North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

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

Over the river and through the woods

To Grandmother’s house we go

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through the bright and drifting snow-oh

Over the river and through the woods

Oh how the wind does blow

It stings the nose and bites the toes

As over the ground we go.

This traditional Thanksgiving-time song would be present in my mind as we made the five hour drive north to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm in the Big Woods when I was a little kid.  I’d watch the tree-lined miles slip by with my nose pressed up against the glass car window, steaming up the pane.  The farm was a magical place to come for Thanksgiving dinner, which it still is even now that I live here full time.

Coming down to the farm has, historically, been a memorable part of Thanksgiving traditions for many families.  Why else would there be all the fuss over the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the golden winter squash with caramelized drizzle, the mashed potatoes with melting butter, the custardy pumpkin pie with Grandma’s famous crust, or the ruby-red cranberry sauce?  These are all bountiful parts of late autumn’s harvest on the farm—lovingly raised and lovingly prepared by family for family.

We’ve all heard the stories of the “original” Thanksgiving dinner.  But however true or fabled this national story is, the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today was established by Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War to give thanks for the preservation of the Union.  The reuniting of family (some of whom travel great distances) around the farm table is, in its own way, a celebration of the coming together of the disparate factions of our country.  If nothing else, at least we can be grateful for the harvest together.

And there is much to be grateful for this year.  In the Northland, the drought was not as severe as further downstate.  Our farm was spared any fires, tornadoes, or large hale.  We hope to have enough hay to get by.  The turkeys grew up healthy and vigorous, as did the lambs and piglets.  The garden is harvested and nearly all put to bed, and life is winding down towards its winter routines.  It’s a time for reflection on the growing season’s learning points, with plans beginning for the coming season’s preparations.

A good old fashioned agrarian Thanksgiving is not about football, or a parade, or a shopping frenzy—it is about giving the gift of time to each other.  Time to talk, share stories, and laugh; time to peel potatoes and pass the apple cider; and time to relax by the stone fireplace and read a book aloud or play a rousing game of Sorry or Backgammon.

There’s something about the smell of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, made by hand with farm-fresh ingredients.  It is amazing how much more flavorful a turkey can be when it spent its life on grass and was never injected with oil and salt.  The aromas of the baking stuffing with bread, celery, and herbed pork sausage can drive an imaginative and hungry child nearly crazy with anticipation—but of course, the wait always makes the difference.

The commercial food system has taught us not to wait for food anymore, that having to wait for our meal is somehow bad.  Why peel those potatoes you dug out of your garden when you can mix them up right out of this box?  Why boil and mash those cranberries from your neighbor down the road when you can just plop it out of this can?  Why even bake the turkey when you can have this plastic-encased rotisserie chicken instead?  Well, folks, have any of those pre-processed items actually made you feel better than the home-grown variety?

There is a reason they don’t.  They may be easier, but they are not fulfilling.  In many folk cultures, it is considered unwise to allow someone in a bad mood to fix a meal.  This is because that unhappy energy is believe to be transmitted to the food, which will not be physically, socially, or mentally nourishing for the people who eat it.  Why were Mother’s cookies hot and gooey out of the oven always the best?  Because, besides being full of chocolate chips, they were packed full of motherly love.  While this idea is not easily proved by science, experience can speak for itself.  I would take a homegrown turkey prepared by my grandmother over a rotisserie chicken any day! 

That poor rotisserie chicken was raised on a factory farm, butchered by a series of machines, and shipped a long distance before being roasted in a commercial oven somewhere in corporate America.  This is the processed food reality that we live in.  The chicken might never have seen a person, let alone felt love or care.  Something is missing on the ingredient list that we all need—nurturing attention. 

Getting back to foods infused with nurturing attention means reaching back and embracing traditional agrarian meals prepared the old fashioned way.  Michael Pollan, the author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” says, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”  This is certainly a great place to start when choosing what to eat.  I never did know my great grandmothers, but I suspect that they would have preferred their own garden, the local butcher shop, and the farmer’s market over the commercial food industry.

Small-scale, sustainably minded farmers have learned to focus their lifestyle on what really matters—doing the right thing for the land, their family, and their community.  And that is something to give thanks for this holiday.  Maybe you and your family can even take a moment this week to share your thanks with your farmer—they probably don’t hear it very often.

