North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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The Truth about Food Miles

A farmer asks a small child, “Where does milk come from?”  The child responds, honestly enough, “From the store.”

It’s hard to blame the child, who has probably never stepped foot into a dairy barn or seen the milk from an ample udder stream into the pail all frothy and warm.  But the question of where food comes from is still just as relevant to the learning of that child as it is for each of us today.  That educational process can be both enlightening and disturbing.

In the child’s perception, the movement of milk is from the grocery store to Mom’s refrigerator.  But before it reached the grocery store, it spend time with a distributor, which received the product from the processing facility, which pasteurized, homogenized, and bottled the milk that was shipped in from a variety of dairy farms.  All of this moving around of food from one place to another tallies up to what is called “food miles.”

On our farm, it could be called “food yards” because very little has to travel far from field to kitchen to plate, but this is an exceptional situation.  Tropical fruits, out-of-season vegetables, or farm-raised meats might be shipped in from Chile, New Zealand, or China.  Sometimes local growers find that their market is in a distant city rather than in their hometown.  At other times, companies find that fewer regulations make it more economical to fly American grown apples to South Africa to be waxed and then fly them back to be sold at American supermarkets.  Economics drives these decisions—cheaper labor, subsidized fossil fuels, and even subsidized agricultural practices swaying decisions. 

A study published through www.postcarbon.org cites statistics illustrating that 15% of US energy is spent on feeding Americans, which includes growing, shipping, displaying, and preparing.  Pair this with the fact that nearly 50% of all the food that is grown in this country is wasted, and the environmental impact is quite disconcerting.   Most of the wasted food comes from the methods of mass-production.  Not everything matured in the field at the same time, so part of the crop was lost during mechanized harvesting.  Not all the tomatoes or apples were the same size, so they did not crate up evenly and were discarded.  Produce rotted during shipment or in a warehouse.  Half of the lettuce had to be thrown away by the restaurant because it was too old or unfit to serve.  I know because I have received those frantic calls from chefs when the box of green beans from their commercial purveyor arrives white and fuzzy.

Processed foods or foods with a high fat or high sugar content are the greatest offenders in the food mile problem.  A recent study in Sweden quoted on www.thedailygreen.org traced the components of a traditional Swedish breakfast—apple, bread, butter, cheese, coffee, cream, orange juice, and sugar.  When combining all the miles traveled by each breakfast component, it was startling for the researchers to discover that this breakfast had trekked 24,901 miles, approximately the circumference of the earth!

In America, the traditional quote for food miles (be it for a steak, a tomato, or a cake) is 1,500 miles.  This is in accordance with a study conducted in Chicago.  More recently, the study was similarly repeated and found that the number had jumped to 2,500 miles.  This figure is for an individual product, not even a whole meal!  The trip from the grocery store to your home is but one small piece of your food’s story.  Find yourself a local farmer and cut out most of those miles—the farmer and the environment will thank you!

So, in light of these alarming statistics, I tried my own food mile experiment, focusing on local.  Try it and see what you discover!  Be empowered to know where your food comes from.  In the meantime, you’ll enjoy this delicious recipe.

French Bistro Frisee Salad

1 head frisee endive (from our aquaponics greenhouse, 1/100th of a mile)

2 Tbs. olive oil (4,300 miles from Italy to New York distributor, then another 1,430 miles)

2 tsp. red wine vinegar (Same Italy number as above, plus 1,400 miles from New Jersey plant)

1 shallot (from our garden, 1/10th of a mile)

½ to 1 tsp. Dijon mustard (at least 2,330 miles from California distributer, miles for individual sub ingredients unknown)

Salt and Pepper (620 miles from the packing company)

2 slices bacon (from our pigs, to the butcher and back, 75 miles)

2 to 4 farm fresh eggs, one per person (from our chickens, 1/10th of a mile)

Tear or cut endive into bite-sized pieces.  In a small bowl, mix oil, vinegar, shallot, and mustard.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Set dressing aside.  Fry the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until brown and crispy (about 5 minutes).  Set aside on paper towel to cool.

Simmer a medium-sized pot or deep skillet of water to poach the eggs.  A tiny scoash of vinegar helps hold the egg together.  Crack eggs into simmering water (don’t let it get to a rolling boil) and poach until desired doneness.  Meanwhile, toss endive in dressing until evenly coated.  Plate up endive, crumble bacon over it, and top with poached eggs.  Serve immediately.

