It might be surprisingly delicious!  Try anything growing from the ground or crawling on it.  Try the fencing, try the woodwork, even try dangling fingers!  It might not come off, but it’s worth a try.  Rattle any object around in your bill for a while to decide whether you like it or not.  If you do, swallow it whole with repeated gulping motions!  If it’s hard to get down, stagger over to the water and get a few good drinks—that will help. 
  • Always stay together.  When intruders appear, huddle on the opposite side of the pen.  If you find that you accidently slipped outside the pen from the rest of the group, panic, race wildly around the perimeter trying to get back in, and make lots of noise!  Some human should notice and help you get back to your friends.  If you all escape together, head for a flower bed!

There are lots of hilarious moments when raising ducklings.  Growing faster than the meat chickens, they seem to blimp out like a water balloon still covered in downy fluff.  They even feel squishy like a sponge when you pick them up.

“Are you guys ever going to grow any feathers?” I tease them in their teenaged phase.  They look at me with those black eyes like, “What’s it to you?”  Then one day it will rain and they’ll preen and preen and pull off all that yellow fuzz to reveal a fully feathered white duck beneath.  Voilah!  They have arrived!  Yellow bills flash with pride and those tiny dark eyes blink rapidly.  The squeaks are replaced by the first tentative quacks, but they won’t stay tentative for long—ducks have amazingly strong voices!

Each little duckling is a true comic and every day the crew makes us laugh.  Fuzzy and cute as a bug’s ear, it’s hard not to like a duckling.  Yes, they’re messy and noisy and take at least three times more water to satisfy than the chickens, but who can blame them.  They’re ducklings!

Have you had your duckling fix lately?  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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Understanding Sheep

Of all the barnyard critters, sheep seem to be the most easily misunderstood.  Yes, folks will say that goats are liable to eat tin cans (though Linden hasn’t managed this yet…but we haven’t given him a chance either) or that chickens will run around with their heads cut off (we always butcher using confinement cones, which eliminates the running potential), but sheep seem to always get the short end of the appreciation stick.  No, they’re not stupid—they’re just really good at being sheep.

“Silly sheep,” I remember Barbara, one of the hosts during my brief tour of England and Wales, saying to herself as she shook her head at an escaped yearling running along in front of our bus.  It had somehow slipped the fence and was putting every ounce of effort to get back to his friends.  “That’s what the English say about them,” she explained.  “Silly sheep.  Sometimes they climb up so high on the slate shale that they get scared and won’t come down, so they have to be carried off the hill.”

Now, it doesn’t help that sheep (as foragers of grasses and a little grain) find themselves in the lower strata of the hierarchy of predator and prey—where humans and wolves would be at the top.  For sheep, their diet contains very little variation (they like it that way), even though eating and re-chewing what they have already eaten (a slimy substance that is part of the rumination process called “cud”) takes up most of their day.

Being at the bottom of the predator/prey heap means that there are quite a number of other creatures in this world that would be happy to eat sheep.  Even eagles are known to attack lambs, let alone the four-legged hunters.  With so many hungry stalkers everywhere, sheep have learned that the best defense is to flee.  This could mean fleeing from sudden loud noises, the approach of anything unfamiliar, or for other reasons that may escape untrained human perception.  For a sheep, it is better to run and ask questions later.  Last one out is usually the first one caught.  When all else fails, bunch into a tight group and hope you are the one in the middle!

Getting their share of food and staying away from things that are frightening are the two biggest motivators for sheep.  If you find yourself having trouble moving sheep from one area to another, it’s not because the sheep are dumb—it’s because you’re not using the right motivators!  Dash a bit of grain into the trough and in they’ll come.  Use the sheep dog to help herd them in the right direction and they’ll go.

But sometimes there is a conflict of motivators.  When we first started to train our sheep to enter our new dairy parlor to be milked, the ewes were anything but cooperative.  The stanchions are up on a metal grate platform.  On top of the platform was their daily ration of grain (good motivator) but to get there involved climbing onto an apparatus where the sheep could see the ground below (bad motivator—sheep like to be firmly on the ground).  To overcome the bad motivator, we zip-tied cardboard to the bottom and sides of the platform so that the sheep couldn’t see through.  Once they were convinced that the structure was solid and safe after a week or so, we slowly removed the cardboard a piece at a time.  When we started milking this summer, the older ewes taught the younger ladies that all was safe—based on their authoritative experience.  Besides, dinner was in those buckets!

Trying to escape the paddock because the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?  Food motivator!  And, well, can you say that you’ve never desired something you couldn’t have?  To sheep, green grass is better than any chocolate cake with raspberries and ganoche frosting.  It’s simply divine.

The other place where sheep are criticized for being stupid is connected with their fight-or-flight instinct.  When humans take a tumble, our instinct is to put out our hands to break the fall and save our vital organs from a hard impact.  In a way, this makes sense (outer extremities are not as vital as one’s heart or liver) but on the other hand it seems terribly silly given that a shoulder can take a greater hit than a wrist.  Silly humans, why do we stick out our hands and break our wrists when we fall?  We should know better!

For sheep, that moment of panic manifests in bolting forward.  This could be triggered because they pushed their necks under the electric fence for that extra-sweet clump of grass then—pop—as the jolt comes through they charge forward and suddenly find themselves on the other side of the fence.  Oops, that wasn’t supposed to happen. 

Now the rest of the flock is easing away from the fence because the first sheep made a sudden movement and startled them.  Now she is no longer with her group!  She is alone!  She is vulnerable when she is alone!  Something might come out of the woods and eat her!  Can you blame her for being a bit panicked and pacing the fence to find a way back in?  If she touches the fence again, it will bite her.  If she stays where she is, a predator might attack her.  It’s an anxiety-provoking position for anyone.

Sheep do, however, have the propensity for mishaps.  If there is something to get oneself tangled in, trip oneself on, or wedge oneself into, the sheep will find it.  Over the years, we’ve learned to stop and think, “If I were a sheep, could I get stuck or hurt on that?”  With stories of farmers who left round bales of hay in the paddock for their sheep only to find that as they ate the middle the remaining ring of hay collapsed on their wooly friends along with other misadventures, it’s always good to think two steps ahead of the sheep.  With long, knobby legs, it’s easy to get tangled.  Without much depth perception in front (unlike predatory vision, like ours), it’s sometimes hard to judge the true size of any space.

This is true of a time when we were moving a ewe and her lamb from a birthing jug in the south wing of the barn to the center barn with the other ewe and lamb pairs.  Kara was holding the lamb (which the mother usually follows complacently), while I held the pen open.  The ewe wanted to follow her baby, but at the same time she did not want to leave the safety of her jug.  We had her almost to the door when she changed her mind and darted back towards the pen—choosing the most direct route.  This was right between my legs.  I suddenly found myself sprawled over the back of a galloping sheep, legs in the air, arms grasping for any tuft of wool.

“Don’t do that!” Mom yelled as I was carried off and slammed into the sides of the pen.  “I wasn’t trying to,” I moaned as the sheep finally just lay down with me on top.  “The silly sheep must have thought I was taller!”

