North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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The Scoop on CSAs

Maybe you’ve heard a bit of the buzz or maybe you have even been a member of one, but CSAs are becoming an increasingly popular way to build connections with your local farmer and enjoy great, fresh, seasonal foods.  If you’re wondering what in tarnation is a CSA, read on to discover more about this exciting program.

CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture” and is organized like a membership in the farm’s produce.  Interested families purchase a “share” in the early part of the year (when farmers are shortest on revenue to kick-start the season), which ensures a certain quota of whatever the farm produces through the growing season.  This bounty is distributed in a weekly “box” (or bag or other clever vessel) to members either at the farm or at designated pickup locations.  Because CSA members have paid ahead for this service, picking and saving goods and produce for them comes ahead of other venues, such as farmer’s markets.

But unlike a farmer’s market (which operates like a micro grocery), CSA members typically do not pick and choose what they desire.  Instead, it’s more like receiving a Christmas box from the farm each week, with a mix of familiar and new goodies to discover.  A weekly newsletter with updates from the farm, a list of the week’s features, and recipes can be helpful for folks who are new to Swiss Chard or Broccoli Raab.  Sometimes, folks discover something they never knew they liked!

This process also involves trust—trust that the farmer will choose an appropriate mix of foods for the box each week.  Some folks have a hard time giving up the control of shopping off of their weekly list, and a CSA program is not the right fit for them.  We’ve found that these families try the program for one year and then say, “Well, we’ll just shop at the farmer’s market next year.”  Sadly, very few keep the promise.

Culinary flexibility can actually be exciting.  Learning to cook with the seasons is as easy as the recipe in the newsletter or a quick Google search.  And just about anything can be put together in a sauté pan with a little tortellini, bacon, or cheese for a great and quick lunch.  The ideal way to utilize a CSA share is to see what you get for the week and then plan the meals and any auxiliary shopping around it.   One year, a single fellow purchased a share for the summer season and found it an extremely economical way to eat great food far into the winter because he was able to freeze, dry, or store away extras.  He still had potatoes into March!

At North Star Homestead Farms, we’ve been offering CSA shares since 2007.  For many years, this has been in the very traditional form of full or half shares in the garden—veggies, fruits, and fresh herbs overflowed canvass totes each week from mid-June through the end of September.  But as with many of our endeavors, we wanted to take the CSA idea to the next level.  Some farms offer a “meat” CSA—a weekly mix of pork, lamb, poultry, or beef from their farm.  Others offer eggs in their CSA program.  There were many possibilities floating around in the world of sustainable agriculture.

To start, because of our new aquaponics greenhouse (where we raise tilapia and greens) we are now able to offer fresh produce year-round.  Our CSA members have often moaned at the end of the traditional growing season that facing the grocery produce after a summer of our fresh-off-the-farm veggies is a major letdown.  Expanding the CSA to a year-round process meant that local food could be an option, even in mid-winter.

The only trouble with offering a winter CSA program was that, while fresh lettuce, kale, chard, kohlrabi, herbs, endive, arugula, bok-choy, radishes, and more might be available, it still wasn’t possible to grow the other vegetables that help bulk out a week’s box—zucchinis, cucumbers, eggplants, carrots, green beans, and more.  What else, instead, could we offer? 

What developed is our “Winter Pantry CSA,” which utilizes many aspects of our farm’s value-added products, including:  bakery items (bread, cookies, bagels, muffins, etc.), pantry items (jams, honey, granola, mixes, etc.), eggs, and cuts of grass-fed meat.  We were also able to network with other area farms like Springbrook Organic Dairy and Crystal Ball Organic Dairy to feature milk, yogurt, and cheeses as well.  It was a basketful of delightful farm goodies, along with fresh produce from the greenhouse and storage produce from the root cellar, including winter squash, onions, garlic, and potatoes.