I don’t know what your Thanksgiving will be like this year, but I hope it is filled with the warmth, love, and care that surrounds the old farm dinner table.  I hope it is encircled by smiling friends and family, accompanied by the friendly waging tails of beloved pets.  Maybe you will even take a moment to go outside and enjoy this beautiful corner of earth we live upon.  And most of all, I hope that we shall all take this moment to give thanks, together.  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

 
 

Cutover Farms

Back when Wisconsin became the 30th state in the Union, its northern regions were the impenetrable Big Woods.  But once the horrible and bloody Civil War came to a close, scores of men who had been employed by the military were looking for something to do.  Some went West to fight in ongoing skirmishes with Native Americans, while others headed North to become Pinery Boys and Lumberjacks. 

Chicago had burnt to the ground, and timbers were needed to rebuild.  Towns all over where expanding into cities, industry was booming, and the towering White Pines were believed to be there for the taking.  The massive deforestation process left the land stark and barren, and it forever changed wildlife habitat and weather patterns for the region.

The timbering industry brought with it railroads, towns, mills, and saloons.  But the trees would not last forever.  Once an area was cleared, the camps moved on to new territory, leaving behind massive stumps in their wake.  Timber Barons no longer wanted this land, and much of it was granted or sold to immigration agencies.

When volunteering one summer for the Sawyer County Historical Society, I learned how these agencies tried to sell the cutover land.  Their target audience was farmers.  In the days before Photo Shop, the immigration agencies doctored black-and-white photographs of wheelbarrows stacked with monstrous potatoes or hay wagon loaded with gargantuan cabbages.  “Prime Farm Land,” they touted, “Seven Easy Steps for Pulling Out Stumps!”

But as new immigrant farmers soon discovered, there was nothing easy about pulling out those stumps.  The old farm saying, “Sometimes it’s easier to plow around the stumps” exists for a reason.  But most of those stumps came out—blasted by dynamite, dug with grubbing hoes, and ripped from the earth with teams of draft horses.  We still have some of the old boxes that held the dynamite used by the Fullingtons to clear the farm’s fields.

As late autumn has stripped the trees and shrubs of their leaves, you can still see the old torn-out stumps along the edge of the fields.  Most sprout healthy stands of silver birches.  Others stretch with gnarled, gray ridges alongside piles of stone that were cleared to ease the burden of farm machinery in the sandy soil.  These weathered remnants stand as sentinels to an era that once was but is long past.

Those first pioneering farmers came in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  E. P. Fullington, an elderly Civil War veteran originally from Vermont, came with his 20-year-old son Lloyd in 1906 to claim a piece of land along a tributary to Hay Creek.  Together, they pulled stumps, built the barn and log cabin, and gradually added more acreage to the homestead.  In 1968, when Lloyd sold the farm to my grandparents, he made them promise never to plant trees in those fields.  The memory of the tremendous effort to clear the land so many years ago was still fresh and present in his heart.

Another wave of farmers came to the Northland during the Great Depression.  One gentleman who has stopped at our Creamery told of how his grandparents had homesteaded the farm down the road a piece from us in the 1930’s.  They had been living in Chicago but were concerned that the Depression would leave them starving, so they headed north in their half-broken-down Ford as far up as they dared and began clearing the land.  At least, out in the countryside, they could do their best to grow their own food.

But the soils of the region were not the best suited for agriculture.  Between the glaciers and the reckless deforestation process, the topsoil was thin and fragile.  Rocks and sand did not hold moisture well, and traditional tillage practices were better suited to lands Downstate.  Once the Great Depression had passed, many of the farm children moved into town and found new occupations. 

Instead of encouraging farming, government agencies began to actively discourage it in favor of moving the region towards resorts and recreation projects.  CCC camp workers replanted most of the forests, and as the old homesteads began to sell off, most were converted to pine plantations.  There is a general saying for the area that each pine plantation is likely to have once been someone’s farm.

But difficult soils are not impossible, and some of the old cutover farms, like ours, are still here.  Rigorous composting and low-tillage methods work best to regenerate soil, as do rotational grazing practices for livestock.  Farming in the Northland might not have been extremely successful, but it is still an important part of the region’s heritage to preserve and celebrate.  Unfortunately, Sawyer County projects a continued loss of land zoned for agriculture in the next 10 to 20 years.  For those who care about fostering local farming, this expectation is a great tragedy.

