North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Jack in the Lantern

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, AHHHHHH!”

“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.

Halloween Night Harvest Dinner and Concert

When:  Friday, October 31st, starting at 6:00 p.m.

Where:  Farmstead Creamery & Café, at North Star Homestead Farms

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 treat. 

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 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


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 cattleman’s.

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 a hedge.

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 sometime.

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

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