So next time someone says that sheep are stupid, you can reply that no, they are just really good at being sheep.  Speaking of which, Sweet Pea the miniature sheep and Linden the dwarf goat are down at the Café on pleasant days to greet you!  Maybe they’ll share a few more secrets with you about understanding sheep, if you listen carefully.  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

Storm Stories

If you’re tucked back in the woods, sometimes it’s hard to see the weather coming.  If you’re on the lake, you might have a great view of impending clouds (especially if they’re coming your way across the water).  But many people who have visited the farm for longer periods of time realize that our fields offer a unique view of the building and changing of storm clouds.  This is a good thing, since having fair warning of hazardous weather can be quite critical for farming!

Why do farmers always begin by talking about the weather?  Too much wet and you can’t get into the fields to work.  Too much dry and the crops may fail.  Too cold and freak frosts can damage sensitive plants or prolonged bouts stunt tomatoes and peppers.  Too much hot and many plants bolt or animals suffer from heat exhaustion.  Hail and wind can wreak havoc, as well.  The list never ends!

This spring, the weather’s bipolar tendencies have made life quite interesting, to say the least.  Loads of snow, gusty winds, hot and dry, wildfires, soaking rain that lasts for days, chilly dampness, and steamy sunniness all in a month’s time can send farmers like us into a dizzy dance to keep-up.  Open the windows to the chicken coop, then close them again.  Cover the portable shelters for our poultry with tarps, then uncover them.  The sheep dash out to play, then dash in again.  Mild bouts of spotty rain aren’t too much of a concern, but when the weather turns foul, that’s when farmers get worried.

Every farm has storm stories.  Invariably, I’m out in the worst of the fray, trying to save plants and animals from harm, getting drenched and a little bit terrified.  Once everything is safe and secure and I finally make it back indoors…the rain lessens, the thunder ceases, and soon I’m back out opening up the hatches I’d just battened down.  When the clouds change their shapes in springtime to rise puffy as cauliflower heads—that’s when we keep our eyes out for the next storm.

The dark underbelly of the clouds has much to tell about their temperament.  Most times, they float in from a westerly direction, across the long North Field with the rain dragging behind them.  But this spring, nearly all the storms have trailed up from the south, popping over the green ridge of pine trees like a prowling lion in the Sahara grasses.  Often our eyes are glued to the online radar images, watching the progress and growth of storms.  We’ve learned over the years that getting a head start makes a difference for storm preparation.

I remember in the early years of farming for us—before we’d equipped ourselves with headlamps and generators—dashing out in the middle of the night in a storm to quick close down doors and windows in the barn or coop, scooting along the edge of the garage bent near double.  I didn’t want to be the tallest object in the barn yard!  Lightening flashes, and the black-and-white-lit image of the top half of a balsam tree lays like a corpse across the yard, broke clean off its trunk beside the wood shed.  The smell of wet raincoats, mud, and the feel of water between my toes in my sneakers mingles with the tingling in the air from the storm’s power.

Turkeys are especially prone to mishaps in storms.  They gawk at the clouds, facing upwards towards the rain drops.  Without proper precautions, turkeys can literally drown because the rain runs into their nostrils as they look skyward!  So often I find myself with a long stick, herding turkeys inside amidst pelting raindrops.  Last summer, the rushing gust of a storm’s front caught me just as I was in the turkey pen.  Looking up, I saw a great tree behind the barn rip in half—the top thrown as if a toy to the side.  I herded the turkeys even faster that time.

The old saying goes that if you place a horse, a cow, a pig, and a sheep on a hill, the sheep will always be the one struck by lightening.  This may have a connection with the buildup of static electricity in their wool coats, but no one knows for certain.  Either way, we are always careful to bring the sheep into the barn when a thunderstorm strikes.  But apparently you don’t always need clouds to have lightening!  One day while cleaning dishes at the kitchen sink in the farm house, I looked out the window into the field.  From the blue sky came a small bolt of lightening, right down to the middle of the field, followed by a poof of smoke.  I didn’t imagine it, honest!  I even found the scorched spot of turf later that day!

But our queen of storm stories comes from two summers ago while making hay.  Yes, yes, yes, you are supposed to make hay when the sun shines, and it had been shining!  There were no predictions of storms for a three-day stretch.  The grass was cut, raked, and dried—the exact time you don’t want it to rain on the hay because the moisture will ruin the crop.  That afternoon it was hot, muggy, and rough work for baling and stacking on the wagon under the July sun.

Then we looked up to the west to see a pea-soup-green wall coming our way—fast.  The leading edge curled upwards like a massive dog tongue, any sunshine behind it completely obliterated.  We revved the tractor and tried desperately to crank out as many bales of hay as we could before the beast struck.

Sarah, our intern at the time, and I frantically pulled a load into the Red Barn just as the leading winds hurled into the farm.  As fast as we could run, we pelted out into the field to tie down the chicken tractors, pounding T-posts into the hard earth with the vigor of 19th-Century railway workers.  The lightening flashed, and I imagined myself as the perfect lightening rod in the middle of the pasture as the hammering rains descended like a gray wall, blanketing the farm in water.  The wind howled, carrying with it tarps and buckets.

Sarah remembers thinking, “I’m going to blow away!” as she chased the last of the laying hens into their movable summer coops.  Then she looked at me clamoring after a tumbling tarp and thought, “No, you’re going to blow away!”  We hurried to close the walls on greenhouses, the windows on my studio yurt, and to save the turkeys.  Out in the field (about 10 bales from being finished), a mound of hay jammed in the baler, a pin sheared, and Kara left the rig in the field to pull in the last of the finished bales.  The rest would have to be sacrificed.

We drug ourselves into the house that evening, sweaty from the day’s labors and covered in hay chaff, drenched and windblown and a bit out of breath…only to discover that the power was out so there was no shower and likely no supper.  Oh the life of farming, it’s not for the faint of heart!

This week, take some time to remember your favorite (or at least most memorable!) storm stories with friends and family.  Stay safe, and maybe 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

Spring Cleaning

When interns come to our farm, there are lots of things to learn, but one of the first lessons goes like this:  half of good farming is cleaning, another half keeping things organized, another half planning three steps ahead of what you’re doing now, and the last half is saved for picking up after unforeseen disasters.  If that sounds like too many “halves” to you, then you might guess that farming also involves having more things that need doing than can possibly be completed.  This week, however, we’ve been catching up on the cleaning part.

The saga really started in January—or didn’t, to be precise.  Typically, a light January or February thaw gives us a chance to clean out the hen coop and freshen things up.  But with no thaw, the bedding and droppings stayed hard as a block of chicken-flavored ice that wasn’t going anywhere without a good fight.  By March, things were desperate.  Hacking paths into the snow in our yard big enough to drag out the wheelbarrow, we dug and chipped and drug out the odiferous concoction and heaped it amidst the two feet of snow.  This, of course, meant that a second cleanup into the manure spreader was necessary to relieve the yard once the snow subsided.  Next time you take a farm tour, be glad you don’t have to wade through three feet of last winter’s chicken excrement!

