North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

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

You're Milking What?

All good stories start “a long time ago…” which, when you’re a mature 23 years of age, eight years of hard work, study, and dedication seems like one of those legendary ages.  And, just like many of those great epic journeys, it starts in a very different place than it ends.  This is because our voyage into dairy sheep (oops, am I giving it away?) started with alpacas…or the lack thereof.

While my foray into farming began with the feathered dinosaurs we commonly call chickens, my sister Kara’s passion for animals great and small began with a yearning for alpacas.  She was learning to spin and knit, and alpaca fleece is treasured for being hypoallergenic, incredibly soft, and amazingly warm.  These long-legged camelids—which are often shorn leaving fluffy heads and legs—are gentler cousins of llamas and originate in South and Central America.  However, just as the yearning for parakeets and cockatoos never quite manifested into reality, the interest in expensive alpacas was channeled into a different route.

We were new members of 4-H at the time, working on projects in fiber arts, bees, and…here it comes:  sheep.  The $2,000 to $10,000 a piece alpaca pair was reborn as a-$60 a-piece couple of sheep.  Kara’s first wooly companions were a young ewe (said “you”) named Sweet and a whether (neutered male) named Heart—an inseparable and friendly pair.  Sweet, a purebred Hampshire sheep, gave many sets of triplet lambs as our adventures grew into embracing the ovine birthing process.  With the aid of a growing personal library and Mom’s medical skills as a physician, Kara’s veterinary talents blossomed.  This last spring, the entire south wing of the restored 1919 barn served as the nursery, with numbered birthing pens called “jugs” accompanied by detailed records of age, weight, vaccinations, and tagging.   We call it “the maternity ward.”

With sheep come many adventures, like learning to bale hay with put-put 1940’s equipment (little squares, no kicker…if you’ve made hay, you know what I’m talking about).  There’s shearing time when all the thick, wooly coats come off, leaving slim goat-shaped creatures that look at you like “What?”  And there’s the occasional Houdini sheep who loves to escape from the fence and go on little adventures to the flower beds and other such interesting places.  Oh, sorry Grandma, I guess we weren’t supposed to tell you about that one…

But sheep are not goats.  Not that I have anything against goats, but let’s be clear.  Over the last year, I’ve been plagued by folks who don’t know the difference between a sheep and a goat.  So here’s a little lesson to put you in the know, and maybe it will be useful at your next cocktail party…who knows?  Sheep and goats and cows are in a special family of mammals called ruminants.  This name comes from the fact that they have multiple stomachs (usually four) to help them digest more of the nutrients in grasses.  Pigs and horses only have one stomach, like people.  The rumen process makes these particular animals extremely efficient in pasturing systems because grassy “fodder” is exactly the type of food their unique biology has developed to eat.  Goats are excellent foragers of stalky and brushy material, making them excellent for hilly and mountainous areas that are difficult to hay.  Sheep love flat or rolling countryside and lush grass mixed with clovers.  A well-maintained sheep pasture looks very much like a golf course—only minus the chemicals and the motorized lawn mowers.

Also, sheep are actually more closely related to deer than goats.  When I’m asked what lamb tasted like, the closest comparison might be non-gamey venison, rather than liking it to beef.  And, no, a goat is not a female sheep, as I was once informed at a gathering.  A female sheep is a ewe, while the male is a ram.  And, actually, there are more sheep milked worldwide than cows.  What?  Milking sheep?  Really? 

Like all mammals, sheep give milk.  And like all ruminants, they do this via an udder (only this one has two spigots instead of four).  In France, the Lacone sheep is prized for its milk, which is used to make artisan cheeses, while in Germany, the breed of standard is the East Friesian.  Kara grew interested in dairy sheep after attending conferences at the UW Dairy Sheep Research Station in Spooner, the only one of its kind in the U.S.  The cold winters, however, make life difficult for the French and German dairy sheep breeds, so Kara began the arduous process of cross-breeding to mix in hearty English, Welsh, and Finnish stock with the Continental favorites.  In the process, we have had tall sheep, short sheep, black-faced sheep, white-faced sheep, and speckled sheep—all with their own personalities and names.

