North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Farming for the Future

Let’s be honest, the current commercial system for producing, packing, and shipping foods is not sustainable.  On average, our food travels more than 1,500 miles before it reaches our plates.  It is not a wonder that lettuce in the store sometimes looks exhausted; I would be too after such a trip!  Shipping American apples to South Africa to be waxed and then shipping them back again makes little sense, as does the odd fact that it is difficult to buy a good potato in Idaho because avid exporting to other states takes the crop away from the locals. 

However, neither do northerners have to succumb to a diet of dried venison and wild rice to make it through the winter (though both are very tasty!), with a steady dose of squashes as the only vegetable.  Already, many regional farmers are extending their growing season with hoop houses known as “high tunnels,” keeping frosts at bay from leafy greens, carrots, and other crops.  Good old fashioned root cellars and newer methods of storage help keep fresh crops longer into the cold months.  Good keepers like apples, cabbages, potatoes, onions, and carrots can be savored from local sources well into March. 

But there is yet another method that is finally coming into its own that offers year-round local crop production as well as an added bonus—fish!  This method is called aquaponics. 

Aquaponics is a merging of aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (raising plants in water).  With aquaculture, the problem lies in what to do with all the fish manure (called fish emulsion).  In hydroponics, the trouble stands in finding a nutrient source, which typically is a chemical fertilizer.  Aquaponics, as pioneered by Nelson and Pade Inc. of Montello, Wisconsin, embraces the idea that bringing the two practices together (in tandem with colonies of beneficial bacteria) eliminates the need for fertilizers while improving the conditions for the fish as well.

The fish (usually tilapia because they are a fresh water fish that grows quickly and enjoys warm water temperatures) swim happily in large tanks.  The water from these tanks then flows through a series of filters and smaller tanks where the beneficial bacterial convert the nutrients into forms that plants can access.  The plants live downstream in a network of floating Styrofoam rafts, plastic channels that the water flows through, or beds of clay pebbles with drip lines.  Each growing environment supports different types of plants—from fresh greens and herbs to tomatoes, broccoli or radishes.  These plants clean the water as it flows by, and the water is returned to the fish tanks.  Once the system is filled, it requires 10 times less water per pound of produce grown than traditional field production.

What, local, organically-grown produce in the Northwoods all year?  That is right!  As we constructed our Creamery and Café, we built one of these aquaponics units housed in a majestic greenhouse alongside.  Instead of 1,500 miles, your salad can travel just a few feet from greenhouse to table.  Now that sounds more sustainable!

The aquaponics system has been an especially interesting project for my mother Ann, whose experience as a family physician brings acute chemistry savvy to the project.  Yet between maintaining a sensitive balance of pH and nitrites, there are plenty of hilarious moments when the fish splash wildly, eager for their breakfast or joyous celebration as the first seeds pop out of their little growing cells.

Sometimes, we are asked why tilapia are chosen for aquaponics systems, and there are multiple reasons.  The plants people like to eat enjoy a certain water temperature for growing, which happens to be the same temperature that makes these fish happy.  Other fish species like walleye or salmon require colder temperatures, which inhibit plant growth.  Tilapia are a wonderful fish for eating, especially when they are grown in such a clean, disease-free environment and fed high quality feed (which is mostly vegetarian). 

In our system, the lofty greenhouse is filled with blue tanks, in different sizes and proportions, networked by PVC plumbing lines that took months to connect correctly.  All this blue and white is now graced with green as the first generation of eager plants enter the drama.  At the Café, you can now enjoy the first baby lettuce crop—so tender and flavorful—without any of the guilt of shipping it from far-off places.

Initiatives like aquaponics systems are part of developments in agriculture that embrace goals of enhancing local food security and diversity.  The security aspect is multifold, from growing greens in a bio-secure, soilless environment (free from contaminants like E-coli, which cold-blooded fish do not carry) to building stronger local networks should long-distance shipping no longer be possible.  These systems add diversity, in the form of clean, wholesome protein (fish) and a rich array of vegetables all year, free from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc. 

Our aquaponics system is a little world unto itself, snug in the greenhouse as the autumn winds howl outside.  Of course, the project did not start out this way, which was built mostly in late autumn and winter.  With our contractor Jon Sorensen of Venison Creek Construction, we assembled steel rafters on the concrete slab in hats and gloves, puffing steamily as we hauled each rafter into place and secured the parts together. 

