North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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They're Alive!

Sometimes farming can throw you little surprises to brighten a day of drudgery tasks.  With the latest thaw, the paths and lanes have been reduced to slush, the grainy snow sliding in rumbling, crumbling sheets off metal roofs (just after you walked by), and the coops are turned to boggy sogginess.  The start of mud season has begun.

After chores were finished, Mom and I tackled the ever-so-lovely task of cleaning out the turkey coop amidst cabin-fever turkey hens and toms.  Since they would be under our watchful supervision, I let the turks out into their snow-laden pen (with its mesh still buried underneath somewhere), and they climbed and clamored like eager school children at recess. 

Scoop the buckets full, load them on the sled, and slop-slop our way to the dump pile for spring spreading.  Then it’s drag them back again and scoop some more.  The sun is shining, and it’s really quite warm out.  We’ve both shed our coats and hats, and a light breeze teases our frizzing hair.

“Ach,” Mom cries, waving her hand by her head as we dump another load of filled buckets onto the pile.  “A fly!  Not a fly already!”

But it was a little bit later as we were back working at the turkey coop, I noticed, “Mom, that’s not a fly.  I think you heard a honey bee, and it’s still in your hair!”

We tease the little, furry creature from her salt-and-pepper tangle, and it crawls about on my finger.  A honeybee!  With all these endless and long spells of twenty-below temperatures, I had written off the colony as frozen solid.  Having kept bees on the farm since 2003, only mild winters had seen colony survival, despite insulating the hive and other precautions.

This last fall, though, our one surviving colony (we lost the second one early in the season due to a bummer queen), had entered the winter strong, full of honey and as much concentrated sugar water as the bees would take as extra feed.  With one deep hive body and two shallows, they had plenty of room to pack it in—and barely enough room to fit all the bees. 

On top of the hive, we place a moisture-reducing system made by Smarter Bee that is built into a shallow hive body.  With a cloth and screen barrier between the hive and the moisture reducer (so the bees are kept safely below), a convex piece of thin metal sheeting acts to collect moisture from the hive that rises through the cloth barrier.  The drips condense in small troughs on each side and then exit the hive through poly tubing.  Holding too much moisture in a hive can lead to an array of diseases and chilling as the water drips back onto the bees, but the moisture reducer helps to alleviate these problems all winter.

We then wrapped the whole kit in pink house insulation, like a big marshmallow, then wrapped that in tar paper (as a wind and moisture barrier as well as the blackness helps capture solar warmth) like a pudgy Christmas package with a notch cut out at the hive entrance.  We wished the bees well, then watched the snow pile high on top and around the back sides.  The sunny days this winter helped keep the south and eastern sides free of snow and the entrance open.

Usually, I make a habit of traipsing out to the hive nearly every week during the winter.  But with all the cold (meaning I didn’t want to have to stay out any longer than necessary due to threat of frost bite) and the deep snow (out there I really would have sunk out of sight), it just didn’t happen.  But when that one little honey bee flew into Mom’s hair, we both knew we had to get out to the hive and see what was happening.

Another beekeeping friend from town had reported his hive had died of the cold way back in January.  I certainly hadn’t any expectations that my one lone hive in the snowbank was going to pull through.  But as we waded through the hip-deep mashed-potato snow to the apiary, our thoughts bounced from hope to dread.  There is no fun and glory in cleaning out a dead hive in the spring, crusted with shattered bee parts and white furry mold growing in the corners.

The bottom entrance had crusted over, and as I worked it free with a twig, there was no activity.  And yet, a few more bees were hovering about.  Where were they coming from?  We scooped away the snow from the top of the hive, pried off the frozen bricks and lid, and then began unwrapping the package.  Beneath the tar paper were all kinds of bees, searching for a way out.  Lifting off the insulation, we found that the snowload had shifted the moisture reducer towards the back just enough for the bees to chew a hole in the front corner of the fabric barrier and climb out the top of the hive.  As we unearthed their home, delighted bees were buzzing everywhere, taking wing after a protracted and cramped winter.

They’re alive!  I couldn’t believe it, just couldn’t.  But if the colony was still alive, they were likely very short on food supplies.  Our last honey harvest in the fall right before preparing the bees for winter had come at a crazy busy time on the farm.  The tub with the honey-laden frames just kept getting shifted from this part of the farm to that, hoping for a moment to extract the liquid gold within.  But that time never materialized.