As the genetic side of the dairy process grew, Kara visited and interned at different dairy sheep farms to learn tips and experience new methodologies.  Through this process, she learned from artisan cheesemakers and studied at the Babcock Institute in Madison to acquire the finer points of ice-cream production.  But, in the end, it was a new, gourmet product that was calling her—gelato.  If you’ve been to Italy, you probably ate your way across the country from one gelateria to the next.  But for those who haven’t made that trek, gelato may be a new phenomenon.  Made fresh, served warmer, and churned with less air in it, gelato is a creamy and heavenly treat that surprises your taste buds with its bounty of flavor.  Also, ice cream is made with a butterfat content between 12 and 16 percent, while gelato is made with a butterfat content between 6 and 8 percent—which is just how it comes out of the sheep.

To continue her journey, Kara studied with master Italian gelato makers on Long Island through the Gelato and Pastry Institute of America, where she developed a recipe to make her own gelato base from scratch (instead of buying a pre-made base).  In her newly-completed dairy plant at Farmstead Creamery & Café, Kara whirs about like a master artist in her studio—blending hand-crafted chocolate paste, nut butters, or Bayfield blueberries to make richly rewarding waves of creamy gelato.  Every scoop is a work of art.

From the gentle pastures on our family’s farm, to the softly bleating ewes coming out of the parlor, to the frothy white milk in the old-style can, and finally the swirled gelato in your home-made waffle cone, this truly is an epic journey of love and care, passion and dedication to the best of all worlds.  It’s a story that connects you with the people and the place where real food comes from, fresh off the farm.  So next time someone asks you, “They’re milking what out there?” you’ll know a little more of the story.

And, just in case you might have forgotten, it’s sheep, not goats.  See you down at the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.


Artisan Farming

(Traditional Folk Song)

O, I like to rise when the sun she rises

Early in the mornin’

I like to hear them small birds singin’

Merrily upon their laylum

And hurrah for the life of the country folk

And to ramble in the new-mown hay.

Everyone who’s lived it knows that “the simple life” isn’t so simple.  It’s getting up early and working late.  It’s getting down and dirty with the animals and in the garden.  It’s always having more things on the “to-do list” for the day than can be accomplished in a week’s time.  But small-scale artisan farming brings a direct connection with the land and all its creatures that is hard to reach from the office or even inside the air-conditioned cab of a highly computerized tractor.  It’s knowing the shifting of the seasons by the change in the smell of the wind, of learning to read the emotions of livestock by their body language, and of finding sheer joy in the summer’s first ripe tomato.

In the spring we sow and harvest mow

That’s how the seasons round they go

But of all the times to choose I may

For to ramble in the new-mown hay.

Artisan farming has many historical role models.  Thomas Jefferson, who championed the notion that our national backbone was in agriculture, devoted considerable time to diversifying his plantation farm—trying new cropping methods and developing new varieties.  His view of American culture and landscape stands in stark contrast with the Hamiltonian belief in urban growth and the power of industry, the latter of which has grown to dominate our society for at least the past 200 years.  Then in the 1900’s, there was Wendall Barry, who as a philosopher and essayist merged the concerns of environmentalism with a growing movement towards agrarianism—sparking a “back-to-the-land” movement that empowered many to reclaim heritage farming methods, breeds, and varieties.  Today, we have locally focused, pasture-based advocates like Joel Salatin, who demonstrate how small-scale, diversified farming can make a substantial positive environmental and community impact.

In the summertime we work the land

With sweaty brow and calloused hand

But in the warming light of the longest day

We’ll go ramble in the new-mown hay.

There is an Old English saying when a bride is getting married—“Something old and something new, something borrowed and something blue”—and such a phrase might also aptly describe artisan farming.  On our farm, a 1950’s-era tractor may be parked alongside a PVC “chicken tractor,” which is a portable pen for pasturing poultry.  (Though, calling it a chicken tractor is a slightly misleading term…it doesn’t actually involve a motor or the farm tractor.)  A chicken coop may be cleaned out with a shovel and an old manure spreader, while the barn gets cleaned with a miniature skid-steer.  Heritage methods are updated with contemporary understanding of crop rotations and pest cycles, and the mix feels antique yet progressive at the same time.