Daily life and the region’s landscape looked very different during the height of cutover farms.  Little 20, 40 or 80 acre homesteads lined the old rutted roadways.  Most were of the self-sustaining sort—growing a little bit of everything to get by.  They had a few pigs, some milk cows, a handful of chickens, and a back garden.  Some folks grew potatoes as a cash crop, or onions, or cabbages.  The sandy soil worked well for root crops, if you could keep the potato beetles at bay.  Families traded goods and services, and in the early days some of the men worked in logging camps during the winter and farmed in the summer.  Most folks walked or rode horses to wherever they needed to go.  Town could be a pretty rough place, influenced by lumber barons and the railway lines.

It was a hardscrabble place, but generally folks helped each other through the hard times, with barn raisings and quilting bees.  When the Fullington’s log cabin burnt down by accident, the community held a fundraising social to get the family back on their feet.  It was in the midst of WWII and supplies were scarce, but they built a new frame home as best they could.  All that had been saved from the fire were some important papers and Wilma’s sewing machine (minus one drawer, which fell out as she ran from the burning house).  Even after tragedy, farm families picked up the pieces and kept going.

As our society continues to muddle through difficult economic times, it is heartening to share the stories and experiences of the original homesteaders of the region who faced so many difficulties for starting a new life on the cutover.  Even when obstacles seem taxing, at least we don’t have to rise up each morning to pull more stumps!  This week, take some time to learn the stories of cutover farms in your area, even if all that remains are the foundations of homes and barns, grown up in trees and briars.  That homesteading spirit and value of community still survives amongst the brave few who continue to work the land with nurturing hands.  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

 

 
 

A Time for Turkeys

The time is nearing for a quintessential American tradition—eating turkey in November.  There is the fuss over the stuffing, the sauces, the mashed potatoes and the pumpkin pie, but the turkey always remains the centerpiece.  Why turkey?  Why not the medieval peacock, skinned, baked, and redressed in its jeweled plumage?  Why not a roast boar with an apple in its mouth?  Why not leg of lamb, studded with garlic and rosemary?

Traditions can be fickle things, but traditions rooted in agrarian rhythms usually stem from something practical.  Lamb has been customary fare for Easter time, harking from an age when lambs were born in mid-winter and weaning was a time to decide which lambs would be kept to enhance breeding stock and which would serve as table fare.  Such is the same reasoning behind “suckling pig,” for once a piglet is transitioned to solid foods, there has to be enough to go around.  If a family would have provisions for only five pigs from a litter of seven, then two would be eaten at weaning—allowing the litter’s siblings to thrive on what was available instead of compromising them all through a shortage of resources.

While chickens were present in medieval Europe, turkeys are native only to North America.  It is not surprising that they became associated with distinctly American holidays.  Turkey poults (chicks) are typically born in springtime, and by late autumn they have matured through their gangly teenage stage into a comfortable body size without being as tough or chewy as older adults—a perfect stage for roasting.

That is why, this week, our family is out in the cold, plucking turkeys with our freezing little fingers.  It’s all part of the process of having farm-fresh, heritage turkeys ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

Butchering isn’t fun.  I don’t think I have met a farmer who particularly enjoys butchering.  Often, it is a sad and sobering affair.  But most folks who don’t give up after the second or third year of processing their own domestic meats hold a respectful appreciation for this part of the agrarian cycle.  If every chicken, turkey, duck, lamb, calf or piglet ever born had survived to old age, there wouldn’t be one speck of vegetation or bit of untamed land left!  If people are going to be omnivores, then butchering is part of the process—but it can be a respectful part.

It starts with the animals.  In CAFOs (Confinement Animal Feeding Operations), breeds are selected for very specific traits—fast growth, heavy muscling, and tolerance of overcrowding.  Genetic engineering is now producing piglets that are perpetually depressed and show little resistance to being trapped in small metal pens all their lives.  Turkeys or chickens who resort to cannibalistic behaviors due to overcrowding have most of their upper beak removed (a cruel process known as “debeaking”).

On many small farms, however, heritage breeds of animals that carry a wide array of bio-diversity and foraging traits still thrive.  They have room to move freely, explore their environment, have plenty of fresh air, and express their innate animal-ness.  Ewes may be selected for excellent mothering instinct and easy births, chickens for winter heartiness and beautiful coloring, hogs for gentle manners and excellent body type, and turkeys for lustrous plumage and pasturing abilities.