The new program received such a positive response that we decided to extend the option through the rest of the year.  But folks always like to have choices so they can find an option that works best for them.  Our present “omnivore share” includes all the items listed above.  The “vegetarian share” is the same, excepting the cut of meat.  Then there is also a “garden share” which is very similar to the traditional half share in the garden.

But some folks go away in the winter, and some leave on long vacations in the summer, so how would a year-long CSA program work for them?  In the past, a CSA share was for a whole growing season (typically 16 weeks in the Northland), and if you couldn’t make it to a pickup, you gave it away to a friend or neighbor.  But given our customer feedback, we structured a new system that allows members to pick the dates they want, as well as the style of share.  You can sign up just during the summertime, every other week, once a month, or whatever works best for you.  You could even choose to have the omnivore share some weeks and a garden share on others.  It’s entirely up to you!  The program caps off at the first 15 families that sign up for any particular date that is available (otherwise we might find ourselves filling 50 boxes on one day and 2 on the next).

It must be understood, however, that belonging to a CSA not only gives you the opportunity to share in the bounty of the farm but also in the risk.  Despite the best efforts of the farmer, surprises can always happen.  A hale storm can devastate a crop that was almost ready to harvest, high winds can break plants or blow away all the blossoms, or a freak frost can destroy the apple harvest.  It’s one of those everyday hazards of farming.  But being a member in a CSA gives you a chance to directly support a farming family of your choice, to learn their story and the rhythms of their work and harvest.

Even if you don’t live in this area, please explore CSA options through local farms.  Not sure where to look?  The website www.localharvest.org is a great place to start.  Type in your Zip Code anywhere in the U.S. to begin researching small farms, farmer’s markets, and more in your area.  If these farms offer CSA programs, this will be listed on their “bio” as well as other unique offerings they may have—you-pick berries, value-added products, or farm tours.

Early spring is a great time to sign up for CSA shares.  Remember that for every dollar that is given to a farmer, at least 90 cents stays in the community.  Your support makes a difference towards the future of sustainable agriculture and the families who are devoting their lives and efforts to make wholesome, local, and organic foods available to everyone right now. 

Do you know where your food comes from?  Do you know the story of the people who grew or raised it?  Joining a CSA is a unique and adventuresome way to say “yes!” to all of these.  Are you ready for a culinary adventure?  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

 

 
 

Shear, Sheared, Shorn

It’s that time of year, with lambs just around the corner.  The great wooly beasts are corralled in the corner of the barn, waiting for the approaching rumble of Chris’ truck to signal the beginning of shearing season.  The enormous sacks for the wool are hauled from the blue truck’s back end and set up on a stand, the cables are hooked securely out of sheep reach, and the whir of the double-bladed shears begins.

I’ve witnessed a variety of shearings over the years.  One involved a llama, which had to be tied with the two front legs stretched one direction and the back two stretched another.  One fellow’s sole responsibility was to hold to the head with a towel (apparently to retain the notorious llama spit).  But sheep have the unique characteristic of becoming amazingly docile when set back on their rump—at least most of the time.

There still is the occasional wriggler and squiggler and kicking of legs, but this doesn’t seem to faze Chris, who wields the shears with deftness only years of experience can bring.  First a long, blind cut right up the sheep’s neck with her head stretched back, and then the coat is gracefully pealed away to reveal a slightly pink and rather pregnant creature below.

The tradition of shearing sheep for their wool is probably older than recorded history.  Originally, this was accomplished using hand clippers with a curved handle that acts as a spring to bring the two teeth apart after each cut.  Some cultures continue to use this practice, which is valued by spinners for producing fibers without the dreaded “second cut”—e.g. short lengths of fibers created by the electric shears going back to clean up an area on the sheep.  The tedium of hand clipping a fleece maintains fibers of equal, long length, which are supposedly less likely to pill when made into garments.

