North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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New Pigs on the Block

Our good old farm truck has been through many adventures over the years—traveling the steep mountainsides of Vermont to intern at a dairy sheep farm, loaded down with bales of hay or firewood, hauling the latest ram lamb from Minnesota, or protecting the turkeys as we bring them in from wintry weather out in the pasture.  But this fall the farm truck had a different adventure, all the way to central Michigan to pick up some pigs.

Now, you might be wondering why we found it necessary to drive 12 hours one-way to get a handful of half-grown piglets.  These, of course, are a very special sort of pig, and just as it takes extensive research and networking to find the right new breeding ram, so too it has been a process to launch our pig breeding program.

For years, we’ve sourced feeder pigs locally—buying 40-pound squealing porcine mutts to raise out to butcher weight (between 250 and 300 pounds) in summer and winter for our pork customers.  These pigs have generally been healthy, vigorous, and very tasty, but the standard meat pig breeds are addicted to corn, bent on destroying everything their snouts and teeth can reach, and can be quite dangerous.  An 500-pound sow (mother pig) can really hurt or kill you if she feels her babies are threatened.

A pig that is motivated to root and destroy can be a very useful tool on a homestead farm.  We’ve built porcine paddocks where the hogs rooted up and ate the quack grass rhizomes before the land was turned into gardens.  The pigs love to do it, and it’s an effective way to reduce weeds and fertilize at the same time.  But once the desired garden space has been achieved, the craters and mud holes become more of a problem than a help.  And the high corn consumption, while it helps raise pork quickly, is more demanding of the earth’s resources than animals that can sustain mostly on grass (like sheep and other ruminants).  So my sister Kara was on the hunt for an alternative breed of pig that would better suit our pasture and management style.

In the sheep world, Suffolks and Hampshires dominate as the breeds of choice—big, fast growing, and built for heavy muscling.  But there are a plethora of distinct alternative (heritage) breeds with unique characteristics.  Sometimes select breeding strategies can loose sight of other aspects of the animal’s heath—Holstein cows whose feet are too tiny to support the animals longer than three or four years or sheep whose lambs have such big heads that deliveries are labored and sometimes impossible.  Heritage breeds of livestock have uniquely developed over centuries to adapt to certain climates and needs that predate the obsession with production at all costs.

What Kara discovered through her research into heritage pigs was the Kunekune (said KOOnee-KOOnee).  Originally from New Zealand and currently quite popular among small breeders in the British Isles, the Kunekune is smaller than commercial breeds (easier to handle for small people), furrier (better suited to cold weather), built with a smaller snout that allows for grazing rather than excavation (fewer craters and better utilization of pasture), and has the disposition of puppy dogs.  While they take slightly longer to raise, Kunekunes enjoy a varied, predominantly grass-based diet that requires only a pound of grain per animal per day, rather than unlimited access.

Not to mention that the little buggers are the cutest and most personable pigs you’ve ever met.  After Mom and Kara’s 36-hour road warrior trip to and from Michigan, I was able to meet our new piggers in the back of the pickup truck—four half-grown sows and a handsome young boar.  They rustled in the hay, hoping I would hand them a carrot or an apple, grunting and squeaking amicably.  While Kunekunes are a relatively new import to the States, these curious little beings looked quite ready to join the ranks at our farm.

Kara was about to burst with excitement as we backed the old truck up to our homemade ramp.  The week before, she had spent countless hours building their new pens next to the garage, so it would be easy to haul food and water through the winter.  “Come on out piggies, welcome to your new home!”

Hathaway, the boar, took some convincing, but the ladies Agatha, Tilly, Christi, and Deloris trundled down the wooden ramp to begin exploring their new world.  They grunted to the ten eager little feeder pigs next door and then moved on to exploring their straw-filled house, the apples we tossed in for them, and the delicious grass all around.  Their little black eyes with bristly lashes blinked at the warming sun, their short, upturned noses snuffling contentedly.

It didn’t take long for the new crew to learn the routines.  The first sign of humans heading out for chores in the morning sounds a chorus of eager squealings and gruntings—me first, feed ME FIRST!!!  High up on the list of favorites are apples, carrots, and smashed pumpkin.  Leftover bits from the Creamery are also met with eager anticipation, including kale and old baked goods.  Life is good on the farm!

Climbing into the feeder pig pen, the little porkers woof and run in all directions—wide eyes anticipating or thinking devious thoughts.  They grab onto Kara’s pants and tug, racing around in circles.  But when she steps into the Kunekune pen, they trot over expectantly, sniffing her boots and tagging along behind like schoolchildren after their teacher on an outing.

Each pig has her own dish for breakfast and dinner.  Black-and-white Agatha is bossy, wanting to steal everyone’s food all at once.  Deloris, who is smaller, is more demur and cleans up after everyone else has finished, sneaking in when Agatha or Christi aren’t looking.  Little Tilly is a royal screamer when she’s hungry—making her small but mighty opinions known.  And Mr. Hathaway is above it all, regally chewing on his bit of frozen pumpkin as he surveys his kingdom.

The crew should be big enough to begin breeding in late winter, which means that the first piglets may arrive in late spring.  Kara has spent considerable time helping the neighbor with porcine deliveries, so that previous experience will be quite helpful with our own adventures.  With less grain, better pasturing, and a good disposition, our hope is that these new heritage pigs will bring our farm another step closer to greater sustainability and good stewardship.

Sounds like those pigs may be getting hungry.  Time to find another pumpkin for them.  Curious?  Kara’s made a YouTube video of her new little friends (also available on our farm’s Facebook page) http://youtu.be/k35ujBRlzAU.  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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Fond Food Memories

I remember a special visit when I was about 12 years old to Old World Wisconsin, a living history museum tucked between Madison and Milwaukee.  It was autumn—time for bringing in the harvest, butchering pigs, and putting the gardens to bed.  One historic home was drying strips to pumpkin into leathery, chewy snacks that could be stored all winter.  The folks at the hog butchering site were making pickled pigs feet jelly and head cheese.  Anther home was baking bread in a wood-fired oven.

At the bread-baking site, the warm, yeasty smells mingled with the scent of the fire from the stove.  The interpreter managing the hot iron beast wore a long, prairie-style dress and creamy muffin cap with knitted shawl.  She shared with us the story of the farming family that once lived in the old wooden house during the settlement days and how certain days of the week were for washing, ironing, mending, baking, etc.  This was baking day.

But then she mentioned something special.  “Memories around food are some of our strongest recollections.  You’ll remember what I said for a day, what you saw for a week, but you’ll remember the smells for the rest of your life.”

Humans, compared with dogs and other mammals, are not particularly known for their keen sense of smell.  But there are certainly many arrays of fragrances that can bring our minds to particular memories, events, or places.  This is especially true of food.

For instance—the smell of homemade stuffing.  Throughout the year, our family roasts poultry, but usually we stuff the birds with apple quarters and lemon slices.  Authentic, bread-based stuffing is a treat for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  First, there is the cubing of the bread and drying it in the oven.  Then the sausage must be browned on the stove (all spiced and sizzly).  Then comes the celery and herbs and all the rest stirred up in a big bowl.  Pull up the sleeves, grab it by the handful, and pack that beautiful turkey full to bursting.  The stuffing helps keep the turkey from drying out on the inside while roasting, and the stuffing likewise becomes infused with the essence of the turkey—turning those disparate ingredients into a bowl of steaming deliciousness.  At our holiday table, it’s common to hear, “Please pass the stuffing.”

Making gravy is an art of special talent for my grandmother.  The pan drippings from the turkey are carefully saved (in good farming tradition, nothing is thrown away!) and transferred to the biggest skillet we own.  The warm browns and golds of the steamy liquid are carefully stirred and thickened while the boiled chunks of snowy-white potatoes are pressed through the ricer and whipped into perfection with a little milk, butter, and salt.  A cloudy puff of homegrown mashed potatoes on the Thanksgiving plate with a well made in the center by your spoon (poured full, of course, with the homemade gravy) is another special treat in our home.  Coined by my sister when she was a little girl, “smashed potatoes” is one of those fabled dishes where you better take what you wanted from the bowl the first time around—or it’s likely to be gone!

And then there are the cranberries, of course.  Forget anything out of a can—making your own cranberry relish or chutney on the stove is easy.  Try cranberry and apple variants or cranberry and blueberry twists.  Add some nuts for a bit of a crunch and try using honey instead of sugar.  Cranberries are one of the few fruits actually native to Wisconsin, and this year we’ve managed to source regionally grown Certified Organic cranberries.  (We’re buying several cases, so if you haven’t procured your cranberries yet, we have extra at the shop!)  Cranberry apple pie is a favorite of the family—sweet and tart with that tangy kick, making it a great partner with ice cream or gelato.

But or course, you can’t outshine the pumpkin pie.  Someone once asked us, “how come your food tastes so good?”  Before we could reply to the question, the friend sitting at the table with the inquirer offered, “Well, you start with your own chickens that lay the eggs, then you go out to the garden to harvest the vegetables, and then you have your own pigs…”

Similarly, a good pumpkin pie must start as sugar pie pumpkins from the squash patch.  Lop ‘em in half, scoop out the seeds, place them cut-side down on a foil-liked cake pan with a bit of water and bake them until they are fork tender and the domed skins begin to wrinkle up and brown.  Pull off the skins, run the cooked flesh through a Foley Food Mill, and here is the base for your pumpkin pie.  To this add the necessary eggs, milk, sugar, flour, etc. to make that delicious custard, pour into a homemade pie shell, and bake to perfection.  I love the steamy puff of spiced pumpkinness as you open the oven to test the firmness of the custard with a butter knife.  Whip up some fresh cream once the pie has chilled, and this is the heavenly end to a perfectly delicious and memorable meal with family and friends.