The Giant Whites of the turkey industry have one motive—eating.  Their full-time occupation is stuffing their faces as much as possible in order to grow the enormous breast meat that the turkey industry covets.  The poor things hobble about, top heavy with a wide gate, and though they are impressively fast-growing, they are equally lacking in common sense—even for turkeys.  They are poor foragers, have fragile health (especially as poults), and are prone to drowning in thunderstorms.  It is not a wonder that most commercial turkeys are raised indoors in controlled environments.

In contrast, while my heritage breed Jersey Buff turkeys grow slower and dress out with a slender shape, they are refreshingly easier to tend because they are hearty, curious, and tenacious.  These cinnamon-colored birds with long, knobby necks scratch and peck, strut and dance, or fly up onto high roosts—a considerable contrast to the blobby obliqueness of their commercial white counterparts.  Heritage turkeys are able to fully express their turkey-ness, with their luminous dinosaur eyes and eager “Gap-Gap” speech.

Heritage turkeys are also gentler on the land—consuming less grain and more grass in their diet.  Their meat also has unparalleled flavor and texture.  Many of our turkey clients have commented on the deliciousness of our Jersey Buffs in comparison with the meat from commercial breeds.

Choosing breeds responsibly impacts the life experience of the domestic animal.  Their living conditions and care are equally important.  Because I choose to be an omnivore, I also choose to create a nurturing, positive environment for my livestock.  Genetically engineered depression doesn’t sound like a fulfilling meal.  I want my supper to have had a wonderful life with only one bad day (one bad moment, really).  I wouldn’t mind going through life with only one bad day!

And then there is the end-of-life ceremony as well.  I won’t get into the more-or-less gory details, but today’s homestead poultry butchering can be very clean, swift, and respectful.  An example is shown on Joel Salatin’s farm in the documentary “Food Inc.”  We regularly invite our poultry clients to view the butchering process, which surprises them by being more intriguing than revolting.  Often, the cameras come out, clicking away to document the process.  There is no screaming, no headless running, no trauma.  On our farm, we believe that transparency is important for building meaningful relationships with the people who choose our food, which is why we invite such interactions, even during such a physically demanding operation. 

Butchering isn’t something to hide in the corner and forget.  Respecting the process and life of the animals are part of being an honorable omnivore.  Shunning this facet of agrarianism only leaves us vulnerable to disrespectful and un-transparent situations.  In essence, know the animals, know the farmer, know the process—at least enough to make an informed decision as to whether this is the right choice, ethically, for you and your family.

So, returning to the original question, why turkeys?  Eating turkey in November is a way to reduce livestock populations to select breeding groups for overwintering (the hardest time of year, traditionally, to feed large numbers of animals).  Turkeys are also well equipped to supply a larger gathering of family with nourishment on short notice.  They are easier to process than red meats but larger than chickens.  Turkey Toms also show a stunning display—not unlike peacocks—which adds its own sense of regality to the dining affair.  Roast turkey, surely, is a handsome feast.

This November, as you gather with family and kin, take some time to remember the life behind your meal and offer thanks to those who tended it.  I’m off to feed the turkeys.  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

 

 
 

All Hallows Evening

The ancient holidays follow the rhythms of agrarian life—of planting and harvesting, sewing and reaping.  In the age of the Celts, Samhain (said SAH-win, meaning “summer’s end”) was a special time for celebration.  It marked the final season of harvest and the time for preparedness against the oncoming winter months.  But it also held strong ties to magic and mystery, which linger yet today.

The Celtic peoples, who at one time ruled most of Europe, held beliefs that are remarkably similar to some of the theories being posed by quantum physics.  Simmering down the mind-stretching twists of quantum physics offers this nugget:  life exists in multiple layers of reality that can occupy the same space without interacting except at pivotal moments of collision between “planes.”  A collision of planes is one theory offered for the beginning of “The Big Bang.”  To the Celts, this phenomenon happened quite regularly, though in a much more mundane fashion.  When the two layers of existence touched, people could comingle with magic of the “Otherworld.”

Unlike the Greek “Underworld,” where the dead reside, the Otherworld is filled with magical beings, both human-like and non-human.  From this realm come the treasure trove of stories of the faerie (in Ireland, they are called the “shee”)—elves, sprites, trolls, gnomes, and many more.  To the ancient Celts, Samhain marked the time of year when the veil separating the two worlds grew thin, and the faerie might walk upon the earth equally with mankind.  It was a dangerous time for those uninitiated in the ways of the shee, who might beguile mortals into entrapment in the Otherworld for seven years or more. 