***

For the food mile calculation, the bulk of ingredients were sourced locally (frisee endive, shallot, bacon, and eggs), with a total of 75.21 miles, most of which went to the butcher for the pig.  Considering that this makes approximately 99% of the dish, this is an exciting achievement!  For this category, the average food mile for each item is 18.8.

Consider these same items purchased from the grocery store in town (20 miles away from my home, so that will add 80 miles to the figure).  The eggs could be from a caged egg factory in Nebraska (509 miles), the pigs from a confinement feeding operation in Iowa (340 miles), the endive from a mono-cropped farm in California (2,165 miles), and the shallots from a field in Ohio (863 miles).  That comes to a total of 3,957 miles for the meal or 989.25 miles per item.  That is one exhausted endive!  By choosing local, I saved 3,881.79 food miles.  The average tractor-trailer uses a gallon of fuel every 5 to 7 miles, so theoretically that would be the equivalent of 647 gallons of diesel.

The tricky part comes with the remaining 1% of the meal.  For the accent items (olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and Dijon mustard), my score was around 14,380 miles—a good portion of which went to Italian imports.  Understandably, it would take quite a few batches of this recipe to use a full bottle of red wine vinegar or a package of pepper, compared with a whole head of endive or a third of a carton of eggs.  While it is unlikely I’ll be growing my own olives on the farm, this meal is still significantly greener than the Swedish breakfast. 

Even though my food mile count is not perfect, I am choosing to make a difference by eating foods close to home.  As we all learn more about our environmental impact and make changes in our daily habits towards smaller carbon footprints, together we can begin meaningful change on a greater scale.  Vote with your fork.  Vote local.  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

 
 

Never and Idle Hand

Being asked the question, “How do you have time to do all these things?!” is not an uncommon occurrence on our farm.  From livestock to gardens, farmer’s market to making gelato, balancing the many layers of endeavors at North Star Homestead can be an adventure in itself.

“But when do you have time for making art?” they ask, noticing the busy lunch hour, the coming and goings of summer interns, and the rigors of growing produce and fresh fish year-round.  “Do you ever sleep?”

In the summer I would laugh and reply, “That’s what winter is for,” pick up the dishes and offer descriptions of the day’s desserts.  For generations, winter on the farmstead has been the time for mending, planning, and all those projects that just don’t fit into the hectic summer schedule.

In the days of the one-room school houses, school sessions were originally in winter and summer, allowing students to help on the farm during the rigorous spring plantings and autumn harvest seasons.  On our farm, the time to “catch a little breath” doesn’t start until November, when the ground freezes solid and there is no more to be done for the gardens until spring.  The animals are snug in their winter quarters, and most of the area summer residents have headed to warmer climates.

But in true thrifty farm tradition, winter does not become a time to languish sleepily in front of the fire all day.  Heavens, there are so many things to do!  So many skills we love to use that we simply can’t make time for in the summer.  Yes, there still is the mending and the planning and pouring over the seed catalogue, but the luxury of the slow season allows waiting creativity to curl out of hiding and find expression in a variety of projects, whether it is working on one of my tapestries, crocheting a hat, knitting a sweater, or finishing a quilt.

The work of women’s hands to create functional form (clothing) out of string (and, likewise, string out of fluff) is an ancient tradition stretching back roughly 20,000 years.  Pick-it-up, put-it-down projects that did not endanger children naturally leant themselves to women’s occupations, including spinning, weaving, and sewing.  Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of her mother working on patchwork quilts during long winter nights, while her father played beloved folk tunes on the violin.  Not only were these quilts functional but they also held their own aesthetic appeal.

Working on fiber-related projects in the winter is also a great time for socializing in a season when ice, snow, and freezing temperatures can keep us cooped up in our homes.  Quilting B’s were once an excellent way to bring women (and sometimes men) together for a meaningful project embroidered with friendly discussion.  Today, knitting groups often serve a similar purpose, bringing friends together over clicking needles—attendants helping each other troubleshoot difficult patterns or learn a new stitch.

Sometimes the demands of winter, however, can push against the yearnings for time with a crochet hook or embroidery needle.  The bag of yarn may nestle in the closet for years, piled high with “I’ll get to that later.”  Making community time each week for folks to get together and dust off those projects is one way to reconnect with the ancient rhythms of our agrarian past.  To facilitate this, at Farmstead Creamery & Café we’ll be staying open late on Thursdays, from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm, for “Fiber Nights.”  Feel free to bring your knitting, crocheting, weaving, spinning, tatting, quilting, sewing, or any type of fiber-related handwork you enjoy.  Come when it works for you, share stories with friends, and enjoy having time to do what you love.