Perhaps these reminiscences of flavors and fragrances have brought back a few food memories for you as well.  And if your mouth is watering for a seasonal treat, here is a recipe you might enjoy giving a whirl.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread

2/3 cup shortening or 1 cup vegetable oil

2 2/3 cup sugar

4 large eggs

2 cups pumpkin puree

2/3 cup water

3 1/3 cups flour

½ tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. baking soda

1 ½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

1 ½ cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cream together the shortening or oil and sugar.  Beat in the eggs, pumpkin, and water.  Add the remaining ingredients through vanilla and stir to blend.  Fold in nuts and chocolate chips.  Spoon the batter into two lightly greased 9x5-inch loaf pans.  Bake for one hour or until cake tester comes out clean.  Allow to cool.  You can even drizzle icing or serve with cream cheese, if desired.

***

This week, take a moment to share a food memory or recipe with someone special.  As we all run around shopping for the ingredients for our Thanksgiving meal, please take the time to choose local and organic.  It’s a special way to say “thank you” to your farmer this season.  Enjoy the smells.  Enjoy the flavors.  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

 

 
 

Dear Mr. Turkey

I want to take a moment at this time of year to write a special note to you, Mr. Turkey.  I know that November is a very busy month for you, but maybe you can find a few minutes in your cramped and demanding schedule to read some thoughtful words.

I hope this letter finds you well.  I’ve been thinking much of you as the year turns to autumn.  Remember when you were just a little poult, still wet and sticky coming out of the egg?  I was there to watch your transformation into a kicking, wriggly creature.  Remember when I reached inside the warm, humid world of the incubator and brought you into the light of the cardboard brooder box in our house?  That was spring, which seems a long time ago now.

You were always a very curious fellow, Mr. Turkey.  Everything was worth exploring to you, with your buggy black eyes sticking out the sides of your head, blinking at me.  You’d stretch out your long fuzzy neck to snatch a fly, pull at a colorful piece of shredded paper bedding, or grab at a dangling string from my hooded sweatshirt.  That stove box in our house was a mirco-haven for your early days—dry, warm, and safe from harm.

But then you grew too big for the box.  You wanted to run and jump and fly, so we made space for you in the big chicken coop.  There was so much to explore—new corners, new faces, and eventually the outdoors.  At first, you didn’t know what to make of all the sunlight and green grass, but soon you learned to love being outside of the coop.  There were bugs to catch and blue skies and new creatures to discover like chickens, ducks, and our sheep dog Lena (who, though she was big and scary, really only wanted to make sure that you stayed inside the fence). 

That was summertime, which also slips away like a fading dream.  But oh, remember the day (when you had grown much bigger with sleek cinnamon and white feathers) that you moved into your outdoor portable pen?  We called it a “tractor” but you just called it “home.”  With a roof over your head and wire sides to keep you safe, you could be outside ALL THE TIME!  We pulled and pushed that tractor twice a day, so you and your friends could have fresh grass and a clean place to sleep.

When it was time to move the pens, you would be right up at the front, waiting for any unsuspecting grasshopper or cricket and, GULP, it would be all yours!  Share with your friends?  Well, they had to catch their own food.  Once you even caught and ate a frog!  I saw you do it.  Remember those sunny summer days, watching the sheep graze contentedly in the waving grass, or the hens scratching dust holes to clean themselves?

Then there was your favorite part of the day—eating fodder.  Nearly every morning, I’d bring out a bucket of sprouted grain we were growing in the greenhouse.  A bit like loose sod, I’d drop it into your pen by the handfuls each morning.  You’d be right there, gobbling it up as fast as you could stuff your gullet, always hoping to get more than your share or stealing it from others.  When you saw me coming, it was “Gap, gap” until the fodder was offered, then you and your friends would be very quiet for a while, until the fodder with its sprouting seeds and kinky roots was all gone.

But sometimes you were foolish, Mr. Turkey, and I would have to look out for you.  In the house, when you still lived in the box, you thought it would be a great adventure to jump out!  You didn’t know that there were dogs and cats waiting outside of your shelter, or that you wouldn’t find food or water out there, so I kept a window screen on top to keep you from hurting yourself.

There were times, in the coop, when you thought it would be nice to camp outside for the night, instead of come inside where it was safe.  You didn’t know that there were owls and fishers and raccoons and foxes and many other creatures that would be happy to have you for dinner.  All those nights you chided me for chasing you inside—those were to protect you.  And even out in the tractor, sometimes you wouldn’t get out of the rain, so I’d run out and tie tarps down with the wind and wet pelting my face, just to make sure you wouldn’t drown or catch cold and stand there shivering all through the night.

We went through quite a bit together, didn’t we Mr. Turkey.  From the hot and dry days of August to the pelting sleet more recently, to snow or rain or wind—we’ve almost seen it all.  And now the year is coming to a close, which means that there are many changes on the homestead.  Just yesterday, we moved all the hens into the chicken coop you once knew for the winter, where they will be safe and dry and out of the weather.

Some of your friends were chosen to join the flock of momma and poppa turkeys.  We’ll keep their eggs in the spring to hatch a new group of big-eyed, wobbly-legged poults for yet another summer out in the grass and the sunshine.  The cycle will start again, with new adventures and challenges.

But you, my dear friend, have a special role to play in this cycle, which is just as important as the breeding flock.  Many have come before you and many will come after you that have participated in a special commemoration of life and renewal.  This seasonal festivity is called Thanksgiving, which means that folks gather together with friends and family to mark the bounty of the harvest, the ties of community, and the value of giving thanks for what we have.

You are a special guest at this ceremony, Mr. Turkey, where everyone will admire you for your beauty and quality.  As the people sit together and enjoy your presence, I hope they take some time to sense the sunshine, the fresh air, the green grass, and the happiness that are all a part of you, along with the compassionate and concerned care that was a meaningful piece of your rearing. 

Not everyone gets to be the focus of attention, but you Mr. Turkey are a special bird.  We deserve to celebrate your uniqueness and joy in life.  May we all learn from you to find pleasure in small and simple things and to enjoy each moment as it is.  And if you do get a second chance at life, maybe you’ll be happy enough to tell me that life really was pretty good down on the farm.

Yours sincerely,

Farmer Laura

Halloween Story Night

From the sunny warmth of September, the 10th month of the year really has felt like falling off the cliff into winter, with frosts and snow and pelting ice.  Living in the northland, we all know that it is coming…inevitably. 

But the coming of winter marks the beginning of the best time for sharing stories—and Halloween especially with flitting ghosts, glowing pumpkin faces, and thumps and bumps in the night.  In honor of the old traditions of Halloween, here is a classic American folk tale (though its origins stretch back to the Old Country) befitting this time of year.

Wicked John and the Devil

There once was a blacksmith named Wicked John.  Now, how he got that name, no one could really remember, but John was a rough and tough sort of fellow, strong as an ox, and he didn’t like to take no pranks from nobody.  Maybe it was all those hours by the hot coals, beating the black iron against his anvil with his hammers that smelted his character into something less than friendly.

Well, one day Wicked John was cooling a red-hot rod when he heard a commotion outside his shop.  He looked up to see an old, grizzly man teetering down the lane.  Around him were the neighborhood boys, laughing and teasing, calling the old man names and throwing small stones.  Wicked John might not have been a pleasant fellow, but he had his scruples, and seeing the elderly treated with such contempt made the curly black hair on the back of his neck bristle.

“Leave ‘em alone!” bellowed Wicked John, as we stormed from his workshop to help the old man up from the dusty road.  “That’s no way to treat this old man!”  Taking the strangers arm, John brought him into the shop and sat him down in the rocking chair he kept by the side.  Then he slipped into his house and brought out some bread and cheese and dark beer and shared these with the old man.

But when Wicked John turned away for a moment to check on his coals, he found sitting in the rocking chair a very regal and well-dressed man where the old, dusty vagabond had been.

“Where’d the old man go?” Wicked John demanded.  “And who are you?”

“I am he” replied the well-dressed man.  “Perhaps I should introduce myself, for I am St. Peter.  Every year, about this time, I come down to earth in the state you saw me before, to see how the people will treat me.  When I find someone who treats me well, I offer them three wishes.  This year, John, that kind person is you.”

Wicked John was not accustomed to being called a kind person, and he found himself a bench to sit down.  “You mean I get three wishes from St. Peter?” he asked, still feeling wary as to whether this was true or a hoax.

“That’s right,” said St. Peter.  “Name your first wish.”

Well, Wicked John had to think on this for a while.  Then a toothy smile began to slide from one side of his face to the other and he began a gravelly chuckle.  “I know!” he announced with certainty.  “That rockin’ chair you’re sittin’ in, sometimes those neighborhood boys come and sit in it when I want to.  They just sit there, takin’ up space.  Well, the next time someone sits in that there chair and I don’t want ‘em too, I want it to start to rock, and rock, and rock until they can’t take it no more, and it won’t stop rockin’ until I says so.”

St. Peter looked a bit horrified.  “Is that really how you want to spend your first wish?  That doesn’t sound like a nice wish at all, I’m disappointed in you, John.”

“That’s what I want,” says Wicked John, with a twinkle in his dark eye.

“Well, then, alright.  But make sure your second wish is better.”

“Ooh,” grins John.  “It sure will be.  Here’s my second wish.  See my hammer over there.  It’s the trustiest tool I have.  But sometimes them neighborhood boys come and steal it.  Well, the next time someone takes my hammer when I don’t want them to, I want it to pound, and pound, and pound, until they can’t take it nor more, and it won’t stop poundin’ until I says so.”

Now, St. Peter was looking pretty gray and upset.  “No wonder they call you Wicked John; that is a horrible wish!  Surely you must think up something better!”

“Nope,” said John.  “That’s what I want.  And here’s my third wish.  See that prickly bush over there?  If some feller comes around that I don’t like at all, I’ll throw them in that bush and it will start to poke, and poke, and poke, until that feller can’t take it no more, and it won’t stop pokin’ until I says so.”  And Wicked John began to howl with laughter.

St. Peter stood up, disgusted.  “Wicked John, I am ashamed of you.  No one has used their three wishes so vilely.  What a terrible waste.”  And with that, he vanished.

