North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Forever True Farm Dogs

You can sing praises to the barn cats that catch their weight in small vermin or that sit quivering in eager anticipation as the cow is being milked—hoping for a squirt of warm creaminess aimed their way.  You can compliment the watchful (if noisome) guinea fowl that patrol the edge of the barnyard, praying on ticks.  Or you can enjoy the simple pleasures of watching the pigs root up next year’s garden patch for you, weeding as they go.  But a farm is just not fully a farm without its ever-true farm dog.

There is a black-and-white photograph of our homestead’s original farm dog (or at least the one everybody remembers), back in the days when the Fullingtons were still carving the fields out of the forest.  King was a large, wooly beast of a dog that knew every inch of the territory and loved his people dearly.  That parka of a coat kept King warm even in the harshest of winters, when a week would go by with temperatures hovering around 50 below, when the wind blew driving ice from the north and the snow piled up higher than cars.  Even in weather like this, the cows still have to be milked and the horses fed and watered.

When we moved to the farm, admittedly our first dog was (and still is) not of the typical farm stock.  This is because we brought our little Bichon Frise named Sophie with us from our condominium in Madison, where dog sizes had been restricted.  But despite her diminutive size and white, curly coat, Sophie has been determined to live up to farm standards, even if this proves demanding at times.  She takes watching for visitors very seriously, falls nose-over-tail in love with the lambs each spring, and is always there to comfort anyone who is feeling under the weather or injured—including the five little orphaned piglets living in our walk-out basement right now.  Everyone needs love, and that is Sophie’s specialty.

Still, there are just some tasks that are too big for a Bichon, however ambitious.  As Kara’s flock of sheep continued to grow, it became apparent that having an extra set of hands—or paws—would be a great asset.  Farm dogs come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and types, so finding just the right match for our farm became an adventure all of its own.  Border Collies are, or course, the most common choice for moving and managing sheep, but these black-and-white workaholics flourish best out in the open range or in the show-ring.  For them, some of the day-to-day of farm life can grow boring, resulting in unappreciated behaviors as the dogs try to occupy their busy minds and bodies.

There are other kinds of shepherding dogs, however, including the Australian Shepherd, which is taller, stocking, woollier (perhaps King was an Ausie) and originally bred to work cattle.  But what caught Kara’s fancy the most was an even older and rarer breed known as the English Shepherd.  While these multi-purpose dogs were once the breed of choice on farms across America, their popularity died away as more specialized dogs became common.  English Shepherds herd well, control vermin, guard (at least to some degree) and have an uncanny knowledge of where each group of livestock should be at any given time.  There are stories of English Shepherds discovering that their flock or herd has found a break in the fence-line.  After herding all the animals back through the hole, the dog will sit there, maintaining order, until the farmer comes to fix the fence.  Keeping the routine and everything orderly is their mission.

Today, most English Shepherds find occupations on cattle farms.  Breeders are very protective of their puppies and make certain that they are placed on working farms, where they will be able to apply themselves in the environment they were meant to inhabit, instead of cooped up in apartments.  Kara had to complete a rigorous paperwork and interview process in order to bring home our little English Shepherd, picked especially for us because of her petite size and soft mouth—traits deemed better for managing sheep than cattle.  In fact, she was so much smaller than her boisterous littermates that the breeder’s daughter named her Thumbelina.

Now, when you’re trying to snag the attention of our working farm dog across the expanse of the pasture, hollering “Thumbelina!” is not the most efficient.  That and shortening the name to Thumba projects poorly and sounds a bit like “come,” so we opted for calling her Lena.  A tri-color (black, white, and brown), Lena is sleek, fast, and eager to please.  As she matured, Lena delighted in learning her duties alongside us, which she deemed to also include picking raspberries and digging potatoes (claws and teeth work just find when you aren’t equipped with hands), as well as following the sheep back to the barn and hunting voles in the garden.

