It is true that art can be found almost anywhere and that
almost anything can become art. The
unsuspecting pumpkin is a suitable example.
Nestled in the garden like renegade bits of the sun, they lie like
orange treasure amidst the winter squashes and withering autumn vines. A plant of the American Continents, its
appearance in late October festivities is much later than bats, goblins, or
black cats. But Halloween is somehow not
truly complete without lighted Jack-O-Lanterns on the front porch.
Now, Jack gets around—whether climbing bean stocks to stealing
golden harps or outwitting giants—he’s a common figure in northern European
folklore. An everyday sort of fellow who
bumbles into outrageous adventures, Jack reminds us that the unexpected can be
just around the corner.
Discovering the unexpected has been part of the “Master
Pumpkin Carving Classes” families have been enjoying this week at our
farm. While the parents or grandparents
might have originally seen the event as something fun for the kids without any
mess in the house, they quickly find out that pumpkin carving can go far beyond
variations on Jack’s faces.
Just like a piece of stone can be a corner of a building or
a magnificent sculpture, the pumpkin as a medium offers great possibilities for
illuminated imagery. The face might be
Dracula, with fangs and glowing eyes. Or
it might be a witch with floppy hat and warty chin. Go beyond faces, and the possibilities grow
quite exciting. You can make spiders,
birds, cats, or any number of scenes. With
a few tips for designing and executing patterns, the world of Jack-O-Lantern
possibilities ignites. Working out our
ideas on scratch paper first, we then draw the designs directly on the face of
the pumpkins before carving.
Imagine a table, covered in black plastic for easy cleanup, with
a big bowl in the middle. Kids, parents,
and grandparents are all busy sawing out the lids on round, orange squashes and
scooping out the stringy, seedy insides.
Everyone is sticky to the elbow, laughing and talking.
“I’m pulling out its guts!” a seven-year-old boy
exclaims. “Ooh, or…maybe this is its
brains. My poor pumpkin is dying,
“It’s not dying,” I explain.
“It’s entering a new phase in its life.”
As we scoop and carve, we put all the seeds, pulp, and pieces into the
bowl, which are saved for the chickens.
Chickens love the seeds—gobbling them up like tasty little bugs—then run
around with the strings like treasure and peck at the carving remnants. It’s a great source of oils and sugars as the
season turns cold, and pumpkin guts turned into eggs is great agrarian
recycling of one project’s waste into another project’s product.
Pumpkins are a fruit and therefore have a finite life span,
making Jack-O-Lanterns a transient form of art.
We enjoy them for maybe a week and then, their magic spent, it is time
for the pig pen or the compost pile. The
humus is returned to the garden to perhaps someday grow another pumpkin.
In a way, transiency can make something more special, and it
mimics much of the aesthetic elements of farming. A well-laid-out and kindly tended garden can
both produce delicious food for the family and be a pleasing part of the
surroundings. But in the end, the frosts
will come, and the garden will be finished until the following spring, when a
new layout will take its place.
There are a couple tricks, however, for getting your
Jack-O-Lantern to last just a little bit longer that I’ll share with you. When carving, either plan a star-shaped lid
that can be set cock-eyed when lit or cut a smoke hole in the back of a
circle-shaped lid. Allowing space for
the smoke to escape out the top helps keep the pumpkin from “cooking” on the
inside when lit. After carving, rub all
the cut edges with Vaseline, which helps to seal in the moisture and slow the
dehydration (withering) process.
Finally, when your creation is not lighting the front porch, wrap it in
cellophane and keep it in the refrigerator.
Do not leave it outside if the temperatures are freezing—exposure to
frost damages pumpkins.
There still is time to enjoy a pumpkin carving class at our
farm, if you wish, though calling ahead to schedule a time is always best. Maybe you’ve already been finding the hidden Jack
in your pumpkins, amidst the gleeful giggles of creative youngsters. But if you haven’t yet had your fill of
old-fashioned Halloween delights, here’s an event you might not want to miss.
Harvest Dinner and Concert
When: Friday, October
31st, starting at 6:00 p.m.
Creamery & Café, at North Star Homestead
What: Join us for the first of our 2013-14 Harvest Dinner and Concert Series!
Prepare to enter a magical world of stories and song from hilarious to spooky
with performers Laura Berlage and Tom Draughon. A beautiful three-course
dinner will showcase our pasture raised roast pork, with side dishes from the
bounties of autumn’s garden. We’ll top it all off with a special apple
You’re welcome to
come in costume, if you like! Reservations are required. Food
allergies are accommodated. $40 per person or $220 for season
tickets. You can view the full Harvest Dinner and Concert Series poster
on our website at www.northstarhomestead.com/docs/HarvestDinnerPoster.pdf
to learn more.
Wishing for you the joys of finding the unexpected around
the corner, lit by the golden glow of Jack in the Lantern. 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
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 11:42 AM CDT
It’s hard to imagine a homestead farm without fences. There are so many different husbandry
projects happening at once—pigs, chickens, sheep, ducks, turkeys, gardens,
cows, crops, etc.! If the pigs were in
the squash patch, the chickens in with the donkey, or any number of
combinations, it is easy to see how something would go awry. Fences help maintain the order that is
crucial in a successful agrarian enterprise.
The old saying goes that good
fences make good neighbors, which harkens to the days when farmers were
responsible for their side of the fence.