Wicked John was still chuckling a few days later, working diligently on a horse shoe with hammer and anvil, when he heard the sounds of someone stepping into his shop.  He looked up, then looked again, for here before his was a little devil, all red with little horns and a swirling tail, not unlike some kid in a Halloween costume.  He stood there with greedy little eyes, licking a big ol’ lollypop. 

“My daddy sent me to come and take you away to Hell, Wicked John,” piped the little devil’s voice.  “C’mon, let’s go.”

“Well,” said John.  “Why don’t you give me a minute to finish this horse shoe first.  Just take a seat over there on that rockin’ chair, and I’ll be right with you.”

Well, that little devil didn’t see no harm in waiting in that rocking chair, but as soon as he sat down, that chair began to rock, and rock, and rock.  Soon the little devil was green instead of red, his claw-like hands clutching onto the arms of the chair with whitened knuckles.  “Please!” the devil wailed.  “Make it stop, make it stop!”

“I’m not done yet with this horseshoe,” said Wicked John, without any show of worry.

“MAKE-IT-STOP!!!!  Oh please, I’ll never bother you again Wicked John!

“Promise?”

“Yes, I promise!!!”  And the chair stopped with a lurch and that little devil catapulted out the front of the shop and was gone forever.  He even left his lollypop and never bothered to get it back.

That was all fine and good, until a few days later Wicked John was hard at work fitting an iron rim to a wagon wheel, when he heard slightly bigger footsteps coming into his shop.  He looked up and there was a teenaged devil—you know, the sort with spiked hair, piercings, a few tattoos, and wearing his pants lower than anyone cared to observe.

“Yo, my daddy sent me to take you away to Hell,” said the teenaged devil.  “He didn’t like how you treated my little brother much, so let’s be off.”

“Well,” said Wicked John.  “I’m almost finished with this here wagon wheel, so why don’t you give me a hand for a minute, and then we can go.”

“Do I have to?” whined the teenaged devil.

“Sure,” John directed.  “Just grab my hammer over there for me.”  But of course, when that devil grabbed the hammer, it began to pound, and pound, and pound, and that devil was flying up in the air, whopping his spiky head on the ceiling, then crashing down on the floor again.

“Make it stop, oh please make it stop!” wailed the teenaged devil.

“I’m not finished yet,” replied Wicked John, the glint in his eye.

“MAKE-IT-STOP!!!  I’ll never come and bother you again!”

“Promise?”

“Yes, I promise!” and with that, the hammer lay still and that teenaged devil took off faster than you thought teenagers could move, never to be seen again.

But a few days later, John was cleaning up around his shop when he heard the sound of crunching claws coming in from outside.  There stood the Devil himself, eyes glowing, muscles built like John’s rippling against the sunlight.

“John!” the Devil boomed.  “You’ve been treatin’ my little devils something’ fierce.  So I’ve come up to take you to Hell myself!”  And the Devil leapt for John and John leapt for the Devil, and they began to wrestle like nothing you had ever seen.  There was punching and clawing and biting and twisting.  But sure as you’ll see pumpkins on Halloween, John managed to roll the Devil into the pricker bush outside.

And that bush began to poke, and poke, and poke, until the Devil screamed “Make it stop!”  But Wicked John just dusted himself off, stood back, and laughed.  “John, John!” the Devil pleaded, his voice growing small and pathetic.  “Please, let me out of this bush, please!”

“Why should I?” was John’s retort.  “I wouldn’t trust you for a minute.”

“I promise never to come and—ouch!—bother you again, I promise!”

“Are you sure?” John added with a kick at the writhing Devil.

“Yes, quite, you win John, there really is a reason they call you Wicked John.  I’ll never, in all my days, come and bother you again.”  And with that, the bush held still, and the Devil made a pained effort to stand, wipe his bloody nose, and limp off to the howling laughter of Wicked John.

But there comes a day when everyone must die, and Wicked John found himself at St. Peter’s gate.  But St. Peter remembered what John had wished for and said he wouldn’t be let into heaven…he’d have to go down and try the other place.  So John took the winding stairway down to Hell with its great solid wooden and iron door, but nobody was at the entrance.  John rapped at the knocker, and a little peep hole opened.  It shut again mighty quick, and Wicked John stood outside for a long while, waiting for what might come next.

Finally, the peep hope opened again, and out came a loooooooooong pair of tongues holding a coal.  A frightened little voice spoke from inside.  “The Devil says you’re too wicked to come in, so here’s a coal so you can start your own Hell!”  Some say that John is still out there, wandering the lands between, carrying that coal.  Maybe you’ve even seen him, out in the mists.

Happy Halloween!  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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Jack in the Lantern

It is true that art can be found almost anywhere and that almost anything can become art.  The unsuspecting pumpkin is a suitable example.  Nestled in the garden like renegade bits of the sun, they lie like orange treasure amidst the winter squashes and withering autumn vines.  A plant of the American Continents, its appearance in late October festivities is much later than bats, goblins, or black cats.  But Halloween is somehow not truly complete without lighted Jack-O-Lanterns on the front porch.

Now, Jack gets around—whether climbing bean stocks to stealing golden harps or outwitting giants—he’s a common figure in northern European folklore.  An everyday sort of fellow who bumbles into outrageous adventures, Jack reminds us that the unexpected can be just around the corner.

Discovering the unexpected has been part of the “Master Pumpkin Carving Classes” families have been enjoying this week at our farm.  While the parents or grandparents might have originally seen the event as something fun for the kids without any mess in the house, they quickly find out that pumpkin carving can go far beyond variations on Jack’s faces.

Just like a piece of stone can be a corner of a building or a magnificent sculpture, the pumpkin as a medium offers great possibilities for illuminated imagery.  The face might be Dracula, with fangs and glowing eyes.  Or it might be a witch with floppy hat and warty chin.  Go beyond faces, and the possibilities grow quite exciting.  You can make spiders, birds, cats, or any number of scenes.  With a few tips for designing and executing patterns, the world of Jack-O-Lantern possibilities ignites.  Working out our ideas on scratch paper first, we then draw the designs directly on the face of the pumpkins before carving.

Imagine a table, covered in black plastic for easy cleanup, with a big bowl in the middle.  Kids, parents, and grandparents are all busy sawing out the lids on round, orange squashes and scooping out the stringy, seedy insides.  Everyone is sticky to the elbow, laughing and talking.

“I’m pulling out its guts!” a seven-year-old boy exclaims.  “Ooh, or…maybe this is its brains.  My poor pumpkin is dying, AHHHHHH!”

“It’s not dying,” I explain.  “It’s entering a new phase in its life.”  As we scoop and carve, we put all the seeds, pulp, and pieces into the bowl, which are saved for the chickens.  Chickens love the seeds—gobbling them up like tasty little bugs—then run around with the strings like treasure and peck at the carving remnants.  It’s a great source of oils and sugars as the season turns cold, and pumpkin guts turned into eggs is great agrarian recycling of one project’s waste into another project’s product.

Pumpkins are a fruit and therefore have a finite life span, making Jack-O-Lanterns a transient form of art.  We enjoy them for maybe a week and then, their magic spent, it is time for the pig pen or the compost pile.  The humus is returned to the garden to perhaps someday grow another pumpkin. 

In a way, transiency can make something more special, and it mimics much of the aesthetic elements of farming.  A well-laid-out and kindly tended garden can both produce delicious food for the family and be a pleasing part of the surroundings.  But in the end, the frosts will come, and the garden will be finished until the following spring, when a new layout will take its place.

There are a couple tricks, however, for getting your Jack-O-Lantern to last just a little bit longer that I’ll share with you.  When carving, either plan a star-shaped lid that can be set cock-eyed when lit or cut a smoke hole in the back of a circle-shaped lid.  Allowing space for the smoke to escape out the top helps keep the pumpkin from “cooking” on the inside when lit.  After carving, rub all the cut edges with Vaseline, which helps to seal in the moisture and slow the dehydration (withering) process.  Finally, when your creation is not lighting the front porch, wrap it in cellophane and keep it in the refrigerator.  Do not leave it outside if the temperatures are freezing—exposure to frost damages pumpkins. 

There still is time to enjoy a pumpkin carving class at our farm, if you wish, though calling ahead to schedule a time is always best.  Maybe you’ve already been finding the hidden Jack in your pumpkins, amidst the gleeful giggles of creative youngsters.  But if you haven’t yet had your fill of old-fashioned Halloween delights, here’s an event you might not want to miss.

Halloween Night Harvest Dinner and Concert

When:  Friday, October 31st, starting at 6:00 p.m.

Where:  Farmstead Creamery & Café, at North Star Homestead Farms

What:  Join us for the first of our 2013-14 Harvest Dinner and Concert Series!  Prepare to enter a magical world of stories and song from hilarious to spooky with performers Laura Berlage and Tom Draughon.  A beautiful three-course dinner will showcase our pasture raised roast pork, with side dishes from the bounties of autumn’s garden.  We’ll top it all off with a special apple treat. 

You’re welcome to come in costume, if you like!  Reservations are required.  Food allergies are accommodated.  $40 per person or $220 for season tickets.  You can view the full Harvest Dinner and Concert Series poster on our website at www.northstarhomestead.com/docs/HarvestDinnerPoster.pdf to learn more.

Wishing for you the joys of finding the unexpected around the corner, lit by the golden glow of Jack in the Lantern.  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

Fences

It’s hard to imagine a homestead farm without fences.  There are so many different husbandry projects happening at once—pigs, chickens, sheep, ducks, turkeys, gardens, cows, crops, etc.!  If the pigs were in the squash patch, the chickens in with the donkey, or any number of combinations, it is easy to see how something would go awry.  Fences help maintain the order that is crucial in a successful agrarian enterprise.

The old saying goes that good fences make good neighbors, which harkens to the days when farmers were responsible for their side of the fence.  Grandpa remembers his dad going out each year, trimming and mending the hedges and fences that bordered the neighbors.  Neither family wanted the others’ cows in their corn or pigs in the yard.  Prevention of unwanted escapes was much better than cleaning up the destructive aftermath.