Lena’s propensity for maintaining order and organization on the farm manifests in frantic barking when a pig gets loose (those pigs still do not know how to be herded, despite valiant canine efforts), bumping the meat chickens with her nose when they fail to walk briskly as we move the chicken tractors, and a particular incident last autumn with turkeys.  Now, to Lena, it seems that a turkey is a turkey is a turkey.  We were relaxing in our living room, which overlooks the garden and parts of the barnyard.  At that time of year, my heritage turkeys live in a coop to the west, where they have their own run (yard) to stretch their legs and catch bugs amongst the grass.  But with the series of mild winters the area has been experiencing, wild turkeys have become more common to sight pecking along roadways and trundling through the edge of the woods.  On this day, a group of about five were trotting down our lane.

At the sight of movement, Lena perked up, began quivering, then commenced barking and jumping up and down.

“Lena!” I chided.  “Those are wild turkeys.  They’re not hurting anybody.”

But that didn’t matter.  Turkeys are turkeys are turkeys, and they go in the coop to the west, not out by the garden!  Lena barked some more, franticly pacing from window to glass door.  Wild or not, turkeys needed to go IN THE COOP, and this crew was headed the WRONG WAY!  Oh my goodness, was it a commotion…until finally those silly turkeys disappeared amidst the trees to the east.

That evening, during chores, Lena still had to check the spot where she had seen them and check the Jersey Buffs back at the coop to make certain that everyone was still in their proper place.  It did not matter that the domestic turkeys were cinnamon colored, while the wild ones were almost black—turkeys had to stay where turkeys were supposed to be!

Yet above all the animals in her care, Lena loves her people.  Once we opened Farmstead Creamery & Café, Lena accepted this space as her territory as well.  While she cannot come inside, Lena is happy to relax by the porch, watching our celebrity chickens Wooster and Clementine and enjoying the curious children (and adults) who come to pet her.  She also takes it as her special duty to announce the arrival of each morning’s first clients and keep track of all the comings and goings.

From companion to watch dog, from herder to greeter, Lena is part of a lineage of forever true farm dogs that shows just how special the human-animal working relationship can be.  Maybe you’ve already met Lena or have your own special memories of farm dogs past and present, but she’ll probably announce your arrival or give you a tail-swirling escort if we see you down at the farm sometime.

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


Barn Quilts

You may have seen them in Iowa.  You may have seen them out on the prairie.  And if you make it down to the farm, you’ll see them right here in Sawyer County!  These precision-painted pieces adorning agricultural structures are known as “barn quilts,” and they are growing in popularity—both for the farmers who own the structures and for the public who travels to see them.

Often when we think of quilts, what comes to mind are intricately patterned fabrics lovingly stitched in geometric designs on Grandmother’s bed.  Every piece tells a story and ever stitch is filled with time, care, and love.  Barn quilts also require a fine sense of detail and historicity, but the mediums are different—plywood and paint instead of fabric and thread.  But just as comforting quilts have a rich past, so too does the barn quilt.

The first use of barn quilts dates approximately 300 years ago in Pennsylvania amidst Dutch settlements.  At this time, paint was expensive, so barns typically went unpainted—weathering to a natural gray.  Artistic inclinations have a way of sprouting forth despite all obstacles, and color found a way to distinguish barns by the addition of painted quilt squares in prominent locations on the barn’s exterior.  One of the definitions of art is “to make special,” and barn quilts served exactly that purpose during these colonial years.  Their popularity made it customary to give directions by using the names of the quilt squares on individual barns.  

“Once you reach snail’s trail, keep to the right until you see the drunkard’s path.  Then you’ll have reached the Mason farm.”

Like Old Time fiddle tunes, each quilt block has a unique name that refers to its history, creation, or the imaginative nature of its initial maker.  And, not unlike fiddle tunes, while many blocks may appear similar to the casual eye, careful study will show interesting variations and new twists on basic shapes like triangles, rectangles, and squares.  The patterns used in quilting are inseparable from the physics of piecing bits of fabric together to form a coherent whole that still lays flat when finished, and barn quilt patterns keep to these traditional boundaries, including using established block names.

