North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Celebrity Farm

If you’re a fan of Public Television, maybe you’ve seen some of the eye-opening agribusiness documentaries like “Food Inc.” or “Supersize Me.”  Several of these include visits to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Virginia, where cattle graze on pasture, chickens slowly parade across the pasture in their tractors, and hogs amply express “their pigness.”

For Wisconsin Public Television, there are also programs like “Wisconsin Foodie” and “Around the Farm Table,” sharing stories of food, farming, and fun in our state.  For the first season of “Around the Farm Table” with Inga Witscher, hostings of film screenings were being held in each county last November.  Kevin Schessow of UW Extension contacted me that the program was interested is having a few local farmers present at the event to speak about the local agriculture scene and what they do on their farm.

Held at the Senior Center at the top of Hayward’s Main Street, it was an eager and curious group.  In the film, Inga was gathering ingredients for a traditional meal to celebrate the purchase of her dairy farm by visiting area dairy and grain farms, as well as ice fishing with friends and demonstrating artisan bread technique.

It was exciting to get to meet Inga and Joe, her husband and producer, and talk about the story of our homestead farm.  Of course, sheep’s milk gelato came up in the conversation, as well as my being a musician—Joe being a guitarist and songwriter as well.  “We’ll keep you in mind for next season,” Joe promised.  “You guys have such a great story.”

But then, nothing happened.  No peep.  No inquiry.  And then, last month, I was busy serving late lunches at Farmstead Creamery when the phone rang (a not uncommon occurrence).

“Farmstead Creamery, this is Laura.”

“Hey Laura, this is Joe from ‘Around the Farm Table.’  We’re in Hayward right now, how do we find you?”

After a few wrong turns and several more cell phone check-ins, Joe and his father-in-law Rick arrived at the farm.  After learning more about our story, touring the farm, and discussing all the different aspects of what we do, they concluded that there would be enough material, easily, for ten episodes…though that wasn’t practical.

“What an absolutely beautiful farm.  You guys are doing such an amazing job.  Rick and I talked about you all the way back home that evening.”

We set a date for the film shoot in June, which was just concluded yesterday.  The sun was shining, the sky a silvery blue specked with dramatic clouds from the oncoming evening storm.  We were first joined by a wild edibles expert from parts further north who led foraging scenes in our woods with Inga.  For this episode’s story, Inga is camping with Joe and is searching for wild Wisconsin foods for making dinner that evening.  After foraging, she becomes lost, and then…

“And then that’s where the harp comes in,” Joe explained as we worked through the outline of the program.  “She’s crashing through the woods and she hears this harp music.  Crawling out, she finds you playing in the pasture with the sheep and discovers your farm in the middle of the woods.”

So, while Kara and Ann coaxed the ewes closer to the edge of the fence, my duet partner Tom Draughon (on lute) and myself in performance regalia parked by the edge of the field to play the opening verses to the Robert Burns’ piece “Ca’ the Yowes” (call the ewes).

From there, the footage launches into touring the farm, meeting the crew, and learning about gelato and the Creamery.  We were all over the farm that day, taking footage of the aquaponics, the dairy plant, and all the different animals.  There were also countless retakes of interviews in front of the barn and the Creamery, trying to get in every important key point. 

“You guys are so patient,” Joe offered.  “One more time, and then we’ve got it.  After this, then it will be 300 hours of editing.”  We take the scene again, then Rick asks for a different camera angle for shooting the Creamery.  “I want to get it just right because it looks like a piece of art.”

“What an amazing farm you have,” Inga glows as we sit down to a chef salad lunch for 11 folk, including sound and camera crew.  “We know folks who do the different pieces that you have on your farm, but not all of them together.  This is pretty special.”

After all the takes and retakes, footage and photo shooting, entrances and exits, we were feeling pretty exhausted with a gusty storm still on the way.  As the crew pulled away down our lane, we had to switch from celebrity farm to hatch battening as the buffeting winds tore branches from trees in our yard, tried to fly off with the chicken tractors, and shook the greenhouse like an autumn leaf.  Enough for one day, weather, how about letting us just relax and celebrate our TV debut?

Oh well, farming has a way of keeping you humble.