“When you do what you love, you can do a lot of it,” is one of my mantras when faced with the ever-present question of how we do all that we do on the farm.  But doing it all doesn’t necessarily mean doing it all at once.  It reminds me of a conversation at Goddard College, in Vermont, where I did my graduate studies in interdisciplinary arts.

We were discussing the meaning of “rigor.”  Some students and a few advisors were vehement that rigor was distinctly tied into daily practice.  If one was not working on a tapestry loom every day, then hers was not a rigorous weaving practice.  My argument was different, and I based it on the lived experience of farming.  Yes, rigor does involve a concerted effort and a dedication of considerable time over a prolonged period, but it doesn’t need to be each and every day.

For instance, maple syruping is a rigorous pursuit.  It takes concerted effort—trudging into the woods with taps and buckets, trudging out with pails of sap, boiling for hours, and finally bottling with care.  It also takes considerable time over a prolonged period (if it’s a good season, especially).  But I can’t make maple syrup in October, even if I wanted too.  It has its season, just as one’s art practice can.   Attempting to syrup out of season would be about as productive as hosting a quilting intensive in the middle of lambing time.  To everything there is a season.

There is something rhythmic and relaxing to drawing weft through warp or looping a stitch one row at a time that is in harmony with the quiet of wintertime.  It leaves the mind open to reflection or peaceful meditation.  Working with fibers is part of the magic of creating something from almost nothing—a comfy sweater from a ball of yarn—which is not unlike the magic of agricultural life—a thriving tomato plant from a tiny seed or a lamb born from its attendant mother.  Each is uniquely creative, and each is valued on the homestead.

Maybe it’s been a long time since you last made a scarf for a friend, or perhaps you are in the midst of finishing an afghan—either way, I hope this winter will bring you joy through relaxing, creative work.  Maybe it’s time to pick up something new and learn a craft that has been close to the hearthside for many ages.  It’s better than sitting with idle hands, waiting for the snow to melt (or fall).  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 Search of Light

We are seekers of light.  From the ancient days of setting bonfires atop hills in the darkness of winter to the contemporary fashion of LED Christmas lights turning humble homes into nocturnal gingerbread illuminations, the lure of light in dark times has never faded.  Specialists encourage synthetic daylight lamps on our desks to brighten mid-winter moods, while others simply move away during the winter in search of sun and warmth.

A winter exodus is often not an option for farmers, especially those who raise animals, so we must satisfy our need for light through other means.  There’s the good, old-fashioned book by the comforting glow of the wood stove as a place to start or the tradition of leaving all the holiday lighting up until the end of January to prolong the enjoyment.  There is something about the flickering embers of a fire that connects us with the ancestors or the colorful glint of illuminated home decorations that brings back magical memories for this time of year.

While humans are creatures of light by psychological preference, plants depend on light at a much more visceral level.  As the daylight slackened past the equinox, leafy crops in our aquaponic system (a specialized greenhouse where crops grow year-round, powered by nutrient rich water from our tilapia fish) began growing sluggishly, if at all.  It was something of an “I give up!” in the plant world, as most of their outdoor compatriots either succumbed to the cold or retreated to the root level with hopes for a new start in the spring.  In order for our indoor vegetable friends to have a chance, it was time to order grow lights.

We had hoped to be able to take advantage of new LED technology for grow lights, but this alternative was frightfully cost inhibitive compared with traditional models—it takes a massive pack of little lights to emit enough spectrum to stimulate plant growth.  The traditional models waste some energy as heat, but since we would only be using the lights in the wintertime, when the greenhouse required auxiliary heat if the sun was not shining, this could prove a bonus rather than a problem.  To best utilize this new resource, we added a timer and light-sensing system that would only turn on the grow lights when not enough sunlight was present to mimic day lengths similar to equinox levels.

Each light services an eight-by-eight foot region, so calculations showed that we would need 10 lights, which arrived through our trusty delivery driver who must often wonder what sort of odd bit of equipment we have ordered this time!  It was also tricky installing the lights because they had to be hung over the grow beds, which were already full of plants!  But tricky or not, the lights were up and running before Christmas.  The first time all 10 were turned on for inspection, the shine was surprisingly intense. 