My Aunt Jana (who grew up on the prairie in Nebraska) has a particular fondness for barn quilts—emailing me pictures of her latest finds.  And when, as an inter-generational family project, we decided to create our own barn quilt, it was the name that inspired the final pattern choice.  Since 1968, when my grandparents purchased the homestead from the Fullington family, this place has always been called “North Star,” which influenced the farm’s official name as North Star Homestead.  When Jana discovered that there was a North Star quilt block, it seemed like a perfect fit.

The North Star block has a significant history shrouded in a lingering sense of mystery.  Before the Civil War decided America’s official opinion on the issue of slavery, tens if not hundreds of thousands of African Americans were ushered to freedom in the northern states and Canada by way of the Underground Railroad.  This was not a real railroad with steam engines or tracks, but a path taken by night with “Safe Houses” along the way to hide the fugitives on their treacherous journey north.  A complex and extremely secret code system for helping slaves escape included the use of quilts.  A widely recognized theory tells that women would hang a quilt bearing the North Star block on the front porch to help the runaways know that they had reached a Safe House.

The age of the Underground Railroad came at about the same time that paint became cheap, and barns were seldom left to weather into silvery gray anymore.  A particular shade of red, as well as a crisp white, happened to be the most economical, and they subsequently coated many a barn across the country.  With the coming of cheap paints and the rise of the advertising industry, it became popular among some farmers to sport advertisements (in exchange for monetary compensation) on the sides of their painted barns, rather than the antiquated barn quilts.

But just as fashions have their cycles, so too did the beautiful barn quilts.  But this time, instead of originating in New England, the resurgence of barn quilts came from the American Heartland—the Great Planes states, Iowa, and other parts of the Midwest.  Many counties in Wisconsin now have maps for taking barn quilt tours, and new barn quilts can be seen on our rolling country lanes every year.  While the early pieces distinguished families making a new start in a New World, today’s quilts honor the efforts of women in agriculture throughout history as well as today.  Grandmother’s quilts may have worn to tatters, but the memory of her loving hands endures.

Painting a barn quilt is a unique challenge.  These pieces are quite large—typically eight feet square.  Lines must be very straight and precise, the pattern well proportioned and bold, and completion requires many coats of paint to achieve a rich and solid saturation of color.  The next major challenge is getting this large piece up onto the face of the barn.  Often, this is done with the assistance of a cherry picker, but when our North Star block was ready for hanging, we were not so lucky as to have such a machine handy.  Instead, our friend and contractor Jon Sorensen erected scaffolding in front of the barn, fastened a pulley just below the roof, and screwed metal straps to the top of the barn quilt.  A sturdy rope was tied to the quilt, threaded up through the pulley, and then affixed to the back of our trusty farm ATV.  It was precarious and nerve-wracking, especially with all those tedious coats of paint at risk of being scuffed, but we were ready.

Jon, his son Kyle, and my sister Kara supported the quilt between the barn and the scaffolding and gave my mother and me the “all clear.”  We inched the ATV forward a little…then a little more…then a little bit more…as we watched the quilt ease its way up and up and up.  Kyle and Kara crawled like squirrels amidst the scaffolding, and Jon was ready with his power drill to secure the barn quilt in place once we reached the top.  Everyone breathed deeply and shook their hands free of tension after all was safe.

The quilt changed our historic 1919 barn completely.  For several weeks after the barn quilt’s installation, it would catch my eye during chores, like when a lady dramatically changes her hair color.  I love to watch the morning sun glisten off the dew on the barn quilt’s face or the mid-day shadows shift like a sun dial over its points, cast from the peak in the barn roof.  Our many farm visitors love seeing the barn quilt and learning about its story, meaning, and creation.