If you’d like to watch the episode of “Around the Farm Table” that features our farm, it should be released this fall.  You can also check out the program at www.aroundthefarmtable.com.  And maybe, on the silver screen, 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 www.northstarhomestead.com

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Girl Power

“So…where are the men?” 

“So, on your husband’s farm…”

“So, there’s no men on the farm?”

Those awkward questions that start with “So…” are certain to lead to poking and prodding into some aspect of our farm that isn’t “normal,” or “usual,” or whatever you’d like to call it.

“So…it’s just you, your sister, and your mom?”

Yes, that’s right, and usually one or two summer college interns.  Sometimes we get neighbor help for a few of the big jobs (making hay, butchering chickens) but the bulk, the grunt, the everyday, and yes even driving tractor—that’s us.  Three women, all under 5’5”.

“So…you’re not married yet?”

I’ve been confronted with variations on the “So where are all the men?” question so frequently that I’m tempted to fib and say that we keep them in a closet and bring them out when we need them!  But that might seem a bit crude, so I just keep smiling and explain that this is a farm run by Girl Power.

Now, for us, Girl Power certainly doesn’t mean romping about the farm in short, frilly skirts with cowboy boots and a furry pink hat.  If you’ve run into us on a hard-working farm day (like Mondays), we’re usually be-mudded in the garden, tools in hand, or mucking the barn with our skid-steer and honeywagon.  It’s elbow grease, “Get-er-done,” stick-through-it bootstrapping.  Chase us around for a day on the farm, and maybe I won’t have to laugh off another comment like:

“So, how do you have all this food around and stay so thin?”

The truth is that Girl Power on the farm is nothing new.  Women have been an integral part of agriculture since its inception, participating in the domestication of plants and animals, the building of homesteads, and the development of the idea of “the farm.”  Why, then, does it seem odd today that ladies should be farmers? 

It gets really disparaging when I’m asked, “So, does that make you a farmerette?”

One of my favorite quotes was given to us by our contractor, Jon, after seeing it on his calendar.  It’s since faded and torn, the author unknown, but the phrase is still cherished.  “A woman who can drive tractor is someone to call in an emergency.”  Yes, that’s right, we can handle the bumps and hiccups, the sleepless nights lambing or hatching chicks, the chore nights in the rain and the wind and the cold, the mud and the grime and the cleaning…cleaning…cleaning.

“Women actually make the best beekeepers,” my mentor Mr. Rowe has remarked on several occasions.  “They’re less hurried and more gentle with the bees—careful—which makes a big difference to the queen.”

Someday, I’ll rejoice when the florescent-vested fellows at the fleet store refrain from, “So what kind of oil did he want?”  Please!  I know this is the Northwoods, but really?  They’ll catch on sometime.

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Skeeder Dance

Everyone coming into Farmstead Creamery lately has remarked on one thing in particular.  THE MOSQUITOS!!!!  In swarms, in herds, in droves, everywhere!  Some folks say they’ve been here for 35 years and have NEVER seen it this bad before.  The hum is everywhere, waiting for you just outside the door or the screen window.  Swarms attach even in the heat of the day.  And lately, not even the rain keeps them away!

All winter, I’ve been hoping that the endless days of deep snow and frigid cold could be traded for at least some sort of perk this summer—like fewer bugs.  But, apparently, such a winter is no deterrent for these winged little biters.  I should have known, considering Alaska’s reputation for mosquitoes driving moose into headlong plunging insanity, trying to escape.

“I feel like I’ll just start bleeding all over the floor, I’ve gotten to many pin pricks,” one dinner guest offered yesterday.  “They sure are big this year.” 

Yeah…pretty soon I’ll have given so much blood to the annual skeeder drive that I’ll simply dry up and blow away one of these mornings doing chores.  It’s about like what one might imagine during the days of the Oregon Trail and the fabled skeeder cakes.

Country Fresh Skeeder Cakes:

Flour

Water (or milk, if you have it)

Lard and Eggs (if you have them)

A hoe or shovel

A fire, or coals will do even better, if you can wait that long

Place dough onto handy implement in a dollup, hold over fire to cook.  You don’t even have to worry about collecting the skeeders—they naturally do this themselves, landing and sticking to the dough.  Flip once to cook the other side.  Enjoy the free protein.