Shearing sheep in the spring is also part of the animal’s health maintenance.  The wool grown all summer and autumn keeps them warm and dry through the winter.  But this same wool can become soiled during lambing and makes it difficult for the little lambs to find their mother’s udder when still wobbly and new to the world.  All clipped and pretty, the mothers are ready for proper care of their lambs and the warmth of the coming springtime.

Some ancient varieties of sheep would shed their coats (and there are a few heritage breeds that still do), which meant that harvesting the wool crop included copious amounts of walking to pick tufts from thorn and briar growing in the pastures.  Shearing meant that more of the crop stayed with the farmer (and less with the birds for nests)—a selection process not unlike the story behind early grains.  While wild grain seeds fall to the ground in autumn to replant, humans selected grains that held their seed heads tight because these were far easier to harvest methodically and therefore were the genetics planted in the spring.

There was a time when saving all that wool was vitally important.  During the Civil War, the Merino breed of sheep was favored for is extra layers of skin around the neck that folded and flopped over the brisket.  While it was not the most tidy-looking sheep, more skin meant more wool for soldiers’ uniforms.  And during medieval times, when the Bubonic Plague left Europe with a little more than half its previous population, the labor shortage was compensated by turning the land from grain production to pastures for sheep.  Not only did it require fewer farmers to tend a flock of sheep than fields of wheat or barley, but it was also a time when wool was king.

From long trailing gown to tapestries, most households spent more on fabrics yearly than any other commodity (including food!) in medieval times.  England had a bustling trade of exporting raw wool to Flanders (now present-day Belgium), where early mills turned the fibers into everything from sumptuous trappings for castle and hall to everyday cloth for those who worked.  It was a lord’s responsibility to give (as partial payment of services) a new set of clothes to each of his servants yearly.

Unfortunately, wool is not held in as nearly high esteem as it was in days past.  Synthetics, polar fleece, and other fibers entice us more than traditional and often itchy wool—even though wool can be saturated up to 30% with water and still be insulative.  It also seems a terrible paradox that farmers should receive pittance for their wool (some sheep raisers consider it a bother and an expense rather than a valued crop) and yet wool garments should be so expensive!  Someday, we’ll find a more creative way to use our fleece than to sell most of it to the shearer to pay for his services.  I even hear that in Australia, they have figured a way to make house insulation using wool that has a wonderful R-value.  It would also be a very green product!

In the meantime, our ewe Mascara is let back up onto her feet after having her beautiful 10-pound coat unceremoniously shorn from her back.  She staggers a moment, shakes herself, baas, and then runs back to her friends through the open gate.  Shearing is yet another sign on the farm that the year is turning towards spring.  Soon there will be frolicking lambs, baby chicks, little seedlings, and the world will break from the gray and white and once again be green.

Kara wraps her arms around Adelaide and Chris sets her down on her rump.  The shears buzz, and Mascara’s coat is hauled up the ladder and stuffed into the great burlap sack with the others.  It’s hard, rough work, and Chris is bent over near double most of the day.  Mom and Kara work quickly to catch sheep or lead sheep to the second pen, whisking freed coats to the side and out of the way.  Like many tasks in farming, it carries a rhythm and orchestration of movement and sound, with little need for talk.

In the end, two great bags filled with wool are stuffed into the back end of Chris’ blue truck, and everyone feels that sitting down is a marvelous idea.  The sheep, which look hilariously like goats at the moment, are happy the ordeal is over, and the humans are glad to come warm themselves by the wood stove.  The day-long affair is complete, marking a new phase in the shepherding season.  Spring is coming, the days are lengthening, the snow is dripping, and the sheep are shorn.  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 Wearing O' the Green

It might not be very green outside yet, but it’s the time of year for feeling green on the inside—Kelly Green or one of the million shades of emerald that remind us of Ireland.  With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, it’s that time of year when everyone can be a little bit Irish and celebrate the vibrant life of the underdog.