When we built Farmstead Creamery & Café, styled after the silhouette and flavor of our barn, we knew that there would have to be another barn quilt—this time a three-quarter sized version.  It was mid-winter when we painted the piece, so it was much too cold to paint outside or in the barn.  I was holding a brush for some final touchups in the farmhouse dining room when Grandpa called.

“What’s going on up there at the farm?”

“Well, right now I’m painting the barn quilt.”

“That’s great, where are you painting?”

Long pause.

“Well, do you really want to know…” I finally asked.

Another long pause.

“Maybe some things are better just left unsaid,” he replied

We both laughed.

“Just tell Grandma that there are lots of sheets and blankets everywhere.”

Did I mention something about art springing forth despite adversity?  This week, as you drive some meandering country lanes, watch for barn quilts, learn their stories, and enjoy this bit of farming heritage.  See you down at the farm sometime.

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


Donkey on Duty

Living in the Northwoods within the boundaries of the Chequamegon National Forest offers glimpses of a plethora of wild fauna.  From the elegant sandhill cranes that nest in our fields to the portly beaver trying to dam up the creek, from the tiniest ruby-throated hummingbird to the specked white-tailed fawn, wildlife abounds.  But there are certain types of wildlife that can make a farmer nervous, including foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars, and other roaming creatures that would be happy to have lamb-on-the-hoof for dinner.

Now, I enjoy all the types of wildlife and don’t mind having wolves in the woods…they can have all the cotton-tail rabbits they want!  But I’m not in the business of raising their dinners for them.  Sorry folks, lamb is not on the menu for the wild canines tonight.  So, the question then is how to create boundaries that are humane for both domestic and wild animals yet keep the sheep safe from predation.

We do, of course, have a rigorous system of electric fences, with high tensile perimeters and Electronet mesh fences for individual, movable paddocks for rotational grazing.  But having a second line of defense is always the best strategy.

There are many traditional methods for protecting sheep in the pasture.  An integral part of the nomadic, pastoral lifestyle was to keep personal watch over the sheep, with a wooden flute to pass the time and a herding dog for company.  While this does sound rather relaxing, I’m afraid that the demands of keeping the farm and the new Creamery & Café running leave little room for lounging with the sheep all day. 

If a human is not available for guarding, then there are a variety of animals that can be of service to the flock.  A favored choice is guard dogs, especially the Great Pyrenees, with its thick, white, mop-like coat.  These hip-high dogs live with the flock full-time and look remarkably like the sheep themselves!  But, when defending against wolves, more than one dog is required.  Wolves are wily enough to send a scout at one end of the field to distract the guard dog, while the other members of the pack attack the sheep from the opposite side.  At least three, if not more, guard dogs must be on the lookout for their flock.  One of the problems with this model, however, is that recent genetic decoding proves that all dogs are direct descendents of wolves.  The instinct to herd and guard is only a thin veneer away from the instinct to hunt, and we have heard some terrible stories about guard dogs turning on the sheep—ensuing in a heartbreaking and bloody mess.

What about other four-legged creatures?  Another option is llamas, which stand tall above the sheep and keep watch, as well as spit and stomp.  Llamas are known for their character edge (as well as lovely fleeces) and serve diligently for smaller predators like foxes and coyotes.  But a Vermont sheep farm where Kara interned found that the llamas did not stand up to a pack of wolves—retreating to the barn and leaving the sheep to their fate.  Wolves prove a formidable foe!

This brings us to the animal that became the protectorate of choice on our farm—a donkey.  Donkeys are tall, like the llamas, and come with radar-big ears and alert eyes.  With strong teeth and hooves for stomping, kicking, biting, and throwing, they face their natural predators with a ferocity that proves their adeptness at surviving in rugged, desert landscapes.  There is even a YouTube video of a donkey “kicking ass” against a cougar!  The donkey’s tremendous bray also alerts predators of its presence and alerts us of impending dangers.