Our dear “honey wagon” (some tongue-in-cheek farmer must have thought that term up for a manure spreader) has certainly had a workout since it arrived on our farm as an already well-used piece of machinery.  In the days when we had 25 chickens and 2 sheep, a pitchfork, shovel, and wheelbarrow was all we needed to keep things tidy.  But as both numbers began to multiply, our hands and backs were ready for a break.

Grandpa remembers the days when he and his dad would pitchfork the manure from the cow barn out the back door into a winter pile.  Come spring, it was much more of a heap or “small mountain” as Grandpa recalls from his teenage memories on the old family farm in central Illinois.  “We’d fork it out the door, then fork it up onto a wagon pulled by horses (because we didn’t have a manure spreader) and then we’d fork it back out onto the field while the horses plodded along.  You gals have it easy.”

If you’re not familiar with the workings of a honey wagon, imagine a long, narrowish two-wheel trailor with three sides (the back is left open).  Along the bottom of the wagon runs a chain on each side along the length, supporting bars that slowly pull along the wagon floor to the back, drop off, come under the bed of the wagon, and then rotate back up like a large conveyor belt.  At the back of the spreader is a stout bar supporting what look like large metal webbed hands called “flails” pointed in different directions that spin around fast from the bar.  When the wagon is hooked to the tractor’s power takeoff and engaged, the combination of moving conveyor bars and flailing paddles spreads whatever might be in the wagon in a relatively even pattern out the back.

That is, unless the wind is blowing from behind you—then you get a nice even spray all over the tractor and yourself.  There’s more than one reason we have large-brimmed sunhat on the packing list for our interns.  “But remember,” Grandpa says, “My dad always said that’s the smell of money.”

After restoring our historic gambrel barn in 2001, there was considerably more space for housing sheep.  But even with the manure spreader to help with hauling and distributing the nutrient-rich bedding, we were still chucking it into the wagon by hand.  Some spring manure packs three feet deep could take days to clean out, and it was terribly hard on our hands, shoulders, and backs.  It was time to upgrade with some smart machinery!

Leave it to Grandpa to find the answer.  Another used piece, looking for a new home, only this time a bit more modern than the spreader.  Let’s just say that some small bobcats are trouble (for ducks) but others are pretty awesome powered pitchforks!  Kara whirs around between the hand-hewn tamarack timbers of the barn with surgical precious, attacking the soiled hay and wood shavings with vigor. 

But it’s more than just cleaning things out.  Composted animal manure bedding is a vital nutrient source for soils through organic and permaculture practices.  For our current barn-cleaning project, we’re working to improve our hayfields by spreading this excellent organic matter mixed with lime to improve pH and calcium levels.  Another load of black gold pulls away as Mom engages the Allis D15 tractor with its characteristic grumph-humming chug.  Earlier, we had the creative inspiration to use the honey wagon to spread well-rotted compost (humus) over the garden and potato patches.  Pitchfork, shovel, and 5-gallon buckets?  Save those for the small jobs; we are getting serious!

The other fun (hah!) aspect of spring cleaning on our farm are all those dishes I meant to get to last fall…if only there was just one more nice, sunny day.  I don’t mean dishes like what pile up at the kitchen sink—I mean “chicken dishes.”  Red-and-white plastic waterers, orange bell drinkers, metal bucket and range feeders, pails, ice-cream buckets, heat lamps, and all the works.  They waited for me at the back door to our walk-out basement, patiently.  It was one of those things that doesn’t go away, despite trying to ignore it.  No, the chicken dishes were still there after the ice, which had bound them all together onto the concrete, melted this spring.

I attacked the hoard in batches.  First off were all the feeders and waterers that were needed for the imminent arrival of baby chicks.  Scrubbing, brushing, sanitizing, laying out on towels to air dry—the floor was soon covered with bright, clean chicken dishes.  While cleaning isn’t my favorite thing to do (is it anyone’s?), at least it’s the sort of thing where you can actually see the progress you’ve made.  But then, off they go to the brooders, and it doesn’t take long for them to get all good and dirty again.  It’s like laundry—it never ends.

Now we just have to move those piglets out to their summer pasture paddocks, pen the yearling ewes out in the yard for the day, and muck out the Clear-Span “lamb barn” sometime soon, get the rams into their summer home and clear out the “red barn,” and we should be in good shape with our spring cleaning.  We’re pecking away at the yard work and garden, and summertime will be here before we know it.  Best wishes for your spring cleaning projects, and maybe 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

 
 

Nature's Catch-Up Game

I don’t think anyone can argue that this has been a strange spring.  Or shall we say, what spring?  Winter, winter, winter, winter, summer.  In one week, we had 18 inches of snow, followed by 80-degree weather!  Many of the domestic plants, like our apple trees, are just starting to barely leaf, holding back their buds as if wondering whether it’s truly safe to come out.

But Mother Nature isn’t waiting.  Already along the edges of the fields, the wild black cherries have opened their tiny clusters of white flowers.  Trilliums are beginning to appear in the woods, and everywhere the leaves are popping in their early spring shades of glowing green.

After the last snow melted, perennials like chives and rhubarb burst out of the ground, growing for all they were worth.  It is as if nature is playing her catch-up game—we’ve only got so much time before the fall frosts, so it’s time to book it!  With the recent rains, the yard has sprung into dark-green life, and violets and daffodils are beginning to bloom.

Last spring was an insane global-climate-change roller coaster.  First came the major warm-up in February that fooled all the plants.  March was like July, with 80 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day.  The apples bloomed.  Then the temperature plummeted (as did the apple crop potential), and everyone who had put in their gardens early had to start over.

The old saying up here is that you’re not really safe until Memorial Day, and we’ve witnessed frosts into the second week of June.  Some old-timers say they’ve seen it snow every month but July!  (Poor sledding up here that month, you know.)  Some of my artist friends who live in New York think this must be the end of the earth…who would ever want to live in the wilds of Wisconsin’s Northwoods?

But they don’t know to listen for the deep-throated call of the Bittern in the marshes—oonk-a-loonk, oonk-a-loonk—or watch for the return of the red-winged blackbirds.  The swallows dance in the air around the barnyard, causing the chickens to cry “HAWK!” because they’ve forgotten these friendly summer residents.  Tree swallows flit at the opening of bird houses, barn swallows swoop above the sheep’s heads, and cliff swallows with their yellow masks dive up into the rafters of the woodshed.

My urban friends don’t know to wait for the smell of the damp, cool earth as you turn in new compost for planting the garden or the change in the wind as a spring thunderstorm rolls through.  April showers bring May flowers?  Well, this year it has to be May showers bring May flowers—all part of nature’s catch-up game.  This spring, everything seems in a hurry to grow, bloom, and nest.  The bulbs planted last autumn in front of Farmstead Creamery propelled their eager leaves through the mulch as if to shout “We’re Here!”  Even the brave little cherry tree we planted last year sends forth tiny green leaves of hope.

