North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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January Thaw

So, last week, we all nearly froze to death.  And yes, I had been hoping for something a little warmer—something above zero.  But temperatures hovering around 30 degrees, while nice for the winter athletes in the area, is an utter messiness on the farm.

The donkey’s winter pen must be cleaned up each day with one of those handy, red, slotted mucking rakes like a kitty litter scooper on steroids.  The “donkey apples” are dry, clearly defined, and fairly easy to swipe up, shake the good bedding free, and dump into a wheelbarrow outside the pen.

The sheep use a deep-pack winter bedding system, where we keep adding layers of straw or old hay on top of the soiled bedding.  The entire mass slowly begins to compost below, offering a cushy, warm surface for the sheep to lounge upon.  In spring, this wonderful pack of manure and roughage is spread on gardens and hayfields to improve soil fertility and organic matter.

But the poultry situation is another story altogether.  Through the cold spell, the messy, wet-ish, chicken “droppings” freeze in cakes as I haul in fresh layers of wood shavings and straw to help keep little bird feet warm and dry.  But when that January thaw comes, all that frozen pack melts into a pungently odiferous swamp that oozes and goozes around your boots, threatening to mire you entirely!  Adding more bedding on top, at this point, is quite fruitless, so there is nothing to be done but to clean the whole thing out and start with fresh bedding.

In the summer, this means backing up the manure spreader hitched to the tractor, piling the beading on top, and driving away to spread the rich nutrients on the hayfields or pasture.  But in winter, the door to the shed where the manure spreader sleeps is piled high with snow, and the tractor will only be hopelessly floundered and stuck in the deep snow outside the chicken coop.  So really, that mid-winter cleaning with mechanical assist is a pipedream, at least on our farm.

Instead, it’s time for some real high-tech equipment:  shovels, ice chippers, five-gallon buckets, and wheelbarrows.  We scope out the barnyard, surveying the right place for the winter manure pile—out of the way of the snow plow but a good spot for loading into the spreader come spring, preferably not too far away from the chicken coop but also not where it will become a drainage problem come the big snow melt.

We settle on a corner of the plowed space between the Red Barn and a green storage shed, uphill of the mini lake that appears each spring behind the turkey coop.  Last year, in desperation, we had tried dragging the soiled bedding just outside the chicken coop door into the yard, but the ensuing ode-du-chicken that lasted until the ground hardened enough to take it away was less then appreciated.  This spot is certainly farther away but hopefully better suited as a holding ground for the day’s labors.

Little winding trails connect the plowed path to the turkey and then the chicken coop—just wide enough for walking with a filled and dripping waterer but not quite wide enough for the wheelbarrows.  We tug and pull the two-wheeled, yellow beast with red handles through the slightly mushy snow to the door of the coop.  The exhaust fan has been running all day and last night too, but it’s still not keeping up with the melting frost from the walls.

Working with old metal scoop shovels and our trusty ice chopper, we fill the five-gallon buckets with soggy, sticky bedding the color of milk chocolate, then empty the buckets into the wheelbarrow.  Too wide to fit through the chicken coop door, it waits patiently outside to bear the load.

As we chip and scoop away, I wonder how many loads of bedding and bags of feed I’ve hauled in here since the last time the coop needed cleaning.  Over a foot thick in places, we are hardly two feet into the doorway of the coop when it’s time to empty the wheelbarrow.  I grasp the handles and push with my full body while Mom clutches the rim and pulls from the front.  We mire down first to the left and then the right as a wheel sinks off the trodden-down path.  Ooh, this is going to be fun…ha ha.

Grumpy, mid-winter chickens are less than obliging to move out of our way as we trudge back for a second load.  The White Pekin ducks, who are overwintering with the chickens this year to avoid any season two of the bobcat attack, hurry outside and into the snow, flapping and quacking in delight at the warmed temperatures.  We’ve been doing our best to accommodate their ducky needs through the winter, but their penchant for spilling water has absolutely sloshed the bedding in places.

When the bedding stayed froze in the cold, this wasn’t too much of a problem.  But now with the thaw, the brown-gray goop and blocks of ice mounds are treacherous as well as nasty, and it all has to go.  Mom takes five wheelbarrow loads, while I take six or seven into the darkening afternoon, until we have finally cleaned out the first half of the coop.  Realizing that we had neither the light nor the strength to finish the job that day, we traipsed a path to the chopper box (which holds the fresh bedding from the local saw mill).