***

Even as I write this story, one or two are pestering at my ears and elbows, hovering to find the tastiest place to fill their sack-like abdomens.  And yes, I know they’re expecting mothers and everything has a right to live…but please, mosquitoes, pick on someone your own size!  Don’t coat the dog, biting her tender belly, or pester the eyes of my chickens.  Your bites cause lumps and bumps that itch and prickle long after your lifecycle.  Really, ladies, do you want to be the cause of such cruel and unusual punishment?  I think that all your skeeders should learn to be vegan!  Let’s stop the animal (and human) cruelty right now!

My garden lies half-completed.  Not only because the soils are still too cold for planting some crops, but also because those swarms and herds and droves simply drive me insane!  I spritz and spray, swat and buffet, wave my hand about…but to little avail.  There’s those tasty ankles, the gap between the shirt and the pants when I bend over, around my neck, and on my arms.  Mmmm…farm girls taste sooooo good!  Just add a little mustard, and the stringiness doesn’t bother you so much.

But chores, oh chores, you can’t put them off.  You can’t hurry them too much.  And you can’t simply stay inside and hope the chickens fill their own feeders and waterer.  Our supply of miss-match odds-and-ends bug spray was running low, so Kara and our intern Sam ran into town to snag some more—only to find the shelves barren.

“We could have gotten a ‘sensitive skin’ version with aloe,” Sam offered, explaining the wide bank of wiped-clean shelving, even at Walmart.  “But we figured it must not work as well, since that was the only option left.”

So here we are, doing the skeeder dance through chores on bug-spray-fumes (what’s left at the bottom of the spray can), with our heads wrapped in our anti-insect Buff scarves, hoodies tied tight.

You swat a skeeder here

You swat a skeeder there

You swat a skeeder here

Flying next to your ear

 

You do the skeeder teeter

And you turn yourself around

And that’s what summer’s all about!

And somehow those little tiny insects, with their little tiny brains, always know when your hands are occupied.  It might be at the water spigot, dragging a tarp full of fresh bedding into the barn, or transplanting a young broccoli.  So, invariably that chicken-scented water, or the curly bedding shavings, or the mud from the garden ends up on your clothes, in your hair, of across your face as you chase after the little buggers and try to squish them into oblivion.

But the chase continues into the night.  Just when you’ve settled down after a long day’s yard work…it comes as if from afar.

Neeeeeeeeeee.

You hear it waver, slowly coming forward like some dreaded night wanderer.

Neeeeeeeeeee.

Now it’s lightly touching your ear with its legs, tweaking past a strand of hair.

Neeeeeeeeeee.

But when you reach out to catch it…it’s gone.  This can go on for hours!  Sometimes I simply give up and bury under the covers, which is our little Bichon dog Sophie’s modus operandi.  But when the house refuses to cool down below 80 degrees on warm summer nights, this quickly turns into an infernal sauna experience.

At that point, my mind grapples between what’s worse—more itchy, incessant bites, or slowly roasting to death under smothering blankets?  Do these insect actually find some sort of twisted pleasure in torturing us? 

The typical two-week delay to the dragonfly hatch can’t come soon enough!  If someone really wanted to make a good business, they could breed early-hatch dragonflies to sell in packages to homeowners.  Imagine, have a mosquito problem?  No problem, just mail-order these dragonflies, release in your yard, and watch them eat your troubles away!  What if you could even have a pet dragonfly that stayed near your hat and ate every mosquito that came near.  Now, to me, that sounds like a creative proposal to the situation, rather than more spray.

Folks sure are getting desperate, though.  I just received an email from a friend that spraying Listerine could blow the mosquito blues away.  I don’t know if it works or not, but I’m getting pretty desperate and might just give it a try.  For now, I’ll just have to keep up with as many layers of clothing as I can stand and do the skeeder dance.   Ok dragonflies, we’re counting on you, so get to work!  I’ve got the rest of the garden to put in!  See you down (swat) on the (swat) farm (swat) sometime.

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

 
 
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