In the autumn time when the leaves do fall

Then it’s apple pickin’ time for all

But when the cider’s pressed and it’s stored away

We’ll go ramble in the new-mown hay.

Artisan farming is diversified, involving complex cycles and systems that nurture each other.  The pigs root up a new patch of garden, eating roots and weeds and working up the sod.  The next year, the space is a vibrantly emerald squash patch.  In the winter, when some of the squashes start to rot in storage, they’re taken out to the chickens, which devour the seeds and pulp gleefully.  The chickens lay chocolate-brown eggs that help give the farmer energy in the morning, and the manure from the chickens goes out to fertilize the fields.  The field grows hay, which is harvested for the sheep to eat in the winter when there’s no grass.  The sheep offer meat in the fall and wool in the spring, and as they graze the lush pasture during the growing season, they naturally scatter their own manure in the fields.  The pastures are shared with the chickens and turkeys, which scratch away and break up pest life cycles, and the processes of permaculture keep going.  The farmer serves as the orchestra conductor—and the elbow grease—that keeps the system flowing as smoothly as possible.

In the wintertime when skies are gray

We hedge and we hitch our time away

But in the summertime when the sun shines gay

We’ll go ramble in the new-mown hay.

When I think about artisan farming, I also think about all the stories.  There are stories from my grandparents and their times growing up on small farms in central Illinois.  There are stories from last summer’s terrible thunderstorm that hit just as we were bringing in the last loads of hay.  And there are stories about the latest adventures with our cantankerous guard donkey named Belle.  Stories find a way to connect the past with the present, heritage with hopes for the future.  They give us a way to look back and laugh at moments on the farm that were anything but funny when we were right in the middle of all the action, and they give us a chance to remember the kind words and deeds of others we’ve met along the journey.  Artisan farmers are often happy to share stories at the farmer’s market or over a cup of steaming coffee—offering these stories is part of passing on the knowledge, experience, and appreciation of this life choice as a contemporary agrarian.

And I like to rise when the sun she rises

Early in the mornin’

I like to hear them small birds singin’

Merrily upon their laylum

And hurrah for the life of the country folk

And to ramble in the new-mown hay.

Do you know your local, artisan farmers?  This week, take some time to learn some of their stories as we enjoy the bountiful harvest of the summer season.  When you offer a moment to listen, I can almost guarantee that you’ll be invited to come on down to the farm sometime and share in a little slice of the simple life.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.


For the Love of Chickens

Parents, be warned.  Big endeavors often emerge from small ideas—a question or a suggestion.  In this case, the question came when I was 11.  At the time, we were living in Arizona, and a friend and I had just finished what was, for us, a rather monumental research project on birds—equipped with our own illustrations and strengthened by a trip to a notable avian sanctuary.  This truly Montessori in-depth research project had sparked my deep, enduring, and passionate affection for feathered creatures of all natures (before this, I had been fascinated with dinosaurs, which really was an evolutionary continuation of interests…just spend some time watching turkeys).

Fifth graders can be rather precocious, so I had plucked up the courage one day to ask my mom, “Mommy, could I have a pet bird?”  We had yet to have a pet anything in our house.  Our lives had thus far been too busy and too absent from home to add a pet into the milieu.  But my 11-year-old self remained optimistic.  Surely a parakeet or a cockatoo wouldn’t be too much trouble.  I could take care of it when I was home from school.  Besides, I was 11, which seemed pretty grown up to me at the time.  I could be responsible, surely! 

I’m sure my hopefulness was glowing from face to sneakers, and my mother’s answer reflected her supreme sense of reality, coupled with her Montessori awareness of never squelching a child’s interests.  “I’m afraid we can’t have a pet bird, Laura, because your dad is allergic,” she smiled reassuringly, showing with her eyes that this point was unavoidable.  “But if we ever move to the farm, maybe you can have some chickens.”