I carefully ease myself inside, between the tines and auger that power the unloading process for big jobs like barn cleanings.  Here, I attack the still half-frozen bank of wood shavings with a hoe and kick them towards the outlet, where Mom waits with the wheelbarrow below.  Even though they are difficult to maneuver in the snow, where would we be without wheel barrows?

As we work, it becomes apparent that 12 loads of litter were hauled out of the coop for the same amount of floor space that now only takes two-and-a-half loads to cover with fresh bedding.  Already, the air quality in the coop is improving as the ladies scratch at the light-golden shavings all nice and dry for their scaly feet.  Right away, their moods improve as they strut about.  The younger girls with the ducks on the other half of the divided coop stare through the chicken wire with envy.

“That’s not fair, what about us?”

But it’s dark and damp and our arms, shoulders, and legs are worn out for the night.  Guess what I’ll be doing tomorrow afternoon, thanks to the January thaw?  Well, we knew it would come around sometime.  At least the chicken coop will smell much better when we 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

Crazy Cold

I’m not trying to be dramatic, but it’s colder than colder than cold outside today.  Schools are canceled across the state and even in Chicago, eight hours driving time to the south.  A pure arctic blast sweeps across the Northland, plummeting temperatures so low they kill the outdoor digital thermometer—never to rise from the grave again.  Why they sell such a wimpy model up here, who knows!

Even though it’s too cold for the school kids to venture outside, I still have chores to do.  Bundling up for 50-below wind-chill weather is no small task, layering on 17 pounds of boots, insulated pants, down coat, headband, hat, scarf, and the new chopper mittens I got for Christmas.  It only takes 15 minutes for skin to be frost bitten in this weather, so I peer through a mere slit in my downy attire, like a medieval knight armed against the warring weather.

Alternately, life inside the heated aquaponics greenhouse (when the sun is shining and the eager green plants offer their mid-winter oxygen high) sits snug and steaming in the morning sun.  Shuffling about with a watering can or bending to pull a head of fresh lettuce in this little micro-climate seems like a blissful heaven compared to the frigid world between my back door and the chicken coop.

Our winding, trudged-down trails make navigating the farm an interesting endeavor, especially when the winds drift them over in places.  Accidentally stepping off the trail as my glasses fog over from steamy breath, I find myself in the less-than-amusing predicament of sinking in over my knee. 

Yes, I remind myself, I like Wisconsin winters…really I do.  Every type of weather has to be good for something, right?  How about surviving this cold means no flea beetles attacking the broccoli this summer, ok?  No cucumber bugs?  No Colorado potato beetles?  How about no ticks?  I’d take that as a fair exchange for freezing my eyelashes together while doing chores the first week in January.

But you know it’s getting bad when the hairs in your nose freeze together too, beneath your scarf!  Inside the non-insulated chicken coop, though, it’s nearly 20 degrees (above zero), due to the 130 little warm, feathery bodies inside, south-facing windows, and the bright sunshine today.  At 42 BTUs per chicken, the ladies are helping keep each other warm.  But I notice that the heated waterer is being cantankerous, its rim frozen solid, which means I get to lug the beast to the farm house bathtub to thaw it out…again.

Yes, I tell myself, winter has good qualities.  I actually get to have some sleep because the sun sets before ten o’clock in the evening.  I’m not being eaten alive by mosquitoes.  There are no weeds to pull.  And I’m not making hay in 90-degree mugginess.  Yes, I remind myself, this is an improvement.  Can you feel the enthusiasm before it freezes over?

The ice building up on the inside of my polar fleece scarf is becoming suffocating.  Goodness, it’s crazy cold out here today.  I can tell by the biting westerly wind that it’s best to dash between buildings rather than stay out long—or at least when you can.  But now we have to jump-start the car again because the battery died in the cold.  Oh goodness, where is a warm dog when you need one!

But none of the dogs are eager to stay outside long.  They hop on three legs, then two.  Our little dog Sophie wonders if she can hop back to the house on one leg, her paws are so cold.  They’d much rather curl up in their soft doggie beds on the heated basement floor.  I can’t blame them, but the chores have to get done sometime.

The sheep have frosty noses, with a light dusting of ice crystals adorning to the edges of their warm wooly coats, just as it clings in frosty tendrils on the wayward wisps of hair escaping around the sides of my face.  In the distance, I can hear the trees popping in the forest, the last bits of sap expanding and splitting the wood from within. 