“You could start a tanning spa in here,” Dave our electrician laughed.  “Might make more money than with lettuce.”

That first evening was filled with a misty fog, sending the warm, yellowish glow emanating from the greenhouse up into a dome of light above the trees.  Surely, the neighbors must be wondering what form of strange spacecraft has landed at that three-crazy-ladies’ farm.  What on earth are they up to now?

Jon, our contractor, was driving home that night.  As he made his way down Moose Lake Road, he noticed the glowing dome of yellowish light coming from the farm.  “I thought for sure the greenhouse was on fire!” he laughed with us after pulling up to the house to chat.  “I came around the corner in a great hurry and went, oh, well thank goodness.  Looks like Dave got the lights working.”

The plants were the happiest participants of all.  Within days, the Napa cabbages began to double in size, while the lettuces perked up their growth in response to the added day length.  As seekers of light, these leafy greens and fresh herbs rejoiced at the bounty of energy and have been filling our display cooler and many a salad plate since.

Other appreciators of supplemental light in wintertime are the chickens.  While in the summertime we raise chickens for the table as well as for the egg basket, the laying hens are the only chickens that overwinter on our farm.  This perky crew of Buff Orpingtons, Silver Laced Wyandottes, colored egg-laying Aruacanas, and feather-footed Light Brahmas transition from their summer quarters of mobile pasturing structures to the barnyard broodering coops or greenhouses.  Here, they are protected from the winds and nearby electricity can power heated water buckets.

But the hens, like the lettuce plants, stop producing during the winter months if left to nature’s allotment of sunlight.  Hens would spend more time sleeping and less time making your breakfast.  Chickens, like people, have a structure in their brain called the pineal body, which is stimulated by sunlight.  Take the sunlight away, and we naturally become sleepy.  In pioneer days, when lamp oil or candles were expensive, farmers woke with the sunrise and often retired to bed soon after sunset.

It does not require full spectrum sunlight—as needed by the plants—to fool the pineal body in humans or birds, however.  Simply adding more light can keep us and hens going long into the night…though not enough dark time and rest can leave both of us cranky and dissatisfied.  Adding supplemental light to chicken coops (in tandem with facing coop windows in a southerly bank to catch the most daylight) has long been known to aid winter laying.  Mix this with hearty heavy breed chickens, with plenty of bulk and thick feathering, as well as nutritional boosts like chopped liver, pork suet, kitchen scraps, or smashed pumpkins to replace those long-missed insects and green grass, and the ladies rebound from their autumn molt with vigor.

Tending the hens or the lettuce in the evening also gives me a boost of superficial sunshine, a glimpse of healthy, green growth, and a surrounding of contented, clucking hens.  We seekers of light find ways to make the most of winter, even with a bit of electrical foolery, to keep going through these long nights.  But as we embark into January, we know that the days are beginning to lengthen, if only by a minute or two each day.  Still, there is hope that spring will come again, with sunlight, warmth, and a new season of growth.  Savor those little moments, for each moment is all we ever have.  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

 

 
 

New Year's Resolution

Almost everyone takes a moment at this time of year to commit themselves to personal improvement in the coming 12-month.  Many of the more traditional commitments are well known—losing weight, exercising more, quitting smoking, or spending more time with loved ones.  And if any of these are your goals, by all means go for them!  They are part of a cultural heritage that reaches back to the ancient Babylonians, who annually renewed vows to their gods that they would return borrowed items to their neighbors and pay off debts in the New Year.  During the Great Depression, statistics relate that about 25% of American residents made a New Year’s resolution, in 2000 that number was approximately 40%.

Yet, as I look outside across the snow-encrusted barnyard, I cannot help but muse over how a quintessential agrarian New Year’s resolution might appear.  Winter is an apt time for imaginative play, so enjoy the detour.

An Agrarian’s New Year’s Resolution

Dear New Year:

I resolve to finish most (well, at least many) of those projects I’ve always been meaning to get back to.  It’s not that I’m lazy…it’s just that there are so many of them!  To make an entire list would rival Santa Clause’s wishes from children, so instead I’ll focus on a particular project.

I resolve to finish stringing up the hog fences for summer paddocks.  I know I didn’t get it all the way finished, but then the ground froze, and I couldn’t dig any more post holes.  Come to think of it, that’s not quite accurate.  I couldn’t dig any more post holes because the auger attachment for my tractor’s three-point hitch broke off its tip, so there was no digging any further at that point.  …Well, that’s not really the end of the story, either New Year, because I did try to dig a few more by hand, which bent the post-hole digger’s blades.  But at least we got by.