The Farm was an old homestead my mother’s parents had purchased back in 1968.  Way up north in the wilder reaches of Wisconsin, this had been the family retreat well before my time of memory.  It was a place of wintry Christmases with a real tree cut from the majestic forests surrounding the old hay fields, of forts dug in the enormous snow banks beside the perilously long driveway, of Grandma’s roast turkey with dressing and pumpkin pie…  It truly was the “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” type of place in an imaginative 11-year-old’s soul.  There even was an old, weathered barn with loose hay to jump in and various dusty and forgotten nooks with antique equipment to explore.

Nobody lived at the farm, which the Steidinger clan had called North Star from the beginning.  At least nobody did anymore.  My juvenile understanding that the family retreat had once been a farm hinted that people used to live there.  That once upon a time there had been horses and milk cows—their names scrawlingly carved above their respective stanchions.  And pigs.  Grandpa always talked about how one part of the hedge he’d planted years ago grew taller than the rest because that was where the old pig pen had been.  And there must have been chickens.

Chickens!  The thought stuck in my mind like a far-off promise.  Chickens were soft, roundish birds that could be picked up and held.  Chickens made curious clucking sounds and went exploring in interesting, small places—just like I was fond of doing.  And chickens came in all sizes and shapes and colors…  Chickens were cool!

And here comes the warning to parents.  A seemingly innocent question, “Mommy, can I…” met with “No, but…” can change your life.  Irrevocably.  Unimaginably.  And yet, it may spark a journey that propels you, your family, and even your community, into a movement that is critical to humanity both locally and globally—you just might one day find you’ve become a farmer.

It started with the library.  With the thoroughness of a graduate student working on her thesis, I checked out EVERY book on chickens from the Phoenix Public Library (which is a pretty big library) and commenced my studies.  Hopefully, this was not too alarming for my parents, who soon were receiving official reports on my scholarly discoveries.  I even made a little hand-written book chronicling chicken diseases, their diagnosis, and treatment.

But a library book was still not a real chicken.  Even a remarkably realistic stuffed puppet that participated in a costumed portrait of my sister Kara and me (which also included a stuffed dog toy, Kara’s animal desire) couldn’t flap, cluck, or lay eggs of its own—despite an eager imagination.  The real chickens would have to wait…at least for a little while.  But they never really went away.

Becoming a poultry fancier, however, opened a world of stories and history within the family.  I began to learn that my maternal grandparents—who had always been a couple dedicated to small-town medicine in my living memory—had grown up on farms in central Illinois.  They began sharing tales about how the team of horses pulled the harrow faster when Papa was nearby, or the corncobs that “jumped” out of the basked on their way across the yard to the wood stove.  There were stories of outdoor summer kitchens, orchards that would make my mouth water, threshing with whole crews of hungry men, and pigs watered (or watermelons chilled) from the ever-gushing artesian well.  It was a world unto itself.

Chickens came significantly closer to reality, when in 1998 Bert Fullington helped us move an old generator shack (which had once been a resort shower house) to the barnyard as the first coop.  The next summer, we raised 25 broilers and a handsome rooster named in Bert’s honor before returning to Madison in the fall.  The next summer, we returned to the farm again…and didn’t go back.  To the chickens, we added sheep, then pigs, then turkeys and ducks and honeybees.  Now we’re full-time farming—restoring the homestead and regenerating the land and its stories. 

I still love my chickens very much—their individual characteristics, their sense of curiosity, and their marvelous propensity for turning kitchen scraps into eggs.  Spending quality time with my feathered dinosaurs and a loaf of old bread provides its own sense of communion at the end of a long day on the farm.  Sometimes I wonder where I might be today if not for the lure of these South-East Asian jungle fowl, their orange-rimmed eyes glinting in the late afternoon sun.

Sweet Pea, a Buff Orpington hen sidles up, clucking amicably and letting me stroke her soft, golden feathers.  And I know that, down on the farm, we’re in this journey together…and it all started for the love of chickens.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.