The sides and ends were up, despite the instructions, and we were all set to put on the top covers…when it snowed.  Not just a little snow.  It was enough snow to keep the three of us digging for five hours straight, pushing and shoving the wet heaviness out the little back door.  That was more than enough of shoveling out the inside of the greenhouse!  It took a hearty crew of eight volunteers to hoist the top covers, which looked like great plastic sails.  Too gusty of a wind, and we might have found ourselves in the next county. 

At the time, it was hard to imagine that, only a year later, we would be growing optimistic little lettuces, ready for snipping and munching.  We hope to be able to offer some of the first tilapia for sale in November.

Because of the emphasis on bio-security (where the objective is to keep germs, pests, and other problems out of the system rather than trying to remedy the situation later), we cannot give tours of the facility.  Due to the transparency of the walls, though, it is easy to acquire an idea of the general workings of the operation from the outside, and we hope to develop a video tour for our website to give an “insider’s” feel. 

Systems like aquaponics, which are built to serve specific community food needs, are part of the future of sustainable farming.   This week, spend a little time learning how far your food has traveled, and see if there are ways to source your favorites closer to home.  Everyone’s efforts are an important part of preserving our beautiful environment, which has been so gracious in sustaining us with nourishment, shelter, and wonder.  And maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.

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

 
 

It's Pumpkin Time

The golden-orange orbs with gnarly, spiny caps are coming!  Soon they shall appear on porches, stair steps, decks, and sidewalks.  They come short and plump, tall and curious, or just plain round and ribbed—ready for autumnal festivities.

Europeans, however, were not introduced to pumpkins (or winter squash, tomatoes, potatoes, maize, sunflower seeds, and several other foods) until their arrival on the American continents.  While some of these crops were adopted readily, like corn, others were given a more hesitant welcome.  Pumpkins, for instance, were mistrusted by recent immigrant farmers well into the 1800’s, who deemed them fit for feeding pigs but not for humans.

My grandfather remembers raising pumpkins for the hogs down on his family’s farm in central Illinois.  When it was planting time, his dad would throw pumpkin seeds in the horse-drawn corn seeder amongst the yellow kernels.  Those pumpkin vines would crawl around amidst the corn stalks, and just before harvesting time, it was Grandpa’s job to wade through the dry cornfield and throw ripe pumpkins on the hay wagon to save up for winter hog feed.  The family, however, enjoyed their good old-fashioned pumpkin pie as well.

A lady once told me of an incident when she gave a pumpkin to a neighbor friend who had recently moved out to the country.  She offered the vegetable as a gift, telling the neighbor that it could be made into pumpkin pie.  The newcomer was delighted, saying how much she loved an autumn treat, but the pleasure turned awry when the gardener received a worried phone call.

“Ma’am, I think there is something wrong with the pumpkin you gave me.”

“Oh, what’s the matter?”

“Well, when I cut it open, it’s all stringy inside, and there are seeds.”

The neighbor had never fixed a pumpkin before and had supposed that the inside would naturally look like what comes from a can…time for a lesson in homestead cooking.

But pumpkins can be more than pie, bread, or other treats.  The tradition of carving vegetables dates to ancient times in Celtic countries, where the material of choice was large turnips set with small candles inside.  The glowing ghoulish faces added spark to the festivities that marked the coming of the dark time of the year.

If you have ever made a valiant attempt to carve out a turnip, however, you will know that a pumpkin is a breeze in comparison.  Saw around the stem in an arch big enough to fit your fist into, pull it off, scoop around with a sturdy spoon, hoist out the stringy center with seeds (that can be roasted, yum!), and what remains is a fragrant cavern surrounded by thick, sturdy flesh.

I love carving pumpkins.  Traditional faces still are fun, but even better is letting the imagination run free by carving dragons, headless horsemen, puppy dog faces, or arched-back cats.  Almost any idea can be carved into a pumpkin, with the holes acting like the pieces of stained glass in a window—it is a play between light and substance, form and sculpture. 

Curious to learn more about pumpkin carving?  I’ll be hosting a Master Class on October 27th at Farmstead Creamery & Café.  Give us a shout if you think that getting elbow-deep in pumpkin fun is your kind of adventure!  There will likely be some pumpkin treats at hand as well.

Pumpkins (or punkins, if you want to use a rural accent) have a way of getting around.  Perhaps this is because our pigs get to enjoy some of them, but invariably by midsummer, pumpkin vines are sprouting from unnoticed corners of the garden, out of the compost pile, or vining their way past the beehives.  Kelli, a former intern and farm groupie who often accompanies me at the farmer’s market, showed me a picture of a pumpkin vine growing in the middle of her driveway!