This week, we loaded our laying hens into their mobile summer coop unit that sits atop a hay wagon and rolled the team out into the pasture.  Circled by the safety of an electric mesh fence, we released the ladies into their summer habitat.  Tails held high bobbed from side to side as they raced in all directions, scratching for worms and young, tender grass.  This was the long-awaited chicken heaven they’d been dreaming about all winter!  Finally, these poultry dreams had come true.

Even Belle, our guard donkey, got a romp out in the pasture during the day—trotting and shaking her head.  She loves to stand out in the rain and let it wash over her, as do the three survivor ducks.  Quacking and flapping their wings, they dig mud holes with their bills and preen their long, white feathers with joy.  Rain!  Nothing marks the transition from the winter season quite so well as a good spring rain—especially when it helps put out forest fires.

Some folks get a little funny when the seasons are changing.  Perhaps they’re not used to it or just not ready.  The welcomed weekend rains settled the dust of the hot, dry winds that had swept through for days, adding fuel to the Gordon wildfire just 45 minutes to the north and west of our farm.  Needless to say, the event had us terribly worried for all the people in its path and wondering what we would have done with all the farm animals should the fire have suddenly changed directions.

The light rain patted on the metal roof that Saturday as a family on vacation trudged into the Café and looked around at delicious farm cheeses, eggs, and homemade granola. 

“Isn’t it nice to be getting some rain,” I offered, bringing out a new tray of fresh muffins.

“Yeah, well,” the mother grumbled.  “Just wish it wasn’t today.”

I shook my head with an internal chuckle.  “Well, it’s better than a forest fire.”  But the lady just humphed, oblivious to the recent area calamity.

Now, I know you folks with lake property would love every day to be sunny and 80 degrees during your vacation, but please remember that the Northwoods is a whole ecosystem and that nature (and farmers) needs a good rain fairly frequently to stay healthy and your lakes filled.  Besides, a light rain seldom keeps outdoors folks inside.

We were planting peas in a newly-prepared garden bed just yesterday, with a light, muggy breeze teasing at our hair.  Our intern LeeAra was on one side, I on the other, and the bucket of soaked peas was in the middle.  A low rumble rolled over the brow of the sky.  We looked at each other, then up at the cauliflower-crowned clouds converging on all sides.  This wasn’t going to be some light spring shower.  It’s more like…how fast can you plant peas before the lightening gets too close!  We called in reinforcements and got the job (and chores) done just in time.

I hope that real spring temperatures will come soon, along with tulips in the yard and more gentle white trilliums on the forest floor.  When will the first monarch butterfly be spotted at the farm?  When will the first bluebird sing from the garden fence post?  Spring is truly here, as nature plays her wondrous catch-up game towards summer’s glory.  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  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

Garden Frenzy

Visitors this time last year would have witnessed a garden with only three rows left to hill and plant.  But this year, with the lingering winter and inclement weather, the garden has all but about three rows to go.  It’s a madness of squeezing a month’s worth of labor into about a week…if we can pull it off.  That’s right, it’s time for garden frenzy.

The early crops are desperate to go in the ground.  Little broccoli wait impatiently in their flats, while peas soak in the bowl.  We did manage to broadfork their beds, turning in compost and lime to amend the soil and stringing up trellises framed by 2x2s and latticed with used bailing twine.  There’s always a creative use for baling twine on a homestead farm!

The onions arrived during the last snow storm—a box full of 30 bundles of 60 little onion plants each.  The lid reads “open and plant immediately.”  The problem was that 18 inches of snow lay on the ground outside!  Then we opened the box to discover that the plants were covered in mold.  There was no way these little members of the lily family were going to hold over until things melted.

We sent pictures to the distributor and asked for advice.  The word was plant them in flats with soil, water, and light, and hopefully they would pull through.  If things didn’t work out, they’d send a partial reshipment.  That night until midnight, we sat on the walkout basement floor, pulling apart the moldy stems and handling them one-by-one.  Less than a week later, they were green, growing, and curling around their fluorescent grow-lights.  We had saved them!  But then, the UPS truck pulled up.

“Oh man!” he cringes, hopping out of the brown sliding door.  “Did you guys have to get more of these?  I couldn’t wait to get them out of my truck.  I’ve got onion breath, and I haven’t even eaten any onions!”

It was another full box of onion plants.  We opened it up…they were all covered in mold too.  We looked at each other, shook our heads, and that night planted 30 bundles of onions until midnight in flats on the floor of our basement.  Garden frenzy?  I think so.  Soon—very soon!—we hope to get them all in the ground and be done with it.  There isn’t likely to be an onion shortage on our farm this year!

Last year, there certainly wasn’t a potato shortage.  We had planted our biggest patch ever, with the understanding that an area restaurant was interested in buying 50 pounds of fresh potatoes each week.  It didn’t work out that way, however, so we passed out potatoes in the CSA program, and we sold potatoes at Farmstead Creamery.  We served potatoes in shepherd’s pie and Cornish pasties, and we ate plenty of potatoes.  But still, despite everything, boxes and boxes of potatoes went into our basement storage.

By now, as you might imagine, they have been starting to grow pale red and green shoots in search of soil.  What to do—we couldn’t use them fast enough!  So this year, we put them all back in the ground for this year’s seed potatoes (along with some more from the store).  We tilled up the patch by the beehive and had at it.

Our intern LeeAra hauled a bucket while we stuffed spades into the soft earth.  “How much of this patch will be planted in potatoes?” she asked, glancing behind her at the wide circle of bare ground.”

“All of it,” I replied matter-of-factly.  After the words left my mouth, I feared the idea might scare even me.

“All of it?”  As it turned out, as we dug and chucked spuds into holes, we barely got them all to fit into the patch—red ones, yellow ones, white ones.  Near the end, we’d toss three tiny ones into the holes, in the hopes that something would take.  It worked last year with a few leftover russets, so these might as well find a use! 

We planted the whole patch that day—something like eight hours of potato digging and 400 pounds of spuds.  Garden frenzy?  Well, Grandpa always says that most things are cured by hard work in the fresh air.  We had just a wee bit of both that day.

One of our former interns and farm groupie Kelli loves to boast that “Those ladies have compost piles bigger than their house!”  And it’s true.  The other day, as we began the labored process of preparing raised beds in the high tunnel for tomato plants, we attacked the pile that had previously been sheep, donkey, and hog bedding with shovels and buckets.  The black humus smells fresh and clean—far from the odiferous, steaming heap we had taken out of the barn.

But sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.  After a good eight trips of hauling compost in buckets, we’re ready to go at this big time.  The bucket brigade could take weeks to cover all of our CSA garden!  It’s time to get out the manure spreader, load up the compost, and do some massive humus distributing.  Forecast warning:  hats with large brims might be a good idea on that day.

Garden frenzy?  It’s that time of year.  So grab a shovel, a hoe, a broadfork, or whatever tool gets you out in the soil planting this week.  We’ve all been waiting so long for spring to arrive this year!  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

 

 
 

Good Old Grow It Yourself

Sometimes, life can throw you lemons—a faulty spark plug, a light bulb that burns out in a week, or a new flashlight that continually falls apart.  But when the agribusiness food system creates problems that sting your farm at a basic level, it’s time to get back to good old fashioned do-it-yourself practices (or, in this case, grow-it-yourself alternatives).