For centuries, most fences were living hedges, the traditional English model of which involved cutting and laying the hedge every three years.  Stems as big around as a person’s finger were sliced at an angle part-way through to allow them to flex near the base.  These stems were then braided together along the length of the hedgerow.  New shoots would sprout up from the braided stems, and these would be cut and laid three years later.  As the hedge grew, the goal was to make it “Hog tight, horse high, and bull strong.”  Every 100 years, a new variety of hedge plant like elderberry would be propagated in the hedge row to give new vitality.  Counting the number of different plants in an English farm hedge is a rough estimate of how long that hedge has been tended by human hands. 

Hedges and fencerows can offer important habitat for a variety of wildlife, as well as block wind and snow during inclement weather.  In rural Vermont, the ever-present need to pick rock from the sloping fields and pastures became material for snaking stone walls that marked property lines or kept livestock in or out of desires areas.  It was even common in colonial times to simply “fence the yard” and let the animals wander at will outside.  The pigs lived mostly in the woods, the cattle in the pastures, and the chickens where they will, but at least the laundry, mother’s flowers, and the small children would be left alone! 

Fences have also been an issue of contention between farmers.  One of Abraham Lincoln’s legal cases in Illinois before he became President involved a dispute between a cattleman and a crop farmer.  The crop farmer was outraged that the cattleman’s herd had invaded his fields and damaged the crop, and he wanted the cattleman to pay for fencing his fields.  Ultimately, the law ruled that it was the crop farmer’s responsibility to erect fences to protect his property, not the cattleman’s.

The invention of barbed wire changed the face of ranching in the West as wheat farmer’s pushed into the plains.  Huge herds coming north out of Texas to the railroad stations that took the beasts to Chicago meat plants reeked havoc on anything in their way.  All the work into a wheat crop could be demolished in a few hours below stamping hooves.  As the West was settled, cowboys found it harder and harder to make drives because barbed wire fences were going up everywhere.

Now with electric fencing, the barrier is no longer strictly physical.  A single strand of high tensile wire with a pulsing electric fencing system can keep thousands of pounds of cattle inside.  This is because electric fence works as a psychological barrier that requires training young animals to gain their respect.  Our lambs begin in a traditional woven wire fenced pen so they can learn what a fence is (I can see through it but cannot run through it).  They then graduate to an electric mesh fence on one side of a pen.  A nose is zapped, the lambs run in surprise and bounce off the opposite fence.  Once they learn that the “biting fence” does not pursue them as long as they leave it alone, the lambs are safe to be introduced to a fully electrified paddock.

The psychological barrier works as well for predators and other creatures meant to be kept outside of an area by electric fence.  A sensitive raccoon paw soon learns that biting fences are no fun and leaves the sweet corn patch to itself.  Coyotes pace the edge, looking for a way in—finding none, they continue on their way.  But just as the Vermont sheep knew every spot in the stone walls that had fallen over, both livestock and predators know when an electric fence has been shorted out.  Diligence in maintaining good fences is ever present in a farmer’s labors.

One of the first fences I helped put up on our farm when I was about 12 years old was not to keep out wolves or hold in sheep.  Circling our first, modest raised bed garden, it wasn’t even in response to rabbits or deer.  Grandpa’s black Labrador Meg had some funny habits, including making it her personal missions to pull out all the plants in the garden.  Transplanted tomatoes?  Rip.  Half-grown sweet corn?  Rip.

I was a bit of a bean pole then, and I’m sure that Mom and Grandpa did most of the fence post pounding.  We strung the four-foot woven wire around the perimeter and built a wooden gate at one end.  There, now our precious little garden was safe from the marauding dog!  Later, we added chicken wire, to help with the baby rabbits that were lusting after the carrots and beets.

Now, 14 years and acres of garden later, we pulled out that old first garden fence—rusted, listing, and a little war-beaten by lawn mowers.  A couple neighbor friends came over to help as we wrestled the bottom wire free from tangled quack grass roots and buried fence clips.  Now a patch for perennial crops of rhubarb, asparagus, garlic, and strawberries, the garden no longer needs the old-fashioned metal protection.  Meg has grown old and gray, resigning her urge to enforce her will on unsuspecting garden plants.

We pulled out the old T-posts, rolled up the unruly chicken wire, and opened this little piece of the farm into a new chapter.  We almost left the garden gate—as a memento or conversation piece—but with typical German thoroughness, it all had to come out.  If the old rig had stayed much longer, the weeds would have taken over the fence line enough to be mistaken as a hedge.

From the ancient to the modern, putting in, taking out, and maintaining fences is part and parcel of agrarian living.  I don’t know how the weather does it, but the days you put in fence are almost always the hottest of the summer.  And the days you pull it out are cold and drizzly.  But yesterday’s fence pulling was pleasant enough, and we laughed as we wrestled and tugged on the old worn-out fence with our neighbor friends, who were lending a hand to the task.  Guess good fences still make good neighbors.  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

 
 

Autumn's To Do List

I wake to another drizzly morning on the farm.  Even the roosters haven’t bothered to start crowing yet.  The air is cool, and I long to stay snuggled under the covers…just a bit longer.  It’s the first Saturday after the farmer’s market season, and everyone else is sleeping in, right?  But, alas, those rules don’t apply to farmers.  It’s already October, and there is much to be done before the snow flies.

And that little voice inside is reminding that there’s no use putting it off until spring—that crammed-full-of-projects-and-baby-animals time of year when leisure for sleep evaporates like puddles in August.  It’s time to start checking off items on that autumn list as fast as possible before the ground freezes.

The biggest chunk of the before-ground-freezes assignments focus in the garden.  October is the month for planting garlic, which means preparing a bed that has raised neither garlic nor onions nor shallots this year, picking out the best heads for planting, and getting down on one’s hands and knees with the dibble to push next year’s promise of a crop into the ground.  Then haul out old hay and mulch the bed nice and thick to protect the buried cloves from severe cold.

It’s also time to dig the last of the carrots and potatoes for the root cellar.  Last year, our potato patch was quite ambitious, since we were expecting to sell 50 pounds of potatoes each week to a local restaurant.  When that arrangement fell through, we found ourselves with more potatoes than we could imagine using!  Our CSA members enjoyed potatoes each week well into the winter, we sold potatoes at our farm store, and we served potatoes in pasties and pot pies.  And still there were more potatoes sprouting in the basement.  It looked like some story by Dr. Seuss!

This spring, therefore, we vowed to curb our potato overdosing habits and planted a patch about half the size of the previous year’s undertaking.  Box-fulls of those sprouting basement beasties were returned to the earth to grow anew (a practice that only works for one year before scab sets in), sprouting tendrils included.  With the help of our summer interns, we mulched the patch religiously and picked potato beetles.  Now our interns have returned to college, and we are left with the bulk of the patch still needing to be harvested by hand with a garden fork!  No small task, for certain…any volunteers?

Fortunately, harvesting the patch of winter squash can be checked off the list.  I was hoping to give the plants a bit more time with the warmer weather, but when the mice and voles decided to begin nibbling craters into the sides of a handful of buttercups, that was it!  We hauled out a hay wagon and began piling the green, orange, blue, and yellow squashes, pumpkins, and gourds on top.  Rolling the wagon into a shed keeps the precious harvest away from most gnawing creatures, as well as frosts.  The timing was fortuitous, actually, because the ensuing days of drizzly rain would have been the perfect setup for molds to attack any squashes still in the field.  Safely tucked in the shed, along with boxes of apples and palates of onions, garlic, and shallots, it’s easy to slip inside and snitch enough for supper.

And then there are the other sundry jobs of emptying out rain barrels and squirreling them away in the shed for the winter, pulling out the electric mesh perimeter fence and in-ground soaker hose irrigation system, and hauling the pump for the sand point into the garage before it freezes.

Autumn is also butchering season, reducing the summer population down to winter breeding stock.  The last of the chickens are ready, and soon it will be turkey time.  Over the years, we’ve butchered our own poultry in every kind of weather—90 degrees, wind, sleet, hail, even a snowstorm.  But everyone much prefers a sunny, crisp autumn day for the task.  Winter housing for poultry is a finite situation, and folks have already placed their orders for pasture-raised Thanksgiving turkey.

It’s also time for the winter-season piglets to arrive, courtesy our neighbor’s sows.  That means fencing needs to go up, housing needs to be winterized, and feed needs to be ordered.  Not long after that it will be time to sort the ewes into breeding groups and turn in the rams, preceded by barn cleanings on a massive scale.  Every time we turn around, something else gets added to the autumn to-do list—often the adding happens faster than the subtracting!

There are apples to pick and sauce and jellies to make, wild plums to gather and cranberries to make into jams.  The last of the basil needs to be whipped into pesto and frozen for pizza enjoyment all winter long.  Winterize the tractors and change the oil in the golf cart, then rip out the old garden plants and rake the leaves.  Either we’ll have to switch to a 24-hour shift or find a few more persons to help us “get ‘er done” this autumn.  What’s that you said, we have to add canning tomatoes to the list now too?

Just when you thought the growing season was winding to a close, there is yet one last push before winter truly closes in around the homestead and blankets the pastures in white.  But there’s also room for a little fun—crunching through the fallen leaves with our herding dog Lena, carving pumpkins into golden glowing Jack-O-Lanterns, watching the flock of Sandhill cranes dance in the pasture.  Autumn can be such a magical and fleeting time of year.  Soak in the colors now so they fill your spirit with joy and wonder through the wintertime.

I can smell wild plums on the stove.  Time to help make another batch of jam.  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

Season Extenders

With 18 inches of snow still tumbling from the skies and sliding off the barn roof in mid-May this year, it’s been my grumble that we sure ought to have earned a late autumn.  We had a nip of frost during that cold and drizzly week in July, but usually the fall freeziness starts up in late August on our farm—which has the pleasure of being nestled in the county’s cold spot.

Fortunately, September has been impressively mild, with the eggplants and peppers still hanging in there.  Covering again to make it through our fifth frost, the dreaded hard freeze still appears a little ways off into October—added time for winter squashes to ripen.  This year, we’ll take every extra day for keeping the garden growing that Nature is willing to grant us.

