North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Extreme Chores

Bundled in 17 pounds of boots, insulated pants, down coat, hat, gloves, and face scarf, my glasses iced over by steamy breath, facing winter chores can become daunting even before leaving the back door.

External faucets are frozen closed, so we fill five-gallon buckets in the utility sink with warm water for the pigs, lifting them high over the lip of the sink, then trundling them out to the orange sled waiting outside.  That hearty, toboggan-long sled sure does get a workout in wintertime, hauling water, hay, feed, fodder, and wood this way and that along our paths and trails across the barnyard.

These paths are packed tightly where we’ve trodden them down for months, but should a stray foot wander off—poof—you’ve sunk in above your knee.  This is especially hazardous when the trails have drifted over and it’s hard to know exactly where that curve in the path used to be.  It is equally obvious when you’ve guessed incorrectly.

Shoveling has been a daily practice for chores this winter.  As rigorous as it can be, I wonder that some form of shoveling isn’t featured at the Olympics.  The bend, the scoop, the throw…and then the tamping and scraping for the sticky snow that won’t let go of the shovel.  There’s the deck, the paths, the stoops in front of the garages, and a long stretch in front of the barn to keep the banks at bay.  Either the land has risen or the barn was always built on land a little downhill from parts of the barnyard, and spring flooding can be a real issue.  Every year, we hope for a slow melt that will allow the snows to sink gracefully into the aquifer rather than running in a torrent down the gravel road, washing out the culvert, or pooling like a lake inside the barn.  While I’m not quite ready for spring and its mounting workload, a little break from the snow and bitter cold would be welcome.

Shovel, shovel, shovel.  The high tunnel where we raise vining tomato plants in the summer is half buried in a drift.  I can only see the top portion of the door.  But with the huge pre-Birkie storm on the way, we had to make room for the new snow to be able to slide off the top and not continue to crush the arching structure.  Just wading out to the high tunnel was hip-deep in places, past the row of wind-breaking spruces sheltering mounds of dismembered pinecone tidbits that the squirrels have left.

It’s tricky shoveling out a plastic-film sided greenhouse.  Dig along the sides and the snow still lingering on the top slips and slides and flops down in your trench, so you get to shovel it out again.  And it’s soooooo easy to poke a hole in the side with the corner of the scoop, just as you hit a chunk of ice that refuses to give way.  We’ll have a few nicks to patch in the spring, but at least the snow has a place to go, rather than collapsing our precious growing structure.

Drifts on rooftops have grown dangerously heavy—two feet deep in places!  In the news are featured stories of barn and outbuildings collapsing under the tremendous weight.  Borrowing a roof rake from a neighbor, we take turns chopping and scraping, trying to make a dent in the snowload.  The long and rambling woodshed (originally used to store horse-drawn farm machinery because it was easy to back into) was the first on the list. 

There was no chance at a sudden rush of releasing snow as happens on the south side of the barn roof—rumbling and thundering and smashing in an avalanche against the side of the machine shed beside it.  So it was chop, chop and chop, chop at the drift above, wading through the snow.  The stacking pile below now leaves but a modest gap between the roofline and the ground!  The woodshed is very nearly just a tunnel!  Seriously, it’s looking rather like a polar expedition around here, rather than a farm.

My other running joke lately is that we’re farming in the trenches.  Veritable high-sided louge tracks for the sled are guarded by great mounds of snow banks.  Sometimes it’s hard to know where Mom or Kara are in the farmyard because you can’t see over the sides of the trenches, even though the packed trails raise my shoulders higher than the top of the five-foot woven wire chicken fence.

Just a few days ago, chores turned into an experience of quicksand.  It was evening and quite dark except for the brilliant pin-pricks of stars above.  I entered the frosty-sided chicken coop to sadly find that one of my ladies had died (likely in a fight with another hen over nesting box territory…sometimes freaky things can happen with chickens).  I carefully wrapped her in a feed sack and endeavored to take her out to the old pump house for safe keeping until we could dispose of her properly.