Not all donkeys are created equal, however.  For guarding purposes, it is important to have a standard-sized donkey.  While miniature donkeys are as adorable as Eeyore, they do not have enough strength and size to defend against predators, and the ride-able mammoth donkeys are too big and slow for the job.  About the size of a horse, standard donkeys are agile and formidable.  Alongside size, however, the next important trait is character.  A petting-zoo caliber of donkey is unlikely to turn suddenly battle-fierce, whereas donkeys who are wild rescues (or close to those roots) have learned what it takes to stay alive.  And wild donkeys, by nature, are the standard size.

Our guard donkey Belle came into our lives quite serendipitously.  We had just decided that a donkey was the right match for our farm and were voicing this idea to the folks at the feedmill, when someone spoke up, “I just might know someone who has a donkey looking for a home!,” jotted down a phone number, and suggested we try giving these folks a ring.  Just the other day, they had been at the shop and mentioned the donkey.  It turned out that this family had a donkey after all, as well as a few horses, and were in the process of moving to a new location, where the donkey would not be able to join them.

Belle was known for her feisty personally.  Even the ferrier, who trims her hooves several times a year, will remark at how she bucked and resisted his care as a teenager.  I think they call it stubborn, but the trait may also be attributed to her wild-rescue parents.  Either way, coming to our farm was like coming to donkey spa, with lots of space to run around as her paddock followed that of the sheep.  Because she is the only equine on the farm, Belle adopted the sheep as her clan—braying as each new lamb is born and taking her job of guarding seriously.  Nothing bothers Belle worse than when she cannot see her sheep—that and the threat of predators.

My personal theory is that donkeys attained their name from their bray, which when you really listen sounds much more like DON-key, DON-key, than hee-haw.  While the words stay the same, Belle has shown us that there are different brays for different circumstances.  There is a bray for “I’m hungry, will ANYBODY feed me?”  There is another for “HELLO!  Someone is driving their ATV around the edge of the field and I can SEE them!”  And there is yet another one, all to its own, which means, “DANGER, there are PREDATORS!!!”

The last proved its worth one evening when Belle sounded her alarm call.  Apparently, the sheep knew that all the bellering was to warn of an impending attack and flocked tightly together in fear.  We dropped whatever it was we were doing in the garden and rushed out to the field to let the sheep into the barn, managing to just get Belle in as well as a wolf circled the edge of the perimeter fence, looking for a way in.  It was a close encounter!  Subsequently, the wolf tracks have moved from running right past our back door to diverting around the farm altogether—evidence that this natural, harmonious way to set boundaries with the local wildlife is working.

So, next time you’re over for a visit, I’m sure we’ll have our donkey on duty, and she’ll probably proclaim an audible announcement of your arrival.  She’s out there working to keep everything in order, just like the rest of us.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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


Eating Foods with Character

I know, I know, I know from working at the Cable farmer’s market since 2001 that you are on a hunt for the perfect tomato.  Red, round, shiny…and without one single blemish.  We’ve been taught from our years of shopping at grocery stores that perfect food is what we should desire and expect.  But our experience of local foods can be so much more!

If you’ve ever kept your own garden, then you will know that raising such uniform, non-blemished foods comparable to what is in the commercial market is neither easy nor reasonable.  Sometimes cucumbers get a curl at the end (due to the lack of full pollination), or a vole took a bite out of your zucchini, or your tomato has a little sun scorch on the top.  These are all simply natural parts of keeping a garden in harmony with nature, where pests are not systematically and chemically obliterated or crops drip-fed a slurry of hollow nutrients manufactured in a former ammunitions plant.  I mention the latter because the rise in NPK (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus) fertilizers came after WWII, when the manufacturers of bombs for the war effort found that their same ingredients could be turned into spreadable formulas for agribusiness.  A little scary?