Through the years, our farm’s personal battle with the big guns of agribusiness has been in the arena of animal feeds.  Commercially, you can readily find mash feeds, which are ground up so fine the wind will carry it away and neither the pigs nor the chickens find it especially palatable (imagine eating plain cornmeal and think about it sticking inside your mouth).  Alternatively, there are crushed pelleted feeds known as “crumbles” which neither blow away nor cake in the feeder, but these feeds never smell fresh and have been heat treated and who knows what else.  Both styles are difficult to guess their contents because all ingredients have been pulverized beyond recognition.

There was a time when we tried growing our own grains.  We planted winter wheat in the fall—but this served better as a green manure than a feed crop.  We found an heirloom corn that was selected for conditions in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Our patch grew well, but after counting the volume of harvest (minus what the Sandhill Cranes had snitched), we calculated that most of the hayfield would have to be converted to corn to keep everyone fed.  We needed the hay and didn’t like the thought of plowing that much land under, so we gave up the idea of growing our own field corn.

It would seem (with all the research dollars and land-grant universities) that optimal livestock nutrition should be pretty well understood.  Unfortunately, however, this research has often focused on what industrial waste products can be fed rather than finding the best mix of natural foods.  For instance, in the late 19th Century, cows living in urban areas were fed “slues,” which is the waste from brewing beer.  Piped in still boiling hot, the milk cows had nothing else to eat and seldom lived longer than a few years.  Between the horrid conditions for the cows and the equally squalid conditions for the workers, slues milk was deemed unsafe without a new invention—pasteurization.  The technique saved the lives of many urban babies and the “quick fix” became regulation in many states.  Slues barns were eventually outlawed, but ironically “brewer’s grain” (a dried form of the same product) is once again being touted as a feed ingredient for cattle and other livestock!

Another atrocity, as reported by Joel Salatin in Folks This Ain’t Normal is the commercial practice of feeding chicken manure to cattle.  If they don’t die from eating it, it’s ok…right?  Remember Michael Pollan’s advice:  you are what you eat eats.  And who even wants to imagine what “animal protein byproducts” is.  We were ready to say no to commercial feeds.

Instead, we embarked on the journey of creating our own custom feed mixes through area feed mills that sourced their grains through local growers.  It seemed like a great keep-it-local principle.  We were able to make mixes where you could still see the types of cracked grains, the feed smelled fresh, and there was no brewer’s grain, canola oil, chicken manure, or animal protein byproducts.  Yet last year, disaster struck.

Within five days of feeding our news custom mixed feeds, hens stopped laying and little chickens and ducks started dying.  We tried everything—even sending birds to a state laboratory for testing.  The results came back as “renal necrotizing fasciitis,” which is a problem where the kidneys are being attacked by toxins.

Scientists have known since the 1950’s that humans are changing the environment through the emission of greenhouse gasses.  Global Climate Change is drastically impacting farmer’s everywhere.  Last summer, the Midwest was gripped in a terrible drought reminiscent of the beginning of the Dust Bowl.  Drought not only stunts crops like corn but it can be the perfect storm for other types of problems.  Drought stressed corn (or ears that have been damaged by hale) can harbor certain types of mold that, as they grow, produce substances called mycotoxins.  Poor storage can exacerbate the problem, but it usually begins in the field.

Mycotoxins and the funguses that produce them come in many forms—roughly 30,000 of them.  Some of the toxins are carcinogenic, others attack the lungs, and still others can attack the kidneys.  Tiny trace amounts can be lethal to birds, especially waterfowl, and harmful for all types of livestock.  Tests for mycotoxins are expensive and often yield false negatives because these trace substances might not be evenly mixed throughout the feed.  But their affects can be horribly devastating, as we witnessed last year.

This winter, we were determined to make a difference towards shaking the grip of genetically modified corn and soy in our livestock’s diets.  Heavens, medieval Europe somehow got by without either of these crops!  But instead of going backwards in technology to solve the problem, we’re looking forwards towards new systems designed in New Zealand for feed sourcing.

Many people have heard about the benefits of eating or baking with sprouted grains.  The process releases the inner proteins and makes the grain more easily digestible.  For livestock feed, sprouted grains like wheat, barley, or oats grown to the height of about four inches makes them wonderfully digestible for both ruminants and single-stomached animals as well as packs ten-times the amount of nutrition as the original amount of dry grain.  The animals eat the roots, hulls, sprouts, and all, and it only takes fresh water to sprout the grain.

Sourcing our supplies through FarmTek, we designed a custom “pilot” system that fit in our aquaponics greenhouse that could raise enough fodder to meet the needs of approximately 24 milking ewes.  No other grains!  With a special pressure reducer, timer, and gauge, the system delivers just the right amount of water at the right time to the sprouting grain for optimal growth without inviting molds.

As we soak the grains and fill two trays each day, it is thrilling to watch the little seedlings send up their eager, strong shoots.  If this project proves successful, we can expand with a larger system to become even more feed independent.  While fodder can’t totally replace grains for chickens and pigs, it can be an important supplement—packed with vitamins and full of life.  I know I will be excited to break up the first chunks for my hens or chicks and watch them peck and scratch with glee.  Green fodder all winter—it sounds great!

No plowing, no pesticides, no GMO—we’re moving forward on our mission towards grow-it-yourself feed sourcing for our livestock, right here on our own farm.  Local food really is its own form of revolution and resistance against the pressures and power of conglomerate corporations.  Do you know what you eat eats?  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  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

Small but Mighty

The call comes at 6:30 in the morning.  Only the first rays of light shift the deep blues to a brighter haze.  A bit of hoarfrost coats the branches, while the robins begin their daily rustle amidst last year’s leaves.  I bolt out of bed and rush for the phone, “Yes?”  The cheeping in the background lets me know the cause of this call before the lady even speaks.  “I’ll be there right away.”

Throw on something, grab my glasses, and thump downstairs to make certain all is ready.  This time last year, with the early spring, the hens were already on pasture and the brooder boxes were set up in the chicken coop.  This year, the hens haven’t left the coop due to the late snows, the garage is stubbornly cold…so the boxes are in our house.  Long rows of refrigerator boxes on their sides that had been saved for us by the local hardware store stand ready for their precious charges.  The red heat lamps are on, warming the shredded newspaper bedding.

I fill the feeders and waterers, grab some towels, and head for the car.  It’s chilly outside, and all I can think about is those little chicks, cold and scared from their long journey through the postal system.  Mom cranks up the temperature to almost 80 degrees as we near town, hoping to lessen the stress of the additional half hour it will take to get home.