The pump house still has the old hand pump in it but the hand-dug well collapsed years ago thanks to a raucous population of woodchucks.  Long past its days as a milk house, we use the shed to store garden tools, bins, extra boxes, and odds and ends (there always seems to be an endless supply of odds and ends on a farm!).  With my poor deceased chicken wrapped in a feed sack in hand, I faced the silver-sided pump house.  Between me and my destination lay the cliff of snow shoveled away from the front of the barn.  It seemed like rock climbing gear might be necessary, but I bravely embarked up the face, over the edge, and then sank nearly out of sight into the soft drift on the other side.

Hollering for help was to no avail, for the rest of the crew was well off at the Red Barn with belloring rams and the donkey.  Would they hear my snow-muffled cries?  Nope.  So now what?  My left leg twisted behind me, my right leg straight down to the waist in fluff, my arms holding the chicken, this was feeling like a predicament.  I tried to push with one hand against the snow, but it was so soft it too only sunk deep without resistance.  What if I simply disappeared without a trace?  How long would it take someone to find me?

I set the chicken aside with a poof of white, icy fluff and tried rolling on my back, then from side to side, in an effort to pack down some of the snow.  What I really needed was a set of snowshoes, but those were quite a ways away…all the way back at the house.  So, my mind raced, how could I make instant snowshoes to get out of this drowning mess?  It’s amazing the odd, scary, and funny things you mind can think up when you’re completely stuck in a snowbank.

Managing to pull one knee underneath me, I braced all of my left lower leg and foot into one long knee-to-toe “foot,” then drug my right knee out of the drift.  One bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken, the next bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken.  The process was awkward, to say the least, but I managed to reach the shed (thankfully the door opened inward), deposit my package, and wade back to the safety of the shoveled walk, plopping down panting.

Mom and Kara rounded the bend with a sled full of hay bales, their water buckets clanging.  “What has been taking you so long?”

Well, I tell you, this has sure been a winter for extreme chores.  And yes, Farmstead Creamery is shoveled out too, so you can always come on over for fresh greens, eggs, pastured meats, delicious bakery goods, and more.  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

Sprouting New Projects

Up in the frozen tundra of this year’s Wisconsin winter, there’s a micro-climate of lush and green, sheltered beneath arches of steel supporting strong but delicate plastic film—a flexing skin that allows the light to enter but holds back the snow and cold.  The land of aquaponics flourishing below, with tilapia swimming in their tanks and fresh greens reaching for the sun, is now well into its second year of production on our farm.

The clank of the door latch in the morning excites the first tank of fish, which glide to the surface and splash playfully.  “Breakfast, we want breakfast!”  The morning sunshine is sparkling on the water, and the air is moist and rich with oxygen—a stark change from the cold, snappy-dry environment outside.

Lately, we’ve been spending considerable time in the aquaponics greenhouse, tending to fish and plants, yes, but also because of building and starting new projects within the protective plastic walls as well.  Investing in such a heated space to allow for local, natural, and bio-secure foods to be grown right here all year has been a major financial leap for us, which means that every corner and cranny is ripe with the possibility for adding something that will grow more food.

Clay pots neatly tucked under the edge of the table-high NFT (Nutrient Film Technology) channels sport vigorous bushes of thyme, parsley, sage, lavender, cilantro, and edible violas.  Other pots commanding sunny locations hold thick-stemmed tomato plants that have grown chest-high.   Several times each day, I get to play “honey bee” with a vibrating pollination wand that shakes the clusters of canary-yellow blossoms.  Already the labors are showing there merit as a few little green tomatoes are beginning to form!  This is February—somebody pinch me!

Starting last summer, our Media Bed System (which utilizes the solid nutrients from the fish) began sludging up with too much material, flooding the beds and pulling down their side walls in a cascade of water and clay BBs that rushed across the cement floor towards the drain.  After a few relapses of this catastrophe, we knew that this piece of the system required an overhaul.