“I tried to hurl the half-rotten thing across the yard to the woods, but I missed.  It went splut right there, and this spring it decided to grow!”

With all this discussion of pumpkins, how about fixing some for supper!  Here is a recipe we shared with our CSA members and have been fixing at the Café.  A real pie pumpkin (like the variety Sugar Pie) will cook up much better than any carving kind.

Pie Pumpkin and Potato Gnocchi

(said “nockey,” these are little dumplings originally from Italy)

1 pie pumpkin (recipe takes 1 cup finished pumpkin)

1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

1 tsp salt                     

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

1 3/4 cup flour            

Sage leaves and butter

Prepare and bake pie pumpkin as you would any winter squash (cut in half, seeds removed, face down in a pan of water baked at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour). 

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring potatoes and enough water to cover to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes until potatoes are very tender.  Drain well. 

In a bowl using a potato masher, mash potatoes until very smooth.  Add 1 cup pumpkin, salt, nutmeg, and mash until blended.  Using a spoon, stir in flour until the dough almost holds together.  With your hands, gently press dough into a ball.  Divide in half. 

On a floured surface with floured hands, gently knead each ball into a smooth, soft dough.  Divide each into 6 pieces.  Roll each piece into a rope about 3/4 inch thick in diameter.  Cut rope crosswise into 1-inch pieces (gnocchi).  Place gnocchi in a lightly floured pan.  Repeat until all the dough is gnocchi. 

In a saucepan, over high heat, bring 4 quarts water to a boil.  Transfer gnocchi individually (using 1/3 of them per batch) to the boiling water.  As soon as they float, carefully remove with a slotted spoon.  Blot spoon with paper towel and place gnocchi on a platter.  Repeat.  Serve with melted butter infused with chopped sage.

Pumpkins are a wonderful way to add a bit of autumnal festiveness to your home or celebrations.  They won’t take up space in your closet; they are 100% compostable, gluten free, and vegan!   And if you happen to be looking for one more commendable aspect to a pumpkin, there just might be a hungry hog out there somewhere who would be willing to call it supper.  See you down at the farm sometime.

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

 
 

The Glory of Autumn

Folks are on the roads these days.  Up and down the twisting, winding rural ribbons of pavement—stopping, staring, wondering.  I know this because some of these folks have stopped in the café lately, their eyes glinting, their faces smiling.  The Northland is filled with the wondrous colors of autumn:  fiery reds, lilting yellows, the last of fading greens, and new burnt umbers.  Not long and the unspeakable mahoganies of oaks will appear, along with the lacy, highlighter-yellow fringes of tamaracks.

On the farm, the sugarbush is a rush of golden orange and red—a prefect time of year to tie bright ribbons around sturdy trunks to mark which trees are good for tapping in the spring.  It seems like it will be an age before the season of dripping maple sap into the bucket—thump, thump, thump.  But for now, the cold time of year is coming.  Time to wind down the garden and rake up all the fallen bits of leafy glory. 

Autumn is an important time on the homestead.  Back in the days of one-room school houses out on the edge of the prairie, classes were in session during the summer and winter months only.  Spring and autumn were so occupied with either planting or harvesting that every hand was out in the field or in the barn threshing, baling, storing away for the year.  The creaky cider press was hard at work, turning crunchy apples into an irresistible, frothy juice—cloudy as a witch’s brew, sweet and tangy at the same time.  Cider could be stopped up in barrels and fermented, which kept considerably longer in the pioneer days before refrigeration than whole apples could have hoped to manage.

Autumn chore time comes in stages.  The first is the “coat” stage, where the morning chill requires an extra layer on the arms and torso.  This is followed by the “hat” stage, which is usually accompanied by the transition from any old coat to a Carhart or hand-me-down (down) jacket.  Finally, the cold gets the best of us, and it’s the “glove” stage.  When temperatures really plummet, the gloves are switched for mittens, so the fingers can share some heat.  Either way, there still is an on-again, off-again relationship to gloves for autumn chores, with those tricky miss-matched latches on barn doors and chicken coops that just will not cooperate without the use of bare hands.  Yet, we manage somehow—shoving fingers in pockets or under arms to thaw their icy edges.

