North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Autumn's To Do List

I wake to another drizzly morning on the farm.  Even the roosters haven’t bothered to start crowing yet.  The air is cool, and I long to stay snuggled under the covers…just a bit longer.  It’s the first Saturday after the farmer’s market season, and everyone else is sleeping in, right?  But, alas, those rules don’t apply to farmers.  It’s already October, and there is much to be done before the snow flies.

And that little voice inside is reminding that there’s no use putting it off until spring—that crammed-full-of-projects-and-baby-animals time of year when leisure for sleep evaporates like puddles in August.  It’s time to start checking off items on that autumn list as fast as possible before the ground freezes.

The biggest chunk of the before-ground-freezes assignments focus in the garden.  October is the month for planting garlic, which means preparing a bed that has raised neither garlic nor onions nor shallots this year, picking out the best heads for planting, and getting down on one’s hands and knees with the dibble to push next year’s promise of a crop into the ground.  Then haul out old hay and mulch the bed nice and thick to protect the buried cloves from severe cold.

It’s also time to dig the last of the carrots and potatoes for the root cellar.  Last year, our potato patch was quite ambitious, since we were expecting to sell 50 pounds of potatoes each week to a local restaurant.  When that arrangement fell through, we found ourselves with more potatoes than we could imagine using!  Our CSA members enjoyed potatoes each week well into the winter, we sold potatoes at our farm store, and we served potatoes in pasties and pot pies.  And still there were more potatoes sprouting in the basement.  It looked like some story by Dr. Seuss!

This spring, therefore, we vowed to curb our potato overdosing habits and planted a patch about half the size of the previous year’s undertaking.  Box-fulls of those sprouting basement beasties were returned to the earth to grow anew (a practice that only works for one year before scab sets in), sprouting tendrils included.  With the help of our summer interns, we mulched the patch religiously and picked potato beetles.  Now our interns have returned to college, and we are left with the bulk of the patch still needing to be harvested by hand with a garden fork!  No small task, for certain…any volunteers?

Fortunately, harvesting the patch of winter squash can be checked off the list.  I was hoping to give the plants a bit more time with the warmer weather, but when the mice and voles decided to begin nibbling craters into the sides of a handful of buttercups, that was it!  We hauled out a hay wagon and began piling the green, orange, blue, and yellow squashes, pumpkins, and gourds on top.  Rolling the wagon into a shed keeps the precious harvest away from most gnawing creatures, as well as frosts.  The timing was fortuitous, actually, because the ensuing days of drizzly rain would have been the perfect setup for molds to attack any squashes still in the field.  Safely tucked in the shed, along with boxes of apples and palates of onions, garlic, and shallots, it’s easy to slip inside and snitch enough for supper.

And then there are the other sundry jobs of emptying out rain barrels and squirreling them away in the shed for the winter, pulling out the electric mesh perimeter fence and in-ground soaker hose irrigation system, and hauling the pump for the sand point into the garage before it freezes.

Autumn is also butchering season, reducing the summer population down to winter breeding stock.  The last of the chickens are ready, and soon it will be turkey time.  Over the years, we’ve butchered our own poultry in every kind of weather—90 degrees, wind, sleet, hail, even a snowstorm.  But everyone much prefers a sunny, crisp autumn day for the task.  Winter housing for poultry is a finite situation, and folks have already placed their orders for pasture-raised Thanksgiving turkey.

It’s also time for the winter-season piglets to arrive, courtesy our neighbor’s sows.  That means fencing needs to go up, housing needs to be winterized, and feed needs to be ordered.  Not long after that it will be time to sort the ewes into breeding groups and turn in the rams, preceded by barn cleanings on a massive scale.  Every time we turn around, something else gets added to the autumn to-do list—often the adding happens faster than the subtracting!

There are apples to pick and sauce and jellies to make, wild plums to gather and cranberries to make into jams.  The last of the basil needs to be whipped into pesto and frozen for pizza enjoyment all winter long.  Winterize the tractors and change the oil in the golf cart, then rip out the old garden plants and rake the leaves.  Either we’ll have to switch to a 24-hour shift or find a few more persons to help us “get ‘er done” this autumn.  What’s that you said, we have to add canning tomatoes to the list now too?

Just when you thought the growing season was winding to a close, there is yet one last push before winter truly closes in around the homestead and blankets the pastures in white.  But there’s also room for a little fun—crunching through the fallen leaves with our herding dog Lena, carving pumpkins into golden glowing Jack-O-Lanterns, watching the flock of Sandhill cranes dance in the pasture.  Autumn can be such a magical and fleeting time of year.  Soak in the colors now so they fill your spirit with joy and wonder through the wintertime.

I can smell wild plums on the stove.  Time to help make another batch of jam.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

Season Extenders

With 18 inches of snow still tumbling from the skies and sliding off the barn roof in mid-May this year, it’s been my grumble that we sure ought to have earned a late autumn.  We had a nip of frost during that cold and drizzly week in July, but usually the fall freeziness starts up in late August on our farm—which has the pleasure of being nestled in the county’s cold spot.

Fortunately, September has been impressively mild, with the eggplants and peppers still hanging in there.  Covering again to make it through our fifth frost, the dreaded hard freeze still appears a little ways off into October—added time for winter squashes to ripen.  This year, we’ll take every extra day for keeping the garden growing that Nature is willing to grant us.