Following weeks and weeks of washing the clay pebbles by the colander-fulls and stocking the nutrient rich water in five-gallon jugs for the garden in spring, we were able to modify the side walls of the media beds, return the washed pebbles, and begin growing crunchy radishes, peppery arugula, and juicy beets again.

But it was apparent that the reservoir of solid-rich fish water siphoned for the media beds could serve a much larger growing area.  Eager to expand the winter tomato, pepper, and brassica production, we applied creative engineering with PVC pipe and hanging-basket brackets to rig a platform and irrigation structure for a new Dutch Bucket system along the east wall walkway.  Customarily used in hydroponic production (which employs chemical fertilizers rather than our tilapia friends), Dutch Buckets are a series of square, black pails filled with growing media.  Water drips in from above and then exits through a pipe below, allowing excess water to return to the reservoir to be recycled. 

With 30 new mini-pots to plant, we’re trying heirloom tomatoes, broccoli raab, Napa cabbage, kale, green and red peppers, and trellising cucumbers.  After a few hiccups (overflowing buckets, plugged drain spigots, fish scales in the water line), our new system holds vigorous and healthy plants eager to outdo their potted neighbors.  At times it seems you can watch them grow!  While the project is still in its experimental phase, already we are looking around our space, wondering where to expand with another length of Dutch Buckets.  Maybe over here would be a great spot for kohlrabi!

Our fodder-growing system has also been a happy success.  Sprouting wheatgrass from spring wheat for the chickens, ducks, and turkeys not only augmented their diets all year but also improved their behavior and health.  During butchering last year, we noticed phenomenally fewer heart and liver problems amongst the Cornish-cross chickens and standard white turkeys (both of which, because they are bred to grow fast, can often suffer in these areas).  Their skin was healthy and well-colored, there was more uniformity of size, and their insides smelled sweet and fresh—like fodder.

This has spurred us to increase our fodder-growing operation so that our fun new Kunekune pigs as well as our beloved sheep can enjoy this nutrient-dense feed all year as well.  Again using creative engineering, a good deal of PVC glue, and a mobile wire shelving system, we’re growing from our original 12 trays to an additional 30.  Stacked in levels of five trays across, the little spring wheat shoots reach for the sky, happy to turn water and sunlight into tasty, homegrown feed for healthy, happy livestock.

Sprouts are also delicious and healthy for people as well, which bring us to our third major new project in the greenhouse this winter.  Eventually, we can consign some of the fodder trays for sprouting, but for starters we’re learning the trade in a couple of seedling trays with a light layer of crunchy, white vermiculite.  To start the adventure, we chose the dwarf gray sugar pea.

The instructions said that a standard seedling tray would require two cups of seed (yes, sprouting does require quite a volume of seed), soaked in water overnight before planting.  Well, those seeds loved their water bath, and they swelled…and swelled…and swelled to bursting.  They puffed up so much that there was no way two cups were going to fit into one tray!  We grabbed a second tray and some more vermiculite and split the bucket’s worth in half.  There’s always a learning curve in farming.

Diligently misting with the sprayer hose, I watched over two weeks as white tendrils reached down into the medium, pushing the peas upwards.  Then from the same exit, little white nubbins began to reach upwards.  Slowly, the nubbins turned to green, then to leaves, then to leaves with stems, and then the addition of mini curling tendrils.  They smell fresh and sweet, like a springtime garden.  Now five-and-a-half inches tall, they’re just perfect for harvesting for this week’s CSA shares.  And they taste just like pea pods, perfect for salads, sandwiches, stir fries, and more!

It’s deliciously exciting in the aquaponics greenhouse this year, planting, harvesting, tending to the fish, but also expanding the operation in new and exciting ways.  Missing fresh greens from your garden this winter?  Come on over to Farmstead Creamery to pick up a tasty piece of the new project we’ve been sprouting in the greenhouse.  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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