The sheep’s breath billows steamy in the mornings.  They look at me and baah, wondering where all the lush summer grass has gone.  Turkeys chase intrepid grasshoppers that make the bold mistake of leaping into the pen.  And the more complex animal watering systems sometimes find themselves froze solid in the morning.  Autumn truly is a transitional time on the farm—time for bringing the livestock in to winter quarters, and time for wrapping up the loose ends of projects you always meant to get to sometime…

While caring for the animals this afternoon, the sheer brilliance of autumn’s splendor surrounding the fields filled me with a renewed appreciation for the uniqueness of a northwoods farm setting.  The goldfinch-yellow popples quake and shimmer, highlighted against the steady green of red and white pines.  A grouse spooks by the tree-line, and something crunches through the underbrush—a deer emerges, glancing furtively before going her way.  Everyday life on a northwoods farm offers something new, and as Nature lets go of another season of growth and maturation, the farm is slowly stocked up and put to rest for another year.

The squirrels know.  They dash about, always in a hurry, snatching everything and anything to literally “squirrel” away for winter.  There is a particular fellow who sits on a fence post by the barn—his presence is attested by the pile of pinecone tidbits on the ground below.  Sometimes he will be perched there, gnawing away, as I pass through the gate.  We look at each other, teasingly, and play a little at pretend chasing.  But none of these antics are in earnest because the real chase we make this time of year is with time.

The day length is the most dramatic change in autumn for farmers.  In high summer, there is light enough to start chores early and work until 10:30 or 11:00 in the evening before the dew settles in and enough is enough.  Lately, the evening encroaches near 7:00, with the fingers of dusk creeping earlier and earlier each night.  Daylight comes at a lazy 6:30 or so.  The last days of farmer’s market are packed up in the dark (and sometimes in a little snow!).  There no longer seems enough time in the day to take care of all the homestead’s growing needs—and there certainly isn’t any time just laying around.

Some aspects of the days and nights growing colder are make-work on the farm, to the point where it feels like “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza”!  Now, I’ll admit to not being the biggest grease monkey on the farm before I embark on this story, but some days just have it in for you.  It was early, and having chores finished in a timely manner was important, but it was also cold.  Our trusty old ATV is hooked up to a small trailer with a water tanker that we can trundle around to the different animal abodes, making chores efficient—theoretically.  On this morning, first the battery was dead.  Ok, recharge the battery for a while.  Then I flooded the poor thing with the choke trying to get it started.  Wait a while for that to clear.  Finally, with some help, we got the ATV chugging away.  I filled up the tanker and started shuttling from hens to ducks to turkeys, balancing buckets of cracked feed smelling softly of molasses.

But it was on the way back from the turkeys that life really got rough.  Coming down a small hill, I heard a clunk.  Just the day before, Grandpa had taken the wheels off the trailer to give them a good greasing (they had been squeaking like the squirrel was trapped inside!), but the original cotter keys had broke.  He had replaced that with a bit of wire, and I was good to go, maybe. 

At that moment on the hill, one of those wires broke too, and the drag that ensued was pretty intense.  I pulled the brakes to a stop as one of the trailer wheels rolled on by all of its own.  Looking back, the axel was well buried in the dirt.  That was it, time to get off and just plain ol’ walk the rest of chores!  Enough was enough!  And, guess what, by morning when we could get back to the machine, the battery was dead from the cold.  Had we been here before?

Still, on this day, the wondrous color of nature’s autumnal gown washes away all the frustrations as she sheds her tiny solar panels—a great hurrah of accomplishment.  We live in a precious and beautiful place, full of magic and challenges, rhythms and surprises.  As you take some time this week to enjoy the glory of autumn, reconnect with how this transitional season still leaves its mark on our lives, whether this be through the automotive leaflooking trek or the hurried digging of the last potatoes.  And maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.

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

 

 
 

In Fear of Frost

As the day lengths shorten and the darkness grows, as the sun climbs a little less higher in the skies each day, and as the winds shift northwards with that extra bit of chill, farmers and gardeners shiver in fear of the encroaching phenomenon that marks the bitter ending of the lush summer growing season—frost!

On the farm, we call it the “F”-word.  Chilliness is one thing, as is a damp rainy day, but a frost is nothing to take lightly when tending over three acres of organic-style vegetable production.  Frosts damage produce and kill sensitive plants, leaving a once teaming garden limp, black, and in every respect little more than a bone yard.