As Christianity spread through Europe, the magical peoples of the Celtic world became increasingly demonized, and the thought of having goblins and gremlins walking the earth in the lengthening dark grew to terrifying proportions in folk culture.  Priestesses of the Goddess were deemed wicked witches, and hair-raising tales were told of their magical potions and devilish spells.  Added to that were superstitions about black cats, ghosts, and other ghoulish creatures.  Samhain was no longer a turning of one year to the next for, as it had been for the Celts—it was a time of bewitching and spookish pranks like the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

Supplanting the ancient Samhain rights, medieval Catholicism offered celebratory alternatives.  Celtic holidays always spanned three days, so overthrowing the Celtic New Year took a bit of extra effort.  November first became “All Saint’s Day,” in honor of both patron saints and worthy martyrs, and November second became “All Soul’s Day,” in honor of those who had departed.  But still, the magic of the last day of October pulled at the memories of folk culture, especially in the British Isles.

The Christian calendar is heavily based on the Roman system, which puts the New Year in the middle of wintertime.  Equally so, the Roman day starts in the middle of the night.  The Celts had a different opinion about when things started and ended, with the end of the year at the end of summer and the end of the day at sunset.  Therefore, to properly celebrate a holiday beginning November first, the festivities commenced on what the Romans called the evening before.  Since All Soul’s Day was also called “All Hallows,” the night before was “All Hallows Evening.”  This can be shortened to “All Hallows E’en” (think British accent)—Halloween.

Now, if you were the sort of person who believed in spirits and lived in the rural English countryside with few good roads, no electrical lighting, and only your old gray mare to ride home in the gloaming (dusk), a few spooky sounds in the gathering mist might well spark your imagination.  So, at some point in the history of Halloween, a tradition developed to outwit the lurking demons.  If mere mortals disguised themselves as witches or fairies or spirits, then perhaps they could fool the real ones.  Keep in mind, this was still very much a holiday for adults, with undertones of real danger.  Bonfires were lit on hilltops in an effort to keep ill wishes and presences at bay.  It also happened to be a convenient way to dispose of Black Death victims—the original word being “bone-fire.”

On All Soul’s Day, it became a traditional practice for groups of folk to trek from house to house, caroling:

Soul, a-soul, a soul cake

Please good missus a soul cake

An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry

Any good thing to make us all merry

One for Peter, two for Paul

Three for He who made us all.

Soul cakes were a type of moist bread with currants, and upon receiving the token food, the singers promised to pray for the departed souls of the family and offered blessings and wishes for growing prosperity. 

As people of Celtic ancestry immigrated to America, they brought many of their folk ways with them.  Out on the prairie, young men would play pranks on each other during this season—dismantling wagons and re-assembling them atop barn roofs.  Later, some would take apart model-T cars and put them back together inside a small space (like a dorm room) or other such less-than-convenient place.  Farm wives attempted to thwart such behavior by offering baked “treats” to their neighbors in exchange for not being the victim of a prank.

But Victorian culture was fast demoting folk traditions from the lived world of adults to the world of literature for children, and with this came many of the traditional holiday activities.  Soon, treats were offered in an effort to keep the windows from being soaped or other silly behaviors, hence the offering of a choice between “trick or treat.”  Children also embraced the idea of dressing as witches, devils, or ghosts (one has to find a way to be a little naughty sometime), which are traditional costume choices still today, though the repertoire has been widely expanded.

Carving turnip lanterns morphed into carving pumpkins into Jack-O-Lanterns, perhaps in honor of the Jack in folktales who was always getting in and out of trouble with giants, magic fingers, and flying boats.  Ghost tales continue to thrill children and some grown-ups, as do candied apples, roasted pumpkin seeds, and spice cake.  It is a great pity that the fear of ill-intended tampering has moved the giving of treats to children away from these agrarian harvest foods in favor of commercial candies.  Homemade popcorn balls or soft pretzels are healthier and full of more love than an artificially flavored lollypop.