So maybe my resolution really is to fix the post-hole auger.  Only, it’s not mine…it’s the  neighbor’s.  So, yes, it really should get fixed, which probably means that I need to take it over to my other neighbor who has a machine shop and welding gear and…  But wait, his shop is currently full because they’re rebuilding the engine on my tractor, which broke down this fall.  So I don’t want to slow that down because it’s our only tractor with a scoop on the front, and…

This is getting a long ways away from the pig pen.  Maybe I need a different New Year’s resolution.

Ok, how about this.  I resolve to have fewer weeds in my garden this year.  Yes, I know, we got off to a very good start this last year, but by August things were getting a bit ahead of themselves and…well…there’s still patches I didn’t get ripped out before the ground froze solid.  So, I’m sorry New Year, I’m not planning to go out there with charcoal and thaw things out just to weed quite yet, so we’ll get back to that in the spring.  I’m sure the weeds will still be patiently waiting for me.

The only problem with that, New Year, is that I have the early symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, which makes weeding and other forms of pulling, pinching, and ripping at times very painful.  So, what I really need is more folks around to help me get that job done instead of do more of it myself and consequently get myself checked into surgery sooner than I’d like.

So, New Year, maybe my resolution in this regard really is that I need to work harder at finding more interns to help us out on the farm this summer.  Eager, friendly, dedicated, and hard-working young folks who want to mentor in the methods and theory of sustainable agriculture.  New Year, if you know anyone like that, send them my way!

Ok, ok, ok, maybe I do need a better New Year’s resolution than that.  Maybe I need to look at the real root of the problem behind the last two ideas, a good, hard, honest look.

How about this—I really need to stop being so lazy.  Think of the time I’m wasting!  This getting up at 4:00 in the morning is silliness, what with milking and all.  If I got up at 3:00 instead, I’d have another whole hour to get things done!  Aha, that’s it, that’s my new resolution!

Sincerely,

Your Humble Steward

***

Maybe you’re hoping to clean out the garage, get a new roof on the shed, bring in more firewood for wintertime, or just learn how to say thank you more often—whatever your hopes for the coming year, I wish you all the best of success.  Take each day at a time, as a new gift, and find the good that lies in each opportunity.  Maybe fixing the post-hole auger is a moment to learn a few finer points to soldering and sharpening tools.  Maybe finding more folks to help out on the farm is a chance to engender learning opportunities that expand greater appreciation for the efforts behind growing and raising food.  And maybe getting up a little earlier to experience the summer sunrise will inspire our awe of the elegant beauty of nature.

As you ponder your New Year’s Resolution, light a candle in hope for the coming 12-month, make a wish for peace and contentment, and give thanks for the precious gifts we already share with one another.  A Happy New Year to you!  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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A Fireside Christmas

There is no other time of year that is quite like Christmas.  The family gathers from across the country to sit around the farm table, the stockings are hung with care, and children’s hearts are filled with the wonder of the season.  Saint Nicholas is coming, and soon there will be cookies, hot cider, and roast turkey to share.  The old board games are brought out of the closet, and everyone laughs over differences in opinion on the rules governing card games that are dusted off for the gathering.  There’s firewood to split, winding trails to snowshoe, hills to sled, and fresh balsam wreaths to make—let alone the harvesting of the Christmas tree.

I can remember one Christmas, which was heavily snowed, trudging along the edge of the field, where our house now stands, in search of the perfect little Charlie Brown Christmas tree (it was our family’s principle to take a tree that was too crowded so its cousins could grow healthy and strong).  The snow was so deep—and I was so small—that it seemed we would hardly make it back to the farmhouse at all, wading bravely with the little handsaw gripped in my purple mitten.  It had grown quite dark, but Grandpa pointed up to the sky in the East.

“Look,” he urged.  “What is that?”  There was a large, round glow just coming over the barren tree limbs across the creek.

“Is it a house light or a town?” Kara and I ventured.  It glowed something like the barnyard light, only much bigger and brighter.

“No, it’s the moon,” Grandpa corrected.  And sure enough, as we brought the snow-encrusted pine tree home, the full moon rose up into the sky to light our way—sharing a bit of Christmas magic by casting every snowdrift into mounds of crystalline shimmers.  A Great Horned owl hooted some distance off, reminding us that nature was not completely asleep.