So, let’s turn around the idea of eating perfect food to eating foods with character.  I like the thought of “character” because it implies a uniqueness—a definitive sense of place, heritage, and direct link with the people who grew it.  Foods with character have a story, are often heirloom and ancient varieties, and are less common and more delightful to discover than commercially grown stock.  Here are a few key thoughts for embracing foods with character.

Flavor.  Sometimes, the more interesting heirloom tomatoes are as ugly as sin, but what hides beneath that purple-green sheath with its lumps and lopsided bumps is absolutely exquisite.  When browsing at the farmer’s market, ask your farmer what the different varieties are and what they taste like.  Sometimes there may even be samples available.  While we have all been trained to shop for the eye-candy food, the real reward of eating foods with character is their robust, luscious flavor.  The first thing that often happens to roses when they are hybrid for longer stems or better shipping qualities is that they lose their pungent fragrance (ever smelled a wild rose?).  Likewise, often the first sacrifice in selecting foods for better uniformity and packability is the loss in flavor.  Learn to embrace foods that look a little different on the outside in exchange for discovering something truly magical on the inside.

ColorEat more color is one of the best things any of us can do for our health—and by that I don’t mean eat more foods with fake coloring in them.  When embarking on purchasing Swiss Chard, choose a rainbow chard with stems that are yellow, purple, red, and green, instead of the traditional ones with white stems.  Adding more color to your plate is not only visually pleasing, but the properties of those colors often carry cancer-fighting elements or important vitamins for healthy nutrition.  Choose foods rich in color, like beets (and be sure to lightly steam and eat the greens too!), carrots, and eggplants.  Why worry if that carrot lists a bit to one side; it probably had to grow around a rock in the soil.  It will still taste just as sweet and crunchy as its straighter bunch companions.

Heirlooms.  Now, I do agree that sometimes in northern climates, you have to raise hybrids.  But the more we can support heirloom varieties (heirlooms being strains of crop that have been cultivated for a very long time), the more biodiversity we are encouraging for the planet as a whole.  If only one type of green pepper was raised everywhere in this country because it always produced a perfect green pepper, what would happen if a blight specific to that variety struck?  Supporting biodiversity by purchasing heirloom varieties of foods is an essential “voting with your dollar” practice worth embracing.  Besides, each one offers a unique eating experience.

In the world of livestock, heirlooms are called “heritage breeds.”  I raise a heritage breed of turkeys called Jersey Buff, which are cinnamon colored.  Sleeker than a traditional Giant White turkey, they dress out smaller than and not as broad-breasted as their standard alternative.  While a Giant White turkey offers that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving presentation, Jersey Buff turkeys pasture much better, have significantly fewer leg troubles, and offer a wonderfully rich flavor and texture.  There are also amazing varieties of heritage chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and so much more!  Why stick with an agribusiness standard when so many exciting choices abound?

If your mouth isn’t watering yet for a flavorful, colorful, heirloom food with character, here is a recipe to set you on the hunt—not for the perfect tomato, but for an experience all of its own.

Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta

6 meaty tomatoes, preferably a mix of red, yellow, and pink varieties, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup olive oil

2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar

¼ cup fresh basil, stems removed and chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

1 loaf crusty bread

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat broiler in the oven.  In a large bowl, combine the chopped tomatoes with the garlic, oil, vinegar, basil, salt and pepper.  Allow mixture to stand for 10 minutes.  Cut crusty bread into ¾ inch slices.  Arrange slices on a baking sheet in a single layer.  Broil 1 to 2 minutes or until slightly browned.  Divide tomato mixture on top of the bread slices and top each with some of the cheese.  Broil for 5 minutes or until the cheese melts.  Serve immediately.

So, grab your market basket, embrace a bit of curiosity, and try some new foods with character this week.  We’re still picking our heirloom tomatoes, so maybe I’ll see you down on the farm sometime.

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

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