It’s hard being England’s second colony (Wales was the first) or a land attacked by blight and its people condemned to “The Starving Time.”  Those who decided to leave for foreign lands like America had a proportionately equal survival rate for making the sea voyage as they did facing the famine in Ireland.  In essence, the death rate equaled or rivaled the Bubonic Plague that had swept Europe (and Asia) 500 years earlier. 

The rotting blight condition that attacked the potato crops in the mid 19th Century was in part due to intense monocroping of these starchy tubers, which had been imported from Central America.  The Irish had little choice—few other foods could feed the large population on such small acreage.  Interestingly, the potato blight has appeared more recently in crops grown in New England, so choose your seed potato stock with care!

Despite all this devastation, the Irish Diaspora somehow managed to hold onto its up-beat music, spunky sense of wit, and love of storytelling.  Here’s a version of a traditional Irish story just for you, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

The Wee Man Under the Stone

Not that long ago, there was a farmer’s son who was working for a landed lord in the stables.  Every morning, he’d take the horses out to pasture, passing along a hedge row once in the morning, and again in the evening as he brought the horses back in for the night.  He was a freckle-faced lad, tall and lanky, but not the best placed for wits.  If he had been, he’d have left the wee man under the stone.

Well, one day the lad was bringing in the horses for the evening, passing along the hedgerow, when he heard a terrible crying—moaning, wailing, sniveling, and all the rest.  Surely, it was the most pathetic sound you can imagine.  But the lad looked around and could see no-one at all.

The next evening, it happened again, and this time the lad let the horses go along and began to search through the hedges looking for what might be crying so.  Was it a child, lost in the woods?  Was it a lady in deep despair?  Searching both high and near, he finally settled the doleful sound on a large, flat stone.  But it baffled the lad that such a stone should cry, so he headed home after the horses.

On the third night, the crying and wailing was simply more than he could bear.  This time, he found the strangely flat stone, wiggled his fingers around the edges, and lifted it up.  Beneath it was what looked like a baby—only its face was certainly no baby at all.  It was rumpled and wrinkled and withered up like an old potato, with a long nose, scraggly white hair, and two beady black eyes like those of a shrew staring up at him.  The lad quickly replaced the stone and stepped back in shock.

The whimpering started right back up.  “Oh please…” said the little squeaking voice, more ancient than the lad’s great grandmother.  “Please let me out from under this stone.”

“Why should I?” the lad retorted, more than a little bit scared of the sight he’d seen under that stone.

“Set me free, and I will grant you a great gift!”  There was a pause, followed by more sniveling.  The lad thought a moment, then asked, “Like what?!”

“Whatever your heart desires most and I will always be there in times of need for you.”  The squeaky voice prattled on, complimenting the lad for this and that, if only he would help this poor creature in need.

The lad thought about the little wee man under the stone, small like a baby but shriveled and old.  He’d heard warning tales of the little people and their tricks.  But then he thought about having whatever his heart desires most, and almost before he could help himself, he lifted off that great flat stone and let the wee man free.

The little creature leapt up, its beady black eyes shining, and danced a jig upon the grass.  “Name your wish young man!” it squealed in delight, kicking its heels.  “But remember this:  never EVER curse me, or you’ll rue the day.”  The lad felt a bit dizzy, watching the wee little man dancing about, scraggly hair flying.  Finally, he said, “What I really hate is work.  I wish I never had to work a day again!”

“Done!” said the wee little man, and off he flew faster than a rabbit.  The lad thought he’d probably never see the wee little man from under the stone again…but he was wrong.  Walking along, he found the horses grazing on a tuft of turf and headed them on back to the stable.  The next morning, he rose to brush the horses, but their coats were already slick, shiny, and newly combed.  He went to grease the saddle and tack, but all the work was finished for him already.  Even the stalls had been mucked clean and laid with fresh new straw.  Well, the lad thought this was mighty fine and enjoyed himself the rest of the day under the shade tree.  The next morning, everything was the same.  All of his chores had miraculously been done for him and there was no work for him to do.