Clutching the towels, I chase after an employee punching in their access code, but I still have to wait outside, expectantly.  It’s hard to keep still, watching my foggy breath and peering in through the little strip of window in the heavy metal door.  I can hear all 200 of them--cheep cheep—as they round the corner inside.  Two four-compartment boxes bound together (a stack almost bigger than the petite postal worker) emerge through the forbidden door, with a “Here you go!”  I toss the towels on top to keep the chicks from shocking in the cold and waddle beneath their bulk back down the ramp to the car.  It’s chick season!

Our first batch of chicks in the mail, the summer of 1999, was just a little box of 27 hearty souls sent from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.  Just a little one-compartment cardboard box with round holes stamped in the sides and lid.  The curious beaks poked through, reaching for my sleeve and fingers, a fuzzy wing popping out here or a little taloned toe there.

These poultry arrivals were introduced to their broodering ring in our first chicken coop (a former shower house from a resort), where we had heat lamps and folding chairs set up to spend the night watching over the precious clutch of fuzzballs.  It was mid-June, but oh was it cold out there that first night!  We shook and shivered and piled on winter clothing and blankets, while the little chicks dozed and scuttled without so much as a care.  Their little micro-world was nice and warm, despite our misery.

Invariably, chick season also happens to be power-outage season!  A freak ice storm comes through or the line needs repairs and everything shuts down.  In our first years, we’d frantically pile the chicks into a box and cram ourselves into the cab of the farm truck, cranking up the heat while idling.  The chicks were as happy as could be, but we were miserable beyond imagining—pressing our faces against the cold panes of glass to try to relieve ourselves from the suffocating heat!  It was time to buy a little generator, at least for getting us through those dicey moments.  When you reach 200 chicks at a time, they don’t fit into the truck cab very well!

As our laying flock grew, we were ready to experiment with hatching.  First, Star (a black-and-white Aruacana hen) went setty, puffing and huffing when anyone came near her nest.  We gave her a dog kennel and a nice clutch of eggs to hatch, but after two weeks she simply gave up—tired of just sitting, sitting, sitting, with nothing else to do.  The next year, she grew broody once more, so we tried the routine again, showering her with chicken delicacies (bread, oatmeal, clover) and plenty of privacy.  But a few days before hatching, one of the eggs cracked, and the sulfurous rotting stench was enough to put us and Star into a frantic panic.  That was it, she had had enough!  We’d have to find another way to hatch our own eggs.

Learning to operate an incubator is part science and part art.  There’s turning, temperature, humidity, candling, and other factors to learn.  These days, with one incubator in degrees Celsius with a wet bulb to monitor humidity and the other with a digital thermometer in Fahrenheit with a hygrometer reading moisture percentage, I keep cheat sheets and charts perpetually posted on a bulletin board above the incubation station in our walk-out basement.  It’s a juggling match of keeping all the conditions just right for the fertile eggs to transform into soggy little balls of peep that chip their way free.

Last spring, our interns oogled over the half-fogged-up Plexiglas window into the incubator, cheering the hatchlings on.  “Come on!  You can do it!”  The chick finally pushes out of the wide end of the shell then flops exhausted at the exertion of it all.  Such a small creature but so determined to survive.  His damp fluff clings to his tissue-thin skin—a far cry from the pictures of clean, white-shelled eggs with a fluffy, dry chick standing in the middle.  Birthing is a much messier process!

Having the incubators in the house is convenient on many levels, including the need to check on hatching chicks every two hours (including through the night).  The loud, frantic chirp of a terrified chick that has flipped on his back alerts the need for help, and the scuttle of feet lets me know that a new hatchling is ready to graduate from the incubator to the brooder.

This spring, the first chick hatched from our incubator pipped nearly ten hours before any of his friends.  Rambunctious and ready to go with dark fuzz and furry feet, he wriggled expectantly as I nestled the little fellow in amongst the warm bedding of the brooder stove box.  He blinked his dark, beady eyes and began to cry, “Ree-kee-kee!” as though it were the end of the world to be alone in such a place.  I finally found a stuffed toy to place next to “Reekee” so there was finally some hope for a bit of sleep.  While he wasn’t eager to sit next to the furry object, it did calm the crying.  The next morning, a blond chick was ready to join the brooder, blissfully unaware of its predecessor’s existence.  Reekee scurried right over, flapping his little wings as if to say, “I LOVE YOU!”  The blond chick went buggy-eyed and gave Reekee a hearty peck on the face…so much for a happy little pair.  Sorry Reekee, guess that’s life.

Between the incubation projects and the chicks arriving in the mail, our house has been converted into a cheeping extravaganza.  As the little birds peck and scratch, their eager antics make me smile each spring.  They may still be tiny, but their tenacity shows their exuberance to explore their world and grow strong through the sunny summer months.  Small but mighty; they seem to sense this of themselves.  Just wait until I grow enough wing feathers to fly out of this box! 

Yup, it sure is baby chick season around 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

 

 
 

You're Kidding

Well, actually right now we’re lambing, but there is a “new kid on the block” at our farm this spring.  And no, I’m not kidding—he’s a goat!

The story really begins with a sheep—Sweet Pea—who was one of a set of triplets born last spring.  While her brothers grew to average size, Sweet Pea stubbornly stayed petite.  This wasn’t because she had little to eat (our Mayterm interns delighted in bottle feeding her after Sweet Pea was rejected by her mother in favor of the boys) or any fault of her own; she just happened to have the genetics to be a “miniature” sheep.

Some breeds of sheep like Babydoll Southdowns are all miniatures.  Proportioned like a standard sheep, they stop growing at about 40 pounds (a size you can still pick up and carry across the barnyard…or at least Kara can).  Many of our mature ewes, on the other hand, top off at 180 pounds.

Sweet Pea is as healthy and perky as ever, but all her sheep friends were so much bigger and bossier than she, so Kara went looking for a suitable companion.  We milk our sheep (instead of cows or goats) to make gelato in the summertime, which can be confusing for some folks who are not intimately acquainted with farm animals.  Goats, sheep—what’s the difference?

In the summertime, we bring a few “celebrity” animals down to Farmstead Creamery & Café for folks to enjoy.  Last year, we featured Wooster the Silver-laced Wyandotte and Clementine the Buff Orpington (whose images are on a myriad of smart phones now).  Sweet Pea would make a wonderful celebrity sheep that could help keep the Café lawn mowed.  But sheep can’t live alone.  That’s how Kara decided to search for a miniature (dwarf) goat.

It was high winter and cold when the little week-old black-and-brown Nigerian Dwarf kid came home in the dog kennel.  Cold and worried, he was one of a litter of four, and his nanny was not going to be able to feed the whole brood.  Met by the sniffs of curious dog noses, the little fellow found a home in a stock tank in our heated basement—a safe and warm place to make a new start.  And he was a talkative fellow, nickering incessantly when he was lonely or hungry!  Even the cat Pumpkin found the newcomer most interesting, perching on a nearby box to have the best view.

With blotchy patches of black, brown, and light tan (called “moon spotting” in goat coloration lingo), his fur reminded us of the bark of the Linden Tree, for which he was named.  With little Linden as the first goat on our farm, we had a few things to learn—and he had quite a few things to explore.