The Northwoods is notorious for its short growing season.  Grandma always used to say that there was no sense planting much in the garden until Memorial Weekend, well after her family used to have the planting finished on the old family farms in Central Illinois.  And you can be pretty sure, around here, that the ground will be freezing by later October, if not sooner.  Garden into November or harvest Broccoli for Christmas dinner in these parts?  Forget it!

This leaves hearty Northwoods gardeners always on the hunt for creative season extenders.  Our adventures began with cold frames made from insulative bales of hay stacked to form the outline of a square.  The earth below was turned, amended with compost, and sprinkled with lettuce and spinach seeds.  The land sloped gently to the south, facing the low-sky autumn sun.  On top was laid an old glass window in a wooden frame.  This was supposed to catch and keep the warmth of the sun, helping the soil stay above freezing and warm enough for the eager plants to grow.  But the buildup of moisture became a problem, and when that moisture with the added weight of snow load built up on the window pane and froze, the glass broke…and no-one really wants to eat lettuce with bits of glass in it.

So we upgraded to a polycarbonate (corrugated plastic) cold frame from Germany with hinged doors for vents that could rest on the soil sheltered along the south side of the house.  Now we were able to enjoy greens as early as April, and a second late planting of provided salads weeks after the rest of the garden had froze out.  But, while the small size was fine for one family, it didn’t offer us the ability to extend the growing season for our CSA members and clients.

We next tried low-tunnels, which are a method where metal hoops stuck into the ground over the bed of growing plants support a lightweight, breathable fabric.  This system can be used to organically keep plants protected from pests, especially in their early and tender growing phases, as well as insulate against cold temperatures.  But a low tunnel just wasn’t enough to keep the plants safe when the nighttime temperatures dipped into the 20’s.

It was time for more drastic measures!  High tunnels.  Also hoop-like in structure, these season extenders are supported by steel ribs high enough to walk through, encased in plastic film.  Doors on the ends or adjustable roll-up sides offer abilities to control temperature and humidity, as well as air flow.  Close it up through the winter and the ground might never freeze solid inside, making it much warmer in the spring to get plants started.  Open it wide in the summer to allow insect and wind pollination as well as keep the moisture down.  Close it back up on the chilly fall nights to keep the plants safe and growing well into October or even November.  It doesn’t break (like glass) or blow away (like low tunnels), and it can withstand winter snows.

Upon entering the world of high tunnels, we opted to start small to give it a try by ordering a 12 by 24-foot high tunnel kit from FarmTek.  It was our first time working with their systems, amidst the intricacies of run-away Tek screws, cantankerous saddle clamps, and ground augers that had to be dug into the rocky soil rather than twisted.  But after several brave and rigorous months, we had our first high tunnel.  Oh the joy of ratcheting down the top cover and hanging the door as the finishing touch.  A roll-up back flap made it easy to bring in wheel barrel loads of compost or mulch, and in-ground soaker hose irrigation provided necessary water.

In the spring, we hauled out our trays upon trays of seedlings to the high tunnel for hardening off, nestled our cold-sensitive tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants into the sun-warmed soil well before squashes or beans could be planted outside, and kept those plants going well after the garden was ripped out and put to bed at the end of the season.  But the little 12-by-24 soon wasn’t big enough to meet our needs.

It was time for a serious high tunnel project.  The summer of 2011, with the help of our Northland College intern Sarah, we leveled the top end of the garden and erected a 12 by 50-foot plastic film high tunnel.  But you know how it goes—construction projects always take longer than you anticipate.  Our tomato transplants were getting desperate—really desperate—dangling and sprawling from their transplant containers, praying for more room for root growth as they waited for us to finish the project.  The rafters were up and secured in place, but we still didn’t have the cover on, when the tomato desperation went beyond the beyonds.

It was after chores, and it was dark even for a June night.  The summer was getting off to a hot start, and Sarah had been joking about trying “night gardening” to beat the heat.  Only the state of the tomatoes made that proposition no joke that night.  We pulled the truck up to the high tunnel construction sight, turned on the headlights, and planted 150 tomatoes until midnight (with the help of a few mosquitoes).  Sarah didn’t suggest night gardening as a creative idea again after that adventure.

Stringing used baling twine from the rafters down to the plants and securing the strands with ground stakes, the tomato plants were carefully trellised up off the ground in orderly rows with walkways.  That next week, the plastic cover was carefully pulled into place, augmented with roll-up sides and a door on the east end.  It was a pretty satisfying accomplishment for our woman-powered crew, and the frosts didn’t manage to kill those intrepid tomatoes until November that year.  Break out the canning jars!

We’re hoping for such a season now, given the late spring.  The twining Romas and colorful heirloom varieties reach high over my head.  I love the season of autumn, but it’s always hard to see the demise of the garden, with all the time and love that was invested to help it flourish all summer long.  In milder growing climates, like Maine, some farmers are using high tunnels to grow food all year round!  But up here, we’re happy to add a bit more time to both ends of the gardening season in whatever way we can.  Who can help but smile at the first…and last garden ripe tomatoes?  See you down on the farm sometime.

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

 
 

The Case of the Missing Pheasant

Every year on our farm, we strive to try something different—a new type of winter squash, red and black currant bushes for making jam, or heirloom grape tomatoes in reds, pinks, or yellows.  We also enjoy being adventuresome in the livestock aspect of the farm as well. 

Some of these experimental projects stick, like our first two sheep Sweet and Heart (purchased in 2001) now multiplied into a diversified dairy sheep flock of 80 or so individuals.  But other projects meet their finale at the butcher block, like the year we tried having a flock of geese.  Between the biting, chasing, and intimidating me and the other birds, they topped it off by destroying plastic equipment and eating a screened door.  No more geese for me, though I can honestly say we tried it.

This year’s poultry diversification project is still on the fence as far as continuance for next year…or should I say hopefully IN the fence.  After much cajoling, pleading, and prodding from friends, I finally got brave and tried raising pheasants.

I was at L&M Fleet one day, picking up the last of their turkey poults to beef up the crew I had hatched myself from our heritage breed Jersey Buff turkeys.  And there, in a silver stock tank next to the turkelets, was a swarming little huddle of pheasant chicks.  A soft, light chocolate brown with black and white racing stripes, they moved like avian chipmunks, darting back and forth with the fierce stare of their beady black eyeballs.

“Don’t you need a game farm license to raise pheasants?” I asked the attendant.  This had been my usual excuse for declining previous engagement with these critters in the past.

“Actually, you don’t,” he informed me, “if you’re going to butcher them to eat or use them to train your dog, there’s no game farm license required.”

A little lump settled down towards my heart.  Now my excuse was no good.  I called back to the farm, and we talked it over a bit.  Yes, we thought we had some ideas for housing.  Yes, I could just get a few to try it.  Yes…well…guess it was time.  That day I went home with a box of turkeys, a box of future laying hens, and a box of 16 pheasants.

There is a reason that the Latin name for chickens is Avis Domesticus.  They learn the routines of human care.  They can be trained to eat from your hand, come inside to roost at night, and let you reach beneath their warm, soft bellies for eggs.  Pheasants, on the other hand, are anything but domesticated.  Reach in to change a waterer or fill a feeder, and they were all crammed as far away in the brooder box as possible.  At three days old, they were starting to fly, which meant we had to lay a screened door on top of their box to keep them from being supreme escape snacks for the dogs or dinner for the cat.

But even with the best precautions, those little pheas-lettes were determined to break free.  Lift the screened door a crack to reach a feeder and one would catapult all the way over to the washing machine.  Then it would be a frantic scurry through the laundry, over the chairs, and into the closet before the little screamer would be in hand and back into the box.  And pheasants can scream!

Eventually, the crew was ready to graduate to the outdoors.  We began with a hardware cloth-covered chicken tractor sitting on a very level piece of lawn.  I brought the little fiesties branches and curly tunnels of birch bark to play in.  They ran in laps and bounced off the sides, but at least they stayed inside.

All day in late July, the interns and I had been preparing their space in the big chicken coop.  We strung bird netting over the top of the fence, secured together with zip-ties and fishing line.  The teenaged pheasants would have their own little door to enter their own little part of the coop, separate from the other birds (we learned early on that pheasants and chickens don’t mix well, nor do pheasants and turkeys).  Once the crew was big enough not to fit through chicken wire, they were released into their new home.  They promptly ran to the furthest corner and tried desperately to hide.

Now, there is much to admire in a pheasant.  The brilliant sheen and array of color in the male plumage complements the speckled browns of the females.  They have great flight strength and are good foragers.  And they’re tasty!  But pheasants are not in the habit of getting along well with each other.  At first, I tried to lock them in the coop at night for safety, like the chickens and turkeys.  The pheasants thought this was a horrible situation and wanted to pull out each other’s feathers, so now the little door just stays open, and the wily birds dart in and out as they please for food, water, and shelter from heavy rains.

To help the birds feel more at home in their enclosed yard and to offer space to hide from one another, every so often I’ll take the pruning shears and trim of willow, chokecherry, and tag alder branches along the side of the road, pile it onto the back of the utility golf cart, and drag the awkward assortment into the pheasant pen.  Taking each branch and pushing it into the soil makes for “instant habitat” mimicking brush and small bushes.  The pheasants scurry through the branches, pull on leaves, and climb as high as possible, seeming quite pleased with the instant habitat…but not the mesh ceiling on a five-foot fence.

One day, I came to the pen to find a female pheasant sitting on top of the mesh which was bowed down like a great trampoline.  She looked at me with her big black eyes as if to say, “Oops, it wasn’t supposed to work out this way.”  Somehow, she had found a hole in the mesh just big enough to pop through. 

Not having the powers to levitate, catching the bird was a challenge.  Finally, our sheep dog Lena chased her out of the potato patch and into a machine shed, where we caught her beneath a hay rake.  Her little heart pounded, but she was safely returned to her comrades.  No, I wasn’t trying to raise pheasants for fox dinners, either.