Farmers know well the fine line between 33 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cranberry growers install temperature sensors to alert producers of encroaching freezes so that sprinkler systems can manually or automatically douse crops to keep away the damaging chill.  There have been many, many hand-numbing nights, covering by flashlight, when such a system sounded rather appealing!  Or, perhaps, some football stadium out there wouldn’t mind donating their old retractable dome to a farmer?  That way, with one button, I could cover the whole place!  …sounds like wishful thinking.

Well, if an adequate sprinkling system is not available, the next best line of defense against the frost is covering with fabric.  In our early farm days, we consigned sheets, blankets, bedspreads, afghans, towels, and anything else of that likeness we could muster into service.  Fabrics by the boxful would be hauled up from the farmhouse basement and trundled out to the rows of delicate produce, one sheet at a time.  Tedious is a mild way to describe this process. 

But the experience does not end here!  Oh no!  In the morning, once the frostiness melts, each blanket and sheet had to be laid out on clothes lines, on fences, on ropes strung between red pines and majestic maples.  Each piece by morning would be laden—no soaked—with dew (which meant that we became equally soaked) and nearly freezing cold.  Wearing gloves was almost hopeless, since they became so sopping that it was more of a hindrance than a help, so you just pressed on with blue-white hands that ached for hours afterwards.

Back in the days before we built Farmstead Creamery & Café, clients would drive past the garden on the way to pick up their CSA shares or other farm goods, notice all the frost covers draped over every available hanging surface, and ask, “Are you doing laundry today?”

But some advancements in technology are truly worthwhile.  One of these is a product called “Agribon,” which is lightweight, comes in long rolls, and can cover several garden bed widths at a time.  Cut the length of our rows, two people can completely cover 500 square feet in less than a minute—compared to an age of draping sheets and blankets down the length of the row.  Needless to say, we have become supreme fans of Agribon!

But what to do with all these now obsolete sheets and blankets (other than keeping a few around just in case!)?  Well, farmers are not in the habit of letting much of anything go to waste—waste not, want not.  This past year I finally finished restoring a grand-sized rag rug loom.  Weaving rag rugs has been a traditional way of giving old remnants, garments, and other unwanted fabrics a new and useful life.  Aha!  The good old washing machine has had quite a workout grinding through the multitude of colors and textures of former frost covers as I hand cut them into strips and weave them into artful yet functional rugs.

Agribon and rugs aside, there are just some parts of the garden that are too big to cover—places like the squash and pumpkin patch.  On our farm, squashes, pumpkins, sweet corn, and potatoes commonly follow the previous year’s pig pens.  Each season, these areas are uniquely shaped, heavily mulched, and farther from irrigation than our more managed, raised-bed produce areas.  To say that these hog-powered patches grow a little squash would be modest…exceedingly modest.

When this season’s “F”-word becomes unavoidably imminent, we bring out one of our hay wagons and park it by the patch.  Then commences what I have come to call “Easter Egg Hunting for Adults.”  Prickly and spiny stems and vines await, with broad leaves to disguise the precious squashes below—this is a job for gloves, long sleeves, and hearty souls. 

This year, my labors in the squash patch were accompanied by Gary, a vacationer and volunteer who was interested in learning more about our farming enterprise and willing to lend a hand.  We bobbed up and town, filling our arms with blue Confections, orange Hubbards, and green Buttercups.  We laughed at monstrous, warty gourds, hiding acorns, and curly-stemmed pumpkins.  Gary’s Santa Clausian beard brushed the tops of the plants as he reached for the next golden nugget hidden below.  “There’s more in here than I thought!”

“We must be making progress,” I offered cheerfully.  “I’m having to walk farther for each trip.”

We sorted the squashes into piles by type, though the piles soon began to mingle as the hay wagon became so loaded that one group spilled over into the next.  By evening, the patch was picked clean (or as clean as it was going to be at that point), and with the help of some strong volunteer backs, we managed to push the wagonload into a shed just as dark settled in for the night.

Yet despite the cold and the wet and the prickles, the flurry of work that precedes the first hard frost it still worth the effort.  There is something heartbreaking about finally letting the peppers and eggplants succumb to oblivion, or watching the tomatoes turn to translucent balls of mush.  And there is something particularly satisfying about tucking that load of squash into the shed and sneaking in weeks later to pick out a golden Butternut for supper.

Whether the fear of frost has reached your area yet this autumn or not, be warned that it is coming!  Store it away, cover it well, and hope for the best.  And, of course, take a moment to give thanks for the bounty summer has afforded each of us this year.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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


 
 
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