Old Time Farm Talk

Every occupation has its own specific vocabulary.  Spinners ply, millers brew, carpenters plumb, and social media enthusiasts tweet.  Farming certainly has its own slew of specific vocabulary—like the complex system of names for the genders and ages of animals, where an adult intact male hog is a boar, the female a sow, the little ones piglets…but if they’re girls they’re gilts and the boys are barrows.  But what really sets farm talk apart is the use of phraseology.  We’ve all heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, from those who are fit as a fiddle and merry as a lark.  But here are a few that, unless you’re a farmer, you might not have encountered before.

Many of these sayings involve animals, such as the notion that you shouldn’t try to teach a pig to sing.  It’s a waste of your time and it annoys the pig.  Good fences make good neighbors, but the best fences are horse-high, pig-tight, and bull strong.  We all know that the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.  Crying over spilled milk isn’t quite as bad as when someone notes that your behavior is like locking the barn door after the horse is stolen.

References to people and their particular ways of doing things are also common.  Someone new in the neighborhood might not know you from a bale of hay.  Another fellow might be deemed slower than molasses in January.  A chatterbox might well be caught chewing the fat with a neighbor, while the patient type will explain that they ain’t in an all-fired hurry.  It’s all six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Is it a playful sense of language, its own form of insider’s code talk, or just plain old fashioned farm humor that stands behind these sayings?  Of course, if you’re a city slicker who doesn’t know sh*t from Shinola, then you might have a problem catching on.  But the stories behind words and phrases have always held a special fascination for me.  For example, S.H.I.T. was originally an acronym that stood for “ship high in transit.”  This dates back to the age when manure was hauled in sailing vessels to other parts to fertilize fields far removed from livestock raising areas.  Waterlogged manure has a way of overheating and potentially causing fires, so the shipments were marked with the acronym to ensure that they were placed higher up in the ship’s hold, keeping the manure dry and the crew safe from spontaneous combustion. 

A goodly portion of farm-steeped phrases have to do with life philosophy.  Some are rather practical, like knowing that life is simpler if you plow around the stumps—a fitting thought for a region that was homesteaded after the cutover.  Once the timbering trade left the landscape bereft of its majestic white pines, immigrant agencies touted pamphlets illustrating “seven easy steps for pulling out stumps.”  The propaganda was augmented with pre-Photo Shop images of farmers pulling wagons piled with mammoth onions, cabbages, and potatoes.  But those cutover farming days only worked for those who could keep skunks and bankers at a distance, if you know what I’m driving at.

It goes something like this; if you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.  That, and most of the stuff people worry about ain’t never gonna happen anyway.    The biggest troublemaker you’ll probably ever have to deal with watches you in the mirror every mornin’.  And when you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty

These might not be the same admonitions that marked our own childhoods, with warnings to look both ways before crossing the street, say please and thank you, and hold the door for folks older than oneself, but they carry their own set of wisdoms.  The knowing warning of never to corner something that is meaner than you could sure come in handy.  The school of hard nocks is aptly summed up by the sentiment that good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that come from bad judgment.  And, if you ever get to thinking that you’re a person of some influence, try ordering somebody else’s dog around!

A mix of humor and humility, appreciation and irony abounds in farm talk.  I can remember one day rummaging around in the machine shed for a board or a wrench or something and just about getting wedged stuck between a hay rake and a wagon.  I turned to my mom with a straight face and said, “Don’t you think we could have gotten these a little closer together?”  She immediately burst out laughing and accused me of sounding like her cousin Jeff, who has a farm in central Illinois.  Irony is far better than complaining.  Doing something foolish and then whining about it is often met on the farm with, “Well, what’dya do that for?”  And who can’t help but chuckle at this notion—forgive your enemies; it messes up their heads.

My grandpa remembers his father saying “Thanks ‘til you’re better paid,” when a neighbor would do him a favor.  Times were tough in the depression era, and everyone knew that lending a hand without monetary compensation was part of the fabric of community life.  Being there for each other is a farming ethos we can all learn from this week.  So, as you remember some of your favorite Old Time Farm Talk, here is one last piece—live simply, love generously, care deeply, and speak kindly.  See you down at the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is part owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.

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