Then yesterday, the great pheasant escape happened.  Grandpa and I were filling waterers and hauling feed, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement outside the pheasant pen.  Here was one of the males, pacing…pacing…pacing, hoping upon all hope to push his way through the metal fence back to his friends, but all in vain.

It might have made a hilarious home video.  Me and Grandpa, crashing through the brush, roadrunner pheasant in the lead—all around the chicken pen, all around the pole barn, down the lane past the old plough.  The little bird always stayed at least two yards ahead of us, those speedy little legs shaming our longer ones.

Then we lost him in the woods, the colorful camouflage making it impossible to see the pheasant amidst branches, roots, and trunks.  “He’ll come back,” Grandpa assured, and I reluctantly slunk off to the rest of chores.  What would the neighbor’s think?  Surely someone would turn us in for not having a game farm license and releasing pheasants.  We found the new hole in the mesh and fixed it before anyone else could escape.

When we returned (this time with a green fish net in hand), there he was—pacing…pacing…pacing, trying to reach his friends.  I crept up alongside, but the colorful streak made a dash back to the woods and was gone.  “Quick!” I hollered to Grandpa.  “Get Lena!”  Then, with stealthy determination, I crept about the corners of the wooded area, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of tail, a burst of wings, or a bright red face.

As I circled back, he was at the fence again, and the pursuit renewed.  Along the edge of the turkey yard fence we scurried, through the open space of the lawn, the back in the brush by the trailer.  I could hear Grandpa approaching with the golf cart, an excited Lena in toe.  As our English Shepherd bounded around the corner, the pheasant panicked and hesitated one moment—one moment too long.  I had the net on top and the wiggley-squiggley bird in hand.  Victory!

The missing pheasant was duly returned to his friends, where he was still safely being kept this morning.  Lena wanted to teach the bird a lesson for escaping, but she’s happy he’s “where he ought to be” now.  They need to get a bit bigger before they’re ready for the dinner table, but this crew of pheasants sure has given me a run of adventures.  And I don’t doubt it’s not over yet.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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


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A Weaver's Eye

If you’ve had a chance to make it out to Farmstead Creamery & Café, then you may have taken a moment to look around and notice some of the things local artisans have been creating—goat’s milk lotions, hand crafted soaps, CDs by area musicians, paintings by local artists, and more.  If you’ve noticed the intricate tapestries, hand woven shawls, hearty rag rugs, or delicate wearable fiber arts, then you’ve seen some of what becomes of my “spare time” on the farm.

It should be noted, however, that homestead farming really doesn’t offer spare time—it’s more about how you use time, stretch time, budget time, or make time.  One of my favorite parts of fall is that it signals the winding down of outdoor farming demands, which equals more time for indoor projects such as fiber arts.

My love of fibers (which is an extension of a love for texture and color) began very young.  Often artists are compelled by a medium which speaks to them as a form of expression and delight, rather than stepping back and rationally saying, “I choose to be a painter.”  Sometimes, it just happens to you, and you run with it—or you find that, despite trying all sorts of practices (from watercolors to pastels to collage) that making images with yarns is really what gets your creative juices flowing.

My formal training as a fiber artist began when I had just turned 13 years old.  We had lived a year in Arizona, where every weekend we would escape the smoggy confines of Phoenix to camp in the mountains, explore desert ruins, or pique our imaginations in museums and galleries.  I was fascinated by Southwest Native American art forms, designs, and colors—the weave of artful geometrics spun of vegetal dies, desert sun, and years of heritage.

Upon moving to Madison, Wisconsin, where we began homeschooling, my intrepid mother found an enrichment course through the technical college in traditional Navajo weaving.  She gave the instructor Fran a call, to see if she would accept a young but eager student.  The answer was, “Sure, come on over and sit in for a class” to see if we thought the group setting would be a good match. 

This led to five-and-a-half years of study with Fran and a close-knit community of grandmas (and one grandpa), whose stories and travels were as equally compelling as the histories behind Fran’s restoration work of classic Navajo textiles.  Every week, we met in a church basement—hauling down our cumbersome projects, marveling over progress made at home, and scratching our heads over hiccups in the self-designed patterns or technical difficulties.

Tapestry is a slow and thoughtful process—not easily learned in a short amount of time.  It takes diligence, guidance, and lots of patience.  When I open my studio yurt for tours, the most common exclamation is, “I’d never have the patience to do this!”  But farmers know what patience is.  You can’t hurry a crop along, or the weather, or a batch of jam.  Everything takes its time, and there can be joy in the journey that is just as worthy as the final creation.

Upon moving to the farm full-time in 2000, my studies continued with Fran as well as branched into broader realms of weaving—each informed by my years of practice in Navajo textile tradition.  My rustic, cabin-friendly rag rugs often hold hints of Navajo Serape design sensibilities, as an example.  These rag rugs also take much less time than a tapestry, so I’m happy for them to live on a floor, serving as practical art.

Sometimes folks who look around the shop and are introduced to my work ask, “So, you have a loom?”

“Yes,” I respond cheerily, wondering how weaving might be accomplished otherwise.  “I have 15 of them.”

Now, if you’re feeling perplexed by this statement, you’re in good company with the visitors to Farmstead.  I’m not a loom hoarder—they are tools for the work and process of weaving, just as plows, harrows, disks, quack diggers, subsoilers, and tillers are tools for working the soil.  Each tool has a specific and unique function, and in this same way looms are designed for specific projects or types of textile work. 

The slender, upright structure of a Navajo tapestry loom is designed to stretch the piece as a frame stretches canvas, holding the warps taught for delicate patternwork.  My fingers dip in and out between the treads, drawing bundles of colorful weft through the age-old over-under techniques.  On the other hand, a rag rug loom the size of a large sofa is built to take the banging and beating required to synch the strands of cut fabric together to form a strong, tough, and durable piece that will hold up to heavy traffic, dogs, and frequent washing.

I also take great delight in fluency amongst many forms of weaving.  The hearty beating of rag rug work is fast and exerting—much like kneading dough or having at the weeds with a hoe.  You can see the progress and release internal tension at the same time.  Weaving a shawl on a triangle-shaped loom supported by an easel is like painting a landscape awash with colors and textures.  Tapestry is toned by the patient, delicate intricacies of image-forming, with rhythms like beadwork or embroidery.

Working with the raw materials of wool, cotton, alpaca, or repurposed fabrics is closely tied to the land ethic of homesteading.  Old traditions blend with new interpretation, serving both aesthetic enjoyment and everyday function.  I sometimes find myself admiring the line of trees at the edge of the field, the golden shafts of sunlight, or the sheen on a rooster’s tail with a weaver’s eye—seeking the subtleties of color and texture.

What inspires you in your “spare time”?  Perhaps it too is the seemingly magical creation of something from almost nothing—whether a story-rich pictorial textile from mere yarn, a light-dazzled photograph from a fleeting moment on a kayak escapade, or a fragrant loaf of bread from flour, yeast, and water.  All these are captured pieces of experience, memory, and intent.  They enrich our lives, like good food, and reconnect us with what makes us feel most alive.  Enjoy those moments, make time for them, and let your creative eye feast in the glory of color and texture this autumn.  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

 

 
 

Changing Seasons

The morning must rises thick and dense, up to the tops of the maples and pines that surround the pasture.  The early sunlight beams through in radiant shafts, catching floating mist particles on their way.  It clings to my hair and face and hands as I shrug on a jacket.  Last night was just a hair’s breadth away from our first frost.

We haven’t seen a hummingbird in several days, though we leave the half-drunk feeders out, just in case a straggler passes by.  Their flits and chirps have delighted folks who visit all summer, but now these wee little birds must make the long journey south towards a warmer winter.  The barren feeders remind us that we probably won’t see the hummers again until Memorial weekend, when they’ll come buzzing at the windows, announcing their return.

The Canada geese are beginning to flock, sometimes headed north, sometimes headed south.  Their calls ring through the morning air like sirens calling all to collect and follow.  Even the cranes make infrequent appearances in the fields, flying higher and higher in the sky.  They are preparing to leave.

In the garden, the catch-up game continues from our late spring season.  The second planting of green beans are finally ready to pick.  And the zucchini will keep on stubbornly producing until they freeze out.  The raspberries are finishes, and the blueberries are winding down.

In their place comes the early season apples.  Crabapples are already falling off the trees, and we pick and pick and pick—hauling them back to the kitchen by the boxfuls for making jelly.  What we don’t get now to process we’ll rake up later as a treat for the pigs.  What with fallen apples, oversized zucchinis, and more, it’s a happy time for the pigs, to say the least.  As soon as they see the farm’s golf cart pull up with bags and buckets, they start dancing around, spinning in circles and grunting with glee.  Just wait until the under-ripe squashes need a home!

Some of the eating apples are ready now too—Duchess, Melba, Transparent, and a few others go into baskets and boxes.  The first apple pie of the season is always a special treat, just like the first rhubarb custard pie in springtime.  Studies have shown that the human body naturally craves fruits and vegetables about two to three weeks before they are seasonally ready—encouraging us to keep close tabs on the garden, the meadow, or the woods so as not to miss the proper harvesting time.  No wonder these first apples taste so good!

Random, mist-laden clouds pass through the otherwise sunny day, sprinkling the sunflowers, zinnias, and cosmos in the garden with glistening droplets.  The mums are beginning to make tight buds, preparing for their autumnal bloom.  Marigolds sit pretty with their fiery yellows, oranges, and reds—matching the tips of a few maple branches I notice on the way in to town.

Some folks are warning that this could be a long, cold, and snowy winter.  But since I’ve moved up to Wisconsin’s Northwoods, someone has said that at some point going into each winter!  I guess all we can do is take what comes, harvesting and storing away the last of summer’s bounty as best we can.

It’s certainly jam-making time.  Enormous pots of deeply tinted black currants or choke cherries bubble on the stove or swirl round and round in our hand-cranked Foley Food Mill.  The oven is packed with glass Mason jars, while a second pot bubbles with lids and rings.  Don’t talk to Mom while she’s counting cups of sugar—you’re too distracting!  The recipe must be just right, or you’ll end up with a whole batch of chokecherry syrup instead.