Well, this didn’t please any of the other servants none.   They saw this freckle-faced lad loafing about all day while they had to work, so they put a bad word in their master’s ear and soon the lad found that he was without a job.  On down the road he went, wondering how such a misfortune could happen to him.  Now he really had no work to do, but he didn’t have any home or any food either.  “Curse that wee little man!” he cried out.  But, of course, that was the wrong thing to do.

From out of the bushes came the wee little man, the size of a baby but all wrinkled and rumpled with those beady black eyes and scraggly white hair.  It was grinning from big ear to big ear, cackling and jumping up and down.  “Didn’t I tell you never to curse my help!?” he wailed.  “Now sure’s you’ll be wishing you’d left me under the stone—tee hee!”  And he pranced round the lad, kicking up his heels.  And to his dying day, instead of all his work being done for him, the tall gangly youth had nothing but briars in his shoes, food gone missing in the pot, and all his day’s work undone by morning.

So, if you’re not in a traditional Irish spirit yet, here’s a recipe for quintessential comfort food from the Emerald Isle.  This dish is a particular favorite for children.

Colcannon

3 waxy-fleshed potatoes, cut into small dice.

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 onions, chopped

A bunch of kale or half a Savoy cabbage, de-stemmed (or cored) and chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and warm a baking dish large enough to hold all the ingredients.  Boil potatoes (takes approximately 10 minutes).  Once cooked, drain the potatoes and place them in a large mixing bowl.  Set aside.

Heat half the butter with the olive oil in a large frying pan.  Fry the onions for 5 minutes, stirring to “keep them from catching.”  Add the kale or cabbage and fry until it wilts.  Remove pan from heat and add the contents to the potatoes in the mixing bowl.  “Give them a good stir” and season with salt and pepper.  Take the baking dish out of the oven and melt the rest of the butter in it.  Place potato mixture into the pan and bake for approximately 20 minutes.  The top of the Colcannon should be golden brown when cooked.  Serve topped with butter or your favorite gravy.

A Happy St. Patrick’s Day 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

 

 
 

In the Face of Tragedy

If ducks were people, there would be 17 extra obituaries in the paper this week:  Miss Puddle Duck.  Loved water sports, green leafy vegetables, and rainy days.  She will be remembered for her joyous attitude and comic antics.  She is survived by her friends Henny Penny and Madame Turkey.

But ducks are not people, so the story of their tragic demise will be related here instead.

Farming isn’t perfect, and it isn’t always pretty.  Despite the best stewardship or intentions, sometimes unexpected disasters still happen.  A juvenile eagle intimidates the chickens by sitting on top of their tractor (movable pen) and frightens them so badly that the birds pile atop one another and several are smothered.

An innocent lamb pokes its head into a neighboring pen to sniff a cousin.  The protective ewe takes offence and butts the lamb’s head, smashing it against the hard boards.  The lamb convulses and dies of brain trauma.

Grandpa’s black Labrador Meg runs alongside a pickup truck with joy, slips, and gets caught under the tire.  She ends up losing her tail but survives the incident.

Freak accidents can happen on a farm.  They’re terrible, heart-wrenching moments, but they are also a space to learn.  For instance, we now keep solid panels between lambing pens, so that lambs are kept safe from neighboring protective mothers, and we always call our dogs to sit next to us when vehicles approach.  I hope that, someday, I can look back on this week and see it as another time for growth and learning.

The hardest part of farm calamities is that they come without warning.  On this day, it was calm and sunny, and morning chores had progressed without any particular hiccups.  I had even brought a bag of lettuce scraps from our aquaponics greenhouse for the ducks, which they had attacked with vigor.  It is a morning now fraught with what-ifs in my memories.