The Northwoods is notorious for its short growing season.  Grandma always used to say that there was no sense planting much in the garden until Memorial Weekend, well after her family used to have the planting finished on the old family farms in Central Illinois.  And you can be pretty sure, around here, that the ground will be freezing by later October, if not sooner.  Garden into November or harvest Broccoli for Christmas dinner in these parts?  Forget it!

This leaves hearty Northwoods gardeners always on the hunt for creative season extenders.  Our adventures began with cold frames made from insulative bales of hay stacked to form the outline of a square.  The earth below was turned, amended with compost, and sprinkled with lettuce and spinach seeds.  The land sloped gently to the south, facing the low-sky autumn sun.  On top was laid an old glass window in a wooden frame.  This was supposed to catch and keep the warmth of the sun, helping the soil stay above freezing and warm enough for the eager plants to grow.  But the buildup of moisture became a problem, and when that moisture with the added weight of snow load built up on the window pane and froze, the glass broke…and no-one really wants to eat lettuce with bits of glass in it.

So we upgraded to a polycarbonate (corrugated plastic) cold frame from Germany with hinged doors for vents that could rest on the soil sheltered along the south side of the house.  Now we were able to enjoy greens as early as April, and a second late planting of provided salads weeks after the rest of the garden had froze out.  But, while the small size was fine for one family, it didn’t offer us the ability to extend the growing season for our CSA members and clients.

We next tried low-tunnels, which are a method where metal hoops stuck into the ground over the bed of growing plants support a lightweight, breathable fabric.  This system can be used to organically keep plants protected from pests, especially in their early and tender growing phases, as well as insulate against cold temperatures.  But a low tunnel just wasn’t enough to keep the plants safe when the nighttime temperatures dipped into the 20’s.

It was time for more drastic measures!  High tunnels.  Also hoop-like in structure, these season extenders are supported by steel ribs high enough to walk through, encased in plastic film.  Doors on the ends or adjustable roll-up sides offer abilities to control temperature and humidity, as well as air flow.  Close it up through the winter and the ground might never freeze solid inside, making it much warmer in the spring to get plants started.  Open it wide in the summer to allow insect and wind pollination as well as keep the moisture down.  Close it back up on the chilly fall nights to keep the plants safe and growing well into October or even November.  It doesn’t break (like glass) or blow away (like low tunnels), and it can withstand winter snows.

Upon entering the world of high tunnels, we opted to start small to give it a try by ordering a 12 by 24-foot high tunnel kit from FarmTek.  It was our first time working with their systems, amidst the intricacies of run-away Tek screws, cantankerous saddle clamps, and ground augers that had to be dug into the rocky soil rather than twisted.  But after several brave and rigorous months, we had our first high tunnel.  Oh the joy of ratcheting down the top cover and hanging the door as the finishing touch.  A roll-up back flap made it easy to bring in wheel barrel loads of compost or mulch, and in-ground soaker hose irrigation provided necessary water.

In the spring, we hauled out our trays upon trays of seedlings to the high tunnel for hardening off, nestled our cold-sensitive tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants into the sun-warmed soil well before squashes or beans could be planted outside, and kept those plants going well after the garden was ripped out and put to bed at the end of the season.  But the little 12-by-24 soon wasn’t big enough to meet our needs.

It was time for a serious high tunnel project.  The summer of 2011, with the help of our Northland College intern Sarah, we leveled the top end of the garden and erected a 12 by 50-foot plastic film high tunnel.  But you know how it goes—construction projects always take longer than you anticipate.  Our tomato transplants were getting desperate—really desperate—dangling and sprawling from their transplant containers, praying for more room for root growth as they waited for us to finish the project.  The rafters were up and secured in place, but we still didn’t have the cover on, when the tomato desperation went beyond the beyonds.

It was after chores, and it was dark even for a June night.  The summer was getting off to a hot start, and Sarah had been joking about trying “night gardening” to beat the heat.  Only the state of the tomatoes made that proposition no joke that night.  We pulled the truck up to the high tunnel construction sight, turned on the headlights, and planted 150 tomatoes until midnight (with the help of a few mosquitoes).  Sarah didn’t suggest night gardening as a creative idea again after that adventure.

Stringing used baling twine from the rafters down to the plants and securing the strands with ground stakes, the tomato plants were carefully trellised up off the ground in orderly rows with walkways.  That next week, the plastic cover was carefully pulled into place, augmented with roll-up sides and a door on the east end.  It was a pretty satisfying accomplishment for our woman-powered crew, and the frosts didn’t manage to kill those intrepid tomatoes until November that year.  Break out the canning jars!

We’re hoping for such a season now, given the late spring.  The twining Romas and colorful heirloom varieties reach high over my head.  I love the season of autumn, but it’s always hard to see the demise of the garden, with all the time and love that was invested to help it flourish all summer long.  In milder growing climates, like Maine, some farmers are using high tunnels to grow food all year round!  But up here, we’re happy to add a bit more time to both ends of the gardening season in whatever way we can.  Who can help but smile at the first…and last garden ripe tomatoes?  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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