And here I am, just a medium-sized mammal, floundering around in the snow, bundled up because I haven’t much fur, lugging a half-frozen chicken waterer.  This must be some form of madness!  I’m keeping sub-tropical birds in a little wooden building in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin’s winter—the harshest ever since 1996!  If this crazy cold keeps up much longer, we’ll be watching out for the edge of the oncoming glacier!!!  (Don’t worry, glaciers move rather slow, so you should be able to stay ahead of it.)

But once inside, all warmed by the wood stove with a steaming mug of hot chocolate in hand, the glistening snowiness in the sunshine outside still seems like a magical fairy world.  And out of that ice-blue sky, tiny snowflakes are falling from nowhere, drifting and dancing lazily in the westerly winds.  A chickadee darts to and from the feeder, happy for the sustenance, while the cat watches from within the safety of the window.  The tip of her furry tail twitches, keeping time with her feline thoughts.

But it won’t be long before the sun begins to set, and I’ll pile on the bundle of protective clothing to face this crazy cold for evening chores.  Wasn’t I just out there?  Be safe, stay warm, and hopefully things will be a little bit warmer when we 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


Finding Joy in the Little Moments

Farming can have its moments of drudgery:  mucking barns, cleaning chicken coops, weeding the garden, mulching the potato patch—the sorts of projects that make our summer interns grumble and groan.  And then there are the tastefully unpleasant tasks, like picking through the odiferous rotting potatoes in the basement.  But farming is far from all muck and grime, with a constant supply of transitions and seasonal changes that help to keep the agrarian lifestyle sprinkled with joy.

These little moments are seldom planned—you are going to have fun NOW, so you better enjoy it!  It might be bursting into a Broadway number in the middle of the weed patch with slightly altered lyrics to voice your plight beneath the hot summer sun.  It might be dancing in the kitchen while the fiddle plays in the dining hall during a Harvest Dinner and Concert night, despite the days of meticulous preparation and beeping timers announcing their need for culinary attention.

It might be a random bedding fight after cleaning the lamb barn, irresistibly crunching through the autumn leaf piles raked up in the yard, or making up voices for baby chicks as they explore their new world, “Ohh, what’s this over here?  It’s shiny.  Should I peck it?”  Having a good laugh, despite all the pressures and mounting to-do list, can be the best joy therapy amidst the rigors of farm living.

This holiday season, with all the family that journeyed across the country to come and stay at the farm, we took several days off from the usual Creamery & Café schedule to relax by the fire, share stories, play games, and laugh.  There’s the worn-out old Sorry game and beloved card games, but this year I shared a new game relayed by a friend.  You’re welcome to try it with your family too.  Having a group of five or more people makes this much more fun.

Telephone Pictionary

You don’t need a board, dice, or an hour glass.  What you need are pens or pencils and folded strips of paper.  Just like the kid’s game of telephone (where a phrase is whispered from ear to ear until it reaches the original speaker, usually altered), Telephone Pictionary involves passing along a message that flip-flops from text to image and back to text as it circles the room.

The first person writes a simple sentence on the piece of paper.  This sentence could be anything from “The squirrel ran up the tree” to “My dog likes to eat treats.”  Keep the ideas fairly simple and straightforward.  Then pass the paper onto the next person in the circle.  This person reads the sentence, folds the paper over so that the text is hidden, and draws their pictorial rendition of that sentence.  This is then passed onto the third person, who observed the picture, folds the paper again, and writes what she believes is the sentence that the picture represents.  The fourth person then gets to draw the new sentence. 

Keep passing the piece along until it returns to the original sentence writer or you run out of paper.  You can even play, as we did, where everyone starts with a piece of paper and their own sentence, so that multiple Telephone Pictionary threads are circling at the same time.  As the project progresses, bellylaughs are sure to ensue—especially when you unfold the thread and see how the sentences and pictures changed as they were passed along!  Who cares if you think you can’t draw; the point is to have a good time with friends and family, enjoying the little moments together.


Sometimes life can try to tear you down or leave you discouraged in your hopes and endeavors, but it’s always good to take a step back and find joy in the little moments—the smell of baking holiday cookies, the antics of the family dog or cat, or the flitting eagerness of little birds at the feeder outside the window.

The New Year is soon upon us, and with it the promise of a fresh start, new projects, and plans for another growing season.  This holiday, and throughout the year, take time to find joy in the little moments and share them with others.  Best wishes for you and yours in the coming year, and maybe we’ll 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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