“Let me out!” he would bleat, prancing at the edge of the stock tank.  Kara would pick up his now chunky little body and let him go on the tile floor.  Boing!  His legs shot out in all directions as if struck by electricity.  Linden would bounce off, slightly sideways, across the floor, dancing and prancing with excitement.  Lena the sheep dog would look bewildered, following behind while trying to stay out of the way.

Then Linden discovered the staircase!  Up, up, up, stop, turn around, then down, down, down again.  It made a wonderful game.  Sometimes the back end would get ahead of the front end or Linden would leap right over our little dog Sophie as she snoozed on the doggy pillow.  It was all so much fun, when you’re a goat!

Ah, but then he learned that there was a second staircase leading up to the loft.  Once out of the stock tank, off he’d go up the carpeted stairs, tear around the corner past my instruments, then up the more challenging wooden staircase—with me right after him.

“Linden, no, not up here!  Come back you little rascal!”  Linden had already lived up to his goatly distinctiveness—climbing on the fax machine, consuming a paper bag, and shredding a cardboard box.  He didn’t need to get into my art supplies!

Then after shearing, the temperatures plummeted.  Little Sweet Pea shivered, too small to stay warm.  So Kara thought it was a good time for the two miniatures to get to know each other.  She carried Sweet Pea into our house and plopped her into the stock tank full of loose hay to warm up.  Linden was ecstatic to have a friend.  But Sweet Pea had a different opinion.  She stamped her foot impertinently and lightly butted the little goat.

Linden cowered and bawled his head off, like the little kid that’s been picked on at the playground.  It wasn’t until some days later that Sweet Pea realized Linden was the only other ruminant in the whole house, so she might as well get used to him.  Now they make quite the comic pair as little Linden still has a bit of growing to do.  But Aunt Sweet Pea was good for him—teaching him to eat grain and hay “like big folks do.”

The weather continued to stay cold.  Prospective summer interns came to visit the farm, some even returning for repeat tours.  We trudged through the snow, visiting all the animals.  “I want to see Linden again!” Missy nearly bounced with eagerness.  “Wouldn’t they let me have a little goat in the dorm room?  He’d be nice and quiet.”

“Yeah, until you went to class, then he’d cry,” Sanora laughed.  “Then what.”

“Then I’d just say it was you in there making all the noise!  Besides, they have their goat in their house.”

We turned the corner down to the walkout basement.  “Not that this is the permanent location,” I smiled.  “It’s just until things warm up enough that the two can live in the barn together until summer.”

“Well, you weren’t kidding, the goat is in the house!” Andrew, a senior, chuckles as we walk inside.  I pick up pudgy little Linden and Missy is the first to want to hold him.  The little stinker doesn’t mind a bit, eagerly sucking on an offered finger.  Spoiled little thing—don’t have to worry much about him being well socialized!

Stowed away in our garage is a little shelter Kara has built for the pair, so they can greet visitors at Farmstead Creamery & Café this summer.  So if you’re wondering about the difference between a sheep and a goat, this quirky pair will be happy to illustrate with their unique character traits.  Watch out, though, that Linden doesn’t eat your hat.  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

 

 
 

Signs of Spring

After the recent snowing and blowing with cloudy skies, frozen ground, and not even a crocus to greet us, we are all in need of reminders that spring really will come this year.  Enough is enough of winter!  This time last year, the hens were already out on pasture, scratching in the new grass and chasing bugs.  This year, they stare out the little doors from their coop, thinking, “What?”

But there are a few signs of spring amidst the lingering winter.  Last week, I heard our first flock of Canada Geese (though they were heading south instead of north…can’t really blame them) and the first Sandhill Crane flew past with its haunting call just a few days ago.  These graceful birds seem to glide through the air so effortlessly, mocking my mammalian terrestrial fate.  Each year, a pair of cranes nests in one of our fields, raising their fluffy young amongst the waving grasses of the pasture.

The Mourning Dove calls beside the maple trees, and the Phoebe proclaims his return.  Even a flock of Juncos landed to catch a bite of grit from the driveway before heading off on their long journey.  Mom even saw a robin.  Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying, “Two snows on the robin’s tail.”  Well, we’ve had one already, so just one more?  At least we can be hopeful.

Signs of spring are also happening on the farm.  Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and herbs sprout from growing trays in our greenhouse.  Usually we start a bit earlier than this, but with the lingering winter, it was easy to see that we could be quite overrun with root-bound transplants begging to get into ground that could still be frozen.  Safe inside the greenhouse, the little optimistic plants push upwards, unfurling their first leaves.  Soon it will be time to plant broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and all the rest.  Last in line will be the squashes, which have the remarkable trait of growing three times as fast as their other garden companions.  Guess that’s why they start with a much bigger seed!

Our first lamb was born just a few days ago.  Mascara, who was featured in the shearing story, delivered a healthy little ram lamb with a gray speckled nose and coppery ears.  Born during winter storm “Walda,” the little fellow was named “Waldo” as he teeters around, wide-eyed at the big world, bleating pathetically, “Maaaaaaaam!”  The ewe gives here deep “momma baah” in reply and steps closer to comfort him.  The other ewes grunt as they stand, carrying the great weight of their soon-to-be-born offspring.  It won’t be long before the barn is filled with bleats and baahs as the yearly cycle turns toward spring.

In our house, two incubators hum away, rocking back and forth their precious cargo of chicken eggs from my ladies.  Brown and sometimes speckled on the outside, yolk and white is gradually transforming into the chicks that will peck their way free.  Wet and sticky at first, exhausted by the effort, they slowly muscle the courage to scuttle, then to stand, and then to walk in a matter of hours.  Within a day, they will be eating and drinking—nature sure is ambitious!

I love the warm softness of downy chicks, their scurrying feet, their inquisitive “cheep cheep” as they explore their world.  Baby farm animals in spring give us hope for a new start to the year, full of life and expectations.

Cleaning out the beehives is another right-of-passage for springtime.  It’s important to know how many of the colonies made it through the long winter and to clean out any dead bees or other derby that might have accumulated before molds infest the hive.  This year, one of the colonies pulled through, while the other either succumbed to the cold, mites, or any number of winter bee diseases.  Scraping and brushing, the hive was made ready for a new batch of bees, which arrived the day after the snow storm!

At least the sun peaked through the lake-effect clouds as I popped off the cork on the queen cage, replacing it with a miniature marshmallow.  This allows the worker bees to eat through the sugar, releasing the queen slowly—giving her time to adopt the hive as her own.  Tap, tap, tap, and the bees drop into the open hive around their queen, crawling down between the frames to explore their new home, filled with honey and pollen just for them.  Close it all up as quickly as possible to retain heat, and these ladies have a new start on our farm.  Hopefully it won’t be too long before the dandelions poke through with their golden faces—offering a vital first honey crop for bees in springtime.

Even if you’re not on a farm, there are still many ways to look for signs of spring.  Here are a few to get you started.

Pussy Willows.  Keep an eye out for the white puffs of pussy willows, which are often a sign that maple syruping season is over.  Later, they will send out pollen-laden stamens, at which point we like to say that the pussy willows have “pussed.”  These willows can be a great source of pollen for bees and other insects.