While the chokecherries grow wild around the edges of the forest, we planted the black currants from cuttings given to us by a farming friend to the north in 2004.  Their first location became invaded by tag alders, so we moved the three survivors to the edge of our yard where they could still keep their feet wet near the creek.  Last year, there were plenty of fat robins and blue jays (guess where the berries went), but this year we hauled in our first jam-worthy crop!

Surely, three bushes shouldn’t take long to harvest, I thought.  But after pulling up branch after branch loaded with fat, black, juicy orbs, it soon became apparent that each one would take at least an hour to clean.  A few reinforcement pickers and six or so ice cream buckets later, the black currants were safely tucked in the fridge, ready for cleaning and cooking.  A distinctive, tart flavor, black currants will keep our toast topped with purple-black all winter.

Here is a treat of the season that may soon be harvested—spaghetti squash—along with a few compatriots.  Give it a try!

Spaghetti Squash Ratatouille

1 medium-sized spaghetti squash

1/4 cup white wine

1 small onion, diced

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 green pepper, diced

1 red pepper, diced

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed

1 zucchini, sliced

2 cans stewed tomatoes (or make your own!)

1 cup spaghetti sauce

Oregano, basil, and pepper to taste

Prepare and cook squash as you would any other type of winter squash (halve, remove seeds, place face-down in a pan of water and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, until fork tender). 

Heat wine in a skillet.  Sauté onions and garlic in the wine for a few minutes.  Add both kinds of peppers and cook until tender.  Add zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes, cooking until the mixture begins to thicken.  Add spaghetti sauce and stir together, then add oregano, basil, and pepper to taste.  Separate spaghetti squash strands with a fork and place in a large bowl.  Spoon sauce over the spaghetti squash strands and serve hot.  Enjoy!

***

However it is you mark the changes towards fall, take some time this week to smell the crispness in the air, walk the mist in the morning, and enjoy the first of the foods of autumn.  This morning, a rainbow shown through the mist, right over our barn.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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

 

When it Gets Hot

There’s no way around it, this week has been so hot and muggy you could just about cut the air with a knife.  Last night’s rainstorm was a blessed relief, but now the air is heavy and close like the tropics.  All the humans are doing their best to stay inside for the air conditioning and drink plenty of fluids.  But for the farm animals, escaping the heat really isn’t an option.

This is one of the reasons we order our meat chicks early—usually starting in April—so that butchering is pretty well over before August.  These fast-growing birds have extremely low tolerance for hot, muggy weather, especially as they grow to maturity.  Congestive heart failure, belied by purplish combs and wattles, can lead to an early demise.  This is especially heartbreaking after all the time and care than has gone into raising these birds, only to lose them in the last days due to heat stress.

Currently, my portable chicken tractors are filled with teenaged turkeys of varying sizes.  Tarps tied over the top of the tractors offer shade, and the water buckets are kept full.  The turkeys pant with beaks wide open and spread their wings to allow air to flow past their bodies, but the heat is bearable for them.  Shade, plenty of water, and access to a breeze is really the best farmer’s can do in this kind of weather.

I was giving a farm tour earlier this summer (on another hot day) to some folks who came from the cities.  The sheep were hiding from the heat in the barn, lying down to discourage biting insects from eating their legs (so they ate ours instead while we observed the sheep). 

“Why does that one have its mouth open?” one of the ladies with fluffy golden hair and wearing high-heeled sandals asked.  “It doesn’t look good.”

“Well, as you’ve probably noticed, it’s pretty hot out today.  The sheep is panting, like a dog, to help cool off.  Dogs and sheep don’t sweat, so panting is a way to evaporate water and release heat.”  At this point, in my sweat-drenched shirt, I was wishing that panting might work for me as well.  But the lady did not seem convinced that what is suitable behavior for her Golden Retriever might be equally applicable for the domestic ovine.  Perhaps she wanted to invite the whole flock of sheep into her air-conditioned new car?

Interestingly, pigs can’t sweat either—except for the very end of their snout.  That is why it’s important to leave them a waller or large mud puddle in their pen.  The pigs roll and flop or sink into the water so that only the very top of their back, head, and snout sticks out.  They stare at you from this position with their beady dark eyes like half-submerged barnyard alligators.  Sometimes they’ll even put their snout in the murky water and blow bubbles…because they can.

The ducks love water, all the time, but especially on hot days.  They clamor into the kiddie pools and dip and duck, letting beads of water slide down their backs, wagging their tails like a dog and flapping their white wings.  Water flies everywhere amidst raucous quacking and splashing.  Then someone gets spooked and they all climb out in a hurry, only to run back again with renewed glee. 

But even with a pool full of water, ducks are dependent on having shade, so I keep them in amongst the pine trees by the farmhouse or beneath the spreading apples by the garage.  They lounge beneath the trunks, tongues sticking out as they pant, waiting for evening.  The ducks, like most of the animals on the farm, consume very little feed during the hottest part of the day.  They snarf down a bit in the morning, then wait until the coolness of evening for supper.  The rest of the day is consumed with doing anything to keep from overheating.

That’s our goal as well, as farmers, while doing chores and other necessary outdoor activities.  But sometimes you just plain old get stuck butchering chickens, making hay, or harvesting in the heat because it has to be done.  Thank goodness for a cold glass of water and a chilly basement to retreat to at the end of those projects.  The dogs agree—they happily stay there most of the day!

Spells of steamy-hot weather are a blessing and a curse for the garden.  On the one hand, sensitive crops such as lettuce, spinach, or peas have very little tolerance for high heat and humidity.  Those lovely heads of romaine, which you thought were just about ready for picking, suddenly sprout forth tall green spires from their core.  Known as “bolting,” the lettuce is doing its very best to flower and make seed (instead of grace your table for dinner), and the seed stalks can grow as high as me!

On the other hand, there are many garden crops that love—no need—these hot and sticky days.  Zucchinis love it, doubling in size so quickly it seems that you could watch them grow.  Eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and winter squashes also thrive in the tropical environment.  Our 150 tomato plants in the high tunnel on the north end of our garden are producing boxes and boxes of red, pink, and yellow heirloom tomatoes.  Every time I turn around, it seems that something needs harvesting again!

Still feel that you are melting from the heat?  Here is a traditional English recipe for lemonade that might help you recover.

Summertime Lemonade

3 unwaxed lemons

1/3 cup sugar (or ¼ cup honey)

2 ½ cups water

Ice cubes

Sprig of fresh mint

Chop the whole lemons and puree in a food processor with the sugar until the mixture becomes a fairly fine pulp.  The processing helps pull the oils from the lemon for enhanced flavor.  Place pulp mixture in a glass jar and stir in the water.  Refrigerate overnight before use.  Serve in a pitcher with ice cubes, steeped with a sprig of fresh mint.  Enjoy!

***

However it is that you try to keep cool on these hot summer days, remember that the folks out there raising your food are doing their best to keep everything going, despite the heat.  Personally, I’m looking forward to autumn, but it looks like it’s going to be another hot one today.  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

Wishing for Rain

It’s been about a month now of “too much of a good thing”—clear blue skies with a few puffy little clouds, a gentle or blustery breeze, and no rain to spoil your canoe trip or picnic with friends.  While all these sunny days have been great for the seasonal visitors, it’s getting to the point of desperation for the local farmers.

There are plenty of perks to farming sandy soils.  During wet times, the excess water drains easily.  Combined with rich organic matter, the soils has loft, breathability, and is worked easily.  But when things turn dry, sandy soils dry right up with it.  One day’s pleasant rain can simply be gone by the next with a beaming sun and a brisk south wind.  Without plenty of mulch or good leaf cover, the soil will soon be frightfully dry a LONG ways down.

This is why sand-loving plants and trees develop penetrating tap roots so that dry times are not nearly as stressful for them.  But a towering pine tree certainly has more means of surviving a drought without assistance than a little eggplant could ever hope to accomplish.  Pathetic, drooping or wilted leaves are sure signs that the sun and the wind are gaining the upper hand in the garden.

It used to be that irrigating the garden wasn’t much of a concern in the Northwoods.  Before our trio moved to the farm full-time, Grandma would plant winter squashes and a few other odds and ends in the modest garden behind the farmhouse.  The hearty seedlings received only sporadic attention until it was time for harvest.  Somehow, they made it through the hot and sometimes dry August stretch on their own.

This was the way of things for the first two years when we began the lengthy task of revitalizing the homestead.  Sprinkle a bit with the watering can to get the little plants going, and there was no need to irrigate.  It would rain, quite consistently, every third day.  The clouds would build up, a gently shower would ensue during the afternoon, and then the leaves would pata-drip with a musical lilt into the evening.  Sometimes the rains slipped through during the night, leaving the soil damp, soft, and fragrant by morning.

Then, on the third year, the drought started.  Perhaps you didn’t hear about it because it was quite regional and didn’t affect the corn and soy growing regions further downstate.  But we felt it here.  Eight years of it.

Each year, the drought started earlier.  The first year, it really hit in August.  The second year, it started in July.  By the peak, things were already getting dry in April or May and staying that way.  Water tables dropped.  Many folks we knew who lived on the lakes nearby had their shallower wells run dry, which meant the inconvenience of having to haul in water and do ones laundry in town.  But the thought of having the well run dry at the farm, with all the needs for the animals, was a terrifying and very present thought.

Eight years of drought trains you well, as a sustainably-minded farmer.  Soon we had a fleet of rain barrels under each eave, to catch what little bit of rain did fall.  We knew that irrigating the garden to keep the crops alive and producing was imperative, but we wanted to be as responsible about it as possible.

Instead of relying on our well, which was already held in demand for the animals and personal needs, we added a sand point near the garden that draws water from a higher table that is part of the wetlands bordering the east end of the farm.  While this water is not suitable for drinking, it is actually much better for the garden than well water.  Nutrient rich and not as cold, the water from the sand point has proved an extremely important part of the garden’s success.