Wintertime is always a dilemma for poultry housing.  In the summer, there are a variety of mobile pasturing units to keep everyone happy and an assortment of electric fencing to keep everyone safe.  Even though we slim the population down to just our breeding groups, there still is never enough space to go around for the overwintering crew.  Turkeys take over our original chicken coop, hens reside in the brooder coop and a greenhouse, and then there are the ducks…

Let’s be honest; ducks are messy.  In the summertime, when they can be outside and splash in a kiddy pool to their heart’s content and bore muddy holes for slug traps, it’s not so bad.  But in wintertime, these same traits make it very difficult to take care of ducks.  You can’t shelter them in a facility with a cement floor.  They splash so much water taking daily baths (very important for duck health) that the ice builds up and causes trouble not only for the farmer but for the ducks as well.  So they have to live in a shelter with either a dirt or gravel floor so that excess water can drain away through the hay bedding.

For several winters, we have been housing our breeder White Pekin ducks in our red pole-barn, which has a gravel floor.  This is a multi-purpose structure that stores hay and equipment, as well as shelters our rams during the winter months.  By late summer, the south end of the “Red Barn” is full of square hay bales.  As we begin feeding out the bales to the sheep in the fall, enough space is cleared on the east end to make room for the ducks.  It does not take much to keep in a duck, and since this is a temporary space that is expanded as the hay retreats, we have been corralling them by lashing upright wooden pallets together.  The ducks quack raucously with excitement every morning as we lug five-gallon buckets of water to them, drag out their pool and break up last night’s ice, and throw them some fresh hay.  The white birds burrow their bills in the dried grasses, in search of anything especially tasty, and splash wildly in the fresh water.

But last Wednesday night, it was not so pleasant a scene.  We had been held up by a meeting at the Creamery, so evening chores were on a late start.  I was trudging along the shoveled path to the chicken coop, ice-cream pail for collecting eggs in hand, when I saw before me a grayish-white object.  The yard was only dimly lit by the barnyard light, and the lump in my path was the same color as the snow and shadows.  As I approached, cautiously, it stood up.  It was one of my ducks.

“You silly,” I reprimanded her.  “Didn’t you think I brought you enough water this morning?  Why did you escape from your pen?”  I set down the bucket of eggs, scooped up the duck, and headed off towards the Red Barn.  As I continued, I encountered another duck, crouching against a snowbank.  “What, two?” I thought.  “The pen must have come apart.  There could be ducks everywhere.”

Carrying two ducks, I crossed the darkened back yard to the Red Barn, turned on the light, and found that the duck pen had not fallen apart.  It also appeared to be empty…almost empty.  There were two ducks in one corner, but they weren’t moving.  I bent closer and found that one of them was missing its head and the other one was barely breathing, its neck gnawed almost through.

“Help!” I screamed to my mother and sister who were up by the pigs as I ran with the two live ducks I was carrying.  “Help!”  Something had gotten into the barn.  I deposited the two ducks into the chicken coop (the nearest safe structure) and pelted back through the snow, searching for more ducks.  “Here Ducky, Ducky!”  I found another wounded duck huddled beside the fence of the turkey yard by the time the other ladies arrived.

We faced the Red Barn together, first looking for survivors.  It was then that my sister Kara saw the offender—the short-tailed rump of a bobcat scooting out of the barn and into the night from whence it had come.  We worked like a search-and-rescue team, crawling into every corner, pulling out the dead and assessing the wounded.

13 dead on the scene

4 critically wounded

4 minor injuries, with psychological trauma

The only blessing is that we did find all the ducks.  I don’t think I could have slept that night (though I’m not sure I did anyway), wondering if someone was still huddled in a snowbank, shivering, hurt, and scared.  Most of the ducks had been drug beneath the hay baler into an amorphous pile, their necks bloodied and torn.  The bobcat had not eaten a one—simply killed them and stashed them away.  It must have been a terrible, mad frenzy of murder and fear—like Sandy Hook for animals, only the killer had not taken himself out as well.

We have since lost the four critically wounded ducks.  The remainders (despite warm baths in the farmhouse bathtub and aloe-vera juice in their water) are still in shock.  They hardly eat or drink and still will not quack, despite several days of sheltering in a corner of the chicken coop.