Spring Peepers.  Often wintering in swamps and other low-lying wet places, a warm spell can bring out the first of these small-but-loud frogs from their wintering slumber.  I always get a good laugh when driving down a rural road in springtime when the upland parts are quiet but lowland dips grow steadily noisy…peep, peep, PEEP, PEEP, PEEP, peep, peep.  Spring Peepers are another recognized sign that syruping season is coming to a close.

Buds.  Watch the tips of tree branches.  You can even sense their swelling, then a bit of color, then the gradual opening.  Oaks often hold a burgundy hue, while maples are a deep green.  Now and then I’ll spy a grouse up in the branches, feasting on buds.  Checking in with the trees each day to watch the buds develop is a mindful way of noticing the change to spring.

Bulbs.  Whenever the crocuses finally pop through the soil, offering their purple-blue cups with yellow-orange centers, it seems cause for celebration all of its own.  The little bulbs planted on the west side of the house always emerge earlier than the north-planted ones, and then there is the joy of daffodils and later tulips.  Bursts of vibrant color from spring bulbs shake away the gloom of lingering browns and grays.

Birds.  Notice when you first see migratory birds returning.  Some folks even keep a journal of spring bird sightings, which can help show changes in patterns from year to year.  Listen for their songs from the yard, the woods, or the marshes.  Be careful about feeding this time of year—the bears are awakening.

However you mark the coming of spring, be sure to enjoy it as it comes.  We can’t hurry nature along, but we can enjoy her shifting moodiness that comes with spring through baby animals, re-awakening plants, singing birds, and the first flowers.  Spring is coming, sooner or later.  I think we’re all ready to say goodbye to winter and usher in the coming spring.  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  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

A Time for Music

Music and rural living have a long history.  Shepherds passed the time playing flutes out in the pastures; country folks came together, linked hands, and danced to fiddle tunes; and often there was singing in the fields.  This ancient view of music was integrated into everyday life and was the common property of all.  Music accompanied important cyclical ceremonies and helped occupy the mind during drudgeries.

Today, alas, music has been mostly consigned to either life on a pedestal through formal concerts (in designated buildings at designated times) or blared from our truck radios.  Music is made by “someone else” for us, and we are mere consumers.  The folk idea of making music together is, well, seen as a bit quaint and certainly old-fashioned.

But there are reasons for the folk music process.  Rhyme and meter are excellent ways to remember a story, facets of one’s task, or cultural values.  Songs like “Bringing in the Sheaves” reminds us of the joy in the harvest—the fruits of one’s labors coming to fruition through the helping hand of nature.  It comes from the collective experience of the people, not the market motivations of commercialism.

Bringing in the sheaves

Bringing in the sheaves

We will come rejoicing

Bringing in the sheaves

Music is also incredibly therapeutic and stimulating.  Studies recently reported on National Public Radio have shown that even one year of learning an instrument results in noticeable brain development resulting, over time, in the higher amounts of gray matter.  Music utilizes a variety of parts of the brain at the same time—even singing reaches across the hemispheres to areas other than the speech center.  Therapies that utilize singing have helped some brain trauma survivors (like Arizona senator Gabrielle Giffords) to reclaim their ability to speak.  Group music sessions have also gained remarkable results with Alzheimer’s patients.

Some agricultural studies have looked at the stimulus of music with livestock or plants.  Dairy parlors might play classical symphonies, while a greenhouse might prefer jazz.  Whether or not the particular type of music is preferable to the plants or animal (or really the caretakers) is a continued point of study, but our sheep don’t mind an occasional acapella song during chores.  It helps them know we’re coming, so they don’t spook when the barn door opens.

A particular ancient instrument that I play—the harp—has been closely linked with healing.  Mayo Clinic has a “therapy harp” program, where trained harpers visit hospital patients to share soothing music.  The particular wave frequencies of sound made by harps have a special calming and therapeutic affect for both the listener and performer. 

Here are a few stories to share about animals and harps.  Even during my first days of practicing this instrument, our small dog Sophie would stop whatever she was doing and try to sit as close as possible to me and the harp and promptly fall asleep.  Practicing classical guitar, hammer dulcimer, or other instruments does not produce the same affect.  No matter what corner of the house, Sophie has to come and sit next to the harp.

This last winter, we acquired a new household companion—a black and orange cat from the Humane Society named Pumpkin.  Sleek and intelligent, Pumpkin is fascinated by everything in our home, from the baby goat in the basement and the chickens outside the bedroom window to the back nooks of the root cellar.  Our various projects are also fascinating—the tumbling ball of yarn while Kara knits or the little wooden pieces on the “Nine Men’s Morris” game board.

Projects are everywhere in our house, but this is normal for us.  Since my sister and I embarked on a Montessori learning style from an early age, having a house full of creative and imaginative projects from building performance costumes to designing Farmstead Creamery & Café have been an integral part of our daily experience.  Currently, our living room and kitchen have been transformed into a recording studio as Tom Draughon of Ashland and I work on our acoustic Christmas album “Season of Delight.”  The tangle of microphone cables and speakers are not ingratiating for hosting company or cooking supper—but that’s what Farmstead Creamery is for.

The other day, I was practicing for our upcoming recording session of the Latin carol “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” (O Come, O Come Emmanuel), which is paired with a delightful Shetland air traditional to Christmas morning called “Da Day Dawn.”  Sophie had taken up her position in a nearby recliner, fast asleep, when Pumpkin sidled into the room.  She sat there, just a few steps away, her green eyes wide and ears perked forward.  She watched my hands, looked at me, looked at the harp, looked at my hands.  This continued several minutes.  Then, convinced she had the whole thing figured out, she began purring loudly and rubbing on the base of the harp and my ankles until the practice session was complete.  I was itching with static electricity, but the cat was thoroughly enjoying herself.

A few days later, I was working through recording this same harp part, editing, and then laying down a vocal track over the harp accompaniment.  Pumpkin had lain content on the sofa during the harp recording and editing session, but during the singing (when the harp is muted through the speakers), she leapt over and began tussling with the headphone cable, batting at my leg until I would look at her, then reached over and batted the harp, as if to say “Hey, you, play more of THIS!” 

Pumpkin had her opinion, apparently.  Hopefully it was not a reflection on my singing!  When the CD is released later this year, you can take a listen and offer your own opinion.

At North Star Homestead Farms, we work to make music part of the agrarian experience.  From our winter season of harvest dinners and concerts, we will be expanding this year to offer a four-part outdoor Locally Grown Summer Music Series, which will feature local, acoustic talent at Farmstead Creamery & Café.  Held on Sunday afternoons and open to all to attend, here are the dates to save:  June 30th, July 21st, August 11th, and September 1st.  Updates and details can be found on our website and the “calendar” feature.

Make music part of your agrarian experience this year by joining us for one of these events or finding ways to encourage musicianship in your area.  Dust off your old instrument or learn a new tune this week, and maybe 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  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 
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