Now, with bees in need of food, we raced to find that bin, which was exactly enough to fill a super body.  It was also likely that the bees had packed away pollen in the corners of the frames, which is an important part of “bee bread” that is fed to the developing larva.  As we approach the equinox, the queen in the hive will be ramping up her egg laying to build a strong workforce for the first nectar flows.

Of course, you can buy “pollen patties” that are a pollen-colored substitute, and you can also purchase in-hive bee feeders for corn syrup or sugar water, but saving work that the bees had put away of their real and natural foods is by far the best.  And those bees could smell us coming with their honey—offering us a personal, hovering escort.

I took a quick check through the top hive body, and each frame was loaded with bees.  The queen, however, must have been hiding below, but I was concerned about chilling the hive with too much poking and prodding.  On the next really warm day, I will come back for a “peek-a-boo.”  For now, I’m satisfied just knowing that the hive is alive and stocked up with good food.  Hurray for those hearty little bees!  Hopefully, we can make it through to spring.  With all the trails of diseases, mites, and colony collapse that honeybees have been facing, it’s heartening to know that these special creatures on our farm shoulder forward with resilience yet.  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

Horse Apple Holler

The livestock are hungry this morning—always hungry.  The chickens line up at the door, the sheep crowd the gate, the tilapia splash at the surface of their tanks, and the pigs squeal and grunt in complaint.  Obviously, we’re taking too long to feed them, lugging 50-pound sacks from our stash in the garage on the trusty orange sled.  And then there’s at least three bales of hay to lug in the mornings as well, with wooly pushing and shoving, and Belle the guard donkey is more than a little vocal about wanting her share.

The 120 or so laying hens plus 11 ducks snug in the coop eat a bag of feed every day.  Just them!  Through these really cold snaps, the sheep have even eaten their straw bedding, so more must be drug in and scattered.  And then there’s all the water to be hauled about for thirsty lips and beaks and snoots.  Ah for a day when I can convince the animals to haul water for themselves!  But alas, I doubt that’s coming anytime soon.

But all this feed and bedding and water isn’t a one-way trip on the farm.  Oh no, it has to mount to something.  So our menagerie of two and four-legged composting units have been doing their best to make great gardening material for spring.  Ah yes, some folks make a study of wildlife scat, tracing the tracks of bobcat and raccoon, but here are some musings on the qualities of barnyard manures.  Given it’s March, let’s try them in limericks.

It was down in horse apple holler,

Much too cold to have any waller.

The donkey did bray,

For she wanted more hay,

To make her pack rise even taller.


The farmer went in with the scoop,

For to shovel out some of the poop.

It rolled and it tumbled,

And the farmer she mumbled,

For it threw her back for a loop.


The sheep were all bunched like a herd,

They‘re so good at making their turds.

The dog thinks they’re kibbles,

She loved to get nibbles,

But the goat says that that’s for the birds.


The chickens are known for their droppings,

It coats all the bedding like toppings.

Please watch your head,

Or you’ll grimace with dread,

When you hear that next sound of ploppings.


The ducks they just love to make messes,

With icicles stuck to their tresses.

They can make you a lake,

With just one ducky shake,

And leave the technique to your guesses.


The pigs wander out with a totter,

They really would like some more fodder.

But their pile is so high,

They’ll look you in the eye,

And it steams away since it’s hotter.


We’ve a pile outside of the barn,

We thought it would do much less harm.

But the fragrance is clear,

If you’re anywhere near,

Though the garden will think it’s a charm.


And it’s down in horse apple holler,

I’ll lead the way, you can foller.

As the bedding piles deep,

Mucking work is a heap,

And the volume makes you feel much smaller!

Well, guess I’ll have to wrap this up somewhere and bundle up for chores.  Our little friendly manure makers are going to be hungry and thirsty again.  If you’re on a farm (or grew up on one), I suspect you remember those mucking days well!  It’s certainly nobody’s favorite, though a clean coop filled with fresh wood shavings is a lovely sight (and smell, in comparison with what came before).

And how do we notice the first signs of spring on the farm?  Well, the bedding pack thawing out is a good one, and the barnyard becoming a slippery, muddy mess.  But for now, let’s hope it stays frozen just a little longer.  I’ve got snow to shovel first!  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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