In a way, it is our fault—as most farm accidents are, ultimately.  We should have made a better effort to protect the ducks.  We had thought that having them inside a building where any predators would have to pass the rams would be too intimidating.  Apparently, we were wrong.  After being able to examine tracks in the snow with the help of morning daylight, we found that there were bobcat footprints everywhere—likely because it was hunting in the nearby rabbit warren.  The predator might have even pursued a rabbit into the Red Barn, lost it amidst the hay, and then discovered the irresistible clutch of sitting ducks.  The rest led to the sad story I have endeavored to relate.

I wept for my ducks that day, and the days after as they continued to die.  I still don’t know if I will be able to save any of them, but I will keep trying.  And I will remember this lesson and continue to do better for my animals.  Yes, we do butcher some of our ducks for food, but it is a calm, reverent process.  I do not wish terror and pain on any animal, even if I am going to eat it. 

I am also hoping that the future will be without such intense tragedies on the homestead.  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

 

 
 

Seed Catalogue Scribbles

“Need a trellising cucumber that doesn’t get a waist in the middle and peas that harvest all at once,” is on our wish-list this year as we thumb through the colorful seed catalogues that start to fill the mailbox as early as December.

December?  Who is even ready to think about seeds yet!  But now that late February brings noticeably lengthened daylight, birds flit actively and sing, and the snow clumps tumble off the edge of the roof and land in wet plops below, it’s hard not to think of the oncoming spring. 

Now, granted, spring also brings with it a multitude of baby animals, a million projects needing attention all at once, plenty of mud and barn mucking…but the thought of eager little plants in the basement, popping their optimistic first leaves through the starting soil is as close to a visual of hope as any I can imagine at this moment.  Nature is reborn through a promise of summer glory and a delicious and bountiful harvest.

“Check out the heirloom tomatoes; any new cherry types?  Low acid strains are preferable.”

By the time February comes, even the store of home-canned tomatoes is dwindling.  The hard, pink rocks in the story are hardly worth the mention, and so we dream of the succulent, dripping red orbs that seem so tantalizingly far away.  The seed catalogue images of tomatoes seem especially glossy and succulent—almost unreal in this land of white and gray and barren branches.  Will summer really be as green as the photos I took last July?  Each winter I wonder, as if I am not yet ready to trust the truth of the images.

There is something irreplaceable about a homegrown tomato.  It might be lumpy, with a little sun scorch on the top or a little scab on the bottom, but inside is a treasure of juicy flavor ready to burst forth.  Oh, for some heirloom tomato bruschetta… 

But tomatoes come with their own trials.  They have to be started very early and transplanted many times.  They need compost tea, lots of sun, and a long hardening-off process.  Sometimes we spend months in the spring hauling teenaged tomato plants out to the high tunnel during the day and back into the house in the evening because we just can’t quite trust that it will stay warm enough out there.  The house can become so full of plants just before early summer’s transplanting that every surface (floor and table) throughout most of the house is turned into a virtual greenhouse of little cucumbers, squashes, and eggplants.  One farm visitor managed to find a vacant chair and looked around a bit bewildered, laughing, “Guess I’m sitting in the garden.” 

Invariably, it’s safe to transplant the tomatoes once they absolutely cannot wait any longer in their pots, and we’re out at 11:00 in the evening, desperate to save them, with headlamps and hand trowels and watering cans and…  To see a performance of a song by Stephanie Davis that is a perfect example of how the love of tomatoes can take over your life, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-JCpoyNpJQ (or search “Veggie Serenade”).

“Peppers that turn colors (red, yellow, orange) without rotting in the field.”

Perhaps it’s our soil or our luck, but we have had a dickens of a time getting peppers to mature beyond the green phase without them turning into a mass of gooey slime.  A small darkened patch grows limp on the side of the pepper and soon the whole fruit is lost.  Not fair!  Every year, we try a new variety, hoping for better success.  Green peppers are delicious, yes, but most of our restaurant clients really want red (or preferably orange!) ones, so the challenge is on.