This Halloween night, think on the ancient rights of Samhain—summer’s end.  And maybe, as the owls hoot or the wolves howl in the woods, you’ll find just the right time to share your own spooky story or memory of Halloween pranks amidst pumpkins or gravestones.  Catch a mug of hot cider, sing a song for those who have gone before us, 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

 

 
 

The Grand Molt

It has a way of creeping up on you.  Maybe not for the barnyard fowl so much, but at least for their caretaker.  First, the days grow noticeably shorter.  Then the egg production slackens.  Certainly, laying eggs is correlated with exposure to light, but this change seems fairly drastic.  I chide the ladies for being pikers…and then I realize that this is the time of year for The Grand Molt.

Feathers are nature’s most complex skin covering.  Lightweight, insulating, and empowering flight, feathers are also a wonderful means of display.  Made of collagen (like your fingernails), the material is lightweight, structurally strong, and colors well.  Pigments offer tones in yellow, red, brown, and black, while blues and greens are caused by prisms in the feather itself reflecting and refracting light.  Take a rooster’s emerald green tail plumage, remove it from direct sunlight, and it become simply a black feather. 

Recent archeological digs in China have unearthed amazing evidence of early feathers on dinosaurs, which were neither very insulating nor aerodynamic.  These basic feathers, much like the coarse covering on a kiwi bird, are believed to have been primarily used for display—making the creature appear larger or adding attraction for a mate.  As this new modified scale was honed, it formed into the wide range of feather types found today—primary flight feathers, downy feathers, water-repellant feathers, and display feathers.  The airfoils on an airplane’s wing are modeled after feathers, and science has yet to produce any substance as insulating as goose down.  The feathers of waterfowl are so naturally structured that, even when completely stripped of their oils, they still cause water to bead up and wick away.

But before you wish you could have been endowed with feathers to keep warm this autumn, know that this complex skin covering comes at a price.  Even the most well-preened feather wears out from exposure to wind, sun, and use, and it has to be sloughed off and a new one grown in its place.  This process is called molting.

In the spring of the year (when the sheep are shorn before lambing), I always feel a pang of guilt for the ewes, who shiver at the drastic change in clothing.  But at least I am comforted knowing that warmer weather is on its way.  My chickens, turkeys, and ducks on the other hand have a habit of changing their feather coats in late autumn.  To a degree, this makes sense—going into the winter months with fresh feathers.  But as I watch them turn from sleek hens to a motley crew of dishevelment, I can’t help but feel that this is less than perfect timing.

I know it has reached The Grand Molt when I open the coop door in the morning and am showered in a rolling cloud of disembodied, worn out feathers.  They billow out in all directions, littering the coop floor and the yard outside.  And my half-undressed ladies bob about looking like homeless drifters who have little care for appearances—a far cry from their summer vanity of careful preening and disgruntlement at having their feathers ruffled the wrong way.  These days, they look as well kempt as a teenager’s bedroom.

But growing feathers takes considerable energy, with each new plume starting as a “pin feather” wrapped in a scaly sheath.  This capsule is filled with blood as it forms the interlocking barbs and sturdy shaft of the feather.  When the feather is ready to emerge, the scales of the pin shatter (creating rather a lot of dust in the coop), and the formed feather begins to elongate until it has reached its proper length.  In the meantime, because of this taxing growth, hens often cease laying eggs until the molt is complete.

I tease my mangy lot while trudging through morning chores with an Appalachian folk tune.

My old hen was a good old hen

Best darn hen ever laid an egg

Sometimes white, sometimes brown

Best little hen this side of town

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid an egg since way last fall

First time she cackled, she cackled quite a lot

Next time she cackled, she cackled in the pot

My old hen, she won’t do

She lays eggs and taters too

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing

Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall

Ain’t laid a egg since way last fall

The turkeys prance sheepishly, holding low their bunt tails.  Patches are missing here and their, showing the wispy down beneath.  The Toms often regret to offer their poofed display until at least some of their tail feathers return.  The ducks shows the least change (perhaps because ducks are endowed with ever so many more feathers—you know if you ever tried to pluck one).  But the yard full of scattered white bits give a telltale sign.

Birds grow new feathers nearly all the time.  Young birds graduate from their first chick plumage to adult-sized feathers.  New feathers replace ones that have been damaged or pulled out by bossy comrades.  But the molting process is the avian way of “changing the closet” for the coming of winter.  No need to buy a down vest when you can grow one!

Yet even in the midst of The Grand Molt, I know that this too shall pass.  The billowing feathers will settle, and my ladies will become sleek and vain once again.  And all the birds will be warm and snug for winter.  In the meantime, it’s not avian mange; it’s just the annual molt.  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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