For me, Christmas memories are always wrapped up within the green and red package of the homestead and much of that revolves around the large, fieldstone fireplace.  In the early days, before my grandparents bought the farm from the original homesteaders, the only heat source came from a set of wood stoves that connected to a central, brick chimney that poked its snout out through the middle of the roof.  The largest stove had sat between the living room and dining room, and grates in the ceiling let a little heat up to the bedrooms on the floor above.  By the time the farm was sold, the wood stoves had been replaced by an oil-burning furnace.

But Mom remembers as a young girl wanting to have a fireplace.  She even gave Grandpa one of those popcorn popping pans with a long handle that is held over an open fire as a Christmas gift.  As the popcorn kernels heat up, you shake the contraption to keep them stirred and evenly heated until they stop popping and there is hot, yummy puff with a little smoky smell as an extra perk.  Surely, this would drop a hint!

And perhaps it did because soon construction was underway to build a fieldstone chimney on the south face of the living room.  Whole, heavy, authentic local stone (most of it likely hauled from the fields) were collected by two area Norwegian bachelors who had a special corner on the area market for fieldstone fireplaces.  And, after a few initial mishaps and a good bit of grunting, the farmhouse was transformed by the sound of the crackle and hiss of an open fire, with a ledge to sit upon in front and rock shelves for mantle space.

This is where my sister and I perched cradling mugs of frothy hot chocolate after a day of sledding or dangled our hand-knit stockings in hopes of an overnight gift visit.  We knew there would be oranges, puzzles to share with family, Grandma’s Dickens village to set up on the porch amidst carefully wrapped gifts, and lots of old family stories and remembrances.

Beside the fieldstone hearthside was an excellent place to set up card tables for a rousing game of Sorry!, Backgammon, Clue, or Pictionary.  But it was equally a peaceful place to snuggle up with one of the dogs and read a book or watch the snow drift lazily from the sky outside.  After three days of toasty fires, the stones above the hearth grew warm to the touch and resonated their own comforting, radiant heat.  The fireplace might dwarf the room but it certainly didn’t dwarf the layers of memories that were made by its side.

Our strongest memories come from smells, and Christmas is full of memorable fragrances, in part because it is equally full of good food!  It has been our family’s tradition to explore a different ethnic theme for Christmas Eve.  One time we had Mexican fare with corn husk-wrapped tamales, another featured a Mediterranean theme with lasagna Napoletana, and this year we plan for a Swedish twist with meatballs and Yulekaka.  In the mornings, there were farm-fresh eggs, Danish cringle sent by those who could not make it to the farm for the holiday, and succulent citrus.  The spicy tang of mulled cider, the heady richness of dipping chocolate, or the sharp invitation of almond extract are somehow inseparable with Christmastime on our farm.  Take some time this week to remember fond Christmas’s past or build new memories with loved ones over a bowl of cookie dough or your own over-the-fire popcorn popper.

As this year comes to a close, we think on its many gifts amidst the trials and learning points.  One of the best gifts of all is to give of one’s time to family, to friends, and to community—building fond memories by the hearthside.  Wishing for you and yours a blessed Christmas, with hopes for a healthy and satisfying New 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

 

 
 

Cattle on the Homestead

In a way, it’s inevitable.  When someone learns that I live and work on a farm, the first question is, “So, how many cows do you have?”  Or, “You guys have horses?”  These domestic animals have been an integral part of family farms for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and for many it is hard to imagine a barn without cows or a pasture without horses.  Ours is a homestead with antique structures, run by small women in a situation and environment that is best suited for livestock the size of sheep, pigs, and poultry.  Back in the 1920’s, the farm did have a herd of Jersey cows, but judging by the distance between the historic stanchions and the gutter in the floor, those animals would have been about the size of a modern Dexter cow in comparison with the contemporary Jersey breed.

Yet the inseparability of farms and cattle is clear to many agrarians who tend the land and their animals today.  In Wisconsin, the most common association is with milking stock, but just as vital is the care and raising of beef cattle.  Tweed and Melanie Shuman of Shuman Cattle Company, who live just outside Hayward, Wisconsin, are the present caretakers of the family farm Tweed’s grandfather purchased in 1956.  For the Shumans, horses and cattle are their passion.

“I might be an RN during the day,” Tweed related with a knowing smile and twinkle in his dark eyes, “But really, I’m a cowboy at heart.” 