We have had some success with small round ones, long skinny ones, or ones that end up with a curl at the tip, but getting that big, blocky fruit this far north is tricky.  Each year, we scour through the new offerings for hopes of a short-season colorful-ripening pepper with great flavor that looks promising.  But dark purple peppers?  We haven’t had a request for that yet…maybe leave that for an experiment another year.

“Stock up on onions—seeds, sets, or plants?”

Back in the days when we first started gardening, the bag of onion sets was an integral part of the stocking-up for planting season process.  That’s how Grandma put in her garden.  But an onion set is actually a year-old plant, and at this point in its life cycle what the onion really wants to accomplish is making a seed head.  For an onion whose focus is making a large, delicious bulb, starting from seed is best.

But trying to convince onions from seed to have a hearty start has been an adventure unto itself.  We tried started them inside.  We tried starting them in the high tunnel.  Sometimes they grew, sometimes they withered, and sometimes they just simply gave up and died.  Starting onions from seed is tricky!  Perhaps it works best in warmer climates, which is where the baby onion plants we buy now get their start.

Wrapped up in bundles of 60 or so, these little intrepid members of the lily family come by the boxful, ready to plant.  Our onions get a great start and someone else has the joy of getting those impertinent seeds to grow!  Get out your trusty dibble, get down on your knees, and in they go.  This works well for leeks too.

“Find an eggplant that isn’t so darn self-satisfied.”

I didn’t always like eggplants.  One of my strong food memories as a kid was the days Mom would make eggplant parmesan.  Now, I knew that Mom was a busy professional and couldn’t always take time to cook for us, so this was a special treat…or at least it was supposed to be.  It didn’t help that the eggplant had come from the store and had sat on the shelf for who knows how long.  Perhaps the eggplant had forgotten what sunshine looked like or rain or wind at that point…those moments might have been a long time ago.  This might be why the eggplant in the dish was far from even a vegetable-loving child’s idea of food—it was gray, slimy, and not very tasty.  The cheese and the tomatoes were, by far, the best part of the dish, and that slab of eggplant stayed on the plate the longest…staring me in the face.  I knew I had to eat it; Mom had worked so hard to make dinner, but…

Today, I like eggplant.  That is, the eggplant I grow.  But the plants that produce those lovely, round, pendulous, purple orbs of the Italian variety have a bit of an attitude.  To be honest, we’ve been lucky to get two per plant in a good season.  After that, they sit on their laurels and smirk at you.  That’s hardly enough for the eggplant to earn its keep!  So we went looking for something new.

There are strains now through the Asian varieties (which grow longer, slender eggplants) that are much more prolific and will produce right until they freeze.  Delicious sautéed or breaded, these eggplants come with purple, white, or speckled skins for a variety of gourmet tastes.  They’re not easy to stuff, but they do slice up into uniform disks, which work great for even cooking.  So, sometimes being brave and trying something new in the catalogue can be rewarding.  No more fear of eggplant parmesan!

“Try growing a new fresh herb—Lemon Basil?”

There’s nothing quite like exchanging the convenience of a bottle of dried herbs for the adventuresome and flavorful journey of learning to cook with fresh herbs right out of the garden.  Sometimes, in the summer months, I’ll just grab an assortment of vegetables (yellow zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, green beans) and throw them into a sauté pan with olive oil, garlic, and a handful of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, thyme).  It’s easy and delicious, especially when augmented with a little cheese or tortellini.

This year, as you page through the glossy seed catalogue, try something new.  It might be a bean that ends up growing higher than your trellis and waves around wondering what to do next, or it might be a new pepper with a unique shape and flavor from Hungary, but having a garden is always an adventure.  You just might surprise yourself with something you never knew you liked.  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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