Grandpa remembers his dad going out each year, trimming and mending the
hedges and fences that bordered the neighbors.
Neither family wanted the others’ cows in their corn or pigs in the
yard. Prevention of unwanted escapes was
much better than cleaning up the destructive aftermath.
For centuries, most fences were living hedges, the
traditional English model of which involved cutting and laying the hedge every
three years. Stems as big around as a
person’s finger were sliced at an angle part-way through to allow them to flex
near the base. These stems were then
braided together along the length of the hedgerow. New shoots would sprout up from the braided
stems, and these would be cut and laid three years later. As the hedge grew, the goal was to make it “Hog
tight, horse high, and bull strong.”
Every 100 years, a new variety of hedge plant like elderberry would be
propagated in the hedge row to give new vitality. Counting the number of different plants in an
English farm hedge is a rough estimate of how long that hedge has been tended
by human hands.
Hedges and fencerows can offer important habitat for a
variety of wildlife, as well as block wind and snow during inclement
weather. In rural Vermont, the ever-present need to pick rock
from the sloping fields and pastures became material for snaking stone walls
that marked property lines or kept livestock in or out of desires areas. It was even common in colonial times to
simply “fence the yard” and let the animals wander at will outside. The pigs lived mostly in the woods, the
cattle in the pastures, and the chickens where they will, but at least the
laundry, mother’s flowers, and the small children would be left alone!
Fences have also been an issue of contention between
farmers. One of Abraham Lincoln’s legal
cases in Illinois
before he became President involved a dispute between a cattleman and a crop
farmer. The crop farmer was outraged
that the cattleman’s herd had invaded his fields and damaged the crop, and he
wanted the cattleman to pay for fencing his fields. Ultimately, the law ruled that it was the
crop farmer’s responsibility to erect fences to protect his property, not the
The invention of barbed wire changed the face of ranching in
the West as wheat farmer’s pushed into the plains. Huge herds coming north out of Texas to the railroad stations that took the beasts to Chicago meat plants
reeked havoc on anything in their way.
All the work into a wheat crop could be demolished in a few hours below
stamping hooves. As the West was
settled, cowboys found it harder and harder to make drives because barbed wire
fences were going up everywhere.
Now with electric fencing, the barrier is no longer strictly
physical. A single strand of high
tensile wire with a pulsing electric fencing system can keep thousands of
pounds of cattle inside. This is because
electric fence works as a psychological barrier that requires training young
animals to gain their respect. Our lambs
begin in a traditional woven wire fenced pen so they can learn what a fence is
(I can see through it but cannot run through it). They then graduate to an electric mesh fence
on one side of a pen. A nose is zapped,
the lambs run in surprise and bounce off the opposite fence. Once they learn that the “biting fence” does
not pursue them as long as they leave it alone, the lambs are safe to be
introduced to a fully electrified paddock.
The psychological barrier works as well for predators and
other creatures meant to be kept outside of an area by electric fence. A sensitive raccoon paw soon learns that
biting fences are no fun and leaves the sweet corn patch to itself. Coyotes pace the edge, looking for a way
in—finding none, they continue on their way.
But just as the Vermont
sheep knew every spot in the stone walls that had fallen over, both livestock
and predators know when an electric fence has been shorted out. Diligence in maintaining good fences is ever
present in a farmer’s labors.
One of the first fences I helped put up on our farm when I
was about 12 years old was not to keep out wolves or hold in sheep. Circling our first, modest raised bed garden,
it wasn’t even in response to rabbits or deer.
Grandpa’s black Labrador Meg had some funny habits, including making it
her personal missions to pull out all the plants in the garden. Transplanted tomatoes? Rip.
Half-grown sweet corn? Rip.
I was a bit of a bean pole then, and I’m sure that Mom and
Grandpa did most of the fence post pounding.
We strung the four-foot woven wire around the perimeter and built a
wooden gate at one end. There, now our
precious little garden was safe from the marauding dog! Later, we added chicken wire, to help with
the baby rabbits that were lusting after the carrots and beets.
Now, 14 years and acres of garden later, we pulled out that
old first garden fence—rusted, listing, and a little war-beaten by lawn
mowers. A couple neighbor friends came
over to help as we wrestled the bottom wire free from tangled quack grass roots
and buried fence clips. Now a patch for
perennial crops of rhubarb, asparagus, garlic, and strawberries, the garden no
longer needs the old-fashioned metal protection. Meg has grown old and gray, resigning her
urge to enforce her will on unsuspecting garden plants.
We pulled out the old T-posts, rolled up the unruly chicken
wire, and opened this little piece of the farm into a new chapter. We almost left the garden gate—as a memento
or conversation piece—but with typical German thoroughness, it all had to come
out. If the old rig had stayed much
longer, the weeds would have taken over the fence line enough to be mistaken as
From the ancient to the modern, putting in, taking out, and
maintaining fences is part and parcel of agrarian living. I don’t know how the weather does it, but the
days you put in fence are almost always the hottest of the summer. And the days you pull it out are cold and
drizzly. But yesterday’s fence pulling
was pleasant enough, and we laughed as we wrestled and tugged on the old
worn-out fence with our neighbor friends, who were lending a hand to the
task. Guess good fences still make good
neighbors. See you down on the farm
Laura Berlage is a
co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 11:41 AM CDT