Overhead sprinklers that shoot sprays of water across the garden are fraught with sustainability problems.  Most of the blue gold is lost to evaporation before it even gets to the grounds, and more is lost from evaporating off the plant surfaces that it coats.  Too much watering on leaves that are then stressed by bright sun at the same time leads to mildew infestations, tip burn, and other health problems for plants.  If plants begin to suffer from these ailments, they are more susceptible to attacks by insects or funguses.  In effect, top watering can cause more harm than good for your garden.

The best place to put irrigation water during hot, dry, windy periods is right where the plants need it—in the ground, just under the surface.  We were able to do this by burying lines of soaker hose irrigation (a product made from recycled tires); a somewhat awkward assembly of pressure reducer, anti-backflow valve, water filter, and hose Ts; and a Medusa-esque array of garden hoses.  With two lengths of soaker hose in each wide raised bed, we can move the irrigation system around within the garden to water specific rows as needed.  Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, or zucchinis (which require a higher use of water in order to produce crop) can receive more frequent irrigation attention than slower-forming carrots or onions.

But even with the most sustainably-oriented irrigation system, nothing compares to a good, steady, soaker of a rainy day.  We need such a day now—or two or three or four.  Just tonight, as I was digging potatoes, the soil just crumbled into dust, some of it blowing away in the wind.  The pasture is hard—baked dry by the sun—and the grass refuses to grow.  No grass means we’re scrambling to find places for the sheep to graze.  And no grass also means likely no second-crop hay to help us get through the winter for feeding the sheep.  With everyone else in the area also feeling the effects of the dry weather, there won’t be much hay to purchase from other folks either.

While the long-range forecast for this week is hardly hopeful, I am still wishing for rain—for our farm, for the forest, for the lakes, for the water table, for us all.  What are your most memorable rain stories?  What are the dry stories?  Take some time to share them with someone this week.  Either way, it can be too much of a good thing…or not enough.  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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Zucchini

It’s a lovely summer’s day, with birds singing and the sun shining.  Lately, there has been some much-needed rain.  You open the back door, and you and your eager dog take a nice stroll down to the mailbox to see what the postman might have brought you today.  But when you open the creaking front of that little metal box, instead of the usual white rectangles with colorful stamps, you find a hoard of long, shiny, deep green zucchinis.

Zucchinis are a plant that refuses to stop giving.  Through wet and dry, through hale and wind, if you add some warm temperatures, those zucchini plants are determined to out-produce each other.  There are the classic green cylindrical ones, shorter nutty striped ones, miniature globular ones, and even brilliant yellow ones.  Expand into the world of summer squash and there are straight-necks and crooked necks, along with the flying saucer-like patty pans.  Whatever form or color, zucchinis keep you hopping just to keep up with them.

I’ve learned to wear gloves when harvesting zucchinis.  The long, hollow stems supporting dinner-plate leaves are lined up and down with tiny prickers.  Reach too fast, and they can slice up hands and arms with ease.  And woe to the gardener who doesn’t make it out to pick their patch at least every other day!  It would be interesting to know the maximum growth rate of a zucchini because it certainly seems that what was a nubbin one day can become a gargantuan creature by the next.

My beekeeping mentor, Mr. Rowe, calls these “garden sharks.”  At farmer’s market, about this time of year, there is a running joke about oversized zucchinis.  Turn your back while setting up your stand in the morning, and you’ll return to find an emerald shark sitting on your table.

“Ok, who put the zucchini on my stand!?” you demand teasingly, but no one confesses.  Eventually, you resign yourself to taking the beast home with you as a treat for the pigs.  Even the most enterprising cooks know that a zucchini of that size is a bit too woody for cooking.

But zucchini preferences are about like pickle selection.  Everyone has their idea of the “perfect” size for a zucchini.  Some like them very tiny and tender, others like them a bit more robust.  Part of this depends on whether the vegetable is destined for the sauté pan or grated into zucchini bread.  At the beginning of summer, everyone seems excited to see zucchinis and make their favorite dishes with them.  But as summer wanes, so does the enthusiasm. 

I remember one year at the market a lady was perusing the vegetables on our table.  “Oh zucchinis,” she remarked.  “Well, I better not.  My mother and I planted 64 hills of that this year.”  I nearly fell over.  64 hills of zucchini?  What were they thinking?  I’ll bet they had so many zucchinis that the neighbors’ cars were filled with them, let alone the mail boxes.  Have a family reunion coming up?  Ok, everyone has to take home some zucchini, no excuses!

If you are starting to feel overwhelmed by zucchini, here’s one of my favorite recipes that will fool almost anyone into unknowingly eating this versatile vegetable.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

¾ cup butter, softened

2 cups sugar

3 eggs

2 cups zucchini, grated

2 tsp. vanilla

2 tsp. grated orange peel

½ cup milk

2 ½ cups flour

½ cup cocoa powder

2 ½ tsp. baking powder

1 ½ tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. salt

1 cup nuts (optional)

Powdered sugar to dust on top

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Using a mixer, cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs and beat well.  Stir in the zucchini, vanilla, and orange peel.  Mix the flour and other dry ingredients together in a second bowl.  Alternately add the milk and the flour, beating until smooth.  Stir in the nuts, if desired.

Pour into a greased and floured bunt pan and bake for 50 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.  Let cool 10 minutes in the pan before turning out.  Cool completely, dust with powdered sugar, and serve. 

***

What’s your favorite way to prepare zucchini?  Take some time this week for this remarkable and versatile vegetable and enjoy the flavors of summer.  Looks like I better get out to the garden and pick again.  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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Stewardship of Wild Friends

Certainly, there are a host of wild critters out in the woods that can wreak havoc on a farm.  Bears can tear into beehives.  Wolves and coyotes can terrorize sheep.  Weasels and raccoons can sneak into chicken coops.  The list goes on and on.  But there are plenty of wild creatures who are beneficial on the homestead, and it is worth noting their efforts and doing our best to be stewards of our wild friends.

The hosts of bug-eaters are certainly welcomed guests as we swat the endless swarms of mosquitoes during chores or while working in the garden.  Helicopter-like dragonflies hover and dart in black swarms above the chicken tractors, waiting for any daring mosquito to show a proboscis.  As twilight grows and the dragonflies hunker down for the night, little brown bats dart from the shadows.  The bat house Grandpa put on the front of the barn years ago has likely never been enough habitat for the local population.  Instead, they find comfortable lodgings in the wood shed, the tool shed, the machine shed, and many an odd nook and cranny hither and yon.  We leave the bats alone, they leave us alone, and so far that arrangement has worked out pretty well.

On many farms, the apartment-like Martin house stood atop a high pole in the yard or edge of the field.  While I’ve never kept a Martin house, others tell that it requires attention, cleaning, and the occasional gentle return of an escaped youngling.  Over the years, Martins have grown accustomed to being tended by benevolent humans and actually prefer the houses to wild habitat. 

On our farm, the swallows are the gliding feathered insect predators of choice, with houses dotted along the edge of the pasture for the tuxedoed iridescent blue-and-white Tree Swallows that whir and chirp to each other while perching on the electric fence.  Red-breasted Barn Swallows dive-bomb us near the barn door entrance or glare downward from their mud and grass nests near the joints of rafters.  Little buggy-eyed faces peer down over the lip as the juveniles contemplate the wonders of space before flight.  But the greatest mud artists are the Cliff Swallows that build their gourd-like nest structures high up in the peak of the woodshed roof.  The yellow masks that poke out from the hole belie the rareness of their type for this area.

And then there is the lovely plethora of pollinators—bees, butterflies, and of course hummingbirds.  When designing the landscape around our home, we chose to embrace building terraced beds to support native Wisconsin wildflowers that are particularly attractive to pollinators.  Light purple Bee Balm, fiery Butterfly Weed, delicate Columbine, and others have matured over the years into a layered montage of color, fragrance, and shelter.  In the summertime, the beds are humming with the sound of small, busy bodies, while in the winter the rattling reeds provide shelter and seeds for songbirds.

The hummingbirds have especially enjoyed this safe and delicious nook.  Every year, several pairs of Ruby Throated Hummingbirds make the wearisome trip from parts far to the south to call the farm home.  Arriving as thirsty as ever, they will flit by the dining room window as if to pronounce, “We’re here!  Could someone set out the feeder please?”  Even with all the flowers, there still seems to never be enough nectar to go around, so out comes the red and yellow glass hummingbird feeder.

For a time, there is intense activity, until it gradually lessens as more flowers become available and the couples are busy sitting on their nests.  But when those little nestlings take to the air, it becomes almost impossible to keep the feeders filled!  This morning, more miniature hummingbirds than I could count danced about the garden, vying for a spot.  Their dark eyes were shining with energy and life.  But besides being beautiful, hummingbirds also help pollinate by carrying tiny grains of pollen on their tongues!

To help the hummingbirds and delicate butterflies, we extended our native flower gardens to include the landscaping at Farmstead Creamery as well, complete with hanging blooms and a second nectar feeder.  Now we have our own pair of hummers at the Creamery!  Next time you enjoy some gelato outside in the garden, they might even come and visit you, as has been happening lately.

There are, of course, terrestrial wild friends as well, including toads.  Leaving little stone shelters, known as “toad houses,” in your garden or using organic material mulches is a great way to encourage toads and frogs to feel comfortable de-bugging your vegetables.  Finding ways to help make it easier for nature to help us is often as much fun as it is rewarding.  Making toad houses is a wonderful project for children or the creatively inclined.  Be imaginative!

From leaving the old dead tree standing for woodpecker habitat to helping the baby turtle cross the road, there are many small ways to be a steward to our wild friends.  It also is good to have an ample sense of humor when those same wild creatures find clever ways to utilize aspects of the farm for their own ends—such as the morning the phoebe uses the barn wall as a sounding board, the day you found the frog swimming in the water bucket, or the time the bluebird nest turned out to be almost entirely made of chicken feathers.

Living on a farm in the Northwoods means that having wildlife around is part of daily experience.  And just as we offer stewardship to the sheep, pigs, and poultry, so too is it good to be mindful of our responsibility to care for all peaceful life on this precious piece of earth.  There goes a hummingbird!  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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