The family (which just recently bore its first member of the fifth generation of farmers) works closely with their four quarter horses and English Shepherd working dog Zoe to move and maintain the 150-head Red Angus cattle herd.  The Shumans take pride in the high quality of their genetic line, and their bulls are prized by breeders across the nation.

“So often,” Tweed frowns a moment, balancing words, “Everyone wants the black ones.  But really, the red calves are much rarer, and once you take the hide off, it’s the same animal underneath.”

“And in the black strains, you can hide other genetics, like Holstein,” Melanie adds.  “You can’t do that with the red line.  It’s a much truer strain.”

Angus cattle were first developed from a variety of short and stocky breeds living in Northeastern Scotland, along with strains introduced by the Viking invasions of the Early Middle Ages.  By the 1700’s, selective breeding methods in Scotland began producing hearty, well muscled, poled (hornless) cattle in black and brown (known as “red”) coloration.  Hugh Watson, of Keillor Scotland, is considered the father of the modern Aberdeen Angus breed, beginning in 1808 when his father bequeathed his best cows and a bull to help his son set up in farming.  By the 1880’s, members of this Angus line had cross the Atlantic to call America home.

While black is a predominating color in Angus cattle, the red color is a recessive gene.  Breed reds to reds, and the color stays true.  These beautiful animals stand nobly in the field, their coats shining, their ears and tails twitching alertly.  They sail as rusty-colored ships through the tall grass of the pasture or rest contentedly beneath the tall pines on the edge of the fields.

“Transitioning to all grass-based practices has been a priority for us for the past couple of years.”  Tweed smiles as he thinks on his prized herd waiting for the spring grass to grow again.  “Grain prices are getting very tough, and we want to do what’s right for the land and the animals.  We’re also growing more conscious of our environmental impact, and we want this farm to be here for our children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  It’s all about doing the right thing, being stewards of the land, and being able to live the lifestyle that we care about and passing that onto the next generation.”

“I’d love to someday have a bed and breakfast at the farm,” Melanie muses.  “Of course, that’s my project, but it would be great to give people an experience of what it’s like on a farm.  So many people today are disconnected from their food source.  They don’t know where it came from or who raised it—how it was raised.  All that is important.”

The Shumans have attended many of the same conferences as my sister (the sheep expert in the family), learning more about new methods in rotational grazing to optimize the relationship between livestock and the landscape.  Changing long-running methods on a farm is never easy, but the Shumans have made a special effort to transition their livestock to grass-fed, pastured lifestyles, and already they can see a difference.

Just this week, the Shumans brought in the first coolers full of cuts of meat from a young grass-fed steers for us to retail at Farmstead Creamery & Café.  Their pride in a job well accomplished with livestock that is so close to their souls shone as they taught us the use and style of each cut and talked prices.

“We’re not in this to get rich,” Tweed nods, his well-loved cowboy hat tipping as well.  “That’s not why people go into farming.  We care about raising good, healthy animals, without the use of hormones or antibiotics, and offering people good, wholesome products they can trust.”

There is something truly magical about the interrelationship of humans and animals, working animals (horses and working dogs) and stock, and of herdsmen and women with their watchful eyes doing their best for the land and their livestock.  This is where I want my food to come from—not from a feedlot where soon it will be illegal to document the conditions with photographs or video; not from a confinement feeding operation where the animals never get to run through the field or sniff at a fresh spring wind; not from the floor of a plant where conditions are so horrid that worker are losing parts of their own bodies to wayward knives and unprotected machinery.

I want my food to be raised on the family farm, like Tweed and Melanie’s or my own, where the pigs get to root in the earth and the cattle roam contentedly in the field.  Don’t tell me that some recent study found that the vitamins in organic lettuce are the same as commercially produced, non-organic specimens.  The vitamins are only a tiny piece of the holistic picture of growing and raising food.  Instead, ask this:  who are the farmers, and what are their lives like?; what is the health of the land that supported this food, and how well is it being cared for?; how sustainable is the system that raised this food, and how far did it have to travel to reach my table? 

In the face of self-protecting agribusiness statistics, questions like these help us re-ground in what really matters when it comes to our food.  It is about knowing your farmer, learning their story, and reclaiming your freedom of choice.  The efforts of small-scale, family farmers like the Shumans and their beautiful Red Angus herd are part of what really matters—keeping the cattle on the homestead, with care, compassion, and